Islam and Reformation

The Treasure Chest

Let’s say you go scuba diving and come upon a shipwreck. Exploring the sunken ship, you find a chest. It’s old and frayed, covered with barnacles and seaweed, but you know that there can be treasure in it. There may even be an octopus that’s taken ownership of it and won’t deliver it to you easily. But would the barnacles, seaweed or the octopus deter you from opening it to see what’s inside? You know there can be treasure in there: priceless jewels, diamonds, emeralds, rubies… and gold. Would the less-than-appealing appearance of the chest prevent you from opening it?

The same thing could be said about an oyster and the pearl it contains. ref2The oyster may not be much to look at, but the pearl within is something else again.

We in the West have been in a similar position for centuries with respect to Islam. People tell us: “See, it’s all encrusted with barnacles and seaweed. Nothing to see here, folks, just move on.”

But is that true?

What I see all around is people looking at the external trappings, the barnacles and even the occasional octopus, and not opening the lid at all. For those who think they know enough about Islam, I offer up the following points for consideration. Did you know that:

  • Islam is not just about Law. The Law is the exterior aspect. There is also an interior aspect, called Sufism, having to do with spirituality, love, and the inner world of the psyche. Sufism comprises the highest reaches of spiritual and noetic experience.


  • Islam is not just the Koran. The Koran is the foundation, but it is one of twin pillars. The other pillar is the ethics and example of the Prophet. In his words and deeds, the Prophet demonstrated how the message of the Koran was to be lived. Try to go by the Koran alone, and you will not be able to perform even a simple Ablution.


  • Islam is not a political ideology. There’s a lot of confusion about this, because the Prophet had to rule the fledgling Islamic community in Medina. But all the basics of Islam were already present in Mecca, where the Prophet had no role of political leadership. For 12 years, the Prophet preached Islam in Mecca. He spent less than 10 years in Medina. Islam’s most important principles and precepts were already well-established by the time he emigrated. Without the implacable opposition of the Meccan establishment, the Prophet would probably never have been forced into that role.


  • Islam certainly does not tell you to hijack jet planes and slam them into skyscrapers. (In that respect, see this study. See also here (bottom  half) and here.) On the contrary, the most severe measures of Islam are reserved for those who sow discord among human beings.


  • Suicide is prohibited in Islam: it is considered the same as murder. “Do not kill yourselves or one another” (4:29).


  • Islam is already a tolerant religion and a moderate one. The Turkish Sufi poet Yunus Emre sang: “Accept the created, because of the Creator.” The Koran calls Muslims a “middle community” (2:143) who are supposed to walk a balanced, medium path—the Straight Path—between extremes. And the Prophet said: “Who goes to extremes is ruined.”


  • I was in the presence of a Sufi saint, Master Ahmet Kayhan, for the better part of two decades. I was witness to the kind of person he was. Speaking from that experience, I can tell you this: if Islam produced a result like the Master, then it cannot be wrong.


By implication, this also means that many of the criticisms leveled at the Prophet are baseless. It may be true that those who make such criticisms draw their material from Islamic sources themselves. But remember: according to Islamic belief, only the Koran as the word of God, and then only its Arabic original, is considered to be free of error. (Hence, there can be no reformation in the Koran.) The Sayings of the Prophet and historical information do not have the same degree of reliability. But equally, we cannot throw away a whole sack of rice just because there are a few small stones in it. While we can accept both the Sayings and historical accounts to a great extent, we should be wary of claims that would lead us to infer anything demeaning about the stature of the Prophet.

So what I’m saying is that we’ve focused on the barnacles and seaweed too long. Let’s open the lid of that chest, let’s see what’s inside. Naturally I cannot show you everything in a short piece like this, but an excursion around this website might give you some faint idea.


Reforming Islam

Ever since the Reformation in the West, there have been those looking forward to a similar reformation in Islam. Especially since the 18th century, calls for reform in Islam have been frequent. Yet before we commit ourselves to such a project, we need to know whether the new structure we erect will be superior in every respect to what we wish to tear down. And that entails knowing the vast edifice down to its tiniest detail.

But here we face a problem. Some parts of the religious system have to do with deeply spiritual matters. And the Koran itself tells us about the spirit that “little knowledge thereof” has been given to us (17:85). Who is there so well-informed as to undertake this tremendous task? Moreover, we live in an age when the spirit has progressively been reduced to the mind, the mind to the brain, and the brain to electrochemical signals. There you have it: our consciousness is nothing but an ensemble of electrochemical pulses swirling around in the brain. And the spirit? That’s a “construct.” Well, good luck with getting anywhere on that treadmill.


