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The Reformation was a move away from reason, not towards it

How can we help Islam reform when so many western commentators do not understand Christianity?

By on Friday, 11 July 2014

Islam's reformers? (AP)

Islam's reformers? (AP)

Sir Simon Jenkins, who has form as an polemicist against the Church, has turned his attention towards contemporary Islam in his latest article over at the Guardian. Islam is something about which I know not very much, so I am not going to consider the substance of the argument. But there are one or two things about Christianity and religion in general that Sir Simon mentions which require comment.

First of all, this use of the phrase “Muslim reformation”. Jenkins put the phrase in inverted commas, which is noteworthy, but even in inverted commas, this is a phrase that strikes me as useless at best or deeply misleading at worst.

Western Christendom underwent what is called the Reformation in the sixteenth century. But this movement was by no means a shift towards liberalism, peace or democracy; Martin Luther strongly supported the German princes in their efforts to put down peasants’ revolts; and the Lutheran princes were unflinching in dealing with various radicals such as the Anabaptists. But above all, the Reformation was not a movement towards rationality and enlightenment: one of Luther’s rallying cries was Los mit Aristoteles! – away with Aristotle! The emphasis was on sola scriptura (a deeply irrational principle, to my mind) and away from the use of reason in theology and the great rational discourse of Aquinas and the other Medieval Schoolmen. The Reformation was an obscurantist movement.

If we bear this in mind, it is clear that the Islamic world has already had several reformations of one type and another, the most recent of which is Wahhabism, which continues to this day to destroy shrines in Arabia, just as once the iconoclasts of Europe once laid waste much of our artistic heritage. Wahhabism sees itself as the most pure understanding of Islam, and this is at the heart of their quarrel with the Shia, who they see as anything but pure; indeed there are many accretions to Shia Islam that remind one of Christianity; or are these accretions? Or is it that Shia Islam is the real Islam, the Islam as it was practiced in the early years of the faith? I have no idea if this is true or not, but it could be.

So it is my contention that Sir Simon Jenkins, and others, use the term “Islamic reformation” without any understanding of what the Reformation was all about. We have the ironic spectacle then of people from Europe telling Muslims what is good for them, while not understanding Christianity, let alone Islam.

The second thing that is worthy of comment is found in this almost throwaway phrase: “… evolving, like Christianity, to respect a division between church and state”. This comment is so wrong and at so many levels. The concept of secular and sacred as distinct realms is not an innovation in Christianity, it is rather something that is there from the beginning. It is found on the lips of Jesus Himself. Mark 12:17, with its words about rendering to Caesar’s what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s, is surely the foundational text here. The implication that the Church somehow learned to “respect” the State shows an ignorance of history and theology, and is deeply dismissive of Catholic tradition.

I am not sure what exactly Sir Simon Jenkins is arguing about Jihad and Islam in this piece, but whatever it is, his grasp of Christinaity seems shaky.