An Islamic “Reformation”? – Pseudo History meets Politics

An Islamic “Reformation”? – Pseudo History meets Politics

New Atheists generally acknowledge that it was the 9/11 attacks that gave their anti-theistic movement its initial impetus. Not surprisingly, several of their leading lights, led by Dawkins, Harris and comedian Bill Maher, have become trenchant critics of Islam as a key example of the toxicity of unfettered religion. These critics therefore lionise the ex-Muslim atheist Ayaan Hirsi Ali and support her calls for an Islamic equivalent to the Protestant Reformation. But is this based on good history?

Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a polarising figure. A Somali-born former Dutch politician, she rose to international prominence when the film on Islamic oppression of women she made with  Theo van Gogh led to a controversy that saw van Gogh murdered by an Islamist terrorist in 2004. Ali went on to write two autobiographical books criticising her former faith – Infidel (2007) and then Nomad (2010) – and then wrote her most recent book Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now (2015).  While prominent New Atheists have applauded her work and atheist conferences have booked her as a speaker, other socially progressive atheists have found her rhetoric clashes with their political view of Muslims as a marginalised minority and this tension continues to be part of an ongoing left versus right schism in the “atheist movement” – one that some would characterise as an internecine war between the “Social Justice Warrior” atheists and their more conservative (or even “Alt-Right”) atheist opponents. Curiously, the neo-conservative sympathies of the late Christopher Hitchens seem to be becoming the norm among the New Atheist doyens, with many of them proving fairly reactionary on social and political issues.

So while some atheists have rejected Ali as dangerously “Islamophobic”, people like Harris and Maher have enthusiastically embraced her calls not just for Islam to reform itself but for “a Reformation”.  And here is where the New Atheist bad history comes in.

Whig History’s Timetable

As noted many times before, New Atheist historiography is quaintly old fashioned and largely Victorian. So it happily embraces the idea that the Greeks and Romans were rational, enlightened and almost secular and that their rosy-hued world was destroyed by the wicked Christians, who plunged the world into a theocratic, anti-scientific and politically oppressive Dark Age, dominated completely by an all-powerful Catholic Church. But this was thankfully relieved by the Renaissance and the Protestant Reformation, which broke the power of the Church and ushered in a secular Europe that in turn gave rise to modern science, the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution and finally, that pinnacle of historical progress, our good selves. This is a cheery, nineteenth century positivist conception of history as an inevitable “onward and upward” progression and one that Herbert Butterfield skewered nicely in his The Whig Interpretation of History (1931). As Butterfield noted, the Whiggish historical positivism of the Victorians and Edwardians was based on a series of assumptions, prejudices and suppositions, each one more dubious than the next.

The Whig Fallacy that Butterfield identified tends to rest also on value judgements based on those assumptions and prejudices. It divides history into a story about the Good Guys (i.e. those who seem closest to what we like and value today: science, capitalism, democracy) and their battle with the Bad Guys (those who represent the parts of the past that we find most alien, distasteful or weird). It sees history ultimately as a long and inevitable progress toward “us”. It therefore sees anything that can be interpreted as bringing history closer to “us” as “good” and anything that seems to be impeding this as “bad”. Modern historians have learned to be highly wary of Whig history, as it rests on nineteenth century assumptions that have since been rejected (Greco-Roman secular rationalism, the supposed “Dark Ages” and most of the more naive conceptions of “the Renaissance”) and skews historical analysis by its constant resort to value judgements about the past, measuring the past by the anachronistic standards of the present.

New Atheist historiography is utterly oblivious to all this. Most atheist activists who venture opinions on history don’t even bother to argue that the Whig perspective is valid – they simply blithely assume it. Similarly, they also blithely assume its underlying premises, including that the Protestant Reformation was an unequivocally “good” thing.  As Michael Bentley notes:

“Carlyle apart, the so-called Whigs were predominantly Christian, predominantly Anglican, thinkers for whom the Reformation supplied the critical theatre of enquiry when considering the origins of modern England.” (Modern Historiography: An Introduction,1999, pp. 64–5)

Obviously Harris, Maher and Ali are definitely not Christian, but they have inherited Whig historiography and seem to accept it without question. Therefore, to them, the assumption that the Reformation moved things “forward” and helped us to “progress” is seemingly self-evident.  It certainly gets no critical analysis from Ali:

