Roaming for Reformations in the Middle East: Can or Should Islam Today Follow the Trajectory of the West?

Roaming for Reformations in the Middle East: Can or Should Islam Today Follow the Trajectory of the West?

Many are the scholars and pundits who have raised the clarion call for a Reformation in the Arab and Islamic worlds.1 According to this popular paradigm, the European Reformation is held out as a talisman with which the ugly specter of fundamentalism is to be exorcised, leading an entire region onto the primrose path of enlightened modernity. This preoccupation with an Eastern emulation of the European pre-modern precedent boasts a long legacy, having propelled the imagination of Bostonian missionaries setting sail to the Middle East at the very moment that reform-minded Muslim sheikhs and Arab intellectuals pondered the same prospect of a Reformation in 19th century Cairo and Beirut. The soundness of this recurring historical comparison with pre-modern Europe, and the potential consequences an emulation of the European Reformation might entail for the Middle East, warrant a closer (re) examination.

Besides the obvious, vast gulf in time and historical context, the most basic caveat to be raised against any facile analogy drawn between 16th century Europe and the contemporary Middle East may almost seem too trite to bear mention: Islam, despite the many and important affinities with its sister faith, did not arise as a carbon copy of Christianity, neither theologically nor historically. Simply put, a religion that was originally established in deliberate detachment from political power originates from a different set of parameters than a faith that first compromised with, and then seized the reigns of, central power.

This, to be sure, is not to pass judgment on the overall meanderings and mutations of these vast, multifarious confessions across history. As historian Arnold Toynbee trenchantly put it, in the fourth century, Christianity transmuted from a religion “persecuted in the name of Christ to a religion persecuting in the name of Christ” after Constantine’s dubious conversion before the (in)famous battle of the Milvian Bridge. The curious change of heart of the imperial warlord smacks of opportunism even today but has not deterred despots of all ages to duly follow his example and exploit the opium of the masses to their own ends.

As for Islamdom, its bright periods of relative tolerance and convivencia – even if set against a medieval, discriminatory and hierarchical social order – summa summarum appear in a somewhat favorable light when compared with the long list of inquisitions, heinous pogroms and witchhunts that marred medieval and pre-modern Christendom.

This, however, should not lead us to view oriental history through a rose-tinted prism. Reactionary and liberal purveyors alike have been wont to make the blanket assertion that Islam admits of “no clergy” and that the faith from its inception putatively contained an in-built religious egalitarianism and the seeds of individualism – a claim that is just as often belied by the stubborn and distinct presence of quasi priestly religious castes, in every Muslim country and age, and the persistent persecution of “heterodox” scholars and liberal laymen down to the modern age. When Azhar scholar Abdel Razeq tried to make a case for the separation of religion and state in 1925 in Egypt, he was promptly demoted from his judgeship by the Azhar establishment and was forced to recant. A similar fate would befall Taha Hussein, the great novelist, when he probed for the literary roots of the Quran. Likewise, the Syrian intellectual Sadeq Jalal al-Azm was expelled from the American University of Beirut in 1969 for venturing to write a critical examination of Islam just as another reformist, Nasr Hamid Abu Zeid, was forcibly divorced from his wife for having engaged in an idiosyncratic exegesis of the holy text.2 The Muslim secularists were perhaps dealt a most lethal blow after the assassination of the Egyptian secularist pundit Farag Fuda in 1992, an act that was blessed in court not by a fundamentalist, but by the ostensibly liberal Sheikh Muhammad al-Ghazzali, who openly argued that it was incumbent on any Muslim to kill an apostate if the state failed to assume its divinely ordained mandate.3 Nor has the shadow of terror cast by this gruesome precedent disappeared in the present day. Just two years ago, Sayyid al-Qimni, another well-known Egyptian reformist writer on Islam, was forced by a vigilante fundamentalist group to disavow his entire life oeuvre. Qimni defended his taking a public vow of silence as a measure to diffuse the death threats to him and his family. Even in Lebanon, the historical lighthouse of Arab liberalism, a seemingly innocuous letter imploring God to halt the impending American war in Iraq, or a TV spoof of the revered Hassan Nasrallah, were quick to elicit popular pandemonium and legal prosecutions on grounds of defamation. Only in rare instances did the respective regimes bend the existing legislation against heresy to come out in defense of freedom of speech, a rare commodity in the Middle East, and virtually inexistent when it comes to the most sensitive of issues, religion.

