In recent years, reform movements have arisen within non-Christian religions, particularly Nichiren Buddhism, which bears clear resemblances to Protestantism.9 An excellent example of this trend is provided by the Soka Gakkai, a Japanese lay reformist Buddhist organization that emphasizes social engagement.10 Yet the most striking and interesting parallels exist between Protestantism and the world's second-largest religious movement—Islam.
As is well known, the Muslim world is divided into a number of factions, the two largest of which are the Sunni and the Shia. It is often suggested that Protestantism has certain affinities with the Shia. However, the truth is more complex. Islam as a whole, precisely because it is a logocentric, text-based religion, bears many similarities to certain forms of Protestantism.
The parallel is not exact. Some forms of Protestantism—such as Lu-theranism, or certain forms of Anglicanism—are focused primarily upon the person of Jesus Christ and give weight to the Bible insofar as it gives access to him. Although the Bible is regarded as fundamental, such Protestants place Christ where Islam places the Qu'ran. Yet other forms of Protestantism—particularly within fundamentalism and various forms of evangelicalism—see the Bible as standing at the center of all things. These groups share Islam's suspicion of imagery of the divine, preferring to focus on the preaching and proclamation of the word. For such Protestants, the differences between Christianity and Islam lie in the question of which text they regard as authoritative: the Qu'ran or the Bible?
Like many forms of Protestantism, Islam focuses on a central text— the Qu'ran. And as with Protestantism, the question of who has the right to interpret the Qu'ran, and hence to define the nature of Islam, has become of critical importance.11 There has never been a "Muslim pope" or the Islamic equivalent of the Vatican. Authority has traditionally resided with certain clerical institutions.
Yet in the late twentieth century, something along the lines of an "Islamic Reformation" from below can be seen emerging. Highly charismatic individuals outside the clerical establishment—such as Osama bin Laden—have offered their own interpretations of Islam. The popular support they have garnered within the global Muslim constituency has undermined the authority of traditional Islamic institutions and laid the foundations for a radical, even dangerous, debate over the essence of Islam. Just as printing spread the ideas of the Protestant Reformation across Europe, so the Internet allows the ideas of the new Islamic radicals to spread globally, challenging traditional Islamic beliefs and values.
The four accepted Sunni schools of Qu'ranic interpretation—Hanafi, Shafi'i, Maliki, and Hanbali—are facing a major challenge from a rising generation of Muslims who are impatient with the conservatism of these schools and prefer the radicalism of alternatives. Each of these schools can be likened to a branch of Protestantism: each is based on the same text, yet offers different interpretations and implementations. New schools are emerging, however, precisely because of a growing realization that the contingencies of history prevent their number from being fixed. More radical schools argue for the need to refer directly to the Qu'ran and Hadith to discover the doctrines and rites of religion rather than trust in the traditions of the past. New possibilities will emerge, along with new schools. Like Protestantism, Islam will face increasing fragmentation as it enters into new cultural contexts in which the restraints of past convention are no longer decisive. Islam's growing presence in the West is opening the door to precisely these reinterpretations, catalyzed by new assumptions about texts, new challenges and pressures, and increasing historical and cultural distance from the Arabic homelands of Islam.
The same patterns can be seen within Protestantism. The settled consensus of an older generation is overthrown by a rising generation who bring new interpretations to the same texts. The emergence of Pentecostalism—easily the most significant development within Protestantism in the twentieth century—illustrates this perfectly. In the nineteenth century, Protestantism's authority figures were more or less unanimous: charismatic phenomena belonged to the apostolic age and had now ceased. That judgment is now the minority report. Patterns of biblical interpretation have changed—and with those changes in biblical interpretation have emerged radical new forms of Protestantism.
The argument that "Islam traditionally teaches this" now carries little weight when authority structures are shifting and a new genera tion is developing new interpretations of the Qu'ran or reclaiming older interpretations that have been marginalized by the Islamic establishment. Within Islam, older Islamic scholars often cite interpretations of the Qu'ran that a more militant grassroots constituency rejects—most notably in relation to the idea of the jihad.
Might there be further changes? Islam's well-known opposition to usury has spawned a minor sharia-compliant financial industry in some parts of the world. Yet Protestantism emerged with precisely the same hostility toward usury, based on its foundational religious text. As we have seen, that judgment was open to challenge, and ultimately total reversal. Might Islam do the same?
There is a deeper question here. Is Islam about to go through the convulsions that shook Western Christianity in the sixteenth century and led to social and political instability for more than a century? And what might be the implications of such a development for the West? Exploring the development of Protestantism may not entirely answer this question. But it certainly maps out some possibilities and raises questions that Western political and religious leaders cannot afford to overlook or ignore.
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