The Religious Reformation of Islam

Islamic Reformation

Given the terrorism practiced by certain Muslim groups at the head of which is the so-called Islamic State, many are saying – wishing – that a Reformation might come to Islam. An article in the Revealer does an excellent job of explaining it has already come.

For centuries four traditional law schools defined sharia in rather flexible ways according to the circumstances of the time and place. But as the world modernized, sharia interpretation did not. What was flexible became fixed, and none were allowed to interact with the patterns of jurisprudence in new and necessary ways.

Islamic modernism witnessed both this stagnant heritage and the success of Europe, and tried to remedy the situation by going back to the original sources of Islam. One trend attempted to find the foreign values of the West within the Islamic tradition, and adapt accordingly. To do so it bypassed the legal schools and provided its own redefinition of traditional concepts. Shura, for example, always meant the obligation of the ruler to seek the counsel of those he ruled. To liberal Islamic modernists, this became ‘democracy’.

But not all modernists were liberal. Another trend also returned to the original sources of Islam and attempted their reapplication in the modern world. Here, there was no offense at appropriating technology and other tools of nation-states. But the goal was to seek God’s favor through better fidelity to and direct access of his original texts, and the medieval heritage of jurisprudence stood in the way. So conservative Islamic modernists also bypassed these legal schools, and emphasized the individual work of scholars to apply scriptural lessons to contemporary issues, often in illiberal patterns.

Both, in the Protestant sense, represent a ‘Reformation’. And in the article the implications are described well. But there is one section I take issue with:

The battle underway is not primarily between the young and the old, but between radically different approaches to understanding Islam: one that stresses proper legal training and respect for judicial precedent, and one that urges Muslims to open their Qur’ans and decide for themselves. The Reformation, you see, is already here. It just doesn’t look like we hoped it would.

Given the author’s great understanding of this topic, the conclusion surprised me. I think she may have been simplifying so as to better sum up her argument.

But the conservative version of Islamic modernism, which is often called Salafism, does not suffer so much from every Muslim deciding to interpret scripture on his own. Yes, this is an outcome of some trends of the Protestant Reformation, where God’s Spirit is understood to guide each person in interpretation.

Salafism, however, places great emphasis on scholarship and deep knowledge of the sources of Islam. Yes, it bypasses the traditional schools of law, and for this many Muslims criticize. But among themselves Salafis usually defer to the most knowledgeable among the community. Disciples gather around sheikhs, and indeed, these sheikhs can go terribly awry as they operate outside the bounds of traditional scholarship.

But it is not a matter of each Muslim interpreting for themselves. In fact it is the opposite. Salafis tend to defer judgment to their sheikh, even as they discuss and study together.

As for the author’s ultimate conclusion – ‘it just doesn’t look like we hoped it would’ – she displays great understanding of the oft-spoken desire of Westerners to see their own interpretive heritage within the alien world of Islam. The article is recommended.

2 replies on “The Religious Reformation of Islam”

As Protestant Christians we should perhaps also look at our own traditions and recognize that not everything looked very promising during and immediately after the Reformation, neither in the Reformed, the Anglican or the Lutheran areas (O don’tknow the others so well). Calvin’sinfamous experiment with theocracy in Geneva, Luther’s extremely harsh words to Anabaptists, Jews and peasants at various stages of his career, and the Anglican process which was, frankly, not religious but political, and headed ny Henry VIII, by many measures a cruel tyrant. We have all had our dalliances with State churches and aligning with Power, whether for convenience or necessity (or force). Maybe our traditions have had a lot more in common with many «Deen wa dawla» interpretations of Islam than we like to think of or are, indeed, able to see at all when viewed rather myopically from the late 20th and early 21th century.

> 14. jan. 2015 kl. 09.42 skrev A Sense of Belonging : > >


Good points. For those who like to see Islam as trailing behind the historical development of Christianity, how long did the Protestant Reformation take to settle? Perhaps current Islamic development is at the trail end of a similar epoch? I don’t think we should much stock in historical predictive comparisons, but your reminder is very useful.


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