“Christianity went through that process of Reformation and Enlightenment and came to a place where the mass of Christians, at least in the Western world have accepted tolerance, the secular state – separation of Church and State, respect for women, respect for gays … There were Christians, I mean, within Christianity, who came out and said hey, we need to change things, we need to reform.” (Ali to Jon Stewart, The Daily Show, March 23, 2015)

Ali thinks that so long as certain historical precedents and contingents are lined up correctly, this Islamic Reformation will inevitably result:

“I believe that a Reformation is not merely imminent; it is now under way…recall the three factors that were crucial to the success of the Protestant Reformation: technological change, urbanization, and the interests of a significant number of European states in backing Luther’s challenge to the status quo. All three are present in the Muslim world today.”

And she is far from alone in accepting the Whiggish idea that the Reformation led directly to the Enlightenment and then to “the secular state” as some kind of inevitable and automatic linear historical progression.  The idea that Islam “hasn’t had its Reformation yet” is a commonplace in atheist circles, as though all religions are supposed to follow a historical timetable set by European history and Islam’s “Reformation” train is running late. We can also find regular comments by New Atheists about how Islam is a “younger religion” than Christianity and so not as “advanced”. Back in 1989, at the height of the controversy over the fatwa against Salman Rushdie, I heard several people observe that it was 1410 in the Islamic calendar and so “they are still in their Middle Ages”. It’s remarkable how prevalent this obviously facile and Eurocentric idea is, even among people who should be capable of seeing why it makes absolutely no sense.

Be Careful What You Wish For

In The Daily Show interview with Ali quoted above, Jon Stewart noted a serious historical problem with her references to the Protestant Reformation. He pointed out that Luther wanted a “purer form of Christianity” and asked Ali if this was not exactly what fundamentalists like Al Qeda and ISIS were trying to implement. He reminded her that Luther’s protest “created a hundred years of violence and mayhem”. Stewart actually understates things. The upheavals of the Reformation and the Catholic Church’s equally bloody reaction to it wracked Europe with wars, repression and terror unmatched in scale or viciousness until, perhaps, the killing fields of the twentieth century. Within seven years of Luther’s nailing of the 95 Theses to the church door in Wittenberg a vast swathe of Germany was convulsed by the Peasant’s War, a war inspired in part by newly Protestant princes’ attempts to strip peasants of traditional legal rights and one encouraged and even led by Protestant preachers like Thomas Müntzer. Luther himself criticised both sides in the increasingly savage conflict, though eventually sided with the princes in his 1525 tract “Against the Murderous, Thieving Hordes of Peasants – Luther tended not to mince his words. The revolt was finally crushed in the same year and Müntzer ended up tortured, executed and his head displayed on the walls of Mühlhausen as a warning to others.

That did not work. In 1534 Anabaptist radicals staged a coup in the city of Münster and seized control of the city council, exiling the former mayor and his Lutheran council as well as the former Prince-Bishop Franz von Waldeck. The Anabaptist leader Jan Matthys was summoned from the Netherlands and soon set himself up as a prophet, declaring Münster “the New Jerusalem” and encouraging Anabaptists from all over the lower Rhineland to join him in the city. In scenes reminiscent of those seen recently when cities like Raqqa and Mosul were seized by ISIS, what followed was an orgy of iconoclasm, violence and enforced fundamentalism. Adult rebaptism was declared compulsory by order of the new prophet and dissenters were forced to flee the city. Their property was then shared out among the faithful and eventually it was decreed that all property was to be held in common.

