You Say You Want a Reformation …

You can’t reform Islam. Islam is ‘perfect’. Muhammad said so. 


Those calling for a Muslim reformation are overlooking the consequences of the revolt that Martin Luther prompted against Rome. Were Islam to replicate that upheaval, as many seem to wish, the world would be convulsed for bloody centuries to come

crescent IIMartin Luther unleashed his attack on the monolithic Catholic Church exactly 499 years ago on All Saints Eve Now (now popularly known as Halloween) when he nailed his 95 theological theses on the Church door of Wittenberg. Now, as we approach the quincentenary of that momentous event it is possible to gain some long-term perspective on its essential nature and impact on modern history. In particular, it is an ideal time to explore the grim implications of such a religious upheaval for the crisis of Islam, which is engulfing much of the world in the same type of internecine and sectarian violence that characterized the epochal upheaval that convulsed Christian Europe.

Continually there are demands for Islam to undergo its own ‘reformation’ akin to that endured by the West half a millennium ago. Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s polemic, Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now (2015), exemplifies this campaign, envisaging a reformed Islam akin to liberal Christianity in its capacity to accommodate the modern world. She states the case against the savagery of fundamentalist Islamism in a defiant and optimistic fashion, drawing great encouragement from the various calls for reform that were manifest in the Muslim world during the so-called Arab Spring. Equally optimistic calls come from Muslim intellectualswho imagine that Muslims around the world could band together to overthrow Muslim despots, reject Sharia law, establish new liberal constitutions, and deploy diaspora Muslims living in Western countries like Australia as “ambassadors [to] educate their non-Muslim neighbours about the peaceful, compassionate and sharing nature of Islam in order to bring Muslims and non-Muslims closer together”.

Tragically, much of this is fanciful. In their enthusiasm, these commentators have imposed an idealised vision of the rationalism of the 18th century Enlightenment upon the brutal religious passions of the 16th century Reformation. Moreover, there seems to be little evidence that the contemporary despots, theocrats, and jihadists that dominate the Muslim world will relinquish their wealth and power or give up on their apocalyptic dreams of global conquest. Moreover, these Muslim leaders and their many supporters are heirs to an ancient intellectual counter-revolution that diverted Islam away from the rationalism that facilitated the Scientific Revolution and Enlightenment in the West. Instead they embrace a theological obscurantism that Robert R. Reilly has carefully analysed in The Closing of the Muslim Mind: How Intellectual Suicide Created the Modern Islamist Crisis (2010). As I have observed:

“Reilly details how the emerging religion of Islam initially embraced the rationality and scientific orientation of the Hellenic world to which it was a successor before it abruptly turned its back on this heritage and embraced a quite primitive form of theological irrationalism. The resulting world-view fundamentally undermined Islam’s capacity to embrace science, democracy and economic development down to the present day.”

Nothing has changed: Islam remains constitutionally unable to embrace the open society that the West enjoys. Instead Islamists and other devotees of ultra-reactionary Saudi-backed Salafi fundamentalism are vigorously seeking to reassert this medieval theological irrationalism throughout the Muslim world. They are never going to yield to calls for reform.

Nor is there any likelihood that the backward-looking Muslim diaspora exploiting the welfare states of the West will rise to the challenge, contest this obscurantism, and modernize Islam, perhaps transforming it into something akin to liberal Christianity by capitulating abjectly to secular consumerism, political correctness, Green-Left ideology, and becoming a Uniting Church of Islam. Such suggestions are preposterous, as these diaspora are largely funded and controlled by Salafists, as part of the ‘Arabization of Islam’. Consequently, Western Muslims, protected by their political front men and cultural quislings in the media and academia, are far more likely to develop and entrench their enclaves and no-go areas in the cities of the West where they can enforce the more brutal and benighted aspects of Salafist Islam. This is especially the case with their womenfolk, with radical Muslim intellectuals even prepared to defend honour killings.   As their reticence to take a stand against jihadism and their eagerness to claim victimhood reveals, they are more likely to be part of the problem than part of the solution.

