Saturday, August 13, 2005

Salman Rushdie on a Muslim Reformation

Salman Rushdie repeats the view that what is required in Islam is for it to have it's own Reformation:
"What is needed is a move beyond tradition - nothing less than a reform movement to bring the core concepts of Islam into the modern age, a Muslim Reformation to combat not only the jihadi ideologues but also the dusty, stifling seminaries of the traditionalists, throwing open the windows of the closed communities to let in much-needed fresh air."
I think when most people argue this, they mean the impact of the Enlightenment rather than the Reformation; while the former undoubtedly sprang from the latter, they are two different things. The application of the historical method to holy texts, which Rushdie alludes to ("It is high time, for starters, that Muslims were able to study the revelation of their religion as an event inside history, not supernaturally above it. ") belongs unequivocally to the scholarship that has grown from the Enlightenment.

It's a rather cuddly notion of the Reformation that many people appear to be operating with. Personally, I've always been struck by the similarities between some strands of Islam and Calvinism: both have the sovereignty of God as a central concept, which inevitably leads to a predestinarian approach; both retain moral rectitude by the elimination of magic from religion; and both are strongly scripturalist. People think of Wahabism as an element that is in need of reformation, but it would be more accurate to say Wahabism is the Muslim reformation.

A by definition essential feature of salvation religions is the division of the human race into two classes: the saved and the damned; the elect and the reprobate. The political consequences of this belief are significantly underestimated. To put it bluntly, when the saved are in power, the best the damned can expect is some kind of secondary social status; the worst, to be exterminated. Historically, it's the concept that's been at the heart of all kinds of persecutions, pogroms, and religious wars and arguably it has been at the heart of all the totalitarian slaughters of the 20th century in secular form, with the bourgeois and the proletariat, the sub-humans and the master race; the former the source of all misery and suffering in the world and the latter the source of redemption.

Historically, attempts to make states enterprise associations that pursue salvation have been calamitous - while the contrary attempt to eliminate even the private quest for salvation have been at least as tyrannical as any theocracy. It is only the secular state which allows freedom of religious belief that has ever managed to achieve the complete legal equality of persons regardless of confessional division. Surely we should be allowed to call that progress, something the human race has actually learned - without apologising for it?

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