The “New Jerusalem” soon descended into total chaos once the deposed Prince-Bishop returned with a besieging army provided by both Protestant and Catholic lords, none of whom were keen on the idea of a new political regime presided over by bakers and cobblers who regarded themselves as prophets. Matthys proved a better visionary than general and died in a divinely-inspired but militarily idiotic plan to sally out of the city with just 12 holy followers. He was killed and his testicles were nailed to the city gates. He was succeeded as prophet by John Bockelson, a 25 year old tailor’s apprentice, who decided to impose a divinely-ordained theocracy on the besieged city, with himself as the new King David complete with a crown and royal robes. Among other things he instituted polygamy, married 17 young women himself and had at least one of his wives executed for being rebellious. Exactly how many of the stories of Bockelson’s reign of terror in the city while the siege continued are true is hard to determine, but accounts later circulated about divinely-ordained children who would roam the streets to point out supposed dissenters to Bockelson’s militia and of wild drunken feasts in Bockelson’s house while the besieged city’s people starved. In any case, Münster eventually fell thanks to betrayal from within and Bockelson was tortured with red hot pincers before being stabbed in the heart and, with two others, his corpse displayed in an iron cage hung from the city cathedral’s tower. The cages are still there for tourists to admire.

And all this was just the beginning. Calvinist Protestantism spread to France from Switzerland and the French Wars of Religion (1562-1598) saw an estimated 2-4 million casualties over 36 years. In one particularly notorious incident, Charles IX ordered the mass murder of Huguenot Calvinists in the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre on 23 August 1572, sparking a series of further mass killings by Catholics of Protestants across France with the estimated death toll running into the tens of thousands. And this pales into insignificance beside the toll of the Thirty Years War (1618-1648) that saw a continent-wide conflict involving the armies of over 12 major powers and even more lesser polities. This war left whole swathes of central Europe virtually depopulated and resulted in the deaths of an estimated 8 million people, mostly civilians. And these examples are just a sampler of the horrors, on all sides, that resulted from the Protestant Reformation and the Catholic backlash against it.

Of course, none of these conflicts and massacres were purely about religion (no conflict is) and it is too simplistic to reduce the complex history of this period as “religious reform causes massive conflict and death”. But I present it as a reminder that Whiggish conceptions of the Reformation tend to accentuate what they see as the positive and brush aside the fact that the Reformation represented some of the bloodiest episodes in modern history. The Whig version of history was written in the nineteenth century by (mostly) Anglican liberals, which dismissed all of the above as regrettable but ultimately “worth it” and tended to paint the Protestant sides (plural) in this whole swirling mess largely as victims. The main British experience of these convulsions – traditionally called “the English Civil War” – was sanitised as a kind of largely Constitutional disagreement and romanticised as a jolly adventure featuring “cavaliers and roundheads” that was eventually all sorted out, ignoring the fact that it was actually a series of savagely brutal wars fought in Scotland and Ireland as well as England and was very much substantially about religion. If we include Cromwell’s “to Hell or Connaught” repression of the Irish, its death toll too ran into the millions.

You Say You Want a Reformation?

Of course, Ali is almost certainly not ignorant of the fact that the Protestant Reformation she lauds led to all this bloodshed and upheaval. It just seems that she feels, like the Whig historians she gets her historiography from, that the ultimate outcome of this pain was worth it. She and others seem to think that if a Martin Luther could arise in the Islamic world the theocratic grip would be broken in many Muslim countries and a separation of “church and state”, secularism, liberalism and modernity would dawn across the Islamic world. Thomas L. Friedman was calling for a Luther back in 2002 and thought Iranian dissident Hashem Aghajari might fit the bill. Other recent Islamic Luthers declared by hopeful western pundits include Turkish preacher Fethullah Gülen and, bizarrely, repressive Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. But Islam has already had its share of Martin Luthers and none of them have led to “the separation of Church and State, respect for women, respect for gays”. Quite the opposite.

Like Martin Luther, Taqī ad-Dīn Ahmad ibn Taymiyyah (1263-1328) preached against what he saw as the corruptions in his religion. He decried the idea that dead Islamic leaders and teachers could intercede for the living and condemned the veneration of the tombs of these “saints”, including that of the Prophet Muhammad himself, declaring those who maintained these practices to be mishrik (polythesists). Like Luther, Calvin and Knox he preached a return to the true, original and uncorrupted form of his faith by the study of the practices and writings of the first three generations of Islamic believers: the “forebears” or salafs. He believed that the faithful needed to keep themselves untainted by the ideas of the infidels and taught that the world was divided into the domain of the believers (dar al-Islam), that of the unbelievers (dar-al-kufr) and the “domain of war” (dar al-harb) where the believers are under oppression by the infidels, and should be resisted by violent jihad. He also took a hard line against those who he felt had abandoned Islam and said they could be declared a kafir in what amounted to an excommunication (takfir) by a suitable authority.

