The Muslim Luther and Reformation
by Mun’im Sirry, guest contributor
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 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.
Desecrated Bodies, Dashed Hopes
by Arezou Rezvani, guest contributor
When a video of U.S. Marines urinating on the dead bodies of Taliban fighters became international headline news last month, national dialogue around the incident centered mostly on its impact on U.S.-brokered peace talks, the safety of military personnel in the region, and the military culture that some argue contributed to the dehumanizing act. Largely absent from mainstream news media coverage, however, was any meaningful attempt to understand how the global Muslim community viewed the desecration of the corpses.
What took place in January was not unique. In 2010 images of a group of U.S. Army soldiers dubbed the “kill team” posing with mutilated Afghan corpses emerged and were eventually published in Rolling Stone magazine. Now, just over a year later, a similar war crime has been committed by American Marines, sparking a fresh but familiar conversation about how the psychology in and around war is not well understood by the American public.
It is indeed an important conversation to be had, particularly if there is any sincere interest in helping the latest and largest wave of U.S. troops that left Iraq in December transition back to civilian life. What is equally important, however, is a discussion around the recurring theme of desecrating the dead in a Muslim country.
In Islam, desecrating enemy corpses was forbidden by the Prophet Muhammad and is regarded today by practicing Muslims as a sin and a crime. The religion also rejects cremation as a proper rite for death as it is believed that the tailbone, which is thought to regenerate the complete human being on the Day of Resurrection, would be destroyed. Another interpretation within Islam condemns any desecration of a corpse on the premise that the resurrected body will appear as it did at the moment of death.
When one considers the funeral rites and regulations in Islam, from the process of washing the body — a step that in itself entails a very particular set of instructions — to the act of shrouding a corpse in white prior to interment, it becomes clear that the rituals associated with the transition between life and death are an integral part of the faith.
The most recent incident of depriving the dead Taliban fighters of that ritual could have been an opportunity to start a dialogue around Muslim religion and culture. Instead, most of the coverage further enabled the American public’s blindness toward the “other.” This disinclination to examine the global consequences of collective ignorance, which in this instance manifested as an indifference toward the desecration of Taliban corpses, only serves to exacerbate tensions between Americans and the broader Muslim world.
American news media have an obligation to offer comprehensive coverage and fine-grained contextualizing of events that the public is not always ready confront. To be sure, debates around whether the incident will prompt another wave of anti-American sentiment in the region, or whether military culture is to blame for the dehumanizing act, makes for good television and two-page spreads in print publications. But ultimately it’s cross-cultural and inter-religious dialogue that will help to avert similar future acts of dehumanization and diffuse tensions. Until the news media are willing to create the kind of broad narrative understanding of events that makes such dialogue possible, their tacit enabling of collective ignorance means that they will be complicit in any future acts of dehumanization.
Arezou Rezvani is a freelance multimedia journalist based in Los Angeles, California. Her work appears on NBC Los Angeles and American Public Media’s Marketplace, where she explores themes related to business, religion, and foreign affairs. You can see more of her reporting at Spectrum.
Sultan Ahmet Mosque, Istanbul
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
Turkey is most definitely on our brains. As it turns out, we’ll be making a production trip in June (yay!) and so the extensive planning begins. What to do, what to do! No sooner did we find out than our old friend and former guest Omid Safi posted this magnificent photograph on his Facebook page along with this waxing caption:
"Inside sacred sites like this, I know it’s true that ‘God is beautiful, and loves beauty.’ The imaginative Muslim architects who designed it emulated Christian Byzantine masters, and strived to create a space that would stand free from columns. The "opening" that was created inside, the Christians and the Muslims agreed together, was to be filled by the very presence of God. By God, they succeeded."
If you have suggestions on stories we might cover that fit our mission or voices that you think we ought to expose to a North American audience, please offer your suggestions in the comments section. Enjoy the view!
Overcoming Islamophobia in U.S. Presidential Elections
by Muqtedar Khan, guest contributor
Islam has become an important part of American discourse leading up to the 2012 federal elections and candidates everywhere appear eager to take a position on Islam for political gain. Across the country, rising Islamophobia has made it difficult for some Muslims to build mosques and practice their faith, although their right to do so is enshrined in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
In the current race for the presidential nomination, some presidential candidates are invoking Islam and Muslims in a negative fashion in an attempt to bolster their popularity with populations they perceive to be suspicious of Muslims or Islam. For example, if elected, former presidential candidate Herman Cain promised not to appoint Muslims to his cabinet.
This is representative of recent trends. In 2010, some Republican Congressional candidates used the proposed Park 51 Muslim community centre, famously branded as the “ground-zero mosque”, and fear of sharia, the principles from which Islamic law is derived, to rally voters to their cause. And elected Congressional leaders, such as Peter King (R-NY), have used their committee appointments to argue that American Muslims are deeply radicalized, a fact repeatedly debunked by several surveys and reports.
However, there are others within the Republican Party who eschew this rhetoric, such as presidential candidates Mitt Romney and Ron Paul, as well as others like Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey, who appointed American Muslim Sohail Mohammed as a state judge despite much opposition.
I get a kick out of folks who call for equality now, the people on the left, ‘Well, equality, we want equality.’ Where do you think this concept of equality comes from? It doesn’t come from Islam. It doesn’t come from the East and Eastern religions, where does it come from? It comes from the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, that’s where it comes from.
—Rick Santorum speaking to a crowded restaurant in Boiling Springs, South Carolina before today’s vote, as reported by ABC News.
