Re-examining the place of textuality in Islamic Studies

The Need of Protestantization: Reading Oneself Through European History

Mohannad Abusarah

November 3, 2021

The comparison between 19th- and 20th-century Islamic reformist thought and Protestantism is a common one within Western scholarship. Many authors compare the Muslim reform movements that started in the mid-19th and early 20th centuries to the Protestant Reformation, in the sense that it resembles the movement inaugurated by Luther in 16thcentury Europe.[1]For example, Ernest Gellner, “Flux and Reflux in the Faith of Men,” in Muslim Society (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), 1-85; Clement Henry Moore, “On Theory and Practice … Continue reading These authors claim that Muslim reformers reinterpreted pre-modern Islamic concepts through a Protestant lens. For example, Johann Büssow and Ammeke Kateman argue that Muḥammad ʿAbduh’s conception of religion follows the “Protestant template” of religion, in which religion becomes primarily a matter of interior conscience and faith, and less about exteriority and rituals.[2]Johann Büssow, “Re-Imagining Islam in the Period of the First Modern Globalization: Muḥammad ʿAbduh and His Theology of Unity,” in A Global Middle East: Mobility, Materiality and Culture … Continue reading

In this article, I do not try to show the similarities between modern Islamic reformist thought and the Protestant Reformation. Rather, I trace how Muslim reformers themselves compared their calls for religious change to the Protestant Reformation. In other words, I discuss 19th and 20th century reformers’ perception of their movements as Protestant-like. I argue that this self-perception reflects reformers’ adoption of a linear conception of history in which Protestantization is perceived as a pre-condition for modernity and progress. 

The Muslim reformers’ perception of Protestantization as a pre-condition for modernity took shape as they considered the causes of “Muslim backwardness” and “Western progress”. Following the French invasion of Egypt in 1798 and the return of Arab and Muslim state-sponsored missions from Europe, some Muslim scholars, such as the Egyptian Rif āʿa al-Ṭahṭāwī, started discussing ways by which Muslims could overcome their backwardness and reach the level of material, scientific, and military progress manifest in Europe.

Several reformers associated Muslim backwardness with taqlīd (lit. imitation or tradition in legal thought). These reformers argued that Islamic weakness in relation to the West was the product of the stagnation that taqlīd produces and the absence of ijtihād (independent reasoning)—ijtihād became a keyword for Islamic reformers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. As I show below, in pushing for ijtihād as opposed to taqlīd, several reformers analogized their movements to the Protestant Reformation. 

Jamal al-Din al-Afghani | Photo Credits: Encyclopaedia Britannica

The prominent Muslim reformer Jamāl al-Dīn al-Afghānī explicitly attributed the cause of European modernity to the Protestant Reformation. He stated that the Protestant Reformation held the secret of modern European civilization. He saw Luther’s movement as the main reason for development in Western societies. He stated that “If we examine the reasons for the transformation of Europe from barbarism to civilization we find that it was only because of the religious movement inaugurated and raised by Luther.”[3]See ʿAbd al-Qādir al-Maghribi, Jamāl Al-Dīn al-Afghānī (Cairo: Dār al-Maʿārif, n.d.), 97-98. Luther’s movement, according to al-Afghānī, was based on the application of human reason to religious sources that saved Christian European society from the decline caused by blindly following Catholic religious authority. In his al-Radd ʿalā al-Dahriyyīn (The Refutation of the Materialists), al-Afghānī quotes and agrees with a European historian who says: 

Indeed, one of the most significant causes that led Europe to civilization was the emergence of a sect [Protestantism] in this land that said: we have the right to investigate the foundations of our beliefs and demand proof for them … When this sect [Protestantism] gained power and its ideas spread, the European minds got rid of the illness of ignorance and stupidity. They were also encouraged to engage in intellectual circles and became interested in scientific fields and worked hard to gain the ingredients of civilization.[4]Jamāl al-Dīn al-Afghānī, Al-Radd ʿalā al-Dahriyyīn, trans. Muḥammad ʿAbduh (Cairo: al-Maṭbaʿa al-Maḥmūdiyya al-Tijāriyya bi-Maṣr, 1935), 73.

Al-Afghānī’s interpretation of Luther’s influence on European history exemplifies how the Protestant Reformation became a model for Muslim Reformers. ʿAbd al-Qādir al-Maghribī, one of al-Afghānī’s associates, narrated that al-Afghānī used to repeat the sentence that “Islam needed a Luther.”[5]Roman Loimeier, “Is There Something like ‘Protestant Islam’?,” Die Welt Des Islams 45, no. 2 (2005), 245. Al-Maghribī went further and said “perhaps he [al-Afghānī] saw himself in [Luther’s] role.”[6]Roman Loimeier, “Is There Something like ‘Protestant’Oslam’?,” Die Welt Dest Islams 45, no. 2 (2005),245.

