What Can the Christian Reformation Tell Us About Muslim Reform?

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Farkhunda Malikzada (Photo: Video screenshot)

By William Thomas Ozanick

France in the 1600s: Catholics and Huguenots

The Edict of Nantes, signed by King Henry IV in 1598, marked the end of the French Wars of Religion. After 36 years of conflict between the Catholic majority and the Protestants of France, the decree granted significant rights to the nation’s persecuted Protestants, known as Huguenots, such as the right to work in any field or profession, including the government.

As time passed, King Louis XIV grew increasingly intolerant of the Huguenots, culminating in the issuance of the Edict of Fontainebleau (1685), which abrogated the Edict of Nantes.

With Protestantism becoming illegal once again, an estimated 200,000 Huguenots fled France. However, the vast majority of Huguenots acquiesced and converted to Catholicism. In mid-1700 France, Catholicism was still the state religion, Protestantism was not legally recognized, Huguenots were viewed as schismatics and heretics, and the pre-Edict of Nantes restrictions on Huguenots had been reestablished.

The Huguenot population had dwindled to an estimated two percent of France’s population. Jean Calas and his family were a part of this Huguenot population.


Jean Calas and His Son

In 1761, Jean Calas, a cloth merchant, had dinner with his wife, a family friend named Lavaysse, the family’s Catholic servant, and two of his sons, Marc-Antoine and Pierre, at the family’s home in Toulouse, France.

After dinner, Pierre and Lavaysse went downstairs and found Marc-Antoine’s lifeless body hanging between the doors of Jean Calas’s shop. Marc-Antoine’s clothes were folded on the counter, his hair was neatly arranged, and there were no signs of a struggle. Marc-Antoine, who was denied entry to his field of study (law) because of his faith, had been grudgingly working as a clerk for his father prior to his death.

He had not only been an inveterate gambler, but had also been subject to fits of deep melancholy and had even confided in a friend that he was contemplating suicide.

However, because the legislation regarding suicide at that time stipulated “a self-slayer’s body must be cast forth unburied,” a sentence which involved confiscation of all the deceased’s property to the imperial treasury, the Calas family tried to conceal the cause of Marc-Antoine’s death and claimed he was murdered by a shadowy intruder.

The commotion that ensued after Marc-Antoine’s body was found, exacerbated by the inconsolable sobbing of Marc-Antoine’s distraught mother, had caused a crowd to gather outside of the Calas house. It was then that someone in the crowd yelled that Marc-Antoine planned on converting to Catholicism, like his brother Louis did nearly five years earlier, and that Jean Calas murdered his son to prevent the apostasy out of hatred of the Catholic religion.


One Baseless Accusation

That single, baseless accusation transmogrified the crowd into a mob. Jean Calas, along with his wife, Pierre, Lavaysse, and the family’s servant, were all arrested that night. After nearly two days in prison, they all confessed that Marc-Antoine had indeed committed suicide, but it made no difference.

Without any evidence, the court declared Jean Calas guilty of murder and sentenced him to be tortured with the hope that he would confess his crime and implicate the others. After two hours of agonizing torture in Cathedral Square, the authorities broke Jean Calas on the Catherine wheel without ever extracting a confession.

“I die innocent” were the last words spoken by Jean Calas. Without a modicum of evidence that Marc-Antoine had been murdered or converted to Catholicism, Marc-Antoine received a Catholic funeral that was attended by thousands of Catholics who viewed him as a martyr.

Three years after his execution, Jean Calas was acquitted of the crime.


Fast Forward: Kabul, Afghanistan 2015

Fast forward approximately two and a half centuries to Kabul, Afghanistan. Exactly two years ago, on March 19, 2015, Farkhunda Malikzada, a 27-year old student of Islamic Studies and volunteer teacher, was on her way home from a Quran reciting class when she stopped at a shrine in the city-center to pray.

While there, Farkhunda came across several vendors at the shrine who were selling charms bearing Quranic verses. Farkhunda, who believed the charms were not only superstitious, but also un-Islamic, began to argue with one of the vendors.

Moments later, the vendor yelled, “This woman has burned the Quran!”


Another Ascusation

That single, baseless accusation transmogrified the crowd into a mob. Those around her began to ask why she burned the Quran and seconds later, she was shoved to the ground accompanied by shouts of “Kill her!” The police, who initially fired a warning shot to disperse the crowd, did not restrain the crowd.

The police merely looked on as Farkhunda, who never stopped declaring her innocence, was kicked, beaten with sticks and stones, and run over by a car that dragged her hundreds of feet before her body was set alight.

