Saturday, October 14, 2017

In the Midst of an Islamic Reformation

   By Rudy Barnes, Jr.

            Calls for an Islamic Reformation have coincided with the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation.  Perhaps Islam is in the midst of its own Reformation and the world hasn’t noticed.  The Protestant Reformation was not a liberating event.  Instead it initiated Christian sectarian conflict between religious leaders like Luther, Zwingli and Calvin and their political patrons, similar to Islamic sectarian conflict in the Middle East today.

            The libertarian reforms of the Enlightenment were not given serious consideration in the Western world until after 1648, when the Treaty of Westphalia ended those religious wars that plagued Europe for more than a century after the Protestant Reformation.  If Islamic sectarian conflict in the Middle East and Africa is analogous to the Christian sectarian wars that followed the Protestant Reformation, then perhaps they portend a coming Islamic Enlightenment.

            There are other analogies between current Islamist sectarian conflict and Christian sectarian wars.  Leaders of the Protestant Reformation like Luther, Zwingli and Calvin opposed religious reforms and used political alliances and violence suppress dissent, much like radical Islamists today.  And just as Luther used the first generation media printing press to promote his ideals, radical Islamists are using the internet and current social media to attract supporters.

            The role of Islamic Law (Shari’a) is at the heart of Islamic violence toady.  Islamists argue for the strict enforcement of Shari’a, but Mustafa Akyol has noted that Islamic values “are much better protected in Western democracies than in ‘Islamic’ states” and that “…Shariah should be translated into a doctrine of the inalienable rights of all people.”  To that end, Akyol has suggested that the Jewish Enlightenment provides a useful precedent for Islam.

            Islamic scholars remain divided on whether to accept libertarian democracy, human rights and the secular rule of law.  While there seems to be a trend toward human rights, Shari’a continues to be an obstacle to political freedom and justice with the enforcement of apostasy and blasphemy laws and discrimination against women and non-Muslims in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Iraq and Afghanistan—all U.S. allies in the Middle East.

            Many Islamic scholars have agreed that the greatest commandment to love God and their neighbors—including those of other religions—as they love themselves is a common word of faith for Muslims and Christians.  If that love command is accepted as a principle of Shari’a, then those Muslims who love their freedom will feel obligated to share their freedom with others, and interpret Shari’a to give non-Muslims the fundamental freedoms of religion and speech.

            Equal justice under law requires fundamental human rights that provide political freedom.  There is no place for religious law in a libertarian democracy, where religious standards of legitimacy must be voluntary moral standards, not coercive laws.  Loving others is a moral obligation that cannot be enforced by law, and that allows immorality.  The test of any religion is whether its followers obey its moral standards when they are free to disobey them.

            Some Islamic scholars argue that moral decadence in libertarian democracies is evidence that Shari’a should limit political freedom to protect people from undesirable immoral behavior.  But radical Islamists and authoritarian rulers in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Pakistan have used that same rationale to suppress their political opposition with blasphemy laws.

            Current Islamic sectarian conflicts in the Middle East and Africa are similar to those Christian religious wars that followed the Protestant Reformation of 1517.  Perhaps Islamist sectarian violence is but a prelude to an Islamic Enlightenment that will allow political freedom and redefine justice under Shari’a with democracy, human rights and the secular rule of law.


In reviewing Jared Rubin’s Rulers, Religion and Riches: Why the West Got Rich and the Middle East Did Not, Christopher Kissane of The Guardian considered Rubin’s view of the Reformation (and printing press) in Europe and how it related to Islamic culture:
“The driving motivation of most rulers is not ideology or to do good, but to maintain and strengthen their hold on power: “to propagate their rule”. This requires “coercion” – the ability to enforce power – and, crucially, some form of “legitimacy”. In the medieval world, both Islamic and Christian rulers claimed part of their legitimacy from religious authorities, but after the Reformation, Rubin thinks that European governments had to turn away from religion as a source of political legitimacy.
…Islamic rulers, by contrast, continued to rely on religious legitimation and economic interests that were mostly excluded from politics, leading to governance that focused on the narrow interests of sultans, and the conservative religious and military elites who backed them.
…The source of Europe’s success, then, lies in the Reformation, a revolution in ideas and authority spread by what Martin Luther called “God’s highest and ultimate gift of grace”: the printing press.
…Europe’s long reformations were more a maze than a path. As Rubin notes, “getting religion (mostly) out of politics took centuries” – centuries of radical social upheaval and destructive warfare. He argues persuasively for the importance of both religion and secularization in economic history, but religious change affected not just politics but culture and ideas.
In the Middle East the powers of state and religion were fused by Ottoman sultans intent on legitimising their rule and expansion through Islam. Unity that had been a medieval advantage became an early modern hindrance: with no political need to negotiate with economic interests, the Ottomans failed to pursue modernizing reforms in finance, currency and law.”  See

Alan Wolfe has described the merger of Christianity and other religions in Western democracies with the secular libertarian values of the Enlightenment, and projected that Islam will follow suit. 

