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What are the sources of reform to be?

Reader comment on item: Can Islam Be Reformed?

Submitted by Peter Herz (United States), Jul 1, 2013 at 22:45

Speaking as a Protestant who likes neither same-sex marriage, female clergy, the sexual revolution in general, abortion, and a number of supposed "progressive" causes...

It matters what a religion has in the way of sacred textual sources when it decides to hold a Reformation. We forget that our Christian Reformation was a very "fundamentalist" movement, for it looked to the Bible. For example, William Tyndale, apart from translating all of the New Testament and most of the Old into English and thus doing the important groundwork for the King James Version later on, also wrote a little book called _The Obedience of a Christian Man_. In it, one of the things he argued was that the Pope had no right to grant a full indulgence to those who fall in a Crusade because the Scriptures offer no such provision. He and other reformers also questioned the temporal authority of the Popes and the whole sacramental system of the Roman Church on Scriptural grounds. Can the same be said for the textual sources of Islam? Can one tell a would-be shahid that the Qur'an and Hadith offer no assurances that his death in jihad will land him in Paradise?

Even in matters of Constitutional government, limited powers, and popular consent, Scriptural justification for such things was found to counter the claims of royal absolutism. J. N. Ffiggis, a noteworthy intellectual historian of a century ago, noted that the text "We must obey God rather than men" (Acts 5:29) as one of the most politically important texts ever penned. The argument between constitutionalists from the Reformed tradition and royal absolutists of the Anglican and Roman persuasions was an extended battle over the proper exegesis of the mishpat hamalek passage in First Samuel 8--with the Calvinists arguing that it spoke of the "manner of a king", and hence a warninr (see Ponet, Rutherford, Althusius, Junius Brutus, Hotman, Beza) against those who saw it as the "ius regnorum" or rights of a crowned head (Barclay as perhaps one of the most important).

Those who advocated widespread liberty of conscience could get resonance with Protestants at least in that the New Testament was written by a church without a state, while the Old also showed us the Chosen People losing a state in the Babylonian exile. It impresses me that the Qur'an and Hadith, by contrast, presuppose the political supremacy of Muslims.

Maybe I am wrong in the assessments of Islam which I have given above. But let Muslims find what they can in their own tradition to justify political equality of non-Muslims, the legitimacy of constitutionalism, or whatever. I do not pretend that I can police the Islamic conscience from the outside.


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