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30 January 2011


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William R. Cumming

Dr. Silverman has graced this blog with a brilliant post worthy of much study and contemplation. It does also restore my understanding that the streams of influence between the WESTERN CIVILIZATION religions of Islam, Judiasm,and Christianity have yet to be appropriately explored. All three act as those belivers in the other two religions are the "other" when in fact their linkages historically and religiously are much more complex. And yes Dr. Silverman, the revulsion of the forced conversions and religious warfare post-reformation drove in part the formation of the modern nation-state post 1648 Treaty of Westphalia. My problem is that the nation-state paradigm might finally be breaking down into the result foreordained once President Wilson's self-determination and 14 points resulted in the WESTERN great powers to comprehension that ultimately that concept and his others might well lead to chaos in international affairs. As the Arab world continues to represent fallout from WWI IMO those currents and cross currents are still not understood in the rest of the WEST. Plenty of food for thought in this post so many thanks to those responsible for it. Again brilliant insights.

Chris E

This is a little facile - Geneva, Wittenberg and Edinburgh might have had different ends, but they were linked by the clarion call of 'ad fontes'. And no serious historian would directly link Cromwell to any of the Magesterial Reformers, the Westminster Assembly not-withstanding.

Needless to say, 'ad fontes' in the case of Islam is going to look more like Abdul Wahhab than the author might find sanguine.

So perhaps what we are looking for is an Islamic higher-critical movement, rather than a reformation.


Abdol Karim Sourosh....

He is the Martin Luther of Iran.

Sidney O. Smith III

Strange…I always thought Bush and his cronies were like Cromwell, thumping their Bibles and quoting Revelations as they invaded Iraq, against the heathens. They view Iraqis not too much different than Cromwell did those black Irish back in the 17th century. And Cromwell was doing a lot of Bible thumping and Revelations quotin’ then as he led soldiers into the heathen lands. Cromwell also restricted Parliamentary liberties as well to help give rise to a police state.

ex-PFC Chuck

Thank you Dr. Silverman for this insightful post. However, as a mostly recovered Lutheran for whom it took several decades to come to terms with the skepticism he first sensed before his tenth birthday, and who now believes that religion is at best a mixed blessing (so to speak), I am discouraged when I read pieces like this article from PhysOrg this past week:

. . Robert Rowthorn, emeritus professor of economics at Cambridge University, has looked at the broader picture underlying this particular example: how will the high fertility rates of religious people throughout the world affect the future of human genetic evolution, and therefore the biological makeup of society?

Rowthorn has developed a model that shows that the genetic components that predispose a person toward religion are currently “hitchhiking” on the back of the religious cultural practice of high fertility rates. Even if some of the people who are born to religious parents defect from religion and become secular, the religious genes they carry (which encompass other personality traits, such as obedience and conservativism) will still spread throughout society, according to the model’s numerical simulations.

If Rowthorn's hypothesis is on target, it does not bode well for the future of secular enlightenment values. That's not to say that religious people are inherently violent or disruptive; very few of them are, at least on their own impetus. They are mostly authoritarian followers. But authoritarian followers, as Prof. Bob Altemeyer of the University of Manitoba points out, are putty in the hands of skilled authoritarian leaders, and authoritarian leaders tend to be as unprincipled as they are manipulative and narcissistic. John Dean (yes, that John Dean) sourced Altemeyer's academic work extensively for his 2006 book Conservatives Without Conscience and convinced him to write a general audience summary of it. A PDF of the full text is available for download here: http://bit.ly/g6dDoA


"ad fontes" = "to the sources" is the claim of most schools of thought in Islam, not just the salafis and wahhabis.

Unlike the Reformation, most of the Muslim currents discussed here, were driven by the pressure of foreign conquest and domination. That is, they were driven by a need to explain this domination, and to find a cure for it.

(The exception is Wahhabism, which strike me as a simplistic set of ideas, driven to prominence by the enthusiasm and (later) the money of the House of Saud.)

Isn't this difference in motivation important?


The Catholic Church also completely failed to understand the significance of the internet of its day - the printing press.

In the Twenty Six years from 1511 AD to 1537 the number of printings of Luthers works, excluding bible translations, exceeded 2500. Over the same period the Catholic Church had barely printed 500 works. For every Five printing of Luthers works, there were Four by other evangelicals. By the mid 1540's nearly Six million tracts had been printed, one for every Two people in the Holy Roman Empire.

I believe that the older Arab Governments and perhaps the Conservative wing of Islam have similarly misunderstood the transformative power of communications.