In fact, the Reformation that Ali and other commentators want the Islamic world to emulate offers lessons diametrically opposed to their optimism. To begin with, it didn’t establish the separation between church and state:  various theocratic Protestant regimes were established in Europe and North America, Henry VIII made the Monarch head of the Church of England, and religious orthodoxy was brutally enforced through capital punishment, including innumerable burnings at the stake. Subsequently, church and state battled for supremacy for centuries after the Reformation.

Indeed, considered at a deeper metahistorical level, the Reformation can be seen as a truly cataclysmic event that nobody would want to emulate. In its assault on the Catholic Church it fatally mauled the immense institutional structure that encompassed all aspects of late medieval life in Europe, so vividly portrayed in Johan Huizinga’s famous study of The Waning of the Middle Ages(1924) and explored in the works of conservative scholars like Christopher Dawson (Religion and the Rise of Western Culture, 1950), and Richard M. Weaver (Ideas Have Consequences, 1948). Above all, it uprooted the spiritual certainties that sustained people through their daily lives in the century-and-a-half that followed the unimaginable trauma of the Black Death. As C.S.L. Davies notes in Peace, Print and Protestantism (1977), the medieval masses were surrounded by misery and faced the near-certainty of an early and often agonizing death. Inevitably they embraced the comfort offered by the Church:

“They were locked into a system of belief in the supernatural by the brute facts of life; a hazardous, unpredictable world could only be understood in terms of the operation of apparently arbitrary spiritual forces.”

Consequently, as Lewis Spitz emphasizes in The Protestant Reformation 1517-1559 (1985):

“On the eve of the reformation the Roman Catholic Church was the most universal institution, and the Christian religion the most pervasive spiritual and intellectual force, in Europe [possessing] a hierarchical organization that reached into every parish, and a bureaucracy that rivalled that of kings and emperors [and touching] the private life of every individual.”

The Church administered an elaborate system of sacraments – baptism, confirmation, marriage, the Eucharist, penance, holy orders, and extreme unction – instituted by Jesus, entrusted to the Church, and administered only by an ordained priest. They were seen as visible signs of the grace of God and closely accompanied the faithful in an orderly fashion as they passed through the various phases of their lives.

Consequently, the clergy accounted for around 10 percent of the population (e.g., Cologne had 6000 priests for a population of 40,000) while the Church employed virtually all the intellectual elite and owned some 25 percent of society’s wealth, while playing a central role in politics. However complacent and riddled with corruption it may have been, it sat resolutely at the centre of people’s lives and they invested their wealth and hopes in its promises of salvation, gladly funding, as Spitz observes,

“local parish churches, monastic houses and confraternities, brotherhoods for prayers, side alters, memorial windows, statues of saints, organs, vestments, crucifers, reliquaries, chapels in hospitals, colleges and professorships, pilgrimages, new shrines, benefices, and endowments.”

All of this helped constitute an ever-present, all-encompassing regime of religious personnel, dogma, ceremony, and imagery that gave vivid meaning, coherence, and hope to the European masses as they toiled through their daily lives, sustained by the sure and certain hope of salvation that the Church promised, and all of it was underpinned by a vast system of scholastic theology that answered every question and stifled every doubt that might have afflicted the faithful. Much of this highly elaborate structure was swept aside and destroyed in the lands where the Reformation prevailed.

It was against this ancient ecclesiastical edifice that Martin Luther unleashed his attack on 31 October, 1517.  All Saints Eve is the start of Allhallowtide, which runs from October 31 to November 2 annually and also includes All Souls Day and All Saints Day. The basic point of this vigil was to pray for the souls of the faithful departed and especially for the saints and martyrs in Purgatory. It was an important occasion in the Christian calendar as it addressed the ever-present reality of death and the looming spectre of the agonies of Purgatory, where all Christians could expect to spend eons of time, atoning for their sins before finally being received into Heaven. It very much involved the fears and hopes of the common people, (with, for example, contemporary Trick & Treating having its origins in the making and distribution of ‘Soul Cakes’ to children and beggars who would in return say prayers for the dead). It was Church teaching that souls could be freed from Purgatory or have their time there remitted through various practices. In particular, relief could be obtained through the purchase of indulgences from the Church, and it was to contest this idea that Luther chose that day to post his Theses.

