Islam’s ‘Protestant Reformation’

hgOriginally published by PJ Media in two parts.

In order to prevent a clash of civilizations, or worse, Islam must reform.  This is the contention of many Western peoples.  And, pointing to Christianity’s Protestant Reformation as proof that Islam can also reform, many are optimistic.

Overlooked by most, however, is that Islam has been reforming. What is today called “radical Islam” is the reformation of Islam.  And it follows the same pattern of Christianity’s Protestant Reformation.

The problem is our understanding of the word “reform.”  Despite its positive connotations, “reform” simply means to “make changes (in something, typically a social, political, or economic institution or practice) in order to improve it.”

Synonyms of “reform” include “make better,” “ameliorate,” and “improve”—splendid words all, yet words all subjective and loaded with Western references.

Muslim notions of “improving” society may include purging it of “infidels” and their corrupt ways; or segregating men and women, keeping the latter under wraps or quarantined at home; or executing apostates, who are seen as traitorous agitators.

Banning many forms of freedoms taken for granted in the West—from alcohol consumption to religious and gender equality—can be deemed an “improvement” and a “betterment” of society.

In short, an Islamic reformation need not lead to what we think of as an “improvement” and “betterment” of society—simply because “we” are not Muslims and do not share their reference points and first premises.  “Reform” only sounds good to most Western peoples because they, secular and religious alike, are to a great extent products of Christianity’s Protestant Reformation; and so, a priori, they naturally attribute positive connotations to the word.


At its core, the Protestant Reformation was a revolt against tradition in the name of scripture—in this case, the Bible.  With the coming of the printing press, increasing numbers of Christians became better acquainted with the Bible’s contents, parts of which they felt contradicted what the Church was teaching.  So they broke away, protesting that the only Christian authority was “scripture alone,” sola scriptura.

Islam’s reformation follows the same logic of the Protestant Reformation—specifically by prioritizing scripture over centuries of tradition and legal debate—but with antithetical results that reflect the contradictory teachings of the core texts of Christianity and Islam.

As with Christianity, throughout most of its history, Islam’s scriptures, specifically its “twin pillars,” the Koran (literal words of Allah) and the Hadith (words and deeds of Allah’s prophet, Muhammad), were inaccessible to the overwhelming majority of Muslims.  Only a few scholars, or ulema—literally, “they who know”—were literate in Arabic and/or had possession of Islam’s scriptures.  The average Muslim knew only the basics of Islam, or its “Five Pillars.”

In this context, a “medieval synthesis” flourished throughout the Islamic world.  Guided by an evolving general consensus (or ijma‘), Muslims sought to accommodate reality by, in medieval historian Daniel Pipes’ words,

translat[ing] Islam from a body of abstract, infeasible demands [as stipulated in the Koran and Hadith] into a workable system. In practical terms, it toned down Sharia and made the code of law operational. Sharia could now be sufficiently applied without Muslims being subjected to its more stringent demands…  [However,] While the medieval synthesis worked over the centuries, it never overcame a fundamental weakness: It is not comprehensively rooted in or derived from the foundational, constitutional texts of Islam. Based on compromises and half measures, it always remained vulnerable to challenge by purists (emphasis added).

This vulnerability has now reached breaking point: millions of more Korans published in Arabic and other languages are in circulation today compared to just a century ago; millions of more Muslims are now literate enough to read and understand the Koran compared to their medieval forbears.  The Hadith, which contains some of the most intolerant teachings and violent deeds attributed to Islam’s prophet, is now collated and accessible, in part thanks to the efforts of Western scholars, the Orientalists.  Most recently, there is the Internet—where all these scriptures are now available in dozens of languages and to anyone with a laptop or iphone.

