Mehdi Hasan

Mehdi Hasan on reformation and Islam

Mehdi Hasan opens ‘Why Islam doesn’t need a reformation’ by describing calls for Islam to reform as ‘cliched’ – this is a bit like characterising criticism of government cuts as ‘cliched’ – it’s hardly an argument, and neither is the fact that Islam is a 1400 year-old faith.

Hasan is not the first to have countered calls for a Muslim reformation by invoking the personal failings of Martin Luther and the bloody aftermath of the Reformation in Europe.  However it is rather disingenuous to lead with this line of attack.  Two of the three articles he first links to make no mention of Luther, and draw no parallels with the experience of Christianity.  And the fact that Martin Luther is not an ‘ideal poster boy for reform and modernity’ doesn’t in itself invalidate calls for reform.  However, even though Hasan indignantly denies that Islam is analogous to Christianity, he writes as though history would be doomed to repeat itself Canticle for Leibowitz style.

The Protestant Reformation also opened the door to blood-letting on an unprecedented, continent-wide scale. Have we forgotten the French wars of religion? Or the English civil war? Tens of millions of innocents died in Europe; up to 40% of Germany’s population is believed to have been killed in the thirty years’ war. Is this what we want a Muslim-majority world already plagued by sectarian conflicts, foreign occupations and the bitter legacy of colonialism to now endure, all in the name of reform, progress and even liberalism?

After saying it’s ‘ignorant’ and ‘patronising’ to map Islam on to Christianity, Mehdi Hasan goes on to do just this:

The truth is that Islam has already had its own reformation of sorts, in the sense of a stripping of cultural accretions and a process of supposed “purification”. And it didn’t produce a tolerant, pluralistic, multifaith utopia, a Scandinavia-on-the-Euphrates. Instead, it produced … the kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

This seems a fair point, allowing for the fact that any such parallels are hardly going to work precisely.  Protestantism is, by its nature, much more varied than Catholicism and spawned some highly illiberal views and regimes. When reading this novel set in 1580s Scotland I was struck by parallels with today’s Islamic theocracies.

Although Hasan warns that an Islam cleansed of ‘innovations’ might look rigid and austere, some Muslims (who might not style themselves ‘reformers’) have stripped away tradition and gone back to the Qur’an in order to try to identify an Islam more compatible with liberal values.

More thorough going reformists generally acknowledge that the Qur’an was written in a specific historical context.  Whereas teachings on slavery or on women may seem unacceptable today, they were reformist for their time, and there’s a clear argument for continuing on this benign trajectory rather than fixing the Qur’anic position on, for example, female testimony in aspic.  Hasan – and thus perhaps his readers – loses sight of what such reformists are actually trying to achieve, and instead muddies the waters with dire warnings about extreme puritanism and bloodshed.

Some claim that any reform of Islam, as it is currently practised, into something more liberal and secular (and Muslims will disagree about whether this would constitute a return to a more pristine Islam or a dangerous innovation) is impossible.  In terms of its success (whether or not one thinks it was a good thing) the scale of the Protestant Reformation is a reminder that a religion can change dramatically.

Early Protestant thinkers saw themselves as restorers rather than innovators.  They were (at first) in a beleaguered minority, but they believed their interpretation of Christianity was correct and persuaded others to their view.  Although he might not care for Luther, I would have thought Mehdi Hasan would be able to find some common ground with these reformers.  Within a global context, his interpretation of Islam is (I infer) unusually liberal – and yet he presumably, like those Protestant reformers/restorers, thinks he is following his faith correctly.

Like so much discussion of this issue, there’s whole swathes of excluded middle ground here, somewhere between Ayaan Hirsi Ali and ISIS.  It would have been more interesting if Hasan had taken, say, this article which he links to in the first sentence and explained a) exactly what he disagrees with in it and b) exactly what the practical real world implications of such disagreement might be.

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