In so doing Luther was following the conventional procedure and seeking an orderly theological disputation in the academic fashion. He was inviting debate on a range of central elements of the Catholic faith, but in particular he was concerned with the widespread sale of indulgences, which had become an essential source of revenue for the dissolute Renaissance Papacy and was being heavily promoted from local pulpits and by travelling priests. Although Luther was an eager, resourceful, and pugnacious disputant, he had no idea his dissenting propositions and the Church’s reactions to them would escalate quickly into a major conflict or that his life would be threatened. Indeed, his challenge to the Church only gained traction because, unlike other ‘heretics’ like Jan Hus, William Tyndale, and other innumerable victims of the medieval ‘persecuting society’, Luther managed to stay alive.

Under the patronage and protection of German princes and fighting for his life, Luther further developed his theology and wrote his three great works: Address to the Christian Nobility of the German NationThe Babylonish Captivity of the Church, and The Liberty of the Christian Man. These were immediately taken up by the new and vigorous printing industry and served as the manifestoes of a self-sustaining religious revolution that quickly found further leaders like Ulrich Zwingli and John Calvin and opened the door to ultra-radicals like Thomas Müntzer and the Anabaptists

In a few short epoch-shaping years the Papacy and the states of Central and Northern Europe were embroiled in conflicts that set the continent ablaze, much to Luther’s mortification. He was appalled by the Great Peasants’ War that was inspired by radical versions of his theology and swept through the German lands in 1524-5, leading to over 100,000 deaths as the aristocracy crushed dissent, in what was the greatest popular uprising in Europe before the French Revolution.  He couldn’t have foreseen the appalling Sack of Rome (1527) that produced 45,000 casualties, or the carnage of the Spanish Sack of Antwerp in 1576, which decimated the city and left 7000 dead; or the French Wars of Religion (1562–98) between Catholics and Huguenots, involving open warfare and vast massacres that led to between 2 and 4 million deaths and prompted the emigration of hundreds of thousands of French Protestants. Nor could he have possibly guessed at the lethal twists and turns of the English Reformation that proved fatal for royalty, aristocrats, ecclesiastics, intellectuals, and common folk alike, and also saw the dissolution of the monasteries and the transfer of great wealth into the hands of the monarchy. Indeed, nobody could have foreseen the endless religious wars that engulfed the entire continent over the next 150 years, or predicted how they would fundamentally split Christendom asunder. Eventually they consumed the lives of 15-20 million people, devastated and transformed Europe, and culminated in the cataclysmic Thirty Years War (1618-48), which involved all the European powers, killed around half the population of the German lands, severely dislocated society, and institutionalized the Catholic/Protestant chasm.

How could such a prolonged and devastating catastrophe have happened, and what lessons are there to be learnt for the present day? There are many economic, political, and demographic factors that have to be considered. Marxists, for example, see it in terms of the collapse of feudalism and the rise of the urban bourgeoisie.   However, it happened pre-eminently because the immense, 1200-year-old edifice of Catholic Christendom couldn’t withstand the ideological onslaught that Luther and an army of fiercely committed successors unleashed against it. The all-encompassing Christian world-view that held medieval society together largely disintegrated and the masses were suddenly left spiritually bereft in a hideously violent and unpredictable world.

Various Protestant sects did, of course, spring up to replace the Catholic Church and these proved very attractive – especially to the intellectual, commercial, and political elites who were happy to imagine themselves amongst the Protestant elect predestined for salvation. However, as Max Weber famously argued in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905) this form of religion culminated in a rigorous and obsessive Puritanism and was more likely to generate an ever-present state of anxiety about one’s salvation, rather than the comforting reassurance offered by the older faith. Its underlying tendency was towards an atomized society of individuals fretting about their personal fate rather than the more organic and cohesive community that characterized Catholicism.  At any rate, the unity of Christendom was shattered and has never been repaired.  In a very short time the masses of people across Northern and Western Europe had experienced the collapse into chaos of the millennium-old system of belief and practice that had previously sustained them and their families as they made their pilgrimage through the veil of tears that was their lives.

