Stephen Schwartz has published a reflection on the need for a reformation of Islam in Tech Central Station (via FrontPage). Not long ago I took issue with one of his pieces claiming that Wahhabis were essentially revising the Qur’an to make it more anti-Jewish and anti-Christian; I pointed out that the Wahhabis were working from traditional interpretations within Islam, and that what they were “adding” to the Qur’an was already there in abundance. Unfortunately, he made no answer — unfortunately because it would be illuminating to see what a self-professed moderate Muslim thinks of the points I raised. Nor did The Weekly Standard print it. The best way, after all, to silence a critic who raises uncomfortable questions is not to answer him, but to ignore him.
Now he has turned to the vexed and difficult topic of an Islamic reformation. Some of his points follow, with a few observations from me:
Questions about a need for an “Islamic Reformation” remain pertinent in the West. Recently, I was challenged by an American public official who took great umbrage at analogies I drew, in previous articles for TCS (here and here), between Martin Luther and Ibn Abd al-Wahhab, founder of Wahhabism, the ultraextremist state religion in Saudi Arabia.
The aggrieved person accused me of equating Luther with Nazis and Communists by this comparison; I assured him that I do not believe in crude historical telescoping, although I do affirm that Luther and Ibn Abd al-Wahhab both approved of aggression in the name of religious reform, and that the Wahhabis may be considered, in their totalitarian worldview, as unperceived predecessors of Nazism and Stalinism. In the same encounter, I was confronted by a Wahhabi fanatic who demanded a return to the “pure Islam” of Muhammad.
There was no need for the official to take umbrage. The comparison is apt, and that is no reflection on Luther (whatever his faults). The primary point of similarity that that both Luther and Wahhab led movements that purported to strip away later accretions and get back to the core elements of their religions. That al-Wahhab’s reformation was violent and virulent is a reflection on the core texts of his religion, to which he dedicated himself and his followers with all-encompassing zeal.
Non-Muslim “Islam experts” now abound in the West, many of recent mintage and superficial knowledge, and it is usually they who are loudest, most aggressive, and least respectful in demanding that Islam undergo a “Reformation” they would hope to compare with the rise of Protestantism. Some among them demand a revision of the Muslim holy book, Qur’an, even though no Protestant ever sought to revise the Christian scripture.
In fact, Reformers did revise Christian Scripture: they rejected the Greek Old Testament because one of its books, II Maccabees, seemed to provide Scriptural justification for prayers for the dead; Luther himself relegated the Epistle of James to an appendix and decried it as an “Epistle of straw” because it contradicted his doctrine of salvation by faith alone. Protestants ratified the former rejection and rejected the second, and to this day Protestant Bibles differ from those used by Catholics and Orthodox.
But my intention here is not to clarify points about Christianity. It is to demonstrate that if we are to use the Protestant Reformation as a paradigm for an Islamic Reformation, which I myself am not sure is legitimate (because, as I pointed out above, Wahhab has already made the motion analogous to Luther’s within Islam), the actual alteration of Scriptural texts is not out of bounds.
In other instances, Muslim thinkers appear to have thought out a “Reformation” that would, according to them, separate the essential truth of Islam as embodied in Qur’an from the hadith or oral sayings of the Prophet. This latter trend argues that Islam has been corrupted by the imposition of hadith upon the religion, and alleges that extremism is based exclusively on sources found therein and on the persistence of a “medieval” attitude. However, the interpretation of both Qur’an and the hadith, until the arrival of Wahhabism, was typically pluralistic, as was Islamic law, and I have therefore argued that Islam contains within itself the seeds of its own correction, through a restoration of pluralism and a renaissance, rather than a Reformation.
I would love to see this renaissance. However, Schwartz overstates the “pluralism” of Qur’anic interpretation and Islamic law before Wahhab, in a manner quite similar to his attributing to Wahhabis mainstream elements of Qur’anic interpretation in his previous piece. But the chief question here is whether Islam would or could develop interpretative traditions analogous to those in Judaism and Christianity that mitigated the force of bellicose passages of the Old Testament — in other words, how this Islamic renaissance would manage to blunt the force of Qur’anic literalism (and literalism in Hadith interpretation also) so that they would not continue to be inspirations for violence and fanaticism.
I am not so much concerned with Schwartz’s discussion of whether Protestantism or Catholicism is a better model for Islam’s future; for me, and I believe for all non-Muslims concerned about future relations with the Islamic world, the question is how useful his recommendations would be to compel Muslims who commit violence in the name of their religion to stop doing so. Schwartz concludes:
Wahhabi bigots say they would reclaim “pure Islam;” I say that means wiping out hundreds of years of poetry, architecture, art, music, and creative effort, as well as fecund theological study and interpretation, of the hadith as well as the Qur’an.
Beauty remains to be recaptured, as it is among the scholars of the Jewish Kabbalah, as it was for the troubadours, and as it shall always be for the Sufis….Petrodollars cannot replace the beauty that quickens the heart’s desire, and for a sufficient majority of Muslims, Islam resides in the heart. Grim piety and reforming zeal cannot heal the wounds inflicted on Islam by terrorists and tyrants. The Islam of beauty has no use for an Islam of anger.
I say therefore that Islam needs no Reformation, merely to return to its long-established tradition: pluralistic, spiritual, and committed to the protection and refinement of its civilizational heritage. Nothing need be abandoned; nothing will be lost in God’s message. The outcome should be obvious: Islam will survive and be revived as a civilization of beauty, or there will be no Islam.
A few final questions: how will this revived civilization of pluralism and beauty induce Muslims to set aside the command to fight Jews and Christians until they convert or submit and pay the jizya (Qur’an 9:29)? Or the idea that it is permissible to kill those who leave Islam (Qur’an 4:89, 2:217)? Or lying to protect Islam (taqiyyah), as based on Qur’an 16:106? Or Muhammad’s statement that “no Muslim should be killed for killing an infidel” (Sahih Bukhari, volume 4, book 52, number 283)? Or all the many Qur’anic declarations of hostility toward Jews and Christians (see Qur’an 2:62-65, 5:59-60, 7:166, 9:30, 98:6, etc.)?
There are many other elements I could raise that should be rejected: the punishments for adultery and theft, the whole legal superstructure of dhimmitude, etc. In short, Schwartz’s statement that “nothing need be abandoned” raises critical questions — chief among them being this: Shouldn’t the needed Islamic renaissance (or reformation — whichever you prefer) be an explicit abandonment of Qur’anic literalism? And if it isn’t, how will it keep that literalism from reappearing?
Stephen, I hope you will answer this time.