In this backdrop, what has been called at different times, places, and contexts “Islamic fundamentalism,” “radical Islam,” “Islamism,” and “Salafism” flourished.  Many of today’s Muslim believers, much better acquainted than their ancestors with the often black and white words of their scriptures, are protesting against earlier traditions, are protesting against the “medieval synthesis,” in favor of scriptural literalism—just like their Christian Protestant counterparts once did.

Thus, if Martin Luther (d. 1546) rejected the extra-scriptural accretions of the Church and “reformed” Christianity by aligning it more closely with scripture, Muhammad ibn Abdul Wahhab (d. 1787), one of Islam’s first modern reformers, “called for a return to the pure, authentic Islam of the Prophet, and the rejection of the accretions that had corrupted it and distorted it,” in the words of Bernard Lewis (The Middle East, p. 333).

The unadulterated words of God—or Allah—are all that matter for the reformists.

Note: Because they are better acquainted with Islam’s scriptures, other Muslims, of course, are apostatizing—whether by converting to other religions, most notably Christianity, or whether by abandoning religion altogether, even if only in their hearts (for fear of the apostasy penalty).  This is an important point to be revisited later.  Muslims who do not become disaffected after better acquainting themselves with the literal teachings of Islam’s scriptures and who instead become more faithful to and observant of them are the topic of this essay.


How Christianity and Islam can follow similar patterns of reform but with antithetical results rests in the fact that their scriptures are often antithetical to one another.   This is the key point, and one admittedly unintelligible to postmodern, secular sensibilities, which tend to lump all religious scripture together in a melting pot of relativism without bothering to evaluate the significance of their respective words and teachings.

Obviously a point by point comparison of the scriptures of Islam and Christianity is inappropriate for an article of this length (see my “Are Judaism and Christianity as Violent as Islam” for a more comprehensive treatment).

Suffice it to note some contradictions (which will be rejected as a matter of course by the relativistic mindset):

•The New Testament preaches peace, brotherly love, tolerance, and forgiveness—for all humans, believers and non-believers alike.  Instead of combatting and converting “infidels,” Christians are called to pray for those who persecute them and turn the other cheek (which is not the same thing as passivity, for Christians are also called to be bold and unapologetic).  Conversely, the Koran and Hadith call for war, or jihad, against all non-believers, until they either convert, accept subjugation and discrimination, or die.

•The New Testament has no punishment for the apostate from Christianity.  Conversely, Islam’s prophet himself decreed that “Whoever changed his Islamic religion, then kill him.”

•The New Testament teaches monogamy, one husband and one wife, thereby dignifying the woman.  The Koran allows polygamy—up to four wives—and the possession of concubines, or sex-slaves.  More literalist readings treat women as possessions.

•The New Testament discourages lying (e.g., Col. 3:9).  The Koran permits it; the prophet himself often deceived others, and permitted lying to one’s wife, to reconcile quarreling parties, and to the “infidel” during war.

It is precisely because Christian scriptural literalism lends itself to religious freedom, tolerance, and the dignity of women, that Western civilization developed the way it did—despite the nonstop propaganda campaign emanating from academia, Hollywood, and other major media that says otherwise.

And it is precisely because Islamic scriptural literalism is at odds with religious freedom, tolerance, and the dignity of women, that Islamic civilization is the way it is—despite the nonstop propaganda campaign emanating from academia, Hollywood, and other major media that says otherwise.


Those in the West waiting for an Islamic “reformation” along the same lines of the Protestant Reformation, on the assumption that it will lead to similar results, must embrace two facts: 1) Islam’s reformation is well on its way, and yes, along the same lines of the Protestant Reformation—with a focus on scripture and a disregard for tradition—and for similar historic reasons (literacy, scriptural dissemination, etc.); 2) But because the core teachings of the scriptures of Christianity and Islam markedly differ from one another, Islam’s reformation has naturally produced a civilization markedly different from the West.

Put differently, those in the West uncritically calling for an “Islamic reformation” need to acknowledge what it is they are really calling for: the secularization of Islam in the name of modernity; the trivialization and sidelining of Islamic law from Muslim society.

