October 31 was Reformation Day, the anniversary of the day that Martin Luther issued his famous 95 Theses, and as such a fitting occasion for Lutherans around the world to reflect on the reforms he brought to Christianity. It was probably inevitable that a Lutheran cleric somewhere would comment on the relevance of the Reformation to a major issue in today’s religious world — the future of Islam. Margot Kässmann, the Lutheran bishop of Hannover in Germany, told the local newspaper: “Something like a Reformation would also be good for Islam.”
Bishop Kässmann is one of the most prominent religious leaders in Germany, an effective preacher and a popular talk show guest. It’s clear that she means Muslims should question their traditions and shed abuses, much like Luther did in Christianity. That’s a view that Muslim reformers can also support in principle. It leads to the question, though, of how far the paradigm of the Reformation is applicable to Islam. Has the term “Islamic Reformation” become a soundbite that brings more confusion than clarity?
The Reformation in 16th-century Europe ended the Catholic Church’s monopoly of religious authority and led to a multitude of Protestant denominations. One of the driving forces was the liberating effect of questioning traditions, Kässmann said in her interview. The result was the de-centralisation of Western Christianity. By contrast, Islam already has a multitude of different schools and interpretations. Islamist radicals such as Osama bin Laden are not religious scholars, but they issue fatwas on their own that reinterpret traditional views of Islam. So part of the religion’s problem today, some Islam experts argue, is that there is no central authority that can settle disputed issues. Some commentators have gone so far as to suggest — and only partly in jest — that Islam actually needs a Luther or a pope to bring about the reforms Kässmann refers to.
The idea of an “Islamic Reformation” has been discussed at least since 9/11. For example, British author Salman Rushdie made just such a proposal after the London bombings in 2005. “The Islamic Reformation has to begin here, with an acceptance of the concept that all ideas, even sacred ones, must adapt to altered realities,” he wrote.
Another term that sometimes pops up in the media is “Muslim Martin Luther” to describe the person who could inspire such a Reformation. One man who sometimes gets that label is Tariq Ramadan, a Swiss-born intellectual popular among young Muslims in Europe. He preaches an Islam that stays loyal to its traditions while adapting to life as a minority religion in Europe. When the online magazine Salon asked him what list of demands he would nail to a church door, he first said he didn’t have a list. He then argued for more rather than less agreement in reading Scriptures. “This is the problem we have today in the Muslim world,” he said. “We repeat slogans, but we don’t know exactly what they mean.”