Twitter #egypt


ex-PFC Chuck: From the paper's abstract "It assumes that fertility is determined entirely by culture, whereas subjective predisposition towards religion is influenced by genetic endowment."

I think those are two very dodgy assumptions. Here's the ranking of nations by total fertility rate. Once you get out of central Africa, you find many nations that have dramatically different cultures, with similar fertility rates.

Second I'm wary of any evolutionary psychology that assumes a genetic basis for the expression of a subjectively measured psychological trait. They all tend to ignore how hugely important early childhood is to how our brains develop in favor of assuming a genetic basis.

This is not to discount the idea that culture can interact with genetics altogether, the Amish are a classic example in biology of an isolated community with different genetics than the rest of the population, just to suggest that the modeling here rests on two somewhat dubious assumptions.

Retired (once-Serving)Patriot

@Dr Silverman,

Great piece. Thanks.


Patrick Lang


There have been many serious attempts to "reform" Islam. The most significant one occurred in the Abbasiya when the Mu'tazila actually converted a Kalifa to its view of the nature of scripture and belief. In the next generation the traditionalist pietists who believed in the uncreated nature of the Qur'an and therefore its immutability as a basis for law triumphed and the relative rigidity of Sunni Islam was "born." Flexibility remained in various form pf Islam (Shia, Ibadhiya, etc.) but these have always been moinority views except in local situations unto this day. Fire, the sword, crucifixion, etc. have often been the fate of those within the Sunni "community" who have sought to change this basic understanding of reality. It is impossible to understand the possibility or lack of possibility without understanding the history of these ideas. pl



Excellent overview, however a minor quibble.

"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. "

The timeline is a little different:

Pilgrims - 1620
First Puritan colony in Massachusetts, City on the Hill sermon - 1630
English Civil War begins - 1642
Commonwealth and Protectorate - 1649-1659
Restoration 1660

The Pilgrims were actually Separatists, not Puritans. They are remarkably misunderstood and politicized these days.


If the question is, what can we learn about current Islam from the history of Christianity, then I don't think we should be looking at the Reformation.

Given that most of the ferment in the Muslim world has been in response to external domination, a better analogy would be the period in Christianity after the emergence of Islam and the loss of the Middle East, North Africa etc.

So, what happened in Christianity back then?

PS What change (or level of change) would count as a Reformation ?
The orthodox view is that Islam is reformed every hundred years. Clearly, most of these don't amount to sizable change.


Why "set aside the made in American Protestant offshoots.... that developed and have thrived in the free market of American religions"? Especially given that Weber himself traced the whole ethos of what (I think) we would all like to see (real intellectual freedom) to precisely that strain you are setting aside: Namely, to Roger Williams, the founder of Rhode Island, who created the first free society in the sense that we understand that term now. The Puritan "reformers" who built their "city on a hill" in Massachusetts were cutting off Baptists' ears, at late as the 1660s, and imposed what amounted to a Christian sharia. In other words, America was still at this time culturally part of Europe. Only with Williams is anything like political freedom of inquiry and conscience established; and to see just how revolutionary this was, compare what Williams wrote c. 1648 to what that "great liberal," Milton, wrote at the same time: Milton came out for "complete freedom of religion," except, of course, for Catholicism, which, he argued, had to be extirpated. So if we are setting aside any hopes for a soil in which something like this "American offshot" will flower, are we not hen stuck with an Islamic variant of Protestant-Christian Shariah?


My understanding is somewhat different from Silverman's. First, the major split in Islam is between Shi'a and Sunni, a difference that carries into style of dress, pilgrimage sites and architecture. Within Sunii Islam there are four different streams of thought: Hanafi, Maleki, Hanbali and Shafeei, each named after a famous imam. Sufism represents the inner or esoteric dimension of Islam.

Comparisons with the Christian reformation are difficult, because, Islam at its outset addressed some of the problems of Christianity, such as the concentration of religious authority within the papacy. As a result, there was never a need for a Martin Luther or for a reaction against centralized religious authority.

As a consequence, most Islamic reformation appears to be directed against a state that is largely lawless (uncontrolled power) or using the law to serve the interests of an elite or of outside powers (Turks, Europeans, etc.) This is where sharia law comes into play--an attempt to have religious values inform and influence the law and its practice. In Christianity, there has been a longstanding perceptual separation between the laws of the Kingdom of God and the earthly authority. As a result any movement to have laws based on religious values faces a fundamental obstacle based with Christ's words, though some Christian fundamentalists are trying
to breach that obstacle.


I appreciate this very informative analysis.



