Ten timeless lessons of an earlier reform

In a recent press conference on June 10, 2004, as he was leaving the G8 summit in Georgia, President Bush said that reform in the Middle East is not easy and will take time. He also pointed out that each nation in the Middle East would look different culturally and politically from the US, as the reforms progress. He was talking mostly about political and economic reforms. However, since Islam embraces all of society, it would be instructive to examine another reform that embraced all of society.

In order to promote peaceful East—West relations and to engage in open Christian—Muslim dialogue —— and not to look down on one culture or religion —— we can learn a lot from the Christian Reformation that gained momentum in the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries in Europe and culminated in the founding of America in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries. The Christian reformers enjoyed success, but they also made terrible mistakes. No religion is exempt from the fatal flaw: humans. Therefore, we must not ignore their story and the lessons of the past as we observe the monumental Islamic reforms inching along (and sometimes regressing) now in the Middle East, especially in Iraq. Some lessons transcend time and culture.

1. Seeing a need: Early reformers like John Wycliffe (c. 1329—1384) and Jan Hus (1373—1414) and later reformers like Martin Luther (1483—1546) and John Calvin (1509—1564) perceived a great need to reform both the church at first, and then areas of society, like promoting the dignity of the merchant class, once considered dirty. Moreover, once they communicated the need for reformation, thousands saw the same need and gradually followed their leaders. The key is to win over the vast middle of the religious spectrum.

According to the radicals in Islamic countries, reform is needed, yes, but in a radical direction. Thus, they see a need that opposes modernist reforms. However, the reformers of Christianity teach us that a battle was (and is) onging for the minds of the people, and they succeeded in winning countless converts. So if modernist Islamic reformers use religion wisely, they can bring the ordinary citizen over to the moderate side. Fortunately, reformers in the past like Muhammad Iqbal (1875—1938) have provided a worthy precedent for a moderate interpretation of the Qur'an and Hadith.

2. Cooperating with political leaders: Though the Reformation broke with many political leaders (notably Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire and Francis I of France), it still needed the right ones. Luther depended heavily on Duke Frederick of Saxony, and Ulrich Zwingli (1484—1531) cooperated with less—famous city leaders in Zurich. The leaders provided them with protection and clout, but the reformers did not base their doctrines and reforms on the whims and ideas of the leaders. There was, though, a symbiosis.

Some political leaders in Islamic lands see the need for reform (e.g. Musharraf in Pakistan and Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, so said President Bush), but they are frightened of the radicals (two assassination attempts on Musharraf and bombings in Saudi Arabia). This is the perfect opportunity for the moderates to select leaders with whom they can cooperate. This is especially true in Iraq.

However, the Sixteenth Century reformers never let nationalism become excessive. The ultimate, true goal of reform is always spiritual. People's hearts must be reformed before government can be. The two are not identical. Since Islam is intended to cover all of society (and that intention will not be negotiated away, it seems), reformers can at least start with people's hearts. One cannot impose holiness; change begins on the inside, and only then will the outside (society) change.

3. Starting small: When a pebble is thrown in a pond, waves ripple out from the epicenter. Calvin set up a home base in Geneva (the epicenter), and he welcomed many visitors from all over Europe, who then spread his ideas back to their home (the ripples). The President was right:  Reform begins slowly and gains momentum over many years.

The news media in the US, Europe, and in the Middle East (al—Jazeera) have not allowed enough time for the reforms to take root in Iraq (perhaps the epicenter). The goal is to see similar reforms spread in other Middle Eastern countries (perhaps the ripples) over the next several decades and even into the 22nd Century.

4. Avoiding infighting: Not everything about the Reformation was positive. Zwingli and Luther held a sharp debate over the meaning of the Eucharist, the supreme ritual of unity. Reformers also persecuted and killed the breakaway Anabaptists, so the overall message of the Reformation was diluted and misdirected. More cooperation and unity among living humans goes much farther than 100% doctrinal purity. The reformers agreed more often on the essentials, and in unity they were never more influential.

Islamic reform today must above all avoid the mistake of infighting among its leaders. Islam honors Jesus, and he said, 'A house divided against itself cannot stand.' When moderate Shi'ite and Sunni leaders unite, they can more easily resist the radicals and teach all Muslims the milder way because, again, no one group can impose doctrinal conformity and personal holiness on members of their own group, let alone society.