Thanks to the ubiquity of cell phones, this ordeal was captured on film and can be viewed here in its entirety; the footage is not for the faint-of-heart.


Officials Praise the Lynching

Shortly after her death, the deputy minister of information and culture, Semin Ghazal Hasanzada, Kabul police spokesman, Hashmat Stanekzai, as well as many prominent imams, praised the crowd’s actions. Police advised Farkhunda’s family to leave Kabul. However, an investigation conducted a few days later by the Ministry of Religious Affairs found no evidence that Farkhunda had burned the Quran, and General Mohammad Zahir lamented at her funeral that “Farkhunda was totally innocent.”

A monument was later built in honor of Farkhunda, and the state compensated Farkhunda’s family for their loss.

When examining these two accounts, it is vital to ask how such specious accusations can provoke countless individuals to not only exhibit an appalling case of Genovese Syndrome, but to actively support and participate in such injustice.


‘Not the Work of the Taliban’

Regarding the case of Farkhunda, Shakeela Ebrahimkhel, a television journalist, instructively noted that this was not the work of the Taliban and that “these weren’t men who came down from the mountains — they were educated city-dwellers who rushed to beat and murder a woman based on hearsay.”

The cases of Jean Calas and Farkhunda Malikzada were not isolated cases in their respective times, nor do they support the deindividuation theory. In fact, both cases are decidedly representative of the convergence theory of crowd psychology.


Religious Intolerance

The murder of Jean Calas was the corollary of a religiously intolerant environment that existed across much of the Christian world at that time and was not an isolated incident. Had it been, the Calas case would not have sparked Voltaire to write his transcendent Treatise on Tolerance in which he argued for reconciliation among faiths all across Europe.

Similarly, the death of Farkhunda was the result of religiously intolerant views that a disconcerting number of Muslims still hold in the 21st century regarding blasphemers, apostates, adulterers, women, etc. Such views are not confined to Afghanistan.


Consider the Numbers

According to the Pew Research Center’s comprehensive report entitled The World’s Muslims: Religion, Politics, and Society:

  • 78% of all Muslims in Afghanistan, 64% in Egypt, 58% in Jordan, 53% in Malaysia and 64% in Pakistan believe apostates should be killed
  • 84% of all Muslims in Afghanistan, 60% in Egypt, 35% in Indonesia, 48% in Jordan, 52% in Malaysia and 75% in Pakistan believe adulterers should be stoned to death
  • 39% of all Muslims in Afghanistan, 26% in Bangladesh, 29% in Egypt, 40% in Palestinian territories, 18% in Malaysia and 15% in Turkey believe suicide bombings in defense of Islam are often or sometimes justified

It is worth mentioning that polling was not conducted in countries such as Saudi Arabia, Somalia, or Yemen where one could expect the percentages to be just as high, if not higher.

Moreover, the polling also shows that the majority of Muslims are more worried about the threat from Muslim extremists as opposed to Christian extremists. For example, in Indonesia, 53% of Muslims are worried about Muslim extremists and only 4% are worried about Christian extremists. Additionally, 45% of Muslims in Iraq are worried about Muslim extremists and only 3% are worried about Christian extremists.

This is understandable given that no one suffers more from this intolerance and extremism than Muslims. While far too many Muslims are intolerant of non-Muslims, many are also intolerant towards Muslims of other sects (Sunnis, Shias, Ahmadiyyas, et. al), just as Catholics were once extremely intolerant of those they deemed schismatics, like the Protestants.

Indeed, 38% of all Muslims in Lebanon, 34% in Pakistan and 23% in Iraq are concerned about sectarianism and feel tensions between Sunnis and Shias are a very big problem in their country.

Polling aside, the remaining 10 countries in the world where homosexuality is punishable by death are Muslim countries, all 13 countries that continue to mete out the death penalty to atheists and those who those who reject the official state religion are Muslim countries and eight of the 10  worst-rated countries in terms of women’s rights are Muslim majority.

