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Are we seeing the Muslim equivalent of the Protestant Reformation?


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As you may or may not know, Salafi (i.e. "Islamist") fighters have taken control of northern Mali a few months ago, including the medieval city of Timbuktu and its many historical monuments and relics. Recently, they have proceeded to destroy the centuries-old tombs of Sufi Muslim saints, which the Salafis consider to be heretical idols (because Salafi Islam decrees that all worship, praise and prayers are to be directed at God and God alone).

This got me thinking about the Salafi wave currently sweeping across the Muslim world, which is often mistakenly called "Islamism" or "Jihadism" in the West. Don't their beliefs and actions sound oddly familiar? They believe that the Qur'an is the sole source of religious knowledge (or sometimes the sole source of truth, full stop) and ought to be interpreted literally. They believe that the world is irredeemably corrupt unless enlightened by their faith. They prohibit modern entertainment, sometimes going so far as to ban theatre and dancing. They insist on conservative dress, especially for women. They oppose any kind of veneration of saints or anything else they consider to be an idol. And, of course, they seek to merge the government with religion.

We've seen all these before. They were major features of the Protestant Reformation in Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries.

A while back, a friend of mine joking said that "you know, Afghanistan is a lot like Switzerland... well, if Switzerland was ruled by fanatical Calvinists." I'm starting to think he was more right than he realized.

So are we, in fact, seeing the rise of a kind of Muslim Calvinism - or, more broadly, a Muslim version of the Protestant Reformation?

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Well, protestantism was hugely progressive for its time while this islamic movement (Salafism) is hugely retrograd. And the main cause of the "reform" was that people were fed up with catholic taxes and exemptions and general corruption. Why would a german peasant or craftsman pay tax to the Pope that sens him a murderous and womanazing priest to tell him how to behave in order to be redeemed?

I see this more like Amish or Mormon. Just more violent.

There was a 30-year war in german lands over this religious problem, right? It halved the population there. On the other hand, protestant nations kinda' took over the world: Britain, USA, Holland, etc. due to their economic prowess (progressive thinking) while normal conservative catholic countries lost their initial foothold and were pushed back: Spain, France, Portugal.

But I think we're really ignorant of all this, because none of us knows islam (nor Shi'a nor Sunni) so I think it's far more intricate that we can grasp right now.

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  • 2 months later...

Davidu, you are right. I got a little carried away thinking of the similarities between Salafism and Protestantism, and failed to take into account the much bigger differences. Protestantism was a religious movement tied to a new, rising social class - the merchants that would later form the basis of the capitalist bourgeoisie - who played a progressive role in history at the time. It rejected the authority and tradition of the extremely powerful Catholic Church in favour of a more "slimmed down" version of Christianity that generally had a lower impact on people's lives. Yes, the Protestant leaders were usually fanatical fundamentalists (especially Calvin) but their followers usually lived less religious lives than the Catholics. The Catholic Church had a calendar with many feasts and holy days, it had fasting periods, it had long prayers and rituals, it had sacraments like confession. Protestantism, on the other hand, pretty much got rid of all the important calendar dates except Easter and Christmas, eliminated most rituals, and de-emphasized or even completely eliminated confession. As a result, Protestants spent less time doing "religious things" than Catholics.

Salafism, on the other hand, is a movement largely supported by old, conservative social classes that feel threatened by the modern world. Salafis get money from Saudi royalty and various emirs in the Arabian peninsula, who are the last absolute monarchs in the world - and who are afraid that they will soon share the fate of the Bourbons, the Kaisers or the Tsars. In Afghanistan, the local branch of the Salafi movement (the Taliban) is largely supported by feudal landowners who grow opium. They are desperate to prevent modernization and industrialization, because they know that it will make them lose all their power. And, of course, Salafism as a movement is making Muslims spend more time doing "religious things", not less.

So, yes... on closer inspection, Salafism and Protestantism are quite different.

Also, MrFlibble, you are right: the ideas that I listed in my previous post were new for Christianity, but they are old for Islam.

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