Reforming Physics

Just to give you an idea about how preposterous such an undertaking is, let’s consider how I, or someone else, might go about reforming physics. Of course, first I postulate that there is need for such a reform. Why? Because I say so. Specifically, I might say that I’m not comfortable with Newton’s second law of motion: F=ma, and Einstein’s famous equation, E=mc2. These, I declare, are wrong. What appeals to me aesthetically is to rewrite the equations as follows: F=ma2 and E=mc.

There. Now does that work? Can I arbitrarily change the laws of physics like that? Can I open the hood of a car and fiddle around with the motor as I please? Would you change the wiring of a computer motherboard unless you were an IT genius (and even then you probably wouldn’t)? If not, then to tamper with the parameters of the most sophisticated religious system extant, to project our own subjective deformities onto it while ostensibly “reforming” it, is the epitome of absurdity.

Here are two points not generally known or recognized:

  • Every exoteric (outward) precept or practice in Islam has an esoteric (inward) reason behind it. How are you going to tackle that?
  • According to a Tradition (Saying) of the Prophet, the Koran has a literal (exoteric) meaning and an inward (esoteric) meaning, the latter to the depth of seven levels. How will you “reform” these when you have no understanding of even the first level?

I do get it, however. Well-meaning people want to get rid of the barnacles and seaweed, they want to have a treasure chest so clean it sparkles. Or perhaps to put the treasure in another box entirely. I’m with them on that. But how do we know that a barnacle is a barnacle and not an encrusted gem in disguise? And as long as we lack that kind of knowledge, the prudent thing to do is to proceed with extreme caution. Unfortunate, but true.

Consider further: religions, and specifically Islam, exist for the good of human beings: for the betterment of their fare on earth, for increasing their happiness here and in the hereafter. If you break something while you’re trying to fix it, you harm human beings, you diminish their chances of an auspicious passage in this world and the next. Are you in good conscience ready to bear that responsibility?

No. What we can call for is not reformation in Islam, but renewal: expressing the perennial truths of Islam in a contemporary idiom. And we can call on Muslims to reform themselves, to abide properly by the precepts of their religion if they want to be called its adherents, for there is much failing therein. To paraphrase from Desiderata II: “You would reform Islam? Begin with yourself, brother!”


Reformation in Christianity

While on the subject of reformation, we cannot avoid looking at the original Reformation. Long before Luther’s Reformation, however, there was another: the reformation of Jesus.

Psychologist Carl Gustav Jung spoke of “the Jewish Reformation called Christianity”: “The New Testament was the Jewish reformation of the Old Testament: it was Jewish Protestantism.” (Jung, Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, Vol. 1, pp. 917-918.) God was not only to be feared, He was also to be loved.

Now with the Protestant Reformation, there was a reformation of that first reformation. Somewhat like Hegel’s “negation of the negation,” this second reformation brought Christianity back into closer proximity with Judaism, and—because of the latter’s greater emphasis on monotheism—therefore also with Islam. For instance, I for one may be inclined to agree with at least some of Luther’s 95 Theses, his opposition to the Prophet notwithstanding. (They mainly have to do with papal indulgences.)

In fact, there have been those, such as Rodney Blackhirst and Kenneth Oldmeadow, who have argued that:

Protestantism, in its deepest impulses, is historically the Christian response to the challenge of Islam. The central fact of the remarkably discontinuous tradition of Christian civilization is that the rise of Islam was a shock from which the Christian tradition never fully recovered. …

Protestantism (especially in its Calvinist forms) is the ultimate Christian response to Islam… It is this that explains the remarkable similarities between Islam and Protestantism as religious typologies. …

Protestantism is a Christian imitation of Islam, a Christianity adapted to Islam.


But did Luther go far enough?

Now after the reformation of Jesus, and before the Protestant Reformation, it so happens that there was still another reformation: the reformation of Mohammed. Nine hundred years before Luther, and at a time when (some have claimed) there were scarcely thirty true Christians left, the Prophet started a reformation in monotheism that was both more radical and more far-reaching than Luther’s. One of the ways in which it was, and continues to be, radical is that there is no church and no monasticism in Islam. Let us return to C. G. Jung again:

For two thousand years God has been under the censorship of the priests. He could not publish a new book, he could do nothing, because he had said in the Bible what he had to say and nothing could ever be changed. That is a catastrophe because it is an encroachment upon divine rights, and moreover it is absolutely unpsychological… (Jung, Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, Vol. 1, p. 907.)

As a matter of fact, practically, God is limited: he is fettered by the magic rites of the church… So one is held entirely in the church. If God wants to work at all, it must be in and through the church; he cannot work outside the church nor can he publish any other news, perhaps a still newer Testament. The last edition appeared two thousand years ago—nothing new since then. It would be too upsetting if there were, it would be outside the dogma and that cannot be countered. (Jung, Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, Vol. 2, p. 1511.)