If some of these concepts sound familiar to those who read the news, it is because many of Ibn Taymiyya’s ideas inspired the Salafi movement in modern Islam – the hardline fundamentalism that underlies Sunni Islamism. In its Wahhabist form it forms the basis of the Saudi regime’s ideology. The Saudis have used their considerable wealth to export their version of Salafism around the world, largely as a bulwark against the aggressive Iranian Shi’ite ideology of the post-1979 ayatollahs, but with the effect of bankrolling global jihadists (and blowback in the form of even more hardline forms of the ideology such as Al Qeda). Saudi Arabia is hardly a model of Enlightenment values.

Extreme Salafism forms the underpinnings of the Islamic State’s attempt at establishing a caliphate and its ongoing terrorist operations around the world. The equally murderous Boko Haram movement in West Africa and smaller groups from Thailand to the Philippines also subscribe to forms of Salafism. Far from ushering in a separation of church and state, secularism, liberalism and modernity, the ideology based on this Muslim “Luther” and the allied preaching of fellow reformer Muhammad ibn ʿAbd al-Wahhab has seen the imposition of theocracy, the practice of slavery, mass rape, the summary execution of heretics and dissenters and war and mayhem that makes John Bockelson’s “New Zion” in sixteenth century Münster look like a picnic.

The Reformation and the Enlightenment

So if the Reformation led to fundamentalism (Catholic and Protestant), repression, torture, mayhem and, occasionally, theocratic totalitarianism in Europe and if reformers like Luther have led to ideologies that bring all these things in vivid colour to our TVs today, why are New Atheists like Ali, Maher and Harris so keen on these things as a cure for Islam’s ills? It seems to be, yet again, based on their naive and simplistic grasp of history. It is a classic example of the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy – “since event Y followed event X, event Y must have been caused by event X”. Again, the nineteenth century Whig historians could not see the problem in this reasoning. They saw themselves – liberal, educated, mostly Anglican, benevolent gentlefolk (and, I don’t really need to add, exclusively white, wealthy and male) – as at the pinnacle of an inexorable historical process of progress. Therefore everything that led to them had to be both good and, ultimately, inevitable. They saw their world as the triumph of good government, law, science and technology and a recognition of the general (more or less) equality (within decent limits, of course) of all people (so long as they were white and male and preferably not Jewish or Catholic). In their view this had all been held back in the Middle Ages by the Catholic Church, with its total theocratic control and its suppression of science, but that was all changed by the Reformation, which released the state from the dominance of the Church, freed inquiry from the repression of theology, opened the windows of the European mind and brought about the Scientific Revolution, the Industrial Revolution and the Enlightenment. So, they thought, it was now up to them to export this to all corners of the world to the benefit of less enlightened (dark skinned) folk.

Even if some of these assumptions are still accepted by many people, at least some of them will be recognised as dubious by most today. And, in fact, pretty much all of them have been substantially revised or wholly rejected by modern historians. To take them in turn: the medieval Church was not a theocracy, never had the state under its thumb (certainly not as much as it would have liked) and for most of the Middle Ages was actually very much dominated by secular powers. The Sunday school conception of the Church in the Middle Ages was informed by centuries of Protestant rhetoric and reflected a caricature of the later medieval Church, which had emerged from centuries of trying to extract itself from secular domination, won a degree of autonomy and then proceeded to lose it by trying to become dominant itself. Far from bringing about some clear division between church and state, the Reformation broke apart the uneasy and distrustful medieval truce between “the two swords” of ecclesiastical and royal power and generally created little theocracies – either small, crazy and short-lived ones like Bockelson’s Münster or larger, more stable but often no less repressive ones like Henry VIII’s England. The long, slow process of finding the modern western compromise between the religious and political spheres had far more to do with politics and economics than religion itself, as some rulers (especially in Britain and thus the fledgling United States) found increasing liberalism and democracy was good for business and sectarianism simply was not. In Europe things took a more violent turn and several revolutions, with an often extremist anti-clerical element, and then restorations and a traditionalist backlash before France, Italy and Germany finally worked out the same thing as the Anglosphere.

