The Muslim Luther and Reformation

by Mun’im Sirry, guest contributor

Islamic Reformers(l-r): Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (1838-1897), Muhammad ‘Abduh (1849-1905), and Muhammad Rashid Rida (1865-1935)

On February 15, 2012, Abdulkarim Soroush, a visiting professor at The University of Chicago, delivered a thoughtful and enlightening talk about revival and reform in Islam. Mohammad Ayatollahi Tabaar writes in The New York Times, “Soroush has been described as a Muslim Luther, but unlike the Protestant reformer, he is no literalist about holy books.” Robin Wright, a journalist who writes frequently about the Middle East, also describes him as "the Martin Luther of Islam," however she acknowledges that Soroush himself prefers to avoid comparison with Luther.

In the beginning of his talk, Dr. Soroush argued that Islam has not undergone a reformation similar to that of Protestantism. This contention is certainly debatable since a number of Muslim reformers cited the need to reform Islam as Christianity was reformed. Even Muhammad Iqbal, one of the Muslim reformers whose projects were discussed by Dr. Soroush, identified Protestant elements in Islamic reform: “We are today passing through a period similar to that of the Protestant revolution in Europe, and the lesson which the rise and outcome of Luther’s movement teaches should not be lost on us.”

Many scholars discuss how the idea of “Muslim Luther” or “Islamic Protestantism” emerges in the discourses of Muslim reformers, especially the Shi’i circle. Charles Kurzman and Michaelle Browers explore the historical usage of the Islamic-Protestant reformation analogy. Sukidi specifically traces the traveling idea of Islamic Protestantism to what he calls “Iranian Luthers,” namely, Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, Ali Shari’ati and Hashem Aghajari. This characterization is, of course, not without problems. Muslim reformers might follow patterns of religious reform similar to those of Christian reformers, yet they certainly found their own ways of dealing with their tradition. However, the analogy is not invalid, given that these Muslim reformers themselves expressed their admiration for Luther and other Christian reformers. Afghani, for instance, strongly believed that Islam needs a Luther and he might have seen himself as that Luther.

The Egyptian Muhammad ‘Abduh's admiration for Protestant reformation is often overlooked by scholars. Undoubtedly, 'Abduh is the most influential Sunni scholar whose ideas of Islamic reform reached far beyond the theological divide and the Arab world. In his magnum opus, Risalat al-tawhid, ‘Abduh argues that Christian reformation included “elements by no means unlike Islam.” It would surprise no one that ‘Abduh was so impressed by the way Christian reformers strove to break the entail of obscurantism, curb the authority of religious leaders, and keep them from exceeding the precept of religion. “They discovered,” ‘Abduh writes, “that liberty of thought and breadth of knowledge were means to faith and not its foe.”

It is worthwhile that, unlike other Muslim reformers, ‘Abduh brings the discussion deeper into theological issues. “The reforming groups in the West,” he says, “brought their doctrines to a point closely in line with the dogma of Islam, with the exception of belief in the prophetic mission of Muhammad. Their religion was in all but name the religion of Muhammad; it differed only in the form of worship, not in the meaning or anything else.”

Perhaps, it was his disciple, Rashid Rida, who pushed this idea further to argue that belief in the prophethood of Muhammad is not a sine qua non for salvation. Commenting on Qur’an 2:62, he rejects the idea that this verse implicitly stipulates belief in Muhammad. In his own words: “… there is no problem for not stipulating belief in the Prophet because the verse deals with God’s treatment of each people and community who believe in a Prophet and a revelation particular to them. Their salvation (fawzuha) is certain whether they were Muslims, Jews, Christians, or Sabeans. God declares that salvation lies not in religious allegiance (al-jinsiyya al-diniyya) but in true belief which has control over self and in good deed.”

Elsewhere, Rida emphasizes the need to combine “religious renewal and earthly renewal, the same way Europe has done with religious reformation and modernization.” Rida’s attitude toward other religions is more complex than is sometimes supposed and is beyond the scope of this article.

It is interesting that Muslim reformers like ‘Abduh and Rida have no qualms dealing with the theological aspects of the nature of Christian reformation. While some Muslims might truly believe that Islam faces challenges similar to those faced by Christianity in Europe, ‘Abduh simply asserts that “Many scholars in Western countries confess that Islam has been the greatest of their mentors in attaining their present position.” Christian reformation is not alien to Muslim reformers, but one may still wonder why Muslim reformers envision their projects in light of Protestant reformation.


Mun'im SirryMun’im Sirry is a PhD candidate in Islamic Studies at the University of Chicago Divinity School. He is currently a Martin Marty Center Junior Fellow and a Harper Dissertation Fellow. His dissertation is entitled Reformist Muslim Approaches to the Polemics of the Qur’an against Other Religions.

This essay is reprinted with permission of Sightings from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

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