5. Avoiding careless language: Too often, past Christian reformers referred to the Pope as the Antichrist. This irrational obsession hurt their cause terribly. In the same way, it is important for Islamic reformers to avoid a similar trap: irrational obsession over Israel and larger—than—life metaphysical 'Zionism.' It is better to redirect all energy to solving problems in individual Islamic nations and not to expend it on useless name—calling, like equating Israel with Satan.

6. Breathing economic freedom: Regardless of the debate over the details of economic ideas that the reformers espoused, two things are clear: (A) The Protestant work ethic spread all over reformed Europe, which gradually led to prosperity in later centuries; (B) this work ethic traveled across the Atlantic into early America, where citizens engaged in entrepreneurship and free—market capitalism with minimal taxes. America has largely stayed this course and has prospered.

Per contra, many nations in the Arab world and beyond have dabbled in and experimented with socialist European hierarchies and policies (the Baath Party in Iraq was socialist, and Saddam admired Stalin). It is time to throw off these older ways and to open new markets and perhaps other political ideologies. Colonialism is a negative in the past, but globalization is a positive for the future, as we see in secular China. There is nothing immoral or irreligious or exclusively American (and hence evil) in adding other exports to oil, such as manufactured and agricultural products. We can hope that Islamic reformers today do not tilt so far to the left that they refuse to endorse global free markets and new epicenters of economic and political growth.

7. Avoiding religious wars: The aftermath of the Reformation sank to absurd depths in the Thirty Years War (1618—48), during which Protestants killed Catholics and other Protestants, and Catholics killed Protestants and other Catholics —— a free—for—all. Exhausted, Europe moved into the Enlightenment, which the church has been trying to understand and reconcile with dogma for nearly four hundred years now. The Enlightenment brought skepticism, yes, but it also brought tolerance. Thankfully, many segments of the church in America and elsewhere thus have learned to behave themselves and no longer to persecute or kill one another and unbelievers over doctrine and faith. Protestants and Catholics, fundamentalists and liberals, the Religious Right and the Religious Left can now disagree without violence.

Since religion permeates all of life in Islamic civilization (as it did in Europe in the late Medieval Age when the Reformation began), it is easy to fall into the temptation of religious war. However, unlike the Christian reformers, the present Islamic reformers must realize that no one group within any religion can claim total and pure understanding of the sacred texts. Therefore, it is safer to err on the side of tolerance than rigidity which may lead to violence. The trick is to teach this message to the average citizens, so they will join the moderates.

It is heartening to see Iraqis saying no to radicals like Muqtada al—Sadr, the radical Shi'ite cleric. Also, the Iraqis have largely ignored Jordanian terrorist al—Zarqawi's call for civil war (Sunni v. Shi'ite). Thus, despite the news reports, 24+ million Iraqis welcome the reforms that will lead their nation into the 21st century. It is to these millions the moderates must appeal. There is no need to radicalize Islam in order for it to embrace all of society. People can be holy and pious without being harsh and violent; moreover peaceful Islam does not need to be marginalized to reform a society —— a marginalization that the devout and the radical fear, as happened in Turkey.

8. Learning at Home: The earlier reformers enjoyed a high reputation in the church before they began their reforms: Luther had a doctorate in theology from his own region, and Calvin had a degree in law from a college in Paris.

Islamic reformers often get their education in the West, and this does sit well with the conservatives in the ulama (the religious guardians of the 'right' interpretation of the Qur'an and the Hadith), since they are all too quick to judge Western ideas as 'enemies of Islam.' Thus, as impossible as it may seem, more moderate reformers must emerge from the ulama, like Muhammad Abduh (1849—1905) in Egypt. His success was not as widespread as one would hope, leaving much more work to be done today. Thus, gradually control must be won for moderation over the madrassas, schools of learning; it is here where moderate reform must concentrate.

9. Overcoming a high obstacle: The Christian reformers called people back to the Bible because church tradition had been encrusted over it. In this regard the Reformation was conservative. Unfortunately, modernist Islamic reformers have to move the conservatives in the opposite direction with 'new—fangled' interpretations of the Qur'an, and with adopting and adapting Western notions, which are often viewed as Satanic.

If there is an insurmountable obstacle to reforming radical Islam and the wider society, this is it.