Thus, while it is patently evident that the institution of the Catholic Church finds no direct parallel in Islamic states, the latter need no tutorial lessons as regards their capacity to manipulate religious discourse to suit their own ends. This was true in the Middle Ages and remains so today, when every Arab state save for Lebanon is – constitutionally – an “Islamic” one. Case in point is Egypt, where the sharia provides the principal source of legislation ever since “born-again” President Anwar Sadat’s (mis)calculated amendment to the constitution in 1971. Personal Status laws remain under the grip of variations of ossified Islamic law save in Turkey and Tunisia, and yet in these latter nations too, civil legislation has not been devoid of administrative biases that favor certain communal sects and (male) genders over others. In no Arab country can a Muslim publicly or legally renounce his inherited faith. In post- Reformation Europe one could, provided one moved to another state.

In fact, the contemporary Islamic world’s circumscribed extent of freedoms of faith corresponds to that which prevailed in Europe up to the 19th century. The unabatedly allergic reactions to critiques and even puerile mockeries of Islam are reminiscent of the public hysteria after, say, Ernest Rénan’s or David Strauss’ once scandalous denials of the divinity of Christ in the 19th century. Just a century and a half ago, the streets of Paris and Zurich were as riled up, the shrill echoes of auto de fe clamor as audible in reaction to ostensible defamations of Jesus then, as they were in Beirut, Damascus, Cairo and Karachi in the aftermath of the much-hyped denigration of Muhammad by Danish cartoons in 2005. Yet even in terms of broader political constellations that mark today’s Middle East, the parallels one could draw to premodern Europe are indeed enticing: Famously, the turmoil of the “Age of the Reformation” began with a revolt, the “protest” of the alienated German principalities against the suzerainty of the global empire of the time, namely, the Holy Roman Empire, which at that point was led by an aloof, Spanish-speaking Hapsburg.

Today’s armchair warlords in Washington, D.C. may wish to gainsay any imperialist pretensions, but even when they do they often succumb to a sanctimonious tone rendering the “holiness” of the ideals professed and the policies practiced subject to doubts on a par with those faced by Emperor Charles V during his rule from 1519-1556 of a Hapsburg Empire that had just reached its apogee and was – sound familiar? – indulging in an excessively costly, self-destructive militarization and falling prey to the corrosive forces of commercial corruption and unchecked financial monopolization. The incestuous role of the Welsers and the Fuggers as financiers of kings and profiteers of the war booty in the pre-modern trial-run of “globalization” very much mirrors the mutual backscratching institutionalized between the likes of Carlyle, Bechtel, Halliburton or Goldman Sachs and the U.S. government today.

One may also recall that the Germano- Spanish crown, not unlike the Anglo- American forces at present, strove to quell faraway, unruly but resource-rich principalities by imposing a new order by force and fiat. After three decades of conflict, the Holy Empire managed to subdue most opposition by the time the Peace of Augsburg was struck in 1555, though many pockets of die-hard Protestant resistance remained sprinkled on the map. It was a tenuous situation only superficially better than the abyss of anarchy looming in contemporary Iraq or Afghanistan after a similar initial truce.

It was at the Peace of Augsburg too – even before the Peace of Westphalia – that the mantra of the new European order was first annunciated: cuius regio, eius religio, “to each region its religion.” Fast-forwarding to today, one can observe how the Middle East has in the space of the past century moved from a multiethnic and multireligious tapestry to one increasingly defined by homogeneous nation-states in which minorities are under siege, whether they be the Christians and Muslims in Israel, the Alevis in Turkey, the Copts in Egypt, Iraqi Chaldeans or indeed the few remaining numbers of Sephardic Jews spread throughout the region, most numerously in Iran, the next fatal destination on the Israeli-driven war-agenda of the neoconservatives. Not unlike the fratricidal partition of India and Pakistan, or the countless “peace proposals” presented since 1947 in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the slogan of cuius regio was not meant to safeguard peace and stability through gradual integration, but rather by dint of a coerced segregation of the different religious communities at loggerheads with one another. Consonant with this underlying logic, Leslie Gelb and Peter Galbraith’s vision of a tripartite Kurdish, Sunni and Shia Iraq at the onset of the American (mis)adventure is unfolding before our eyes in an eerie inferno of ethnic and sectarian cleansings.4 Perhaps these are but the “birth pangs of a new Middle East” that were touted by U.S. Secretary of Condoleeza Rice in 2006 when she paid her own peculiar form of “condolence” to the Lebanese children ripped apart by a fresh supply of cluster bombs rushed to Israel by the United States.

