The Reverend Giles Fraser’s Comment piece in todays Guardian makes an excellent point in relation to the calls for a Muslim “Reformation”. His argument, in a nutshell, is that many trends in contemporary Islam already bear strong similarities to Luther and Calvin’s Protestant Reformation of the Catholic Church: the austerity of the clergy, the absence of hierarchy, the iconoclasm, and the anti-semitism. We should therefore be careful about misusing the term “Reformation”. The Rev concludes:
Until the Reformation finishes its work and trains its powerful commitment to iconoclasm on the sources of its own prejudice it will hardly be a model to hold up for other religious traditions to follow.
There is another, important, aspect to the Reformation about which more should be said. Luther’s central thesis was the doctrine of justification by faith alone: a position to which he famously held at the Diet of Worms:
Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason—I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other—my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe.
Now, it is easy – and tempting – to overstate the meaning of “conscience”, in the sense that Martin Luther used the term. Luther wasn’t talking about a personal sense of morality: he merely thought that conscience was the nexus between man and the will of God. Nevertheless, locating God, so centrally, within an individual’s conscience was the ideological equivalent of an atom bomb. For a start, the theological conclusion dictated by Luther’s conscience constituted a direct and specific challenge to the teachings of the Catholic Church. But the precedent which he set amounted to a more general attack on the authority of the Church. Under attack from the conflicting dictates of conscience, theological traditions could more easily diverge: which indeed, they did. A philosophical monopoly was blasted wide open.
Certainly, the promotion of the conscience within a theology does not inevitably mean that believers become social liberals. In fact, your conscience may well lead you to embrace authoritarian beliefs. That said, it is difficult to see how a non-communitarian and liberal perspective could have emerged without Luther’s effective privatisation of the conscience. In particular, in societies which are essentially liberal and pluralist, conscience at least makes a synthesis between traditional and contemporary cultural and political values possible. Islam is not a special case in this respect.
What is essential, however, is that the case for a socially and politically liberal Islam is made.