Such a sudden collapse into an existential void may be difficult for modern people to comprehend, given our generally secular and rationalist outlook, spiritual disinterest, the never-ending cavalcade of media-driven distractions, the confidence we invest in medical science and public health, and the complacency we have about the after-life. After all, for denizens of secular society, as Davies notes in Peace, Print and Protestantism, “economics and politics are the fundamental issues: all else is top-dressing”, but such an outlook would have been unintelligible to the people of the Late Middle Ages. For them the spiritual ‘top-dressing’ was the very foundation of their lives.

Nevertheless, if we are adequately to understand both the impact of the Reformation on the West, and identify its implications for the present crisis of the Muslim world then we must make the leap into an alien mental world where religion encompasses every aspect of life and offers comfort and refuge to people who would otherwise be left adrift in a hostile and volatile world. Like the Christian masses 500 years ago, this is the situation presently faced by hundreds of millions of Muslims around the world, for whom the traditional forms of Islam that served as the foundation of their lives are now under lethal attack.

Tragically, throughout Africa, the Middle East, and South- and South-East Asia these masses are trapped in a world-historical crisis. Largely through no fault of their own, the traditional world within which they and their forebears have lived for centuries is suffering a dual onslaught. On one hand, they confront the culturally corrosive impact of a secular and consumerist form of globalization that bedazzles them on every form of media, but offers only empty promises and will deliver only despair. On the other hand, they face the reactionary strictures of a lavishly funded and highly aggressive Salafism that wants to sweep away their traditional Muslim beliefs and practices and anchor them instead to a fundamentalist and sectarian version of Islam centred on the feudal world of Saudi Arabia.

This is the infamous Arabization of Islam that is occurring in both the Muslim world and the Muslim diasporas of the West. Like the first Reformation it pits iconoclastic fanatics against traditional forms of religiosity, brutally seeking the latter’s suppression and destruction. As I pointed out in “Global Jihad and the Battle for the Soul of Islam”, file:///C:/Users/Merv%20Bendle/Downloads/9002-23557-1-SM%20(1).pdf the present warfare, terrorism and violence that characterizes jihadism obscures the significance of this internal battle within Islam, although it may have a greater long-term impact. It is being waged by Saudi-backed Salafists pursuing an ideal of a radically purified Islam; mobilized as a militant political force to be imposed universally across the Muslim world and beyond:

“Its targets are the popular forms of Islamic religiosity, represented above all by and the many diverse forms of traditional Islam and Sufism that have existed across the globe for centuries. Given the significance of this religiosity, and especially the importance of Sufism, this is an epoch defining battle with major implications for the future of Islam and therefore potentially for the future religious history of the world.”

Driven by an inter-continental demographic explosion affecting a billion Muslims, the outcome of this crisis can only be an era of war, terrorism, sectarian violence, mass illegal migration and human-wave assaults on Europe and other Western nations unprecedented outside of wartime.

Tragically, there is no historical evidence to justify an alternative, less pessimistic projection of what is transpiring in the Muslim world. This bleak outlook is therefore the true lesson of the Reformation: the collapse of traditional religious systems that have served societies and great masses of people for centuries, whether they be Christian, Muslim (or, for that matter, Hindu or Confucian), can be expected to generate violence on a  large scale stretching over decades or even centuries.

Ultimately, therefore, those calling for a Muslim Reformation are not only naïve, they also radically underestimate the world-historical trauma and epoch-shaping destructiveness of the Reformation that they are presently calling upon Muslims to emulate. Indeed, the devastating effects of the first Reformation are resonating still, some 500 years after the event, as its implications work themselves out and Western Christendom suffers its own final death throes under the impact of modernity. If there is any message to be gained from the Reformation experience it is that any contemporary religious upheaval on a comparable scale will involve the mobilization of hundreds of millions of people inflamed with religious passions and millennialist expectations, together with widespread violence and massive disruption on an inter-continental scale. Like the first Reformation, such an event will convulse the world for centuries.

Mervyn Bendle PhD taught history, religion, and social theory for 20 years at James Cook University