That would not be a “reformation”—certainly nothing analogous to the Protestant Reformation.

Overlooked is that Western secularism was, and is, possible only because Christian scripture lends itself to the division between church and state, the spiritual and the temporal.

Upholding the literal teachings of Christianity is possible within a secular—or any—state.  Christ called on believers to “render unto Caesar the things of Caesar (temporal) and unto God the things of God (spiritual)” (Matt. 22:21).  For the “kingdom of God” is “not of this world” (John 18:36).  Indeed, a good chunk of the New Testament deals with how “man is not justified by the works of the law… for by the works of the law no flesh shall be justified” (Gal. 2:16).

On the other hand, mainstream Islam is devoted to upholding the law; and Islamic scripture calls for a fusion between Islamic law—Sharia—and the state.   Allah decrees in the Koran that “It is not fitting for true believers—men or women—to take their choice in affairs if Allah and His Messenger have decreed otherwise. He that disobeys Allah and His Messenger strays far indeed!” (33:36).   Allah tells the prophet of Islam, “We put you on an ordained way [literarily in Arabic, sharia] of command; so follow it and do not follow the inclinations of those who are ignorant” (45:18).

Mainstream Islamic exegesis has always interpreted such verses to mean that Muslims must follow the commandments of Allah as laid out in the Koran and Hadith—in a word, Sharia.

And Sharia is so concerned with the details of this world, with the everyday doings of Muslims, that every conceivable human action falls under five rulings, or ahkam: the forbidden (haram), the discouraged (makruh), the neutral (mubah), the recommended (mustahib), and the obligatory (wajib).

Conversely, Islam offers little concerning the spiritual (sidelined Sufism the exception).

Unlike Christianity, then, Islam without the law—without Sharia—becomes meaningless.   After all, the Arabic word Islam literally means “submit.”  Submit to what?  Allah’s laws as codified in Sharia and derived from the Koran and Hadith.

The “Islamic reformation” some in the West are hoping for is really nothing less than an Islam without Islam—secularization not reformation; Muslims prioritizing secular, civic, and humanitarian laws over Allah’s law; a “reformation” that would slowly see the religion of Muhammad go into the dustbin of history.

Such a scenario is certainly more plausible than believing that Islam can be true to its scriptures in any meaningful way and still peacefully coexist with, much less complement, modernity the way Christianity does.

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  • ontheleftcoast

    The immediate consequence of the Protestant Reformation was the staggering toll taken by armies, rapine, famine and disease in the Thirty Years War. That was without modern military technology and weapons of mass destruction – and with and despite scriptures that center around pacific teachings and include the ideas that later led to the separation of church and state.

    The Thirty Years War finally wound down with the system of sovereign states set up by the Westphalian System.

    Why should we cheerlead for a Muslim “reformation” with modern weapons and militant scriptures that include a plan for worldwide conquest and a theocracy with non-Muslims as second class citizens?

    The sovereign states of Iraq and Syria, such as they were, are being dismembered by jihadis who reject the entire Westphalian System and the ideas it rode into town on.

    • Paul of Alexandria

      No, those were the consequences of the politics surrounding the Reformation, and were probably inevitable.

      In Islam, of course, there is no separation of Church and State – politics and religion are inseparable.

  • Lysander Spooner

    So is the “islamic reformation” a return to orthodox islam?

    • Americana

      Since NO MUSLIM of significant stature has yet declared himself (or herself) interested in reforming Islam, this op-ed is simply Ibrahim’s stated belief that this push by fundamentalists to recreate the various caliphates is a self-declared “reformation.” Ibrahim’s point in this op-ed is to denigrate and ridicule the possible reformation of Islam as being impossible. Why doesn’t Ibrahim believe it’s possible for Islam to reform itself? Because it’s a faith that’s designed to withstand any internal stressors placed upon its dogma having liberal guards against apostates within its strictures.