For reforming trends and movements in modern Islamic history and misunderstanding Luther’s Reformation, see

Mustafa Akyol has noted that “…polls show that most Muslims living in the West, especially the U.S., are happy with liberal laws and norms;” and that because Islam shares an emphasis on religious law with Judaism, it is likely that Islam will likely follow the precedent of the Jewish Enlightenment and embrace libertarian values through a progressive interpretation of the Qur’an and Shari’a.  See  See also, free speech is good for Muslims at
Dr. Shuki Friedman has noted the similarities between Jewish and Islamic Law:
“…the most significant…similarity of the holistic religious-legal worldview in both Judaism and Islam [is]…both religions seek to regulate every aspect of reality, from the most marginal details of daily life to the organization of the state and the world as a whole.
Both religions organize reality through total legalization. Almost all human behavior is addressed, in either positive or negative terms. And the believer’s world is framed by a long list of commandments and prohibitions which govern his private conduct, his conduct toward his God and his conduct toward those around him: family, neighbors, business partners, community, city and country.
In both religions, this legal code brings religious law into every corner of people’s lives and gives great power to religion and religious leaders, be they muftis, rabbis or imams. They are the authorized interpreters of the sacred texts; they are the final arbiters of the believer’s most personal questions; and they (in both religions’ ideal world) influence the conduct of believers and their countries.
Therefore, in both religions, a similar religious-legal conversation has developed. One finds the same considerations in making rulings, the same efforts to cope with problems like science and modernity, the same deliberations over the loss of believers to other ideologies. In both faiths, the religious arbiters’ goal is to keep power in their own hands to the extent possible.”  See

On the differing views of Islamic scholars on human rights and democracy under Shari’a, see Barnes, Religion, Legitimacy and the Law: Shari’a, Democracy and Human Rights at pages 10-18, posted at

Nour Soubani has asked, Does Islam need saving? and provided an analysis of human rights in Islam.  See

On how Saudi Arabia promotes intolerance of fundamental freedoms in its textbooks, see

Related Commentary:
(12/8/14): Religion and Reason
(12/15/14): Faith and Freedom
(1/11/15): The Greatest Commandment: A Common Word of Faith
(1/18/15): Love over Law: A Principle at the Heart of Legitimacy
(4/12/15): Faith as a Source of Morality and Law: The Heart of Legitimacy
(1/23/16): Who Is My Neighbor?
(1/30/16): The Politics of Loving Our Neighbors as Ourselves
(2/27/16): Conflicting Concepts of Legitimacy in Faith, Freedom and Politics
 (6/18/16): A Politics of Reconciliation with Liberty and Justice for All
(6/28/15): Confronting the Evil Among Us
(7/5/15): Reconciliation as a Remedy for Racism and Religious Exclusivism
(8/2/15): Freedom and Fundamentalism (8/9/15): Balancing Individual Rights with Collective Responsibilities
(2/7/16): Jesus Meets Muhammad on Issues of Religion and Politics
(7/9/16): Back to the Future: Race, Religion, Rights and a Politics of Reconciliation
(1/23/16): Who Is My Neighbor?
(1/30/16): The Politics of Loving Our Neighbors as Ourselves
(4/30/16): The Relevance of Religion to Politics
(5/7/16): Religion and a Politics of Reconciliation
(8/5/16): How Religion Can Bridge Our Political and Cultural Divide
(9/10/16): Liberty in Law: A Matter of Man’s Law, not God’s Law
(9/17/16): A Moral Revival to Restore Legitimacy to Our Politics
(11/19/16): Religion and a Politics of Reconciliation Based on Shared Values
(11/26/16): Irreconcilable Differences and the Demise of Democracy
(2/25/17): The Need for a Revolution in Religion and Politics
(3/4/17): Ignorance and Reason in Religion and Politics
(4/22/17): The Relevance of Jesus and the Irrelevance of the Church in Today’s World
(6/24/17): The Evolution of Religion, Politics and Law: Back to the Future?
(7/1/17): Religion, Moral Authority and Conflicting Concepts of Legitimacy
(7/15/17) Religion and Progressive Politics
(8/5/17): Does Religion Seek to Reconcile and Redeem or to Divide and Conquer?
(8/19/17) Hate, History and the Need for a Politics of Reconciliation

(9/2/17): The Evolution of the American Civil Religion and Habits of the Heart  

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