It is not without reason that many humanists and pacifists of all ages and denominations – from Erasmus of Rotterdam and the Mennonites, to Badshah Khan, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Buber, Eqbal Ahmed, Edward Said, Yehudi Menuhin, Israel Shakak and Ilan Pappe – deplored this communalist scourge and savagely parochial “order” that, alas, fueled the world wars. The tribal-sectarian roots of nationalism may have been (partly) forgotten in Europe, but they are only about to sprout farther East today, potently fertilized by an (over)dose of confessional chauvinisms. Today’s Middle East may serve as the main, though not exclusive, theater for a foreboding reenactment of the War of Religions that swept over Europe after the Reformation.

Hence, it remains an open question whether a replication of the Reformation is desirable, particularly since its core components as a historical movement have not been fully analyzed with regard to their potential implications for the Middle East.

For one, despite its manifold political and economic ramifications, which shall be addressed shortly, the Reformation was to a large extent spurred by a cultural revolution, the impulse of which was not necessarily as “progressive” as is sometimes assumed. Those who take Luther and Calvin as (inadvertent) precursors of individualism, pluralism, capitalism, nationalism and secular democracy are not entirely off the track, but they forget that the men’s basic premise and promise was theological: an ad fontes, “back to the roots” return to the original text. At times the latter could underscore the pacifism of the Gospels, but in other instances, a more lethal literalism was part of the fallout as well, thus mirroring the cornerstone of the Salafi-reactionary trends in the Islamic world today, and, one hastens to add, shedding light on some of the bizarre theologies and bellicose rhetoric of the Salafis’ “evangelical” sister souls back in the USA. To be sure, the so-called Christian Right’s unabashed predilection for Jews over Arabs would have met the disdain of the founding fathers Luther, Zwingli and Calvin who, after all, strictly reserved the notion of the “elect chosen people” for their own confessional community and were completely unbiased in their bigotry against heretics, be they Saracen, Jew, Papist or infidel.

In the end, however, the advertised loyalty to sola scriptura literalism ran up against its limits. Strict scripturalism and lofty ethical precepts were soon mediated and compromised by political exigencies. Thus, the reformers, conveniently ignoring the categorical rejection of rapaciousness and violence dictated by Jesus, quickly seized public funds and resources and mercilessly crushed the religious pacifists and idealists. Eventually a rather mundane pragmatism was to win the day; peaceniks and utopian knight-errants fared no better than today, probably worse.

To be sure, those who have scanned the horizon for a “Middle Eastern Luther” in the present day have selected to attach this “honorific” epithet to genteel, soft-spoken “moderates” such as the Iranian intellectual Abdulkarim Soroush; the immensely popular, sweet-talking, suit-clad Egyptian TV-“Qurangelist” Amr Khaled; the silvertongued American convert preacher Hamza Yusuf; or the polyglot grandson of the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, Tariq Ramadan, to name but a few. Juxtapose these suave seducers with the raw, bucolic vociferousness of a Martin Luther, or the icy sternness of a Calvin, and the differences seem stark. Then again, perhaps the European, pre-modern peddlers of a new brand of piety simply had to rely on their imposing, at times terrifying, personalities to effectively disseminate their message, whereas the visual aesthetics of modern media seems to induce even radical preachers to espouse a more polished, amiable image in their public relations.

Ironically, Martin Luther was at first dismissed as a “pinprick” by the haughty Pontifex Maximus, Pope Clement VII. Perhaps then, Osama bin Laden himself might make a better candidate as a Muslim reformer considering that the potential danger emanating from this renegade on the margins was also originally belittled by an overly confident Zbigniew Brezinski in 1989.5Luther and Bin Laden both also ran on anti-corruption campaigns against the powers that be, called for a radical return to holy scriptures, and galvanized their acolytes against the decadence and hypocrisy of the fattened kings who held sway over the religious capitals in Rome and Mecca respectively.

Yet beyond these visceral insurrections stirred by hurt nationalist pride and bold religious reinterpretations, it is well to recall that the broader Zeitgeist of the Reformation was also characterized by the budding, sanguine hope that commercial common sense would in no way ruffle the dictates of a “Christian conscience.” Whether this reconciliation of mammon and God can be taken as an auspicious harbinger of moderation is no less clear today than it was then. Judging from the assets and economic activities of the current guard of holy warriors in Washington and Tel Aviv, and in light of the fortunes amassed by some of the more militant-minded “Green capitalists” from the Gulf to Turkey and Indonesia, windfall profits need not automatically douse the flames of fundamentalism, whether it be Muslim, Christian or Jewish in garb and rhetoric.

