Adam L. Silverman PhD
On 27 JAN, in a comment on COL Lang’s column on de Borchgrave and revolution, GregB asked if we might be seeing “the beginning of an Islamic Reformation.” He is not the first person to ask that or to seek an answer. I’ve had the idea bouncing around in the back of my head off and on for a while. And while there is not as much research into this question as I’d like, some of the oldest actually goes back to Max Weber – one of the fathers of today’s social sciences. Weber took up this issue, but died before he could complete his work. It has since been picked up by Clifford Geertz (informally), and several others working in this strain of inquiry.
The parallels, regardless of who is doing the asking and the categorizing and the sifting of material do seem striking however. One Australian scholar makes the very provocative argument that Islam is really the inheritor of those portions of both Judaism and early Christianity that were repressed and destroyed, leading to similarities (one warning – I don’t know who did the art/illustrations to accompany the article, but some may find them much less thoughtful than the article). In 2007 the Guardian ran an excellent, and I think quite provocative, series of articles that focus on this question. While I disagree with the author that the beginning of an Islamic Reformation lies with Abdul Wahhab (I think that Wahhabiya, while certainly reformist, lies outside the parallels that I’m noticing, though as a body of thought it has certainly come to influence it as time has passed and communications technology has increased), he has certainly provided some excellent food for thought.
Where I think the parallels exist is that I think one can observe four distinct phases of change, or reformation, in Islam within the past 150 years or so. I think many might refer to this as the period of the rise of political Islam, because so much of the literature generated was about opposition to existing politics and social structures and the need for change. So lets get to the parallels.
In the Protestant Reformation I find six major distinct developmental divisions. I want to set aside the first, the Anglican Reformation driven by Henry VIII’s dispute with the Vatican over a variety of issues, including his divorces/annulments, really does not fit as there was not that much theological and dogmatic restructuring. While I’m not trying to discount the removal of celibacy provisions or reorienting the head of the Church from the Vatican to the English monarchy, overall Catholicism and Anglicanism are much more similar to each other in theology, dogma, and practice than Catholicism is with Protestant denominations that develop out of Luther’s break with the Church. I also want to set aside the made in American Protestant offshoots, many of which are reinterpretations of Five Point Calvinism, that developed and have thrived in the free market of American religions that was created by the Framers separating the State from religion and vice versa. This leaves us with four developmental divisions that I am going to identify based on a major thinker/figure/leader: Luther, Calvin, Knox, and Cromwell.
Martin Luther’s goal was to separate Christianity from what had become a system of moribund strictures and structures that he felt was smothering the true meaning and practice of the religion. As the Catholic Church consolidated its hold through endorsing and determining who was fit to rule versus who wasn’t, and by intermingling religious and non-religious elites, Luther was appalled by what he saw as too much accommodation to being in the world. Simony, nepotism, and indulgences were just some of the manifestations of the problem that Luther was observing. To resolve the crisis Luther’s driving goal was to separate the religion from the political and social institutions, Church and State, thereby allowing Christianity to once again become relevant for everyday Christians. This was at the core of Luther’s protest and the beginnings of Continental Protestantism; a Christianity freed from hierarchy and structure, with every man a priest unto himself, able to directly interact with the sacred text (if he could read…), thus revitalizing both the Faith and the Faithful. To me the late 19th Century Islamic revivalists, such as Jamal al Din al Afghani, are roughly parallel to Luther. Al Afghani was looking to separate Islam from the Ottoman Caliphate, to both revitalize the religion and make it relevant, as well as to break the monopoly of the empire. His immediate successors, mined these concepts out, and eventually led the way for more active and vigorous conceptualizations of the endeavor.
Calvin, and the other Genevan reformers, were looking to not just reform, revise, and revitalize, but also to get back to basics (fundamentals) in an attempt to create a modern, for the time, community that would live according to the same principles of the original Christians. The parallels on the Islamic side are the inheritors of al Afghani and his contemporaries. Mawdudi leads the way here, but his concepts of Muslims reestablishing a society that gets back to the fundamentals of the original Muslims is eventually transformed into something more reactionary by Qutb and al Banna, just as Calvin is built on by Knox.