Of course the whole Draper-White thesis about the Church suppressing science is a pseudo-historical myth, as discussed here before, as is the idea that science burgeoned more in Protestant countries than Catholic ones. The same can be said for the Enlightenment movement, given that there were as many thinkers from Catholic countries (Voltaire, Diderot, Condorcet, Montesquieu) as Protestant ones (Hume, Locke, Kant) at the forefront of those ideas. Finally, the conception that our liberal values, which we tend to share with our Whiggish forebears and hopefully apply more consistently to others than they did, stem wholly or even substantially from the thinkers of the Enlightenment is dubious as well. While many of the ideals of the eighteenth century philosophes certainly did permeate modern thinking to the point where many of them are unquestioned today, it is also true that many of the practical steps to bringing liberty and education to the masses came not from bewigged aristocrats in Parisian salons or London coffee houses but via earnest Quakers and evangelical vicars. After all, things such as universal suffrage or the Emancipation Movement may have drawn on some of the philosophes’ ideas, but they also drew (as much as New Atheists hate to admit it) much older Christian ideals of human equality and dignity. Oxford’s Allan Chapman may be exaggerating slightly and speaking with a little bias towards his faith, but he has a point when he notes:

“What the ‘Enlightenment’ really was, however, was a great elite talking-shop in which gentlemen in brocade coats and ladies in rich silks, it was said, ‘talked about freedom and the Rights of Man once the servants had gone to bed.'” (Slaying the Dragons: Destroying Myths in the History of Science and Faith, p. 74)

That is probably a little harsh, but what is clear is that our ideals come to us as a confluence of many streams of thought and tradition and as a consequence of a vast array of historical accidents, large and small. Any attempt to plot some linear progression of “Reformation” + “printing” + “science” + “Enlightenment” = “Us” is clearly going to be nonsense. And that is ignoring the fact that most of the assumptions that lie behind that progression, even in a less reductionist form, are problematic at best and plain wrong in most instances.

Which leaves us with the problem of how Islam is going to continue to intersect with the ideals of the western world which have, for better or worse, become the dominant culture in modernity. Islamist terrorism is just one of the more prominent results of the fact that this intersection has never been a neat one and is unlikely to be so in the near future. History can certainly help us to understand why this is so and could even show us, collectively, ways to try to reduce conflict. But that will not work while activists like Ayaan Hirsi Ali and her New Atheist boosters work from a grasp of history stuck at the level of a Victorian Era children’s school book.

Further Reading

Colby Cosh, “It’s popular to suggest Islam needs a ‘Reformation,’ but an Enlightenment makes more sense”, National Post, Feb 13, 2017
Nick Danforth, “Islam Will Not Have Its Own ‘Reformation’”, Foreign Policy, Jan 2, 2015
Danusha V. Goska, “Ayaan Hirsi Ali and the Hope for Islam’s ‘Reformation'”, Frontpage, Aug 14, 2015
Tom Holland, “We must not deny the religious roots of Islamic State”, New Statesman, Mar 17, 2015

49 thoughts on “An Islamic “Reformation”? – Pseudo History meets Politics

  1. I have had this strange theory in place for awhile. That somehow the Muslims do not like Westerners supporting corrupt regimes in their countries, brutal international sanctions or the occasion wars which kill an awful lot of Muslims. I suspect if we stopped doing that that would be far better for our relationship with the Muslims.

    My last deployment before I retired from the army we went to the country of Kosovo. The Muslims there liked us because we stopped them from being murdered and didn’t murder them. It might be worth considering as a policy.

    I know things are not this simple but I cannot help but think the reasons a lot of Muslims don’t like the West is cause we kill them. Just a theory though.

    Liked the article, thanks




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  2. Thank you Tim for this blogpost.

    One thing: Spinoza lived in the Republic of the Seven United Netherlands, in the county of Holland. He was born in Amsterdam, lived in Rijnsburg and Voorburg, and died in The Hague. That is as Protestant a country as you can get. 😉




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  3. I don’t know whether it’s just me but I think you need to rephrase you comments on the German Peasant’s Revolt, as I original read it that you were saying that Thomas Müntzer supported the Protestant princes not the peasants!