This is not to deny that the gushing oil-revenue may indeed cement many a cross-civilizational tie. A brief glance of the annals of history East and West will readily confirm that even the seemingly most invincible barriers of personal creed – and the lowest of ethical inhibitions – are bound to dissipate when confronted by the great, magical solvent of capital. Nowhere perhaps is this made clearer in the present day than in Dubai, a global souk in which Christian, Jewish, Hindu and Muslim businessmen can well afford to blithely disregard all prejudice in pursuit of their mutually enriching investments.

Likewise, during the Iran-Contra scandal, the world was provided with a veritable spectacle of “interreligious dialogue and cooperation” when Israeli weapons merchants cooperated with their Wahhabi- Saudi brethren to deliver arms to Shia Iran.6 Proof that even the two great, seemingly eternally antagonistic poles of U.S. foreign policy in the region, Israeli Zionism and Arab oil, can overcome their ostensibly perpetual mutual animosity and close deals provided the Parisian restaurant is capable of satisfying the no doubt demanding appetites of the “Prince of Darkness” Richard Perle and the uncrowned King of Arab arms-merchants, Adnan Khashoggi.7 The latter, in a poetic moment inspired by Rudyard Kipling, once immortalized the elixir of his sublimely mundane life-motto thus: “East is east and West is West and wherever and whenever the two meet a bonus (umla) lies waiting for me.” Khashoggi was echoed by former Texan Senator Phil Gramm in a speech delivered before Zurich’s banking elite: “There are two things people want in life: To love and to make money. Now we do not find the command to ‘love money’ in the Bible, but perhaps we ought to.” Such counsel was no doubt music to the ears of the assembled “Gnomes of Zurich.” It was after all in this quaint town that Zwingli, in tandem with Calvin in Geneva, first offered a coherent religious defense of interest-taking, weighty words that dealt the death knell to Catholic feudalism and paved the way for the capitalism of the Northern German principalities and city states that took over from the former heartlands of Italy and Spain by the 17th century. Refining Weber’s familiar thesis, the great historian Richard Tawney, in his seminal Religion and the Rise of Capitalism, further traced the route of this same spirit of capitalism as it moved to the United States via the Pietists.8

The Middle East, to be sure, did not have to await the last, American wave of globalization to learn the tricks of trade. Many of our current-day business vocabulary – including tariff (Ar. ta’arif ) or broker (from baraka, “blessing”) – derive from Arabic. It is not for nothing that the first letters of credit appear in the Sassanid Empire as early as the third century, while the first documented “check” (from the Arabic Saqq) is exposed in Rome, issued by the eighth century Abbasid court. The newly converted Muslims excelled at contriving myriad “wily ways” (Arab. hiyal) to circumvent the unequivocal scriptural prohibition of interest centuries before Calvin followed suit.9 In fact, at the very time Calvin was formulating his “Christian” justification for interest, a contemporary Ottoman grand vizier advised the sultan “to give up [regal] vanity and superfluous spending in order to accumulate wealth.”10 This rise of a sober bureaucratic mindset of public utility in the Ottoman Empire bears a striking resemblance to Calvinistic utilitarianism and its tenets of virtuous frugality. Just as interest was being condoned with icy logic by the French-born jurisprudent, the Ottoman Empire’s supreme legal authority, Shaykh ul-Islam Ebuusuud Efendi, was brushing aside the traditional prohibitions of riba and usurious cash endowments.11 The Ottomans and Europe were riding the wave of global capitalism and commerce, which spurred a theological accommodation to the exigencies of the time.12

Does this imply that an Oriental reformation is entirely redundant as some Islamists and Muslim intellectuals have been eager to argue? Does not the entire region, with or without a commensurate reform of religious discourse, seem to be moving, inexorably, toward higher literacy rates and intensified and expanded forms of capitalism?

And are these not the central pillars of modernity?

Such premature jubilation should be restrained by a word of caution. For the contemporary Middle East also shares premodern Europe’s proliferation of millenarian movements led by charismatic leaders. One thinks of the likes of Muqtada al-Sadr in Iraq, who, not unlike Thomas Muentzer, placed a firm if frenzied faith in the divine mission of the cleansing sword. Such religious revivalism is only spurred by social chasms that might widen even as a society develops economically. We are, then, confronted with a seemingly paradoxical, Janus-faced scene in which communalist and trans-communal sentiments, reformism and reactionism are on the rise, simultaneously.