      • Paul of Alexandria

        Read. The. Article! “Reforming” doesn’t mean “bring up to modern Progressive sensibilities.” It means – in this case, as in the Christian Reformation – to return to the roots, and to the core belief.

    • Paul of Alexandria


      • kikorikid

        And that call to “Orthodox Islam” is loudest
        in “Milestones, by Sayyid Qubt.

  • Emerson_C

    This article misunderstands the roots of the Protestant Reformation. For instance the separation of church and state is a Medieval Catholic idea and was particularly reinforced by the Investiture quarrel, which separated the role of Pope and Emperor. The ‘Divine Right of Kings’ which saw the fusion of the role of Head of Church and the King was a product of the Protestant Reformation; its greatest opponents were the Jesuits. Likewise the Protestant reformers were moral rigorists of the most extreme type and rejected the new humanism of the Renaissance, and the scholastic tradition of Faith and Reason. All the great humanists of that time such as More and Erasmus rallied to the cause of the Catholic Church. Parlaimentary and representative institutions, the tradition of Common Law, and ground breaking documents like the Magna Carta were also pre-reformation, as is the idea of the free market. The Reformation was also established though brutal force and violence particularly in England and Scotland, Germany and Holland. Calvin set up the first totalitarian police state in Europe at Geneva. Luther who believed that the Fall had rendered humanity Absolutely Wretched, accorded absolute power to the civil power. The most obvious product of this world view was the highly authoritarian, regimented and centralized state of Prussia. Luther also composed one of vilest ant-Semetic tracts ever written. No the Protestant Reformation is not model for a reformed Islam. The Gregorian Reformation of the Catholic Church in the 12/13th century or the Counter-reformation of the 16/17th Century are better models.

    • Bose Heaven

      You are pointing out some serious and legit concerns about a number of initial results of the reformation. But that does not exclude that eventually it became a far more accurate assessment of the Bible and the Christian faith then the Catholic tradition, certainly at the point of salvation through faith and grace. What you expressed about the reformation points out that the reformation needed numeral reconsiderations and another major ‘awakening’ to reach the next level in the divine restoration proces of the Church. The second major breakthrough was the birth of the Pentecost movement at the start of last century which resulted in a thorough understanding of the ‘born again’ condition of the believer, in which the believer is conscience of his unity in his spirit with His Spirit. In my conviction there will come another wave within the Church which will the transform the Church back into the NT Church based on a ‘final’ restoration of the 5-fold ministry.

    • Paul of Alexandria

      Actually, Raymond got it pretty well. Don’t confuse Luther with Calvin and Swingli, they’re different schools of thought. You also don’t seem to understand what Luther said either.

    • bigjulie

      What you have done is, once again, illustrate the illogic of the establishment of any “religion” at all as being from ONE all-seeing, all-knowing entity who has prepared an inflexible, authoritative directive to all “createes” as to how they are supposed to function while existing for the short time they are allowed to exist on this planet. The controversy, to my mind, is absolute proof that none of this crap came from some spiritual, all-knowing, all-seeing entity, unless one accepts that it is really absolute proof that there is actually a pantheon of “all-seeing, all-knowing” entities who have their own little wars going on between them out there in “pantheonville” but are not “all-seeing” and “all-knowing” enough to make themselves an absolute ruler in “pantheonville” by defeating all other comers…except for Islam!
      Islam appears to be “all-seeing” and “all-knowing” enough to have its practitioners literally go out and stamp out the claims of all the other “all-seeing, all-knowing” entities in Pantheonville by the use of massive, brutal force! The other residents of Pantheonville, seem to prefer the export of the physical struggle “down here”, rather than taking place in Pantheonville, so that the followers absorb all the punishment, rather than the gods.
      Pretty “chickensh*t” and cowardly arrangement, if you ask me!

