Not Saussure

September 19, 2006

Reforming Islam: a disingenous request?

Filed under: Catholicism, Islam, Politics, Religion — notsaussure @ 11:02 pm

From Soumaya Ghannoushi’s article, Return to the dark ages, in today’s CiF:

Not a day goes by without calls to reform Islam being raised — a mission which Pope Benedict XVI has declared impossible.

Actually, I wasn’t aware that he had done. I did, however, read in The Times last week that

According to another leading Catholic who took part in a secret meeting with him on the subject last September at the Pope’s summer residence in Italy, Benedict XVI believes that Islam cannot be reformed and is therefore incompatible with democracy

but I’m not sure I particularly trust our good friend, ‘unnamed sources’, about what someone may or may not have said at a meeting which, since it’s supposedly secret, we don’t know, for sure, took place anyway, even when he’s quoted in a paper owned by News International. Indeed, since the idea of even a not very good Catholic who’s been taken into the Holy Father’s confidence by being invited to secret meetings — it’s a pretty rum sort of ‘secret meeting’, after all, which isn’t held in confidence — breaking that sort of confidence is pretty unimaginable, I think we can safely file that one away with the reports of Saddam’s WMD and the picture of Bin Laden’s Mountain Fortress that have, in the past, appeared in The Times (them B52s did a pretty good job of obliterating it, didn’t they?). Memo to Ms Ghannoushi: it’s not necessarily true, even though it’s been printed in the papers.

However, to be fair, as I sometimes try to be, the report does go on to quote

Father Joseph Fessio, provost of Ave Maria University in Naples and founder of the publishing house Ignatius Press, [who] said the Pope believes that reform of Islam is impossible “because it’s against the very nature of the Koran, as it’s understood by Muslims.”

That, if Fr Fessio is correct about the Pope’s views, is a perfectly unexceptionable theological statement if Muslims believe in something like sola scriptura; the Pope could, and I sometimes wish he would, if only to see how President Bush reacts, say exactly the same about some Protestants and for the same reason (Catholics really don’t like that particular Protestant doctrine). If he’s correct about Islamic traditions of scriptural interpretation and authority (and he may, of course, be mistaken) the idea’s pretty much a contradiction in theological terms since it’s difficult to see what Muslims are being asked to reform.

However, there is, to my mind, another reason for being very uncomfortable with the idea that Islam should be expect to undergo a Reformation, and that’s because it’s all too frequently, to my mind, a disingenuous request to do something impossible; it’s akin, as I understand it, to asking for the ‘reform of Protestantism’. You can certainly ask the Catholic Church to revise its teachings on particular matters — since it believes in prima scriptura, that’s perfectly feasible. You can also ask the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Anglican hierarchy to do something about the Church of England’s teaching on — for example — women bishops or gay clergy, and, when they do, just look how other Anglicans who don’t agree with them react. But what you certainly can’t do is ask the Archbishop of Canterbury to make Dr Ian Paisley change his, or his Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster’s, views on anything (or vice versa), even though they’re both Protestants. They can seek to persuade each other, of course, but I wouldn’t put much money on their reaching any agreement, let alone one that would commend itself to many members of their respective churches.

And the idea that anyone could, surveying the weird and wonderful world of American television evangelists, decide their views are in need of reform and then ask them to ‘reform’ their various understandings of Christianity is risible.

As I understand it, Islam’s in the same position; you’ve got very traditions and schools of Islam, and within each school there are Imams who carry great authority, both with other Imams from the same or similar traditions and with other Muslims who agree with them, but what don’t have is some central body or figure who can dictate doctrine. In other words, there’s no one who can excommunicate Osama bin Laden; there are plenty of highly influential Muslim figures who can — and have done — denounce his views as perverse and un-Islamic, and while their views must carry great weight with many Muslims they presumably don’t cut much ice with Osama or people who think like him.

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1 Comment »

  1. The Mahdi’s job is to reform Islam.

    Comment by Love — September 20, 2006 @ 3:53 am


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