Implications of Islamic reformation
Throughout history it has generally been believed that religious uniformity was essential for political and social stability. Historically, therefore, this involvement of politics has meant that one of the most visible results of religion has been discriminating-against or killing those who do not believe as you do. We note that Judaism lost geopolitical significance with the destruction of the first Temple at the hands of Nebuchadnezzar in 586 BC, and that we have no clear record of how the ruling Jews behaved toward other religious groups. We assume that it was roughly as badly as was historically the case with Christianity and Islam, based on:
When a religion goes through a reformation, there is an initial bloodletting followed by an eventual reduction in killing as there develops some equilibrium among the participants, and discrimination tends to become less institutionalized. There has been no major blood-bath in the name of Christianity for over half a century, and overt discrimination tends to be localized. Thus, while you might lose a business contract in the United States because you are not a member of the
contractor’s sect (we have seen cases where this has happened), the likelihood of your being lynched over church affiliation is nil.
Unfortunately, because religion is so intertwined with politics, the process of reformation tends to be messy, leaving a trail of blood as one group of believers moves to turn their view of God and His desires into a dominant political institution, attempting to displace whatever sect holds the reins of power. This was captured nicely in a Simpsons episode re-playing the Joan of Arc story, in which both Joan and the king of England say that God had told them what to do. When God is asked how He could have told both England and France that He was on their side, God says that He had never expected both groups to be in the same room. Then He says He has to leave for another appointment…. While we aren’t recommending the Simpsons as a source of theological study, the point is nonetheless well taken.
However, it appears that with the passage of time, and increased sharing of information, a certain modernization of religion can take place, with a view that the Word of God was given to men and women who had the temporal knowledge of their time, and that the Word is then interpreted originally using the knowledge of that time and subsequently using the knowledge of the time in which it is later being interpreted. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam have all shown this ability to adapt to the advance of knowledge.
And just as many today are suspicious of folks who hear voices and act on them, there is probably no reason to be less suspicious of people in the past who heard voices and acted on them. Even in cases where a man or woman does, in fact, speak directly with God and God with them, it is hard, both in retrospect and at the moment, to distinguish whether they are hearing the voice of God or of Satan. For example, we know that even the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), like Jesus an exemplar of perfect behavior, was on at least one occasion (22:52) temporarily fooled by Satan.
Finally, the situation is made more complex by the fact that God has, at different times, revealed Himself to different people with different manifestations and different messages, and we editors are definitely not in a position to say that any of these are more or less true than the others, or even that they are not all true, not even when they are apparently contradictory, each to the other.
Information is one of the forces that encourage secularization of religion, and a rationalism that allows at least an uneasy truce among religions. By secularization and rationalism we mean a self-examination in which it is asked whether, since both the Bible and the Qu’ran contain text that will allow a reader to justify any position desired, those who subsequently interpret the word of God as written are actually able to speak for God as infallibly as those to whom the Word was given. Thus, while lack of information made it easy for Copernicun theory to be rejected by the Church in the 15th Century, the spread of information made it equally easy for Pope John Paul II to note in his Message delivered to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences 22 October 1996 that “It is important to set proper limits to the understanding of Scripture, excluding any unseasonable interpretations which would make it mean something which it is not intended to mean.”
A factor that has, until recently, prevented this from happening in the Middle East is that the region has largely been isolated from information, which has allowed its weltanschauung to remain largely unchanged.
This regional isolation has changed because of four factors: Television, the Internet, commodity international transportation, and globalization. Television and the Internet have made the world at large quite accessible to large populations. Inexpensive international travel has increased contact among peoples, so that those who in the past only had contact with foreign engineers and soldiers now have greater contact with a wide variety of different people. Globalization has made accessible the possibility to widespread increased standard of living, albeit with the benefits of this largely unavailable as yet to residents of the Arab world, whose 22 nations have a combined GDP slightly less than that of Spain. Nonetheless, the potential has been made visible to those who were, in the past, isolated from the rest of the world.
Thus we see that, in the United States, Muslim immigrants have integrated as well as have other groups of immigrants. Due to the nature of modern American society, there has been little ghettoization of Muslims in the U.S, and Muslims are well integrated into mainstream America. This has not been true in those parts of Europe where immigrants (who happened to be Muslim) were brought in as laborers, but largely excluded from civil society. In this case they did and do exist in a cultural vacuum, and have not integrated into local society. Nonetheless, since Muslims in some environments have moved Islam from public life toward being a personal relationship between man and God, there is no reason to believe that Islam will not eventually do so in other places.
The potential for change on the part of some, and the desire to resist this change on the part of others, has thus begun what we suspect to be an Islamic reformation. But in order to understand what this means, we have to look at briefly at the Christian reformation.
The Christian reformation began on 31 October 1517 when Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the church door at Wittenburg. It ended on 31 October 1999 with the signing in Ausberg of a declaration of doctrinal accord between the Roman Catholic and Luthean churches. If, in fact, we are seeing an Islamic reformation, we can expect it to happen more quickly than the Christian reformation, because the Internet and television allow faster interchange than did the printing press. People at all levels of Islam now have a wider view in their window of the world entire, and can see more of what the world has to offer. Obviously, not everyone will accept the world in its current state, or eventually come to terms with this world: We certainly know American Christians who hold that the Bible is the revealed word of God; that the world – the universe – is some 5000+ years old; and that their interpretation of the word of God, as has been revealed to them, is the correct interpretation of God’s will.
Unfortunately, reformations are carried out by those burning with a clear knowledge of God’s will, and counter-reformations are carried out by those burning with an equally clear, but different, knowledge of God’s will. Because of this, we cannot expect an Islamic reformation to be any less bloody than was the Christian reformation. While we in the West receive some spillover from this internal conflict within Islam, we are, nonetheless, at this point merely a sideshow in this drama. While we can expect a bloodbath in Islam’s reformation, much as we saw in the bloodbath associated with the Christian reformation, we believe that faster information transfer means it will be of shorter duration.
The underlying reason for this is that most people in the world – independent of religious belief – want to get up in the morning, work productively, provide healthy lives and futures for their children, and go to sleep in safety and comfort. While those at Islam’s extremes (or who use Islam for political purposes) no more care about this than did those at the extremes of the Christian reformation (or who used Christianity for political purposes), we predict that the increased spread of information will likely make it more difficult for those on either extreme to force their constituents to abandon these most fundamental temporal aspirations.