In sum, to pin one’s hopes for a speedy regional remedy on a blind emulation of the European Reformation, or the Western trajectory as a whole, remains an enterprise fraught with danger. No slogan, no watchword can be waved over the multiple crises besetting the Middle East, least of all the double-edged sword that the Reformation represents. Rather, for the more salutary features of liberal democracy and pluralistic secularism to take root in the Middle East, a reorientation of socio-economic and ideological-religious policies is requisite. Texts and beliefs must neither be “revived” as the reformers and reactionaries advocate, nor extirpated as the iconoclast Jacobins continue to dream, but simply opened to unconditional critique and rational inquiry. If one lesson is to be learned and preserved, in East and West alike, then it is that there can be no genuine personal faith of any value, and no individual dignity at that, without the guarantee for the express right to doubt and disbelieve. “Let there be no compulsion in religion, for the right way is clearly distinguished from the wrong way.” (Quran, 2:256) The prevailing censorship across the region in this respect is thus a sign of weakness from a political perspective, and a sign of feeble faith in the ubiquity and power of truth, from a religious viewpoint. For showcased piety and nihilistic ideologies to be debunked by a measure of healthy suspicion, greater self-confidence must be attained. In this latter regard, the Western powers can contribute their share to ease prevailing phobias and mistrust by discarding all policies biased in favor of this or that ethnic identity or religious community, and by foreswearing any (neo)colonial adventure. After all, do the latent and open ethnic chauvinisms in East and West, and the frantic – at times brutal – bid for power and resources, whether under the guise of secular neo-liberalism or Islamic, Christian or Jewish fundamentalism, not feed and foment each other?

Ultimately, then, reform, to effect change, must begin at home.

Mark Farha is an Assistant Professor of Government at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service in Qatar.

End Notes

1 The best panoramic overview of this literature is given by: “Comparing Reformations” in An Islamic Reformation? Eds. Michaelle Browers and Charles Kurzman, (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2004) 1-17. Robin Wright, “Islam and Liberal Democracy: Two Visions Of Reformation,” Journal of Democracy 7.2 (1996) 64-75. Abdou Filali-Ansary, “Islam and Liberal Democracy: The Challenge Of Secularization,” Journal of Democracy 7.2 (1996) 76-80. Abdelwahab El-Affendi, “What is liberal Islam? The Elusive Reformation,” Journal of Democracy, 14.2 (2003) 34-39.

2 The Sunni Mufti of Lebanon’s Dar al-Fatwa had filed a suit against al-Azm, accusing the latter of religious defamation in his book Fi Naqd al-Fikr al-Dini (On Religious Criticism). After the intercession of Kamal Janbulat and a coterie of prominent lawyers, al-Azm was eventually exonerated. The court proceedings can be found in the annex to al-Azm’s book, Fi Naqd al-Fikr al- Dini, Dār al-Talia, Beirut, (1969) 246ff. For al-Azm’s analysis of the current Middle Eastern malaise, see Sadik J. Al-Azm, “Time Out of Joint: Western dominance, Islamist terror, and the Arab imagination,” Boston Review, November/December 2004.

3 For more on this episode and the Egyptian context, see Alexander Flores, “Secularism, Integralism and Political Islam: The Egyptian Debate,” Middle East Report 23 (July/August 1993), 32-38.

4 See Leslie Gelb, “The Three State Solution,” The New York Times, November 25, 2003; Peter W. Galbraith, “How to Get Out of Iraq,” The New York Review of Books, May 13, 2004.

5 “What is most important to the history of the world? The Taliban or the collapse of the Soviet empire? Some stirred-up Moslems or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the cold war?” Zbigniew Brzezinski cited in Le Nouvel Observateur, Paris, 15- 21 January 1998

6 For more on the Israeli-Iranian double dealings even amid heated official rhetoric, see: Trita Parsi, Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of the Israel, Iran and the U.S., (Yale University Press, 2007)

7 Seymour Hersh, “Lunch with the Chairman. Why was Richard Perle meeting with Adnan Khashoggi?” The New Yorker, March 17, 2003.

8 R.H. Tawney, Religion and the Rise of Capitalism, (New York: Transaction Publishers, 2008).

9 A good overview of the history of Islamic finance and capitalism is provided by Ibrahim Warde, Islamic Finance in the Global Economy (Edinburgh University Press, 2010).

10 Gülru Necipoğlu-Kafadar, “Suleyman the Magnificent and the representation of power in the Context of Ottoman-Habsburg-Papal Rivalry,” p.187.

11 Jon Mandaville, “Usurious Piety: The Cash Waqf Controversy in the Ottoman Empire,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 10 (1979): 289-308.

12 Cemal Kafadar, “The Ottomans and Europe,” Handbook of European History 1400-1600, Ed. Thomas Brady Jr., Heiko Oberman and James Tracy, (Brill: Leiden, 1994), p.621.

See our Current issue


Join our Newsletter

Follow us on