~Trent Gilliss, senior editor
The Pursuit and Practice of Happiness Is an Awareness of the Suffering and Pleasure of Others
by Krista Tippett, host
A basketball court transformed by flowers and incandescent light. Four thousand people in attendance. Four global religious leaders. I have never concentrated as hard as I did in the two hours I spent on that stage. But it was, in the end, a delight. And it was fascinating as an encounter as much as a conversation. The Dalai Lama embodied joy, his radiant and playful presence, was as defining as the words he spoke.
The biggest challenge with discussing “happiness” in this culture might be finding our way back to the substance of the word itself — a substance that has been hollowed out by its uses in culture. I found myself planted in the definition of happiness that the French-born, Tibetan Buddhist scientist and monk Matthieu Ricard offered on this program. He defines happiness as “genuine flourishing” — not a pleasurable sensation or mood but a way of being in the world that can encompass the fullness of human experience, joy and pleasure as well as suffering and loss.
Muslim scholar Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori of the Episcopal Church, and Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks of the United Kingdom all added to that definition as they laid out the virtues and habits, the spiritual technologies, that their traditions have carried forward in time. They all described corollaries, in a sense, to the Dalai Lama’s joyful yet disciplined teachings on cultivating compassion and calmness in the mind as way of flourishing in and amidst all of life’s experiences. But the most exciting part of interreligious encounter, for me, is not rushing to hear similarities but savoring particularities — the distinctive vocabularies of thought and practice, the beautiful and intriguing differences that come to light even as we may seem to be circling towards the same goal.
And so among my favorite moments are Professor Nasr’s explication of beauty as inextricably linked to virtue and happiness in Muslim tradition. Beauty, he says, makes the soul happy. Bishop Jefferts Schori talked about the long tradition in Christianity of practicing gratitude and “the presence of God” in the midst of ordinary activities of life. Rabbi Sacks evoked sabbath as a space to focus on the things in life that are “important but not urgent.” He described the extraordinary power of pausing to let life’s “blessings” — an awareness of the deepest sources of our happiness — “catch up with us.” Such reflections unsettle notions of happiness as a “right” and as something to be “pursued.”
A discussion of happiness is intrinsically serious, too. As we were also reminded in the course of this discussion, spiritual happiness is never merely personal in nature. It is linked to an awareness of the suffering and pleasure of others. And at the same time, it is something we cultivate in our bodies as well as our minds. It communicates itself in our very presence.
There was, fittingly, a great deal of laughter on this stage of religious dignitaries seated center court at Emory. There was a festive atmosphere in the room altogether. Listen, and watch, for yourself. Ponder, and enjoy.
So, what does this story have to do with modern-day Iran and Iranians? Everything. For the vast majority of Iranians who identify as Shi’a and even for many who don’t, the story of Karbala lies at the heart of all struggles against oppression and tyranny — personal and political.
—Melody Moezzi writes this smart, informative piece about the relevance of the one-thousand-year old story behind Ashura and modern-day politics in The Washington Post.
~Trent Gilliss, senior editor
Is There an “All-American Muslim”?
by Marwa Helal, guest contributor
The Learning Channel (TLC) recently aired the new reality television program, All-American Muslim, amid a great deal of buzz both within and outside the Muslim American community. Set in Dearborn, Michigan, a city that is well-known for its large Muslim and Arab populations, the series focuses on American-born Muslims and aims to answer the question: “What is it like to be Muslim in America?”
America’s Muslim population is diverse in ethnicity, class and religious expression. Attending a Friday prayer or better yet, an Eid celebration showcases this diversity at its best — Turkish Americans next to Bosnian Americans, next to Bangladeshi, Malaysian, Indonesian, Indian, Pakistani, Palestinian and African Americans — the list goes on. There are those who attend mosque regularly and others who show up to socialize during the holidays.
While TLC does not claim to represent all Muslim Americans, by focusing only on American Shia Muslims of Lebanese descent living in Detroit, and with a title that claims to speak on behalf of the “All-American Muslim,” the series certainly raises the question of whether it represents the experience of Muslim Americans in general.
Unforeseen Beauty and Possibility: A Decade of Discovering Islam
by Krista Tippett, host
In a perfect world, or at least a perfectly informed one, most Americans would have known something about Islam as the 21st century opened. They would have been aware that over one billion of the world’s people belong to this faith that emerged from the monotheistic soil of Christianity and Judaism. They might also have known that Muslims would soon be the second largest religious group in the U.S., after Christians. And that statistic might have come alive in American imaginations in the form of the doctors and teachers, parents and citizens it represents.
But we don’t live in a perfect world. September 11, 2001, was many Americans’ catastrophic introduction to Islam. Certainly, up to then, there were Islamic images that populated the American sense of the world out there — threatening images, many of them, associated with bombed embassies or the first failed World Trade Center attack. Islamic terrorists were default suspects, too, we recall, in the immediate hours after the Oklahoma City bombing.
But September 11 was the day, as someone said, when the Middle East came to America. That Tuesday we woke up as post-Cold War people — citizens of the prosperous remaining superpower. By Wednesday we had become post-9/11 people, with newly fearful eyes on the world. And our new enemies declared themselves agents of Islam.
I was in Washington, DC, on that day seeking funding for the wild idea of a weekly public radio program on religion. I had been piloting programs for about a year, getting an enthusiastic response from listeners and a tepid one from programmers. Talk of religion, many argued, was necessarily proselytizing and divisive. Moreover, faith wasn’t an appropriate focus for a weekly hour of public radio — not a reasonable, weighty subject for public life like politics or economics or the arts — best left as a private matter.