Does Islam Really Need a Martin Luther?

Where is Islam's Martin Luther? It's a question that many of us who speak or write about Islam in public forums encounter repeatedly. It's also a question that permeates newspaper editorials and the blogosphere. The question occasionally comes from Muslims, but I hear it more frequently from Protestant Christians who have concluded that Islam is a rigid, oppressive religion in desperate need of a Reformation and a Martin Luther if it is going to be "saved."

I hate this question. It's the wrong one for Christians to ask for two reasons. For starters, it reflects a lack of knowledge of Islam. Islam does have the concepts of reform (islah) and revival/renewal (tajdid), and even a cursory study of contemporary Islamic history reveals an array of important reformers, from Muhammad Abduh and Sayyid Ahmad Khan of the nineteenth century to present-day Muslim feminists Fatima Mernissi and Leila Ahmed, not to mention the prominent Swiss scholar Tariq Ramadan (ironically considered by some to be a Muslim Martin Luther). To be sure, this is a very diverse group, but what they all share is a commitment to putting Islamic scriptures and traditions into conversation with the West and the modern world.

But the question is deeply troubling on another level. It reflects a Protestantized narrative of a mythical figure, a savior who liberated Christians from the big bad Catholic Church and the heavy burdens it placed on ordinary Christians to achieve salvation through ritualistic obligations and the performance of good works. The huge problem with this narrative lies not simply in its latent anti-Catholicism but in its failure to take into account the entirety of Luther's legacy -- the good, the bad, and the ugly.

As a religious historian at a college named for the sixteenth-century German reformer, I have an obligation to expose my students to the historical Luther, warts and all. What my students learn is that Luther's ideas on justification by faith and the priesthood of all believers changed the course of Christianity and Western history. And they learn that these ideas were met with enthusiasm by plenty of Europeans who found in them a breath of fresh air, a new and inspiring way to practice the faith.

What they also learn is that not everyone in Europe felt liberated by Luther. Jews certainly didn't. Luther labeled them a "miserable and accursed" group, a "whoring people" who are nothing more than "thieves and robbers." His advice for how Christians should deal with them was "to set fire to their synagogues or schools," to have their homes "razed and destroyed," to confiscate their prayer books, and to abolish safe conduct for them on highways, among other things. His views on Jews were not new to European history, but for a man known for reform and change, here is one area where that was sorely missing.

Plenty of women didn't necessarily find liberation in Luther's reforms either. True, some women who had been confined to convents against their will did welcome Luther's decision to close down convents and monasteries. They gladly embraced the vocation of wife and mother that Luther touted so highly over against the life of a nun. But there were plenty of women who still wanted the opportunity to embrace a religious vocation and to live a life for God apart from the direct supervision of men. These women also appreciated the educational opportunities that convents afforded them that did not exist for laywomen. Some of these nuns were among the fiercest opponents of Luther's Reformation, seeing in it not greater but lesser freedom and opportunity.

What's more, while Luther may have elevated a woman's vocation as wife and mother, he certainly didn't elevate women as such. Like almost every medieval theologian before him, Luther viewed women as the weaker, more carnal, and less rational part of human nature. God created women primarily for the purpose of procreation, though after the Fall, they were also useful as "a medicine against the sin of fornication."

Perhaps the most obvious group not to find freedom or liberation in Luther's Reformation was the hosts of Catholic laypersons who were largely content with their religion and who resisted Luther's reform efforts. Historians have done an excellent job in recent decades of uncovering the stories of ordinary women and men throughout sixteenth-century Europe who continued to attend Mass, confess their sins to a priest, perform works of penance, and put their hope in the mediation of the Catholic Church for their salvation and for coping with the challenges of daily living. This is an important point in light of the question we began with. When Protestants ask, "Where is Islam's Martin Luther?", they are often assuming that Luther was the answer to every Christian's "problems" back in the day. He wasn't. The same holds true today.

A closer look at Luther's Reformation reveals that there were plenty of things that he did not change, plenty of views that he held that many modern Christians might not find befitting of the "savior" of Christianity. With the historical Luther, we discover that old prejudices were perpetuated, marginalized groups remained marginalized, and intolerance of religious "others" (Catholics, Jews, and Muslims) was the norm. Certainly this is not what Protestants want for Islam?

My purpose here is not to beat up on Luther but to encourage Christians to move beyond the problematic assumptions about him and their own tradition that undermine the much-needed dialogue between Christians and Muslims today. When Christians call for a Muslim Martin Luther, they are assuming not only that Islam lacks reformers but that Luther's particular version of Christianity is a perfect model that any would-be Muslim reformer should strive to emulate. This is not a recipe for successful interfaith dialogue or relationships - it's a recipe for Protestant triumphalism and self-righteousness. And it's a sign that the time has come for many Christians, Protestant and otherwise, to start doing their homework concerning their own religious traditions so that they can be equipped to ask much better questions of the traditions of others.