What We Believe

Looking for Islam’s Luthers

Eutychus II

Ordained Servant: December 2013

Two or Three Offices?

Also in this issue

Do the Minister and the Elder Hold the Same Office?

The Necessity of Preaching in the Modern World, part 3[1]

Preaching Christ from Daniel


“Looking for Islam’s Luthers” was the title of Nicholas D. Kristof’s New York Times column a few years ago. He argued that the rigidity, oppression, and violence of Islamic fundamentalism cry out for a Reformation, and all that is waiting is a Muslim Martin Luther to light the fire: “The twenty-first century may become to Islam what the sixteenth was to Christianity, for even in hard-line states like Iran you meet Martin Luthers who are pushing for an Islamic Reformation.”[1]

Kristof was not the first Times columnist to draw an analogy between the state of militant Islam with the medieval Roman Catholic church. Shortly after 9/11, Thomas Friedman predicted in the Times (prematurely, it now appears) that a “drive for an Islamic reformation” was at work in Iran.[2]

According to other voices in the media, Luther has already arrived. Although Mustafa Kemal Ataturk formally disavowed the title, that did not dissuade others from pinning the label on him back in 1923 when he established the secular republic of Turkey. In 2002, Hashem Aghajari pleaded for an “Islamic Protestantism” which he defined as “a rational, scientific, humanistic Islam. It is a thoughtful and intellectual Islam, an open-minded Islam.”[3] Aghajari, a wounded war hero from the Iran-Iraq war, was rewarded by being sentenced to death in the Islamic Republic of Iran for apostasy. (His sentence was later commuted, and he was released from prison in 2004.)

But no one has been bestowed the label as often as Tariq Ramadan, the Swiss Muslim who has authored the recent To Be a European Muslim. Ramadan often waxes Lutheresque in reflecting on Swiss politics, arguing, in effect, that he would rather be ruled by a wise Christian than a foolish Turk.

Of course, these sightings stop at vague resemblance to the sixteenth-century Reformer. As Luther himself watched Suleiman the Magnificent gathering Ottoman forces on the doorstep of Vienna, his views on Islam were vocal and decidedly unecumenical. Indeed, the original version of his popular hymn “Lord Keep Us Steadfast in Your Word” contained the petition, “Restrain the murderous Pope and Turk.” Instead, the Times and other voices have a greater yearn for a Muslim secularist. What is really needed is someone courageous enough to dismiss the Qur’an as unscientific silliness out of touch with Enlightenment values. It is not the sixteenth century we want to invoke, but the humanism of our more progressive times. Simply put, can Islam come to terms with modernity?

If the Luther metaphor is a Protestant version of early modern history, it should come as no surprise that other pundits find analogies in other quarters of Christendom. National Review columnist Jonah Goldberg writes, “What the Muslim world needs is a pope. Large, old institutions such as the Catholic Church have the ‘worldliness’ to value flexibility and tolerance, and the moral and theological authority to clamp down on those who see compromise as heresy.”[4] This suggestion has yet to gain traction within the editorial department of the Times.

Skeptics will counter that the desperate search for the elusive Muslim moderate is a feature of western naiveté that is at least three decades old now. I don’t pretend to have the foreign policy expertise to assess that claim. But what fascinates is the frequent allusion to Luther. And it leads me to wonder, can Calvinists join this discussion? That would at first seem implausible. The grim-faced theocrat of Geneva does not work as a convenient metaphor for the secular Western press. And remember that H. L. Mencken, in his deeply appreciative obituary for J. Gresham Machen, referred to Machen as a “follower of the Genevan Muhammad.”

Still, there is an “Islamic Calvinism” at work in the Muslim world. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogon may not be Islam’s Calvin, but James Bratt ends his biography of Abraham Kuyper with the provocative suggestion that a form of Kuyperianism is taking root in Turkey of all places, as Erdogon combines strong Muslim roots with “the separation of mosque and state.” His economic and diplomatic success “redounds to the nation’s well-being, just as Kuyper proposed for Calvinism in the Netherlands.”[5]

While the West remains mired in economic stagnation, Istanbul’s economy is booming, and some have attributed its success to an emerging “Islamic Calvinism.” Just as sober, hard working Calvinists eschewing ostentatious displays of wealth prompted the revolutionary spirit of Geneva, a similar “Puritan work ethic” is at work in Istanbul and other booming metropolises in Turkey.

The prospects of political and economic freedom in the Muslim world don’t mean we should expect to see the Hagia Sophia restored as a place of Christian worship. Still, maybe these Reformation yearnings and alleged sightings, however desperate and far-fetched they may seem, are useful at least as reminders that a two-kingdom social theory may not be such a bad thing after all. Dare we confine it to the Muslim world?


[1] Nicholas D. Kristof, “Looking for Islam’s Luthers,” New York Times, October 15, 2006, http://www.nytimes.com/2006/10/15/opinion/15kristof.html.

[2] Thomas L. Friedman, “An Islamic Reformation,” New York Times, December 4, 2002, http://www.nytimes.com/2002/12/04/opinion/an-islamic-reformation.html.

[3] Quoted in An Islamic Reformation, Charles Kurzman and Michaelle Browers, eds. (Lanham, MD: Lexington, 2004), 1.

[4] Jonah Goldberg, “Now What? Islam Needs a Central Authority—Such as a Pontiff,” USA Today, April 2, 2011, 23A.

[5] James D. Bratt, Abraham Kuyper: Modern Calvinist, Christian Democrat (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2013), 382.

Ordained Servant Online, December 2013.

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Ordained Servant: December 2013

Two or Three Offices?

Also in this issue

Do the Minister and the Elder Hold the Same Office?

The Necessity of Preaching in the Modern World, part 3[1]

Preaching Christ from Daniel


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