However, Christian reformers were also quick to adopt and adapt 'New Learning,' even though it bothered the traditionalists, since it entailed some skepticism of the old way of scholarship. So these obstacles can be overcome. The Christian Reformation was both a conservative movement (in doctrine) and a 'liberal' movement (in new ideas).

Islam in the Middle Ages had a proud tradition of intellectual advancements, so they can use this tradition without any violation of piety (see 'The True Source of Islamic Terrorism,' June 9, 2004, for a survey).

10. Peacefully combine a religious society and an enlightened society: Finally, in the early US, itself a direct product of the Reformation and the Enlightenment, religion and new ideas blended without much trouble for the government or citizens. Revivals swept through the colonies and the early Republic, all the way through the Nineteenth Century. It may come as a shock to the average Muslim in the greater Middle East who watches MTV or the commercials on CNN that America is still deeply religious, unlike Europe. Today many mega—churches dot the landscape, and countless smaller ones are everywhere. 

Yet, Thomas Paine, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and others, while respecting religion, saw the need for the Enlightenment ideas coming over from Europe. The religious wars in Europe opened their eyes to the new ideas, and the science that the Enlightenment produced was too enticing to ignore.

Islam in the Medieval Age underwent a parallel trend: Muslims accepted early science and technology, and, indeed, they led the way past Europe, but did not lose their piety. More recently, Muhammad Abduh believed there was no contradiction between religion and science. It did not pose a threat to piety back then, so why should it today? Thus, the Enlightenment and religion can peacefully co—exist without violence.

In an earlier essay I argued that we must eliminate all violent fanatics to deter future ones. However, along with that prophylaxis, the long—range solution is to work with, support (even financially), and open a dialogue with the Islamic moderates. I have written from a Protestant point of view, but that does not imply that we have nothing to learn from Islam because Islamic reformers are re—emerging now. The Christian Reformation occurred long before the present reforms in Islamic civilizations, so all can learn from the successes and mistakes of the earlier reformers, even of other religions.

James Arlandson, Ph.D., teaches introductory philosophy and world religions at a college in southern California. He has published a book, Women, Class and Society (Hendrickson, 1997).

In a recent press conference on June 10, 2004, as he was leaving the G8 summit in Georgia, President Bush said that reform in the Middle East is not easy and will take time. He also pointed out that each nation in the Middle East would look different culturally and politically from the US, as the reforms progress. He was talking mostly about political and economic reforms. However, since Islam embraces all of society, it would be instructive to examine another reform that embraced all of society.

In order to promote peaceful East—West relations and to engage in open Christian—Muslim dialogue —— and not to look down on one culture or religion —— we can learn a lot from the Christian Reformation that gained momentum in the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries in Europe and culminated in the founding of America in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries. The Christian reformers enjoyed success, but they also made terrible mistakes. No religion is exempt from the fatal flaw: humans. Therefore, we must not ignore their story and the lessons of the past as we observe the monumental Islamic reforms inching along (and sometimes regressing) now in the Middle East, especially in Iraq. Some lessons transcend time and culture.

1. Seeing a need: Early reformers like John Wycliffe (c. 1329—1384) and Jan Hus (1373—1414) and later reformers like Martin Luther (1483—1546) and John Calvin (1509—1564) perceived a great need to reform both the church at first, and then areas of society, like promoting the dignity of the merchant class, once considered dirty. Moreover, once they communicated the need for reformation, thousands saw the same need and gradually followed their leaders. The key is to win over the vast middle of the religious spectrum.

According to the radicals in Islamic countries, reform is needed, yes, but in a radical direction. Thus, they see a need that opposes modernist reforms. However, the reformers of Christianity teach us that a battle was (and is) onging for the minds of the people, and they succeeded in winning countless converts. So if modernist Islamic reformers use religion wisely, they can bring the ordinary citizen over to the moderate side. Fortunately, reformers in the past like Muhammad Iqbal (1875—1938) have provided a worthy precedent for a moderate interpretation of the Qur'an and Hadith.

2. Cooperating with political leaders: Though the Reformation broke with many political leaders (notably Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire and Francis I of France), it still needed the right ones. Luther depended heavily on Duke Frederick of Saxony, and Ulrich Zwingli (1484—1531) cooperated with less—famous city leaders in Zurich. The leaders provided them with protection and clout, but the reformers did not base their doctrines and reforms on the whims and ideas of the leaders. There was, though, a symbiosis.

