Islam may learn from the Christian Reformation.

What might happen when Islam realises it may learn something from the Reformation?

Would it not facilitate joining the world and so ease its next phase of integration?

At present Islam is not always welcome in a post- Enlightenment world. If not urged by intellectual pursuit and desire for improvement it is doubtful that Islam would be able to generate the energy to overcome entrenched attitudes.


Following the end of the Roman Empire over a millennium passed with virtually no new knowledge or intellectual investigation in the West. Exceptions are notable because they are rare and include, inter alia, Pierre Abelard, Meister Eckhart and Hildegard of Bingen. The reason for this stagnation of scholarship following as it did the highlight of the Greek intellectual tradition, was twofold; the Medieval Church and the inheritance of Aristotelian philosophy. This is why we refer to that great period as “The Dark Age”.

When an Institution is held to be led by a role which claims infallibility there is little reason to make inquiry. This is how the Church operated; it was The Authority in all matters and as it was also a civil authority; both civil and religious life came under its governance.

Aristotle provided the notion of the Great Chair of Being. This was an attempt to place all life along a hierarchy of importance from God at the top. The Church was so opposed to permitting new knowledge because once one item of the Chain of Being was disturbed other items might be disturbed and this could lead to a questioning of the Church’s teaching and authority.

Thus the Church established the Council of Trent (c 1545) which was designed to wrest back Papal authority from the newly rising Protestant movement; and deal with issues like Copernicus’ new knowledge. In order to enforce its will the Church utilised the iniquitous process known as the Inquisition, a brutal re-education which not only used torture but was responsible, throughout Europe for the death of countless women who were judged to be witches. We now know that these women were practicing the ancient female arts of herbal medicine and midwifery.

When Martin Luther posted 95 theses on the door of the Cathedral of Wittenburg in October 1517 he was motivated by a critique which included the corruption of the clergy who were not above becoming wealthy by charging for Indulgences (special blessings); the wealth displayed by clergy in the face of ordinary people; and the notion of the infallibility of the Pope. Nineteen years after Wittenburg John Calvin fired the Reformation in Switzerland; four years after Luther’s death in 1546 John Knox led the Reformation in Scotland. In 1558 Elizabeth 1st established Anglicanism as the State Church of England.

With the breaking of the monopoly of the Medieval Church conditions were ripe for the Enlightenment, that process through which the basis of the modern age were laid in the development of science and industry. No longer were discoveries such as that of Copernicus prevented, by the Church, from being published. Even when Galileo attempted to bring this knowledge to light almost 100 years after Copernicus, he, Galileo was imprisoned by the Church. After about 1560 the smothering hold by the Church was broken and soon after the death of Copernicus, Francis Bacon continued the process of building Western science.

It is clear that without the Reformation, commenced by the German Martin Luther, western science could not have been developed and as a consequence of that we would not have had an Industrial Revolution and we would not now have our modern standard of living. When we think of the enormous changes which emerged from the Enlightenment we consider public sanitation which in itself prevented widespread infection (which has wracked the Medieval world in plagues); development of medicine and the wonder drugs of today; the establishment of industry and the countless items we take for granted today from the motor car to having a human stand on the Moon. Without Reformation Europe would have remained in the grip of ignorance, superstition and monolithic control.

The Islamic world did not share in the benefits of the European Enlightenment. It's own high point was reached as Europe descended into Dark Age. Around c. 850 CE the Abbasid Caliphate reached its greatest extent. It is thanks to this Arabic cultural surge that the knowledge of antiquity was preserved in libraries such as that at Alexandria. The works of Aristotle, Archimedes, Galen, Ptolemy, Euclid, Pythagoras and many others were preserved, translated into Arabic. Mathematics was expanded by the development of algebra and general science flourished.

However by the time of the Christian Crusades Islam was no longer expanding and the damage wrought by the Crusades, along with a lack of unity, ensured that Arabic cultural recovery would take a long time.

So we arrive at today. Does the Islamic world understand that it is viewed as if still in the Dark Ages? In Australia legislation had to be called upon to prevent Islamic immigrants performing deep female circumcision and clitorectomy. Do new migrants understand why this is offensive in their new homeland?

What do Islamic people imagine is our response to for instance, public executions by sword (seen on TV performed at a soccer stadium before a large crowd)? Or to instances wherein women are still stoned if perceived to be ‘sinful’ and may not appear in public without a male companion? And what are we meant to think about those images from Afghanistan during the reign of the Taliban? Does Islam understand why we wondered why women were not permitted to perform public work including primary school teaching? Or why items,such as makeup, which Western women take for granted, were banned? Was the Islamic world not aware that feminism had happened in the West and therefore the sight of men divorcing their wives by circling them thrice saying they are divorced, was intolerable?

In many European countries there has been a mixture of tolerance and questioning of that most visible of practices, that of wearing medieval clothing which prevents a woman from being seen. Can Muslims begin to empathise with the hosts' view of this practice? And how many Muslims understand that there is a clear perception that the application of Sharia Law (Islamic Law) is synonymous with brutality and backwardness.

In its current state is Islam capable of progress in dogma, social practice and international relationships? In dogma does not Islam need to confront its own belief in infallibility; its divisions between Shia and Sh’ite, and many sub sects, which is a constant source of warfare and destruction? Does it need to evaluate its ancient learning methods which involve rote learning of the holy texts? a practices which is indeed reminiscent of the Dark Age Roman Church.

Without Reformation what is Islam's business in the West? This is something that individual Muslims do not seem to ask and sadly the West is beginning to turn against Islam in Holland, France, Italy, Britain (post bombings) and elsewhere.

Why is it not recognised that the intolerance for jihad against the West will mean deportation, legal action, imprisonment (read for instance the speech of the shoe bomber in his US trial…it is clearly intolerable to a civilised person) and an expansion of mistrust? Yet what Islamic communities have taken a public stance against such jihadism?

Muslims want access to the wealth and prosperity available in liberal, Western nations yet why is it that immigrants do not appear to want to integrate as other migrant groups have? For instance the Vietnamese. Why do Imams and community leaders not moderate the insistence on wearing medieval costume, which is often viewed as an act of insult to the host nation? It is not the clothing itself; Indians are accepted wearing saris for instance as Sikhs are accepted wearing headdress. It appears to be an insistence on separatism and a we are holier than thou attitude, along with incidents of brutal behaviour.

Surely Islam has something to learn from the Christian Reformation? Particularly if it seeks to participate in the wealth and prosperity of those countries receiving migration. How can it hurt Islam it its members collectively enter, and then process, and finally emerge from Reformation. Would not such an achievement reinvigorate and renew Islam and ease its entry into a secular, liberal world?

It is not up to non Muslims to tell Islam how to enter this process. This is a task for intellectuals, teachers, leaders and progressive elements to pursue within Islam. It will require willingness to question, debate, investigate, discuss and enjoin a sprit of change along with courage to let go of the past. Along the way it is predictable that the power of the mullahs must be removed in exactly the same way as the power of the priest was finally removed in modern Ireland.

So we leave this essay in the hands of Islamic scholars to spread the word, to encourage debate, to challenge entrenched mullahs and imams; to have the courage to ask for and seek change. It will not be easy however it wasn’t easy for Luther, Calvin or Knox. The world wants to support this effort and Islam will find much encouragement freely available.