If Christianity’s history is a guide, the Islamic Reformation will be a slow, painful affair


Reforms in religious doctrines and institutions take a long time and are very painful. Christianity took centuries to accommodate scientific truths, and it has not yet fully accommodated economic truths — and Christianity’s view of the role of reason and conscience is more theologically helpful to a Humanist perspective than, arguably, is Islam’s. Therefore, don’t expect a quick transformation.

Christianity, science and capitalism

Philosophy retreats along the border advanced by science. So does theology, as Copernicus and Galileo have shown. This is not a knock on theology; it is merely to state that religion accommodates to many of the realities of the world, and among these, the least compromising are scientific realities. This didn’t bother religious men like Newton and Einstein, and it shouldn’t bother you.

A more recent reality than the rise of the scientific mind and the Enlightenment is Capitalism’s creation of unprecedented longevity and wealth in the last century. As we have outlined in various posts, if you were born at the beginning of the last century, your life expectancy was in the forties and GNP per capita was $4000; if you were born today, you live twice as long and are numerically ten times richer, and in communications and mobility, thousands of times richer.

Christianity adapted to Copernicus and Galileo, though the Catholic Church first rejected them. Indeed, Galileo’s book on the Copernican system was published in 1632, but was banned by the Church and not removed from Rome’s notorious Index until 1822. The Catholic Church, which still toys with nonsense like Liberation Theology from time to time, still hasn’t quite gotten around to accepting Capitalism as the astounding, er, miracle that it is, but in a few hundred years no doubt Holy Mother Church will do so; we would like to see Communism officially a sin.

Our point it this: religious reform takes centuries, even for relatively straightforward matters. Moreover, it take centuries even if the intellectual groundwork has been carefully laid, as the following example shows.

The Scholastic tradition

The greatest of all Christian refrorms was the eponymous Reformation, for which the date 1517 will serve. That was the year that the severe Augustinian monk Martin Luther got mad as hell, and indicated he wasn’t going to take it any more by nailing his 95 theses of indictment of the Catholic Church to the door of the Wittenberg Cathedral. That act had been centuries in the making.

We contend that the revival of learning of the ancient Greek philosophers, which reached its theological zenith with Thomas Aquinas and Scholasticism around 1250, was critical to the empowerment of the individual conscience over the Church, as manifest by Luther. One early step on the journey was Aquinas’ claim that there was not necessarily a conflict between the observations of the ancient philosophers and Church teaching:

… it should be noted that different ways of knowing (ratio cognoscibilis) give us different sciences. The astronomer and the natural philosopher both conclude that the earth is round, but the astronomer does this through a mathematical middle that is abstracted from matter, whereas the natural philosopher considers a middle lodged in matter. Thus there is nothing to prevent another science from treating in the light of divine revelation what the philosophical disciplines treat as knowable in the light of human reason. (Summa theologiae, Ia, q. 1, a., ad 2)

The idea that man’s observations and logic can discern God’s rational and mathematical design of the universe, as does revelation, is ultimately very subversive: what happens when the two disagree? Appeals to authority over observation and ratiocination are ultimately bound to fail, which is what happened with Galileo and Luther. We are very well aware that we are doing no justice to the Augustinian tradition, Scholasticism, and the rich, complex changes from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance, but we believe this simple model we are sketching has some heuristic value.

So what of Islam?

We have said previously that Islam began its Reformation on January 30, 2005, with the Iraq vote. No less an authority than AQ chief Abu Musab al-Zarqawi agrees with us that the exercising of the Humanist impulse in democratic elections is anathema to Islamist fundamentalism:

“We have declared a fierce war on this evil principle of democracy and those who follow this wrong ideology,” the speaker said. “Anyone who tries to help set up this system is part of it” – a clear warning to both candidates and those who choose to vote. The speaker warned Iraqis to be careful of “the enemy’s plan to implement so-called democracy in your country.” He said the Americans have engineered the election to install Shiite Muslims in power…..

“Four million Shiites were brought from Iran to take part in the elections to achieve their aim of winning” most of the positions, the speaker in the tape said. He railed against democracy for supplanting the rule of God with the rule of man and the majority, saying it was based on un-Islamic beliefs and behaviors such as freedom of religion, freedom of expression, separation of religion and state and forming political parties.

Arab Islam has started this great or odious Humanist journey without the support structure that Christianity had at its time of Reformation. Reinterpreting submission to the will of God as presented in the Koran in an allegorical or anagogical way is a task of Reformation quite a bit more difficult than the ones faced by Christianity — and the Christian Reformation was itself a long and bloody affair.

We should expect no better of the Islamic Reformation.

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