Some political leaders in Islamic lands see the need for reform (e.g. Musharraf in Pakistan and Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, so said President Bush), but they are frightened of the radicals (two assassination attempts on Musharraf and bombings in Saudi Arabia). This is the perfect opportunity for the moderates to select leaders with whom they can cooperate. This is especially true in Iraq.

However, the Sixteenth Century reformers never let nationalism become excessive. The ultimate, true goal of reform is always spiritual. People's hearts must be reformed before government can be. The two are not identical. Since Islam is intended to cover all of society (and that intention will not be negotiated away, it seems), reformers can at least start with people's hearts. One cannot impose holiness; change begins on the inside, and only then will the outside (society) change.

3. Starting small: When a pebble is thrown in a pond, waves ripple out from the epicenter. Calvin set up a home base in Geneva (the epicenter), and he welcomed many visitors from all over Europe, who then spread his ideas back to their home (the ripples). The President was right:  Reform begins slowly and gains momentum over many years.

The news media in the US, Europe, and in the Middle East (al—Jazeera) have not allowed enough time for the reforms to take root in Iraq (perhaps the epicenter). The goal is to see similar reforms spread in other Middle Eastern countries (perhaps the ripples) over the next several decades and even into the 22nd Century.

4. Avoiding infighting: Not everything about the Reformation was positive. Zwingli and Luther held a sharp debate over the meaning of the Eucharist, the supreme ritual of unity. Reformers also persecuted and killed the breakaway Anabaptists, so the overall message of the Reformation was diluted and misdirected. More cooperation and unity among living humans goes much farther than 100% doctrinal purity. The reformers agreed more often on the essentials, and in unity they were never more influential.

Islamic reform today must above all avoid the mistake of infighting among its leaders. Islam honors Jesus, and he said, 'A house divided against itself cannot stand.' When moderate Shi'ite and Sunni leaders unite, they can more easily resist the radicals and teach all Muslims the milder way because, again, no one group can impose doctrinal conformity and personal holiness on members of their own group, let alone society.

5. Avoiding careless language: Too often, past Christian reformers referred to the Pope as the Antichrist. This irrational obsession hurt their cause terribly. In the same way, it is important for Islamic reformers to avoid a similar trap: irrational obsession over Israel and larger—than—life metaphysical 'Zionism.' It is better to redirect all energy to solving problems in individual Islamic nations and not to expend it on useless name—calling, like equating Israel with Satan.

6. Breathing economic freedom: Regardless of the debate over the details of economic ideas that the reformers espoused, two things are clear: (A) The Protestant work ethic spread all over reformed Europe, which gradually led to prosperity in later centuries; (B) this work ethic traveled across the Atlantic into early America, where citizens engaged in entrepreneurship and free—market capitalism with minimal taxes. America has largely stayed this course and has prospered.

Per contra, many nations in the Arab world and beyond have dabbled in and experimented with socialist European hierarchies and policies (the Baath Party in Iraq was socialist, and Saddam admired Stalin). It is time to throw off these older ways and to open new markets and perhaps other political ideologies. Colonialism is a negative in the past, but globalization is a positive for the future, as we see in secular China. There is nothing immoral or irreligious or exclusively American (and hence evil) in adding other exports to oil, such as manufactured and agricultural products. We can hope that Islamic reformers today do not tilt so far to the left that they refuse to endorse global free markets and new epicenters of economic and political growth.

7. Avoiding religious wars: The aftermath of the Reformation sank to absurd depths in the Thirty Years War (1618—48), during which Protestants killed Catholics and other Protestants, and Catholics killed Protestants and other Catholics —— a free—for—all. Exhausted, Europe moved into the Enlightenment, which the church has been trying to understand and reconcile with dogma for nearly four hundred years now. The Enlightenment brought skepticism, yes, but it also brought tolerance. Thankfully, many segments of the church in America and elsewhere thus have learned to behave themselves and no longer to persecute or kill one another and unbelievers over doctrine and faith. Protestants and Catholics, fundamentalists and liberals, the Religious Right and the Religious Left can now disagree without violence.