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  4. Rather than get into the minutiae written here, I would like to step back some and ask this:
    Atheism belief God does not exist, correct? However, there are numerous definitions of what God is, or is not. If one were to look at Christian writings for example, God is defined in many different ways, yet Atheism is defined rather simply. Maybe, just maybe, the problem is the archaic view of God that is driven by the fundamentalists of the Judaeo-Christian-Islamic faiths? Shouldn’t atheists be opened minded to a ‘scientific version’ of God? It is something that I find rather interesting…




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    1. I’m not sure if that is meant as a compliment or a criticism. I find those “neo-reactionary” people to be pretty repugnant myself.




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  5. Tim, as someone who’s hoped you would touch on New Atheist bad history regarding Islam for some time, this article is superb. I know you’ve said that Islamic history isn’t an area you specialize in, but you clearly understand the trajectory beginning with Ibn Taymiyyah that has given us modern Salafism, and the parallels you draw between the violence of Daesh and the reformation should give anyone holding to this whig notion of history pause. Only thing I would potentially add if this is a chapter in your book is the influence Taymiyyah’s opposition to the Mongolian shadow caliphate has on modern Salafist violence, but you’re the better writer and the trained historian, so take that suggestion with a grain of salt.

    One question that I’m curious if you could clarify, and then a comment. You mentioned Saudi Arabia’s funding of Salafism globally was largely a bulwark against Iran’s aggressive Shi’ite Islamist ideology following Khomeini’s revolution. I had been taught the seizure of the Grand Mosque in ’79 was the most significant event that led to Saudi’s fearful embrace of global Salafism, as this would give the house of Saud some degree of control at best and would prevent the royal family from being toppled and brutally executed at worst. Was I taught wrong about the significance of the Grand Mosque seizure, or are both events major reasons that lead to Saudi’s global promotion of Salafism?

    While there’s an unfortunate tendency among opponents of Islamism to romanticize Nasser, it is worth recalling his promotion of reform minded clerics to Al-Ahzar, and his violent opposition to the Ikhwan. Under progressive clerics like Mahmud Shaltut, Shi’a were no longer considered takfir and the doors of Al-Azhar were open to women. One would think these would be important facts for Ali to consider in her books on Islamic reform, yet she seems completely ignorant of the existence of Pan-Arab Nationalism and Nasser, let alone their importance to the region in the 50’s and 60’s.




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    1. My reference to the Saudis exporting Salafism “largely as a bulwark against the aggressive Iranian Shi’ite ideology of the post-1979 ayatollahs” was to more recent sponsorship, direct and indirect, of both jihadists and Salafist imams to bolster Sunni Islam against Iranian-backed Shi’ite expansion in Iraq and Syria. The roots of the Saudi alignment with Salafism go back much further than that, naturally.




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  6. Well I think you are too harsh with Ayaan. It’s true she got it wrong with the Reformation part but what she advocates is ultimately an Islamic Enlightenment on a par with the Radical Enlightenment in Europe (so the book should have been better called ‘Why Islam needs a real Enlightenment now’) :

    (quote)”The five things to be reformed are:

    1. Muhammad’s semi-divine and infallible status along with the literalist reading of the Qur’an, particularly those parts that were revealed in Medina;
    2. The investment in life after death instead of life before death;
    3. Sharia, the body of legislation derived from the Qur’an, the hadith, and the rest of Islamic jurisprudence;
    4. The practice of empowering individuals to enforce Islamic law by commanding right and forbidding wrong;
    5. The imperative to wage jihad, or holy war.”

    And here I think she is absolutely right, there is a reason that Islam has not had yet the counterpart of Liberal Christianity and Reform Judaism. No surprise that the liberal forces are very weak all over the Islamic world and having to do huge concessions to Islam (the situation in this respect is worse than immediately after decolonisation). The solution is not the counterpart of the Christian Reformation indeed but a reform which to open Islam to Reason definitely is (where is the necessary ‘ijtihad’ capable to go beyond the claim that the Quran is ‘uncreated’ and the exact word of god, where is the Quranic criticism on a par with the existing biblical criticism?).

    People often tend to downplay the big differences between Islam and the