Reformation or Renaissance?

I often hear people claiming that what Islam really needs is a Martin Luther or a Reformation. I wonder if they really know what they are calling for. In my opinion the so-called Islamists today in many cases have a lot in common with the Protestant Reformers of the 16th century, for they were the major fundamentalists of that era (of whom, let us not forget, the Puritans were an offshoot). In terms of inter-confessional hostility often not a great deal distinguished the Protestants and Catholics of the era, and the Catholics certainly committed their share of heinous crimes: the Spanish Inquisition, the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre, and the Spanish campaign of extermination in the Netherlands spring to mind, to say nothing of the atrocities perpetrated in the New World. But for the most part, except in Spain and the Balkans, where old conflicts with Muslim states continued, it was the Protestants who reawakened religious fanaticism and a spirit of sectarian rancor which had been largely absent since the days of the late Roman Empire. Of course the Protestants had legitimate grievances, but many of the abuses that they wanted to “reform” were of an opposite nature from those condemned by liberal society in religious fanatics today: venality, corruption and a conspicious lack of moral austerity. The Catholic Church had entered a decadent stage, and it is not hard even to identify the liberal Western society of today more with it than with the Protestant fundamentalists who challenged it. Indeed, Islamists often follow an analogous course: they deplore the corruption and venality of leaders of the Muslim world (although there is nothing analogous to the formal institution of the Church in Islam), they arrogate to themselves, not to the clerical authorities, the authority to interpret scripture, and they preach a general return to the austere holiness of the nascent days of the faith. The Reformation and the Renaissance arose from a somewhat similar revolt against ossified social institutions, particularly the Catholic Church, and a desire to bring power back into the fold of common humanity, but the viciousness of the religious wars and persecutions sparked by the Reformation vitiated to a considerable degree the achievements of the Renaissance in beating back dogmatism, and the Reformers returned an intransigent militarism to intellectual life. What Islam needs is not a Luther but an Erasmus, or better yet a Rabelais.

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