Since religion permeates all of life in Islamic civilization (as it did in Europe in the late Medieval Age when the Reformation began), it is easy to fall into the temptation of religious war. However, unlike the Christian reformers, the present Islamic reformers must realize that no one group within any religion can claim total and pure understanding of the sacred texts. Therefore, it is safer to err on the side of tolerance than rigidity which may lead to violence. The trick is to teach this message to the average citizens, so they will join the moderates.

It is heartening to see Iraqis saying no to radicals like Muqtada al—Sadr, the radical Shi'ite cleric. Also, the Iraqis have largely ignored Jordanian terrorist al—Zarqawi's call for civil war (Sunni v. Shi'ite). Thus, despite the news reports, 24+ million Iraqis welcome the reforms that will lead their nation into the 21st century. It is to these millions the moderates must appeal. There is no need to radicalize Islam in order for it to embrace all of society. People can be holy and pious without being harsh and violent; moreover peaceful Islam does not need to be marginalized to reform a society —— a marginalization that the devout and the radical fear, as happened in Turkey.

8. Learning at Home: The earlier reformers enjoyed a high reputation in the church before they began their reforms: Luther had a doctorate in theology from his own region, and Calvin had a degree in law from a college in Paris.

Islamic reformers often get their education in the West, and this does sit well with the conservatives in the ulama (the religious guardians of the 'right' interpretation of the Qur'an and the Hadith), since they are all too quick to judge Western ideas as 'enemies of Islam.' Thus, as impossible as it may seem, more moderate reformers must emerge from the ulama, like Muhammad Abduh (1849—1905) in Egypt. His success was not as widespread as one would hope, leaving much more work to be done today. Thus, gradually control must be won for moderation over the madrassas, schools of learning; it is here where moderate reform must concentrate.

9. Overcoming a high obstacle: The Christian reformers called people back to the Bible because church tradition had been encrusted over it. In this regard the Reformation was conservative. Unfortunately, modernist Islamic reformers have to move the conservatives in the opposite direction with 'new—fangled' interpretations of the Qur'an, and with adopting and adapting Western notions, which are often viewed as Satanic.

If there is an insurmountable obstacle to reforming radical Islam and the wider society, this is it.

However, Christian reformers were also quick to adopt and adapt 'New Learning,' even though it bothered the traditionalists, since it entailed some skepticism of the old way of scholarship. So these obstacles can be overcome. The Christian Reformation was both a conservative movement (in doctrine) and a 'liberal' movement (in new ideas).

Islam in the Middle Ages had a proud tradition of intellectual advancements, so they can use this tradition without any violation of piety (see 'The True Source of Islamic Terrorism,' June 9, 2004, for a survey).

10. Peacefully combine a religious society and an enlightened society: Finally, in the early US, itself a direct product of the Reformation and the Enlightenment, religion and new ideas blended without much trouble for the government or citizens. Revivals swept through the colonies and the early Republic, all the way through the Nineteenth Century. It may come as a shock to the average Muslim in the greater Middle East who watches MTV or the commercials on CNN that America is still deeply religious, unlike Europe. Today many mega—churches dot the landscape, and countless smaller ones are everywhere. 

Yet, Thomas Paine, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and others, while respecting religion, saw the need for the Enlightenment ideas coming over from Europe. The religious wars in Europe opened their eyes to the new ideas, and the science that the Enlightenment produced was too enticing to ignore.

Islam in the Medieval Age underwent a parallel trend: Muslims accepted early science and technology, and, indeed, they led the way past Europe, but did not lose their piety. More recently, Muhammad Abduh believed there was no contradiction between religion and science. It did not pose a threat to piety back then, so why should it today? Thus, the Enlightenment and religion can peacefully co—exist without violence.

In an earlier essay I argued that we must eliminate all violent fanatics to deter future ones. However, along with that prophylaxis, the long—range solution is to work with, support (even financially), and open a dialogue with the Islamic moderates. I have written from a Protestant point of view, but that does not imply that we have nothing to learn from Islam because Islamic reformers are re—emerging now. The Christian Reformation occurred long before the present reforms in Islamic civilizations, so all can learn from the successes and mistakes of the earlier reformers, even of other religions.

James Arlandson, Ph.D., teaches introductory philosophy and world religions at a college in southern California. He has published a book, Women, Class and Society (Hendrickson, 1997).