Islam doesn′t need a Martin Luther!

Calls for an Islamic Reformation are issued in the wake of every Islamist act of terrorism. But Muslims don't need a Martin Luther. What is needed is a reconciliation of Islam with the constitutional state, says Loay Mudhoon

Essay by Loay Mudhoon

Lord Cromer was British Consul-General in Egypt when he coined the famous phrase in 1880: "Islam reformed is Islam no longer". Islamist apologists and representatives of traditional Islam in both Islamic countries and Islamic communities in the West would likely agree with him. After all, "Islam" is for them – and for most practising Muslims – something fundamentally complete that cannot be "reformed".

Such blind faith does not, however, alter the fact that the nature of "Islam" is not set in stone! The religion of Islam is and always has been, a child of its time.

In his writings, the renowned Iranian philosopher Abdolkarim Sorush – one of the key voices in the global debate on reforming contemporary Islam – emphasises the mutability of religious insight. In his view, there can never be one absolute "version of Islam" that is applicable to all eras and contexts. In the words of Sorush: "I compare the situation to that of a river. The Prophet was just the source of the river. Islamic tradition as a whole is the river. It flows towards eternity. We are a particular section of the river; the next generation will be another section. We should never assume that religion is a stationary body of water. It is like a flowing river."

Plurality of readings is the key to reform

Iranian philosopher Abdolkarim Soroush (photo: ISNA)
Mutability of religious insight: the renowned Iranian philosopher Abdolkarim Soroush is one of the key voices in the global debate on reforming contemporary Islam. Soroush regards Islam as a "series of interpretations", more comparable with a string of concepts than a strictly defined canon of core beliefs

Close adherence to the fiction of a "pure and complete" Islam has been largely decoupled from Islamic history. Even the manifold and highly differentiated discipline of Islamic theology has always served as a political tool. All too often it has served to reflect real-life, secular power relations.

Fatally, this traditional understanding of Islam ignores the simple fact that since the Islamic calendar began, there have been numerous and ambitious attempts by Islamic intellectuals to renew religious discourse within Islam and interpret its sources in a manner pertaining to the times. After all, the Koran makes an impassioned appeal for humankind's striving for knowledge.

For this reason, since he began his reformist work 30 years ago, the Syrian reformist thinker Muhammad Shahrur has been pleading vociferously for Muslims to be guided by the wording of the revelatory scripture itself as the original criteria of the divine truth, without subservience to the authority of the Islamic clergy.

"The Koran contains God's absolute truth. But mankind can only achieve a relative understanding of this truth." This is Shahrur's core statement. All innovative reform concepts need to emanate from this premise. It is the prerequisite foundation for any serious attempt at reform.

The key point is that the Koran allows a multiplicity of interpretations. It can be read in many different ways. This plurality is the key to realising the necessary reforms. The Muslims′ holy book is an open revelation and not a religious codex as the 'average Islamist' and populist critics of Islam would have us believe.

Reconciling Islam with the modern age

Every perfidious terrorist attack by Islamist fanatics anywhere in the world is followed by loud public calls for a reform of Islam. This is understandable. But it is neither realistic nor desirable. Particularly as it is not clear how such a "reformation" should look – and above all: who should realise it.

Ancient copy of the Koran (photo: dpa/picture-alliance/Birmingham University)
A multiplicity of interpretation: "the Koran can be read in many different ways. This plurality is the key to realising the necessary reforms. The Muslims′ holy book is an open revelation and not a religious codex as the 'average Islamist' and populist critics of Islam would have us believe," writes Mudhoon

Since the rise of the IS nihilists, a lively debate may have been going on in the mostly authoritarian Islamic nations over the (co-) responsibility of Muslims for the unrestrained phenomena of self-appointed holy warriors. But there is little evidence of any genuine debate on how to reconcile Islamic values and standards with the achievements of the modern political age.

Many Islamic countries are preoccupied with internal conflicts or proxy wars and not with reformist discourse. Moreover, headline-generating pronouncements about reform by Arab tyrants such as Egypt's military ruler al-Sisi are not to be taken seriously; they actually damage the overall credibility of the reform debate. After all, the Egyptian president has effectively emasculated the once renowned Sunni Al-Azhar University in Cairo.  Without political freedom, comprehensive religious reform is not possible.

That′s why hope of a new impulse to reform rests with the Muslims in Europe. They have the opportunity of developing new reform ideas without fear of repression. It is important in the process that this does not become an attempt to secure a privileged position for specific liberal or humanist "versions of Islam". Indeed, efforts should focus on ensuring that diverse interpretations of and approaches to Islam are the norm in the Islamic theology centres at German universities.

Islam certainly does not need a Martin Luther! It needs a reconciliation of its ethical standards with the achievements and realities of the modern constitutional state.

For this reason it is the duty of critical Islamic thinkers to develop concepts that aim at an integrative solution and readings of Islam that clearly operate within the framework of a free and democratic system.  And it is up to us, society as a whole, to support these initiatives.

Loay Mudhoon

© 2016

Translated from the German by Nina Coon