Knoxian Protestantism takes the idea of return to fundamentals one step further by attempting to move beyond reestablishing fundamentals into actually trying to reestablish a communal system that has only existed as religious history for Christians. It is at this point that reactionary tendencies begin to come to the fore. The rough parallels in the Muslim world are Qutb and al Banna and the early Muslim Brothers. Qutb made it clear what he was reacting to: what he observed in the US during his educational exchange program and its parallels in Arab and Muslim Egypt. For Qutb, as for Knox, it was not enough to merely free the religion from (perceived to be) moribund structures and practices and traditions to reinvigorate it and make it relevant, or to get back to the basic core of belief held by the earliest believers, rather it was necessary to actually try to recreate that communal dynamic. The future could only be found by going back to the past – a classic case of reactionism.
The final parallel is where the violent imposition of reactionary (Knox/Qutb), fundamentalist (Calvin/Mawdudi), and revivalist (Luther/al Afghani) religion comes into play. For Protestantism this would be the Puritan movement, whose most famous leader was Oliver Cromwell. It was Cromwell and his followers who overthrew the English Monarchy and established the Puritan Interregnum, which forcibly imposed their understanding of how Christianity, and its fundamental beliefs and tenets, should be practiced and lived. This period, like that of Knox and his followers, and to some extent all of the Protestant developmental periods was violent, but the Puritans took it to a new level. The English tolerated it up until the Puritans outlawed Christmas, at which point the English threw them out, reestablished the monarchy, and after a short period of time hiding out in, among other places, Holland, the Puritans came to America and founded their colonies. There they sought religious freedom for themselves and gained a historical PR makeover into the Pilgrims. It should not be forgotten that the famous Jeffersonian phrase “a high wall of separation between Church and State” appears in Jefferson’s response to the Danbury Baptists who had written to him appealing for help against the Puritans who would corporally punish them for trying to practice the rite of baptism. The Islamic parallel to the Cromwell and his compatriots are Zawahiri and bin Laden (which is where the Wahabiyya comes into play outside of Saudi Arabia) and their followers in Jemiyah al Islamiyah and al Qaeda and other similar thinkers and groups. These much more recent Muslim movements don’t just want to revitalize and reform and get back to basics, rather they seek to violently impose the reformation on Islam and Muslims. By doing so they can forcibly return Islam to the Straight Path and reestablish life as they believe it to be at the time of the Prophet Muhammed and his companions.
While these comparisons aren’t perfectly analogous, and this is certainly not the only way to view the developments and actions of reactionary, violent, extremist Islamic movements, it does beg the analytical question of whether or not reformation is simply something monotheistic religions have to go through. While we only really have three examples to work with, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, and Judaism’s development was stunted as it was always a religion of a minority until the establishment of the State of Israel, we are left with just two cases. And while it is possible to do comparison with such a limited sample, we have to be cautious about the conclusions we draw. I’m neither Protestant nor Muslim, and as someone who has studied religion as a form of identity and social group from outside both traditions, I see these parallels, but if they were given proper scrutiny the appearance of developmental similarities might vanish.
 Adam L. Silverman is the Culture an Foreign Language Advisor at the US Army War College. The views expressed here are his alone and do not necessarily represent those of the US Army War College or the US Army.
 We often forget, in the way that we deal with history in the US, just how violent both the Reformation, the Counter-Reformation, and the subsequent evolution of Protestantism was. Both on the Continent and once it reached the Americas. Toqueville has a huge section devoted to observations of Puritan New England and the imposition of religion through sanctioned violence. Moreover, one only need read the history of the Burned Over District of the early 19th Century to see more evidence. And in many ways some of the extremism we witness today is the result of the same reactionary fundamentalist tendencies.