The idea that Islam needs to reform is again in the spotlight following the recent publication of Ayaan Hirsi Ali's new book, Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now. While Ali makes the argument that Islam can reform—and is in desperate need of taking the extreme measures to do so—many of her critics contend that Islam is not in need of reform.
The one argument not being made, however, is the one I make below—namely, that Islam has already "reformed." And violence, intolerance, and extremism—typified by the Islamic State ("ISIS")—are the net result of this "reformation."
Such a claim only sounds absurd due to our understanding of the word "reform." Yet despite its positive connotations, "reform" simply means to "make changes (in something, typically a social, political, or economic institution or practice) in order to improve it."
Synonyms of "reform" include "make better," "ameliorate," and "improve"—splendid words all, yet words all subjective and loaded with Western connotations.
Muslim notions of "improving" society can include purging it of "infidels" and "apostates," and segregating Muslim men from women, keeping the latter under wraps or quarantined at home. Banning many forms of freedoms taken for granted in the West—from alcohol consumption to religious and gender equality—is an "improvement" and a "betterment" of society from a strictly Islamic point of view.
In short, an Islamic reformation will not lead to what we think of as an "improvement" and "betterment" of society—simply because "we" are not Muslims and do not share their first premises and reference points. "Reform" only sounds good to most Western peoples because they naturally attribute Western connotations to the word.
Historical Parallels: Islam's Reformation and the Protestant Reformation
At its core, the Protestant Reformation was a revolt against tradition in the name of scripture—in this case, the Bible. With the coming of the printing press, increasing numbers of Christians became better acquainted with the Bible's contents, parts of which they felt contradicted what the Church was teaching. So they broke away, protesting that the only Christian authority was "scripture alone," sola scriptura.
Islam's current reformation follows the same logic of the Protestant Reformation—specifically by prioritizing scripture over centuries of tradition and legal debate—but with antithetical results that reflect the contradictory teachings of the core texts of Christianity and Islam.
As with Christianity, throughout most of its history, Islam's scriptures, specifically its "twin pillars," the Koran (literal words of Allah) and the Hadith (words and deeds of Allah's prophet, Muhammad), were inaccessible to the overwhelming majority of Muslims. Only a few scholars, or ulema—literally, "they who know"—were literate in Arabic and/or had possession of Islam's scriptures. The average Muslim knew only the basics of Islam, or its "Five Pillars."
In this context, a "medieval synthesis" flourished throughout the Islamic world. Guided by an evolving general consensus (or ijma'), Muslims sought to accommodate reality by, in medieval historian Daniel Pipes' words,
translat[ing] Islam from a body of abstract, infeasible demands [as stipulated in the Koran and Hadith] into a workable system. In practical terms, it toned down Sharia and made the code of law operational. Sharia could now be sufficiently applied without Muslims being subjected to its more stringent demands… [However,] While the medieval synthesis worked over the centuries, it never overcame a fundamental weakness: It is not comprehensively rooted in or derived from the foundational, constitutional texts of Islam. Based on compromises and half measures, it always remained vulnerable to challenge by purists (emphasis added).
This vulnerability has now reached breaking point: millions of more Korans published in Arabic and other languages are in circulation today compared to just a century ago; millions of more Muslims are now literate enough to read and understand the Koran compared to their medieval forbears. The Hadith, which contains some of the most intolerant teachings and violent deeds attributed to Islam's prophet—including every atrocity ISIS commits, such as beheading, crucifying, and burning "infidels," even mocking their corpses—is now collated and accessible, in part thanks to the efforts of Western scholars, the Orientalists. Most recently, there is the Internet—where all these scriptures are now available in dozens of languages and to anyone with a laptop or iphone.
In this backdrop, what has been called at different times, places, and contexts "Islamic fundamentalism," "radical Islam," "Islamism," and "Salafism" flourished. Many of today's Muslim believers, much better acquainted than their ancestors with the often black and white teachings of their scriptures, are protesting against earlier traditions, are protesting against the "medieval synthesis," in favor of scriptural literalism—just like their Christian Protestant counterparts once did.
Thus, if Martin Luther (d. 1546) rejected the extra-scriptural accretions of the Church and "reformed" Christianity by aligning it exclusively with scripture, Muhammad ibn Abdul Wahhab (d. 1787), one of Islam's first modern reformers, "called for a return to the pure, authentic Islam of the Prophet, and the rejection of the accretions that had corrupted it and distorted it" (Bernard Lewis, The Middle East, p. 333).
The unadulterated words of God—or Allah—are all that matter for the "reformists," with ISIS at their head.
Note: Because they are better acquainted with Islam's scriptures, other Muslims, of course, are apostatizing—whether by converting to other religions, most notably Christianity, or whether by abandoning religion altogether, even if only in their hearts (for fear of the apostasy penalty). This is an important point to be revisited later. Muslims who do not become disaffected after becoming better acquainted with the literal teachings of Islam's scriptures, and who instead become more faithful to and observant of them are the topic of this essay.
Christianity and Islam: Antithetical Teachings, Antithetical Results
How Christianity and Islam can follow similar patterns of reform but with antithetical results rests in the fact that their scriptures are often antithetical to one another. This is the key point, and one admittedly unintelligible to postmodern, secular sensibilities, which tend to lump all religious scriptures together in a melting pot of relativism without bothering to evaluate the significance of their respective words and teachings.
Obviously a point-by-point comparison of the scriptures of Islam and Christianity is inappropriate for an article of this length (see my "Are Judaism and Christianity as Violent as Islam" for a more comprehensive treatment).
Suffice it to note some contradictions (which naturally will be rejected as a matter of course by the relativistic mindset):
- The New Testament preaches peace, brotherly love, tolerance, and forgiveness—for all humans, believers and non-believers alike. Instead of combatting and converting "infidels," Christians are called to pray for those who persecute them and turn the other cheek (which is not the same thing as passivity, for Christians are also called to be bold and unapologetic). Conversely, the Koran and Hadith call for war, or jihad, against all non-believers, until they either convert, accept subjugation and discrimination, or die.
- The New Testament has no punishment for the apostate from Christianity. Conversely, Islam's prophet himself decreed that "Whoever changed his Islamic religion, then kill him."
- The New Testament teaches monogamy, one husband and one wife, thereby dignifying the woman. The Koran allows polygamy—up to four wives—and the possession of concubines, or sex-slaves. More literalist readings treat all women as possessions.
- The New Testament discourages lying (e.g., Col. 3:9). The Koran permits it; the prophet himself often deceived others, and permitted lying to one's wife, to reconcile quarreling parties, and to the "infidel" during war.
It is precisely because Christian scriptural literalism lends itself to religious freedom, tolerance, and the dignity of women, that Western civilization developed the way it did—despite the nonstop propaganda campaign emanating from academia, Hollywood, and other major media that says otherwise.