Islamic Reformation?


I’ve read and heard several commentators lately, either advocating an islamic version of the Christian Reformation or arguing that such an event has already happened and the results are not pretty.

Former Australian PM Tony Abbott leads the advocacy pack, implying that a reformation would be a modernising influence, moving Islam away from the beliefs and practices that make it barbaric in many people’s eyes.  I don’t want to put words into Mr Abbott’s mouth, but I assume he would share my hope that modernisation would do away with animal sacrifice, pointless dietary rules, punitive mutilation, oppression of women, suppression of other beliefs, contempt for infidels, and capital punishment of individuals categorised as blasphemers, apostates and heretics.

Waleed Aly, a young Australian Muslim who has become my second favourite radio journalist, argues that “Islam’s own version of the Reformation already occurred in the 18th century” and led to Wahhabism, a form of Sunni Islam which is enforced in Saudi Arabia and is the philosophical platform for al-Qaeda, DAESH and other extremist organisations.

Paul Monk disagrees with Waleed Aly in many things but agrees with him in this.  I commend his article in the Sydney Morning Herald.

The UK’s Chief Rabbi, Lord Jonathan Sacks, also agrees. In a recent interview on Australian radio he pointed out that the Christian Reformation was a reaction against corruption in the Catholic Church.  The reformers wanted to return to true Christian values.  This is how Md ibn Abd al-Wahhab saw his 18th century reformation: a return to true Islamic values.

It is as erroneous as it is understandable that we tend to equate ‘reform’ with ‘improvement’, ‘progress’ and ‘becoming more like us’.


In the Beginning


I’ve mentioned my fundamentalist friend Peter before, haven’t I? He comes to the door about once a month to talk to me.  If no-one’s at home he leaves leaflets in the letterbox.  As fundamentalists go he’s at the end of the spectrum where AK-47s are considered impolite: he’s a Jehovah’s Witness.

Last week we had a lively debate about the origins of life, the universe and everything*. He enjoyed it so much that he came back the next day with two more leaflets called ‘The Origin of Life’ and ‘Was Life Created?’

‘The Origin of Life’ starts off by explaining how improbably benign our planet is – perfect for the survival of the species of plants and animals that inhabit it, and their complex interactions. The conclusion is that only an intelligent, purposeful creator could have provided for us so perfectly.

The logical flaw in this is so blindingly obvious that I am half-afraid, when I explain it to Peter on his next visit, that his faith will be shattered. “Peter,” I shall say, “is it not possible that the plants and animals have evolved in such a way that they are able to survive in the conditions that happen to prevail on Earth?”

“What?” he will exclaim, his eyes wide, the blood draining from his face, “You mean, we’ve had it the wrong way round all the time? How could we have been so misled!  This is surely the devil’s work!”

I will of course try to comfort him. “You are not alone,” I shall say. “Every day people are mistaking correlation for proof of causation, and assuming a direction of causation that suits their preconceived ideas.  You are human.  You are made in the image of God.  God makes mistakes.  So do you.”

Peter will be dumbstruck for the first time in his life.

“Let me give you an example,” I shall say, my voice and eyes expressing empathy. “Have you heard it said that men who do more housework get more sex?**”


“Well I say unto you, ‘Men who get more sex do more housework.’ Do you understand?”

“Not a word, but I believe you are a true prophet! May I touch the hem of your raiment?”


* This is a nod towards Douglas’ Adams’s brilliant work ‘The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy‘, which I have also mentioned before.

** But there are different opinions.  See here for the pro case and here for the anti.

Murdering Atheists in Bangladesh


I just read an alarming article in the Guardian Weekly. It was about a series of murders of Bangladeshi atheists by Muslim fundamentalists. Mrs SG and I met and married in Bangladesh (or East Pakistan as it then was) so we have a soft spot for the country.

We also have some understanding of Bengali cultural traditions, which are characterised by love of learning and literature, intellectual inquiry, openness to ideas. It is especially painful, therefore, to read that intellectual fascism is gaining ascendancy in that land.

Horrible though the murders are, the effect of intimidation on others is just as serious. People emigrate, stay silent or pretend belief they do not hold, to protect themselves and their families.

Edmund Burke said, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” This is an eternal truth. All of us, whether writers, politicians, judges, police officers or teachers, have responsibility to resist evil wherever we find it.

This is easy for me to say, of course. I live in a leafy suburb in Adelaide. I do not meet terrorists, murderers or drug-dealers on my way to the post office. The only religious fundamentalist I know is Peter, the Jehovah’s Witness who comes to chat to me once a month in the dim hope that I will one day see the light.

But I hope that, if confronted by raw evil such as now afflicts Bangladesh, I will find a kind of courage that I have never had to call on before.