Since most Muslim-majority countries still have laws against blasphemy and apostasy, one cannot ignore the plights of:

  • Asia Bibi, a Pakistani Christian (and mother-of-five) convicted of blasphemy and sentenced to death. In 2009, Bibi, an agriculture worker, got into a spat with some of her Muslim colleagues after they refused to drink from the same pale of water as her because she was a non-Muslim, saying it was “unclean.” Taking offense, Bibi argued with these other women before they alleged that she had made a pejorative remark about the Prophet Mohammed, a charge she denied.
  • Alexander Aan, an Indonesian atheist and civil servant was convicted of blasphemy and sentenced to two-and-a-half years, plus a fine. In 2012, Aan committed his “crime” when he explained why he did not believe in God in a Facebook post. Aan would require police protection before he was convicted after an incensed mob gathered outside his office. Amnesty International called him a prisoner of conscience.
  • Raif Badawi, a Saudi writer convicted of blasphemy was sentenced to 1,000 lashes and 10 years in jail, plus a hefty fine of $267,000, in 2014. Badawi questioned elementary tenets of life in Saudi Arabia, notably the central role of religion and the message of several senior religious clerics and championed the importance of separation of church and state. Some within the Saudi judicial system are still trying to have Badawi retried for the crime of apostasy; a crime that would result in Badawi being beheaded.
  • Meriam Ibrahim, a Sudani woman convicted of apostasy and sentenced to death after she refused to renounce Christianity. Ibrahim was born to a Muslim father and Christian mother, but after her father abandoned them, Meriam was predictably raised Christian. Ibrahim married a fellow Christian in 2013 and became pregnant shortly afterward. She was accused of adultery and sentences to lashes (since her marriage to a Christian was not recognized). Eight months pregnant at the time, Ibrahim was forced to give birth “shackled to the floor.”

The Need for Islamic Reformation

The aforementioned examples are far from being exceptional cases within these countries or confined solely to these countries. Taking into account the current state of the Muslim world, including the data and examples mentioned, Islam today is in dire need of a reformation similar to what Christianity underwent several hundred years ago.

This is not to say one should wish for an Islamic Reformation identical to the Protestant Reformation (although incrementalism is valuable); indeed, many of Christianity’s earliest reformers were just as intolerant of nonconformists and heretics as the Church they reviled.

The word reform, by definition, means to change something, typically a social, political, or economic institution or practice in order to improve it. It is in this sense that Muslims must reform their religion by reexamining concepts such as tolerance, secularism and freedom of conscience so that they may be aligned with The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) adopted by the United Nations in 1948.

This is a truth without prejudice or bigotry. In fact, since many Christian countries were extremely intolerant and had laws prohibiting apostasy in the 18th century, genuine bigotry would be to believe Muslims are incapable of successfully reforming their religion the way Christians did.

Has Reform Already Happened?

Some argue Islam already experienced a reformation of sorts nearly a quarter-millennium ago when a Sunni Muslim preacher and scholar named Muhammad Ibn Abdul Wahhab proposed a return to an even more literal and rigid interpretation of the Quran and hadiths.

Wahhab’s teachings are what formed the dominant branch of Islam practiced in Saudi Arabia today, known as Wahhabism. However, Islam (prior to Wahhab or other reformers) had never grappled with the problems of non-secular governments or religious intolerance in the way that Christianity has since the sixteenth century.

As Perez Zagorin stated in his book, How the Idea of Religious Toleration Came to the West, “It is only in Western society, and only because of the conflicts and debates between contending Christian churches, sects, and confessions, that there appeared a massive body of writings by many different authors exploring the problem of religious toleration from many angles and presenting an array of arguments on behalf of the principles of liberty of conscience, mutual tolerance, and religious coexistence.”

At no point in Islam’s 1400 year history have the calls for separation of church and state and freedom of conscience been as loud, ubiquitous and persistent as they are now; the Islamic Reformation has already begun.

Thus if an Islamic Reformation is indeed already underway, “scholars” would do well to stop shamefully insisting Islam is not in need of reform and instead examine Christianity’s violent and non-linear path to enlightenment in order to extract key lessons learned that may be applicable for Islam’s reformation in the ensuing centuries.

What Worked for Christianity?

What worked, what didn’t work, what hastened (and impeded) Christianity’s enlightenment, what are some general, yet germane, takeaways and which lessons are applicable?

If religious tolerance was absent throughout much of the Western world for so many centuries and intolerance remained extant in most countries until the end of the nineteenth century, what factors were most responsible for turning the tables and causing so many to eventually champion the concept of religious toleration?

Since the history and tenets of these faiths are not analogous, it is obvious that not all of these lessons will be applicable to Islam’s reformation. Nevertheless, religious scholars ought to stop proclaiming that Islam need not be reformed, and instead identify how they can help expedite what will be an unequivocally violent and multi-generational reformation


Bill Ozanick is currently a graduate student at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C.  He can be followed on Twitter @BillOzanick

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