Electoral politics in Iraq is a plausible flashpoint for the Islamic Reformation

The essence of change is seeing things in a new way and embracing the fact that you now see them this way.

The Christian Renaissance and Reformation were full of men and society embracing their new perspectives. We have written of Masaccio and the rediscovery of artistic perspective, and what that might mean for today. More on point for today’s discussion is Martin Luther’s radical reinterpretation of Romans 1:17, which says “The one who is righteous will live by faith”. Luther had always been plagued by feelings of inadequacy, since he felt he could never be adequately righteous to be saved; however, in an explosive moment, he turned the text on its head so that it was God’s gift of faith that bestowed righeousness to Luther, and made it no longer something he had to earn. Thus was the Reformation born by Scriptural re-interpretation, as described by Internet Encyclopedia:

Luther finally found the assurance that had evaded him for years. The discovery that changed Luther’s life ultimately changed the course of church history and the history of Europe. In Romans, Paul writes of the “righteousness of God.” Luther had always understood that term to mean that God was a righteous judge that demanded human righteousness. Now, Luther understood righteousness as a gift of God’s grace. He had discovered (or recovered) the doctrine of justification by grace alone. This discovery set him afire.

In 1517, he posted a sheet of theses for discussion on the University’s chapel door. These Ninety-Five Theses set out a devastating critique of the church’s sale of indulgences and explained the fundamentals of justification by grace alone….

We see some of the same forces at work today in Islam and particularly in Iraq. Islamic theology contends that the Koran is literally true, having been given in revelation to Mohammed by the angel Gabriel. This would be perhaps of limited interest to non-Muslims, except that sharia or Islamic law is meant to govern all aspects of a Muslim’s life, and sets forth governmental rules, including civil and criminal jurisprudence; and that further, (particularly critical for Islamists) Muslims everywhere in the world should have Islamic rule. This scenario spells trouble for the infidels everywhere, and that’s what we have seen played out worldwide in recent years.

As long as the argument is framed as believers versus infidels, there really is no chance for a satisfactory resolution (speaking as an infidel), since the there is no basis for debate between truth and ignorance or blasphemy, both of which we infidels excel at. We infidels are just plain wrong, and we need to submit to the truth, the precise, literal truth of the Koran.

What happens however, when the two main strains of Islam, each of which views the other as heretical in important ways, have to co-exist in the cutthroat give-and-take of parliamentary politics? What happens when different interpretations of the same sacred texts and traditions, each claiming truth, have to make decisions when fundamental beliefs come into conflict? Maybe you get war until one side achieves its tyranny of ideas, but maybe you get something new. Maybe you get a theology that adapts better to the realities of the world.

Luther didn’t think he was creating any kind of new Christianity. He thought he was clearing away the detritus of past clerical abuses to reveal a meaning that had existed all along. You will recall also that Luther had a civic aim in his 95 theses: he was aiming to clean up organizational corruption in church government in the selling of indulgences for profit. So don’t tell us that theological changes can’t have their foundations in practical problems of government, money and corruption. It happened that way in Christianity, and perhaps it can happen again in Islam.

First there is change, then the noticing of the change, then (if you are lucky) the embracing of the change, and finally a rationale so that the change really wasn’t a change after all. That is what we call progress.

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