  • chuckie2u

    When one reads the Commandments of Moses one also reads that those who broke those commandments should surely die. So Judism stoned the transgressors. There was no seperation of “Church and State” . Removing the threat of death and allowing the State to prevail,as Christianity has done, has opened the doors of Secularism to prevail and relegate Religion to a minority state with no power in the majority of countries. Islam appears to maintain a holistic world view to not seperating the Laws of Allah/God from their everyday life. The “Church” and State are one and thus shall it be as it is written as they reform the errors in their religion.

    • Paul of Alexandria

      Sigh. We, especially as Christians, are not bound by the civil or ceremonial aspects of the Law, being neither citizens of the Davidic kingom of Israel nor Jews prior to the coming of the Christ. I really wish people would stop getting this important Christian teaching wrong.

      • Lightbringer

        And we, as Jews, do not consider any non-Jew to be bound to any of our laws. These laws were given to the Jews; anyone else who wants to take some of them on is welcome to do so, but not required. Another difference between us and the Muslims: We do not, in spite of our detractors’ declarations, want to take over the world. We want to live our lives, follow our laws, and be left alone.

        • Paul of Alexandria


    • Paul of Alexandria

      The separation of Church and State is a fundamental part of Christian teaching: the doctrine of the two kingdoms. Jesus didn’t come as the Messiah in the way that the Zealots hoped for, His kingdom is “not of this world” and we are to live in this world but not of it (See most of the writings of St. Paul). The rulers and temporal authorities are put in place to keep order and protect society, but we should never have the assumption that they will be Christian, or even good.

      Under Islam, on the other hand, the state and the religion are inseparable and a theocracy is mandated. Under the caliphate, Shariah is the only law desired or necessary. Non-Muslims convert, serve in dhimmi status, or die.

  • Paul of Alexandria

    Very good analysis, Mr. Ibrahim. You’re one of the few commentators that seem to understand what Luther was actually trying to do.

    For those who want to understand Luther and the Reformation, some references: also search on “Luther”, and there are many other podcasts on various topics of interest.


      martin luther was the osama bin laden of his time – based on their words, neither are worthy of admiration.

      • kikorikid

        I would say that Sayyid Qubt was the Martin Luther of
        his time.

      • Paul of Alexandria

        Hardly, and you obviously know nothing of the Reformation. Luther was a priest, a monk, a lawyer, highly educated, and studied the Scriptures in the original languages (including Hebrew). He did NOT want to break with the Roman Catholic church, but to mend the abuses and false doctrines that had accumulated over 1400 years. Everything that he preached can be supported by Scripture and the early church fathers (although, of course, being human Luther was not inerrant).


          SCREW martin luther. luther was one of the inspirations for the Holocaust.

          Any religion that names itself after a Hater like luther has zero claim to be a religion of peace.

          • Paul of Alexandria

            No he wasn’t, actually. You don’t actually like studying history, do you? (and Wikipedia isn’t the most accurate source). The Nazi’s claimed many things, but – like most socialists, only wanted excuses for what they wanted to do anyways. Please check out these podcasts at Issues Etc for a clearer view on the issue:

            Yes, Luther had some harsh things to say about the Jews, but there are mitigating circumstances which are rather complicated.

  • Barbarossa Rotbart

    This seminal article elaborates nicely on fundamental differences between Christanity and Islam. I am going to print it out for future reference.

  • Walter Sieruk

    The Protestant Reformation was based on something which was good a right, the Bible. In contrast any kind of “reform” in Islam would be based on the Quran. which is a deceptive book that is fill of violence and errors. This” reform” in Islam is not possible because in ,in essence, in nothing good and right about it to rest upon as a bases on which to build reform on. For the very foundation of Islam is bad for all to see if all the deception of it is stripped away. As the Bible teaches “That which is crooked cannot be made straight: and that which is wanting cannot be numbered.” Ecclesiastes 1:15. [K.J.V]