Faced with the specter of Islamic radicalism and the terrorism it has spawned, many in the West have come to the conclusion that Islam needs a Reformation. This notion is based on the assumption that the Muslim world was left behind by modernity. As historian Bernard Lewis notes, the great events of Western civilization—the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Enlightenment, the Scientific Revolution—went largely unnoticed in the Islamic world. Isn’t it about time, Lewis and others say, for Islam to reform itself?
The only problem with this recommendation is that Islam is in the middle of a reformation. What is the rise of Islamic fundamentalism if not proof of the Islamic Reformation of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries? The term “fundamentalism” is, of course, misleading. In Christianity it refers to those who read the Bible literally, those who believe the Bible is the inerrant word of God. By this definition every Muslim is a “fundamentalist,” because every Muslim believes that the Quran is the unadulterated word of God delivered in the Arabic language to the Prophet Muhammad.
The erroneous “fundamentalist” label frequently results in Westerners positing false divisions in the Muslim world. For instance, our pundits and commentators frequently speak of the Islamic community as divided between “fundamentalists” and “liberals,” or between “fundamentalists” and “secularists.” But this is nonsense. Liberals and secularists are rare in the Muslim world. The few that do exist are politically irrelevant.
Nor is the important distinction in Islam between the Shia and the Sunni factions. The theological differences between these groups are virtually nonexistent. Islamic radicalism and terrorism have sprung out of both major strains. The Khomeini revolution arose out of Shia Islam, and today groups like Hizbollah are predominantly Shia. The Bin Laden movement, by contrast, comes out of Sunni Islam. The Iraqi insurgents are almost entirely Sunni Muslims.
The big story in the Muslim world is that for the past several decades a religious revival has been sweeping across the 22 or so countries of Islam, affecting the lives of nearly a billion Muslims. This revival is by no means confined to the Arab world. Its impact can be seen in Turkey, in India, in Malaysia, in Indonesia, and in North Africa.
Even Muslims in Western countries have become more religious, praying more regularly, celebrating Muslim feasts, adopting Islamic dress and diet, and defining themselves in private and public as “Muslims.”
Islamic “fundamentalism,” or more accurately the Islamist political movement, is a product of this religious revival. It arose out of, and to some degree in resistance to, traditional Islam. It has been gaining traction and strength for the past few decades. And the central argument of the Islamists is strikingly similar to that of the early Protestants. The Islamists argue that Islam has over the years become diluted and corrupted. True Islam stagnates, they argue, while Muslim leaders and Muslim clergy sell their souls to maintain their position and power. The Islamist solution is to call for a return to the original, seventh-century Islam that the Prophet Muhammad established.
Why then, some Western readers might wonder, do Islamists not follow the lead of the Protestants and proclaim “the priesthood of the individual believer”? Why is “separation of church and state” such an alien concept, resisted so fiercely by the Islamist leaders?
The answer to this question is very simple: in returning to their origins, Muslims are going back to a very different starting point than Christians did.
The term “Reformation” is derived from the term “reform.” The Catholic writer G.K. Chesterton once wrote that it is impossible to discuss “reform” without reference to “form.” Christianity was formed out of a different mold than Islam. Christianity from the beginning separated the realms of church and state. This was not an American invention. Christ himself instructed his disciples to render unto Caesar and to God their separate dues. This Christian teaching was reinforced by early Christian history. The early church was persecuted and harassed by the Roman empire. A Christian who was running away from a sword-wielding Roman soldier was not likely to confuse his religious beliefs with the institutions and practices of the Roman state.
By contrast, Islam from the outset united church and state. The prophet Muhammad, during his lifetime, was both a prophet and a Caesar. He established an Islamic society in which the sharia, or holy law, governed not only religious duties but also divorce, inheritance, interest rates, and the rules of warfare. The sharia is a comprehensive Islamic law that covers constitutional, civil and commercial matters in addition to spiritual or religious ones.
Many Islamic countries have adopted Western or secular codes over the years, leaving sharia to operate only in confined domains, such as family law, or they have abolished sharia altogether, as in Turkey. Obviously Muslim immigrants in Western countries cannot live under sharia; they live under secular laws. The Islamist goal is to reverse this trend, at least within predominantly Muslim countries. Consistent with history, Islam’s return to roots does not involve the priesthood of the individual believer but involves an attempt to restore the worldwide Muslim community ruled by the ordinances of Allah.
Westerners calling for an Islamic Reformation have gotten what they wished for, even if the shape of this reformation is not at all what they expected. There is no point deploring the Islamic awakening. It’s here, and it’s not going away. I’m not even sure that it’s a bad thing. It does, however, raise an entirely new set of political challenges. The big question facing us in America is how to deal with this invigorated Islam both at home and abroad. Our domestic harmony, our homeland security, as well as the success of our Middle East policy, and of the “war against terrorism,” all depend on how well we answer that question.