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Beware progress

Religion | Unlike medieval Christianity, a reformation is not what Islam needs

Issue: "Ghost streets," Feb. 27, 2010

On Dec. 1, 2009, Wafa Sultan and Daniel Pipes debated whether and to what extent a "moderate" Islam is possible. Although both are opponents of Islamic radicalism, on this question they did not agree.

Wafa Sultan argued that Islam is Islam, pure and simple, and there can never be such a thing as "moderate Islam." Daniel Pipes argued that the answer to radical Islam must be moderate Islam: Islam can be moderated, and the effort to support Muslim moderates is both necessary and worthwhile.

The ex-Muslim Sultan is undoubtedly a powerful voice in her native Arabic, and even in English she is impassioned and speaks with a memorable turn of phrase. In contrast, Pipes is measured and softly spoken, carefully and persistently making his case. I commend the debate to readers, not because one party won the day, but because the speakers were addressing important questions, which will exercise many minds for years-perhaps generations-to come.

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My concern here, however, is to focus on an important comparison between medieval Christianity and present-day Islam, which was raised by someone in the audience who asked: "I will suggest that this [radical Islam] is not that different from Christianity at the time of the Crusades, which was a very belligerent religion compared to what it is today. So look at that in terms of the evolution of a religious doctrine, and how long does that take?"

On countless occasions over the years I have heard this comparison: Christianity has undergone its reformation, so why not Islam? The European Reformation took centuries-why wouldn't an Islamic reformation also take time? Isn't it all a matter of time?

This line of thinking arises from a worldview that looks at ideologies through the lens of "progress" or "evolution," shaped by a kind of Darwinism. The underlying presupposition is that human societies evolve as time passes, progressing and becoming more humane and more advanced.

Time has become a yardstick to measure the ever-improving character of human social order. It is the embedding of the idea of progress into our everyday language which gives credibility to the question. "Can Islam not undergo its own reformation, too?"

There is another problem with comparing today's Islam with pre-Reformation Christianity, and this has to do with the meaning of "reformation" itself. It has become accepted by many thinking people today that "reformation" means some kind of softening, a "moderating" process, a manifestation of "progress." This far from the truth.

Throughout the whole medieval period the idea of reformation (reformatio) was prestigious, and many reform movements chased after this ideal. Reformation meant going back to one's roots. For medieval Christians, a reformed Christianity meant being more Christ-like, more apostolic, and more Pauline. The wealthy St. Francis read Jesus' words about giving away one's possessions to feed the poor, so he followed this teaching, and many flocked to join him. Thus the Franciscans were founded as a reform movement.

St. Francis was a radical reformer. He was not inspired by a vision of making Christianity more moderate and progressive. What moved him was a desire to follow the Jesus of the Gospels.

Likewise, Martin Luther recalled the words of Paul about freedom in the letter to the Galatians-"for freedom Christ has set us free"-to exhort the German nobles to claim their own freedom from ecclesiastical authority.

The European Reformation-so often invoked in comparisons with Islam today-was driven by a desire to reform Christianity a second time, taking it back to its roots. It sought to move ahead by going backwards. The Reformation was not a "progressive" movement in the modern sense, but one which sought to "regress," renewing the example of Christ and His apostles.

This is why Luther and other reformers encouraged believers to read their Bibles for themselves, in their own native tongue. Luther regarded it as the duty of every Christian to be constantly renewing his faith from the original sources. Like St. Francis, Luther was a Christian radical.

It is true that some changes brought in by the European Reformation had a moderating effect on Western intellectual life. There developed a greater emphasis on freedom and individual responsibility, for example. The Protestant work ethic was one byproduct of this emphasis. Yet these developments did not take place out of a desire to develop a more moderate form of Christianity, but because they were regarded as conforming more to the Bible.

Therefore, according to the core meaning of "reformation"-a return to one's roots-reforming Islam would mean making it more Muhammadan. An Islamic reformation would produce a religion which is closer to the Quran, and above all, closer to the example and teaching of its founder.

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