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A coming Islamic reformation

Osama bin Laden, like Martin Luther and the radicals of the Christian Reformation, is pushing religious individualism to terrifying limits.

January 28, 2006|Reza Aslan | REZA ASLAN is a research associate at USC's Center for Public Diplomacy and the author of "No god but God."

OSAMA BIN LADEN'S latest taped message caused U.S. pundits to comment on his evolution from an in-the-trenches jihadist leader to elder statesman -- sidelined, but providing a soundtrack for terror.

But even "elder statesman" may not do him justice. In 100 years, after the memory of 9/11 has receded and the war on terror is a somber chapter in our nation's history, we may look back on Bin Laden not only as a murderous criminal but as one of the principal figures of an era that scholars are increasingly referring to as the Islamic reformation. Indeed, historians may one day place Bin Laden alongside 16th century Christian revolutionaries Thomas Muntzer, Hans Hut or even Martin Luther as a "reformation radical" who pushed the principle of religious individualism to terrifying limits.

Of course, there are those who reject the very idea of an Islamic reformation, let alone any attempt to draw parallels between the histories of Islam and Christianity. But while such parallels can be strained, there are certain similarities between the Christian and Islamic reformations that should not be dismissed, not least because they reflect universal conflicts found in nearly every religious tradition. Chief among these is the question of who has the authority to define faith: the individual or the institution?

In Islam, this question is somewhat complicated by the fact that it has never had a centralized authority -- there is no "Muslim pope," no "Muslim Vatican." Religious authority in Islam is the province of a host of small, competing, though exceedingly powerful, clerical institutions that have maintained a virtual monopoly over the meaning and message of Islam for 1,400 years.

Yet, during the last century, as Muslims have increasingly been forced to regard themselves less as members of a worldwide community than as citizens of individual nation-states, a sense of individualism has begun to infuse this essentially communal faith. Add to this dramatic increases in literacy and education, widespread access to new sources of knowledge and the rising tide of globalization, and it is easy to see why the authority of traditional clerical institutions over their Muslim communities has been eroding. After all, Muslims now have access through the Internet (an invention whose role in the Islamic reformation parallels that of the printing press in the Christian Reformation) to the religious opinions of myriad Islamic activists, academics, self-styled preachers, militants and cult leaders throughout the world who are, for better or worse, reshaping the faith.

Not surprisingly, as religious authority passes from traditional institutions to individuals, there may arise those whose reinterpretation of religion will be fueled by extreme social and political agendas. It is in this context that Bin Laden's militantly individualistic, anti-institutional movement harks back to some of the most infamous aspects of the Christian Reformation. Martin Luther, for example, in pursuit of theological dominance over his fellow Protestants, justified their massacre during the German Peasants' Revolt in 1525.

"In such a war," Luther wrote, "it is Christian and an act of love to strangle the enemies confidently, to rob, to burn and do all that is harmful until they are overcome."

Like Luther, Bin Laden is concerned above all else with "purifying" his own religious community. Indeed, contrary to perception in the West, Bin Laden's primary target is neither Christians nor Jews (both of whom he refers to as "the far enemy"), but rather those Muslims who do not share his puritanical view of Islam and who, as a consequence, make up the overwhelming majority of Al Qaeda's victims.

Bin Laden has also deliberately placed himself in direct opposition to the institutional authorities of his religion by repeatedly issuing fatwas and making judgments on Islamic law -- things that, according to Islamic tradition, only a cleric affiliated with one of Islam's recognized schools of law has the authority to do.

Even more striking is his fundamental reinterpretation of jihad: What was once considered a collective duty to be carried out solely at the behest of a qualified cleric has become a radically individualistic obligation totally divorced from institutional authority. It is precisely this conscious recasting of religious authority that has made Bin Laden so appealing to Muslims whose sense of social, economic or religious alienation from their own communities make them yearn for alternative sources of leadership.

Reformation, as we know from Christian history, can be a long, bloody affair, and the Islamic reformation has some distance to go before it resolves itself. Exactly what kind of Islam will emerge is a question only history can answer. But we can be sure that Bin Laden's brand of radical individualism will leave an indelible mark on the faith.

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