Well, there was and is a newer Testament—the Last Testament, and it’s called the Koran. It appeared fourteen hundred years ago. It swept away the concept of a church. It emancipated humankind so that each human being is in a direct personal relationship with the Lord, without any intermediaries. You could say that God got tired of others speaking in His name and decided to speak to you Himself.

Thus we see that a reformation of Islam would not be progress at all. In reality, it would be a regression to earlier modes of religious experience: a regression back into the church, into monastic life, and all the rest of the religious modes experienced during the long history of Christianity.

Some might want to argue that Protestantism itself is not free of flaws, that it too needs to undergo a reformation. (It has been claimed that Protestantism became too rational and arid, that it bleached out spirituality and love.) In that case, they would have no recourse but to revert to Islam.

One final point. I suspect that not all those who call for an Islamic reformation  have Islam’s well-being in  mind. Their calls sound more like the old Chinese curse: “May you live in interesting times.” I remember reading in a book once: “A reformation is worse than a revolution.” Actually, it is far worse. The Protestant Reformation led not to one but to multiple social upheavals, revolutions, wars and civil wars. What started when Luther nailed his theses to the church door in 1517 ended only in 1648 with the Treaty of Westphalia. (I count at least six wars up to that date in the Wikipedia article on the subject; see also here.) It produced a lasting rift in Christianity. In a sense, it has not ended even today. Can we then say in good faith that these people have Islam’s best interests in mind? Are they not wishing upon Islam a fate similar to that suffered by Christianity?


In conclusion, let me repeat what I said earlier. Don’t judge a book by its cover. The cover may be torn and tattered, but it’s what’s inside that counts, that’s worthwhile, even priceless.

Let’s not be deterred by the barnacles or seaweed. Let’s open that treasure chest, let’s look inside and see for ourselves.

If but once your tongue says “God” with love
All sins fall away like autumn leaves.

—Suleyman Chelebi, The Mevlidi Sherif
(Ode celebrating the birth of the Prophet)



UPDATE, FEB 9, 2015

Stephen Schwartz writes:

But religious “reformation” is a contradictory phenomenon. Reformers of religion may represent modernization, or they may embody “purification.” Saudi Wahhabis, Deobandis, the Muslim Brotherhood, and their peers have all claimed the mantle of “Islamic reform,” in that they oppose the spiritual practices of the Sufis, such as celebration of Muhammad’s birthday. But like Martin Luther, they are purificationists. Calls for an Islamic Luther ignore the mistake of attempting to transfer the patterns of Christian history to the Islamic world. Do we want the decades of bloodshed that made up the Christian Reformation to be imposed on Muslims? Would such a development not merely increase Muslim radicalism? Finally, Luther’s greatest achievement was to promote the reading of a vernacular Bible. But Qur’an, the sacred text of Islam, began to be translated into Persian during the life of Muhammad, and versions in other local languages followed.

Additionally, Luther advocated murder of Jews and destruction of synagogues. Yet one of the brightest chapters of Islamic history is found in the rescue of the Spanish and Portuguese Jews from the Inquisition, at the end of the 15th century, by the sultans of Morocco and Turkey. Given the need for authentic peacemaking between Jews and Muslims today, is it not dangerous to promote the legacy of Luther to Muslims?

To emphasize, it is little understood by non-Muslims that because the Wahhabis, Deobandis, Muslim Brotherhood and other radicals project themselves as “reformers,” a posture in favor of “reformed Islam” is viewed with suspicion by the moderate majority. That majority must be mobilized to defeat the radicals; but I do not believe it can be done on the basis of “reformation.”

 See also his reflections here.

UPDATE 2, FEB 14, 2016

“The study of Islam . . . to understand the prophetic tradition, to understand Judaism and Christianity better. To see, perhaps, Islam as the first Protestant Reformation. The first Protestant Reformation. Now if you were to see Islam as the first Protestant Reformation, what would it mean? It would mean, I think, to pass the judgment that something had gone wrong. That something else had to be tried. Something had gone wrong as early as the seventh century AD, the seventh century of the Christian era. Actually there should be no great difficulty for a Protestant, or one of a Protestant background like me, to say that. After all, most Protestantism, or rigorous Protestantism, is involved precisely in questioning the legitimacy of the historical development of the Christian church.”

—Norman O. Brown, The Challenge of Islam: The Prophetic Tradition (2009), Lecture 2: “Islam and Judaism,” p. 13.

Apparently, Professor Brown said it long ago (in his 1981 lectures). He also reserves his highest praise for the Prophet: “Muhammad is the bridge between Christ and Dante and Blake” (via the Imaginal World; p. 44).

Comments are closed.