Stunning summary of the Protestant Reformation.

dan bradburd

Interesting post and comments. Movements for 'reform' gain traction where the disjunction is great between the realities of daily life and the hopes and expectations implicit in a belief system.

Belief systems and communities of belief differ in the nature of the resources they can mobilize in a 'counter reformation'. As Col.Lang suggests in his comment, Islam seems to have a particularly robust theological base for countering reformation.

Regarding Adam Silverman's discussion of the 'returns for fundamentals,' in the 1950s and 60s the anthropologist Anthony F.C. Wallace, who published important work on religious revitalization movements, argued that in their early stages these movements stress the return to fundamentals, or to punctilious 'traditional' practice. It is the failure of the traditional that ultimately leads to new views and, in Wallace's studies, new faiths.

Patrick Lang


Your view is also too simple. The lack of any real hierarchical authority in Islamic religion causes there to be as many Islams as there are Muslims since a view if what is Islam cannot be dictated by religious authority even amonf 12er Shia. It is all a matter of ijma' (consenssus). The senior scholars obviously don't like this.pl

Norbert M. Salamon

Thank you for educating me on numerous fields in the various explored topics since the Egyption earthquake.


PL--Agreed that there is a fundamental tension between the senior scholars and the widely recognized, direct, personal relationship between individual Muslims and God.

However, the use of the term "Islamic Reformation" is totally inappropriate, since there is no central authority to reform. More appropriate terminology might talk of "modernization of Islamic thinking." Here again, we need to be cautious, because a desire for a universally modern Islam implies that a universal modernization of Christianity exists. Given all those who believe in the literal truth of the Bible, it's hard to hold up Christian modernist reforms as a model to which Islam should aspire.



In regards to your comments on the printing press vs the internet, certainly the failure to publish had an effect, but I believe the literate people in Catholic Europe were not the lay people. What was the overall literacy rate? In the modern era with global television one need not be literate to receive the message. It is definitely a different era now.

FB Ali


A useful review of the subject. Relating it to reform movements in Christianity made it even more interesting.

It is worth remembering, though, that, while all these reformers, past and present, desire to hark back to the ‘pure and glorious’ early days, they are seeing different things. For the religious Islamists (eg, the Taliban, the Wahabis) the secret lay in the religious observances and the rule of shariah. The political Islamists (eg, Hizbullah, Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood), on the other hand, see the inspiring ideology that united the disparate warring tribes of Arabia and converted them into a unified community charged with the moral fervour and passion of a belief that enabled them to achieve the golden age of Islamic power.

It is a question of relative importance. The religious Islamists also believe in the restoration of Islam’s power, but their main focus is on establishing a state in which Islam is fully practised in its pure ‘original’ form. The political Islamists acknowledge the need for religious practices and shariah, but these are secondary to their main goal. Thus, they are more amenable to compromise on these issues, both within the Muslim community and in multi-confessional countries, even as they pursue their main objective.

I would put Osama bin Laden and al Zahawari (and many of their top operatives) in the category of political Islamists, though many of their followers and offshoots are probably religious Islamists.

To understand what is going on in the Muslim world today it is necessary to keep this distinction in mind.



"What was the overall literacy rate? In the modern era with global television one need not be literate to receive the message."

Same was true in 1525. Luther didn't just have the printing press on his side, he had the best German graphic artists, too, like Dürer. The Reformation (and Catholic Reformation after Trent) was an age of graphic art. They didn't just print words describing the Pope (or Luther) as Antichrist -- they printed images depicting the theological message. Not CNN or the internet, but much closer than you might imagine.


Another thought that I can't shake, even though I'm not a scholar of Islam:

Luther had an institutional Church to rebel against. One that exercised a lot of undue influence over the secular authorities in Germany.

Islam has no comparable institutional heirarchy. So they have no Pope to rebel against.

But "undue influence?" There's plenty of that in the Middle East. And the source? It's us: the West in general, and specifically the USA.

Let's all keep in mind that the "Whore of Babylon" in Dürer's woodcuts might be Uncle Sam for the 2011 Islamic Reformation. We are (possibly) the Rome of the Islamic Reformation!

So let us act accordingly by condemning with fire and sword the heretics...

Do we really want a Reformation in the Islamic world? (Not that we actually have much of a voice in the matter, of course.)


I would put Osama bin Laden and al Zahawari (and many of their top operatives) in the category of political Islamists, though many of their followers and offshoots are probably religious Islamists.

you would not put?

Or you put them into this category, although not all of their followers are Islamists?

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