The analogy between 20th century Islamic reformist thought and Protestantism can also be seen in Muḥammad ʿAbduh’s writings. ʿAbduh (Egypt, 1849–1905), who was al-Afghānī’s student and a major reformer in his own right, argued that the Protestant Reformation called “for reform and a return to the simplicities of religion—a reformation that ended up [producing a religion] very close to Islam.”[7]Muḥammad ʿAbduh, Risālat al-Tawḥīd (Cairo: Dār al-Shurūq, 1994) 170. When ʿAbduh discussed Protestantism, he used the term iṣlāḥ(reform), a term that he also used for his own reformist movement. In his discussion of the Protestant Reformation, ʿAbduh also praised the movement for breaking the chains of imitation (taqlīd), a term that ʿAbduh used for criticizing the pre-modern Islamic tradition. ʿAbduh went further and argued that the Protestant Reformation had its origins in the Islamic tradition, claiming that it was the result of European interactions with Muslims during the Crusades. He argued that both his reformist thought and the Protestant Reformation were influenced by the authentic Islamic tradition alongside using reason when deriving rules from sacred texts. According to ʿAbduh, the Protestant Reformation paved the way for Europe to prosper and flourish. It eventually led to the modern civil society that made Europe strong. [8]Muḥammad ʿAbduh, Risālat al-Tawḥīd (Cairo: Dār al-Shurūq, 1994) 169-170.

Muhammad ‘Abduh | Photo Credits: Encyclopaedia Britannica

Some Iranian reformers promoted a similar narrative regarding the importance of Protestanism for modernity. Ḥabīb Allāh Pūr-Riżā wrote in 1925 that the Shiʿī tradition needs a sacred revolution with “thinkers like Luther and Calvin.” [9]Michaelle Browers and Charles Kurzman, “Introduction: Comparing Reformations,” in An Islamic Reformation?, ed. Michaelle Browers and Charles Kurzman (Lanham: … Continue reading Along the same vein, the Iranian ʿAlī Sharīʿatī (1933- 1977) called for an “Islamic Protestantism” that would pave the way for social reforms and extricate the Islamic community from its backwardness. Islamic Protestantism for Sharīʿatī entailed the liberation of religion from its classical interpretation. He analogized Islamic thought in his time to that at the end of the European Middle Ages, and argued that this project aims to “extract and refine the enormous resources of [Muslim] society and convert the degenerating and jamming agents into energy and movement.”[10]Ali Shariati, “Where Shall We Begin,” accessed September 1, 2021, http://www.shariati.com/english/begin/begin7.html. His project of Islamic Protestantism was meant to eliminate the tradition of imitation (taqlīd) and encourage the masses to take part in a critical and revolutionary practice of ijtihād. In such a society, according to Sharīʿatī,  Muslims would be enlightened and their condition would change from stagnation to progress.

In South Asia, Sayyid Aḥmad Khān also compared his Islamic reform to Protestantism, conceptualizing both as pre-conditions for modernity. His discourse emphasized the need for transformation of thought as a way for civilizational transformation. He argued that “India needs not merely a Steel or an Addison, but also, and primarily, a Luther.[11]Michaelle Browers and Charles Kurzman, “Introduction: Comparing Reformations,” 4.

I read Muslim reformers’ arguments about the need for a Protestant Reformation as deeply influenced by what we might call the Protestant liberal progressive narrative of modernity. Historian Brad S. Gregory distinguishes between two narratives about the relationship between Protestantism and modernity. One narrative he calls the “revisionist-confessionalization” narrative: this narrative emphasizes the Reformation’s continuity with the European Middle Ages and its discontinuity with secular modernity. Gregory calls the other narrative the “liberal-progressive narrative” that “emphasizes the Reformation’s discontinuity with the Middle Ages and its continuity with modern rationality, autonomy, and material prosperity.”[12]Brad S. Gregory, “The Reformation and Modernity,” in Protestantism after 500 Years, ed. Thomas Albert Howard and Mark A. Noll (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), 141.  The liberal-progressive narrative depicts the Catholic Middle Ages as the foil to Protestantism and modernity. Put differently, the Catholic Middle Ages represents the “constitutive other” of the modern Protestant narrative. 

The liberal-progressive narrative conceptualizes the Reformation as an integral part of the story of human progress and flourishing. It imagines Luther’s rejection of papal authority as opening the door for individual freedom and rational and scientific thinking. According to this narrative, the Protestant Reformation’s critique of the historical theology and practice of the Catholic church “established the groundwork for the intellectual achievements of modern history, philosophy, and science in the scientific revolution and Enlightenment.”[13]Brad S. Gregory, “The Reformation and Modernity,” in Protestantism after 500 Years, ed. Thomas Albert Howard and Mark A. Noll (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), 143. This narrative is found in Hegel’s (1770–1831) early essay Faith and Knowledge. Hegel aligned modernity with Protestantism through the rise of subjectivity (in which individuality is emphasized and the interior becomes the arena of all essential elements of human existence) in the Lutheran revolution.[14]G. W. F. Hegel, Faith and Knowledge, trans. W. Cerf and H. S. Harris (Albany: SUNY Press, 1977), 57.  Perhaps Max Weber is the most famous theorist of this liberal-progressive narrative. In his The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, he contended that the Protestant Reformation contributed to the “‘disenchantment of the world’ by rejecting ‘the magic of the medieval church.’”[15] Brad S. Gregory, “The Reformation and Modernity,” 144. Furthermore, a number of Protestant theologians, such as Albrecht Ritschl, emphasized the liberal-progressive narrative to show the merits of Protestantism and its contribution to the modern world.

