I used to believe Islam needed to go through its own ‘reformation.’ It is a popular opinion — and a comforting one, too, since it is premised on the notion that History functions in the same way in all places, and thus Islam is just ‘a little behind’ the West and will soon ‘catch up.’ But this narrative is deeply problematic, because the concerns that motivated the likes of Martin Luther are not present in contemporary Islam. The Protestant Reformation was an intellectual rebellion against a powerful centralized authority in an era in which few laymen had actually read the Bible for themselves. But there is no centralized authority in Islam right now, and it is quite common for laymen — even illiterate ones — to have memorized the entire Qur’an. Islam’s central authority was dissolved about a century ago — and no imam is discouraging lay Muslims from knowing exactly what the Qur’an says. How and why, then, would Islam need something akin to the Protestant Reformation?
What people really mean when they say things like this, it seems, is that Islam direly needs some kind of movement that will plant the seeds of liberal change. But here in the West, the process of liberal change took centuries, not decades. Besides, if the likes of ISIS, al-Qaeda, Hamas, Boko Haram, etc., are not legitimately Islamic and are therefore rebelling against traditional interpretations of Islam, then perhaps they are the ‘sola scriptura’-oriented ‘reformers,’ interpreting Islam in a fundamentalist manner that will, over the course of centuries — again, not decades — help the Muslim world overpower the hegemonic West rather than passively accept or submit to the ideology of its conquerors. Surely the Islamists have at least as much a claim to being legitimately Islamic as those who think the Qur’an is somehow a precursor to the American Declaration of Independence and progressive notions of universal human rights.