The examples I showed above illustrate how Muslim reformers of the 19th and 20th centuries adopted the liberal-progressive narrative which emphasized the importance of Protestantism in European progress. Thus, these reformers stressed the need for Muslims to adopt a Protestant-like reformation so the Islamic world could flourish. This discourse led them to consider both that authentic Islam mirrors Protestantism and that pre-modern Islamic tradition mirrors the European Catholic Middle Ages.

It is important to note that the adoption of the liberal-progressive narrative does not entail that all Muslim reformers followed the same understanding of Protestantism nor did they agree upon which aspects of Protestantism should be embraced by modern Muslims. The application of the liberal-progressive narrative varied among these reformers and so too did their interpretations of “authentic Islam”. For instance, some reformers showed greater enthusiasm for Western modernity than others. While some reformers invoked Protestantism to encourage a return to the origins of Islam, others put more emphasis on modernizing Muslim communities (i.e. adopting liberal norms, developing the modern sciences, and generating material prosperity). But regardless of their differences, I have sought to show the pervasiveness of the Protestant liberal-progressive narrative of modernity in the thought of Muslim Reformers. In doing so, we can direct our attention to the role that historical narratives play in reading oneself and one’s past. 

Notes / References

1 For example, Ernest Gellner, “Flux and Reflux in the Faith of Men,” in Muslim Society (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), 1-85; Clement Henry Moore, “On Theory and Practice among Arabs,” World Politics 24, no. 1 (1971): 106-26; Said Amir Arjomand, “Iran’s Islamic Revolution,” World Politics 38, no. 3 (1986): 384-414; James L. Peaock, Muslim Puritans: Reformist Psychology in Southeast Asian Islam (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978).
2 Johann Büssow, “Re-Imagining Islam in the Period of the First Modern Globalization: Muḥammad ʿAbduh and His Theology of Unity,” in A Global Middle East: Mobility, Materiality and Culture in the Modern Age, 1880–1940, ed. Liat Kozma, Cyrus Schayegh, and Avner Wishnitzer (London: I.B. Tauris, 2015), 296; Ammeke Kateman, Muḥammad ʿAbduh and His Interlocutors: Conceptualizing Religion in a Globalizing World (Leiden: Brill, 2019), 152.
3 See ʿAbd al-Qādir al-Maghribi, Jamāl Al-Dīn al-Afghānī (Cairo: Dār al-Maʿārif, n.d.), 97-98.
4 Jamāl al-Dīn al-Afghānī, Al-Radd ʿalā al-Dahriyyīn, trans. Muḥammad ʿAbduh (Cairo: al-Maṭbaʿa al-Maḥmūdiyya al-Tijāriyya bi-Maṣr, 1935), 73.
5 Roman Loimeier, “Is There Something like ‘Protestant Islam’?,” Die Welt Des Islams 45, no. 2 (2005), 245.
6 Roman Loimeier, “Is There Something like ‘Protestant’Oslam’?,” Die Welt Dest Islams 45, no. 2 (2005),245.
7 Muḥammad ʿAbduh, Risālat al-Tawḥīd (Cairo: Dār al-Shurūq, 1994) 170.
8 Muḥammad ʿAbduh, Risālat al-Tawḥīd (Cairo: Dār al-Shurūq, 1994) 169-170.
9 Michaelle Browers and Charles Kurzman, “Introduction: Comparing Reformations,” in An Islamic Reformation?, ed. Michaelle Browers and Charles Kurzman (Lanham: Lexington Books, 2004), 5.
10 Ali Shariati, “Where Shall We Begin,” accessed September 1, 2021, http://www.shariati.com/english/begin/begin7.html.
11 Michaelle Browers and Charles Kurzman, “Introduction: Comparing Reformations,” 4.
12 Brad S. Gregory, “The Reformation and Modernity,” in Protestantism after 500 Years, ed. Thomas Albert Howard and Mark A. Noll (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), 141. 
13 Brad S. Gregory, “The Reformation and Modernity,” in Protestantism after 500 Years, ed. Thomas Albert Howard and Mark A. Noll (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), 143.
14 G. W. F. Hegel, Faith and Knowledge, trans. W. Cerf and H. S. Harris (Albany: SUNY Press, 1977), 57. 
15  Brad S. Gregory, “The Reformation and Modernity,” 144.

Mohannad Abusarah

Mohannad Abusarah is a PhD student in the Department for the Study of Religion. He earned his second Bachelor and MA degree in the Study of Religion and Philosophy from the University of Toronto. He studies the intellectual history of medieval and modern Islamic societies with a focus on the transition of the modern Islamic discourse. His project investigates the relationship between European thought, especially 17th and 18th century philosophy, and the transition to modern Islamic discourses. Mohannad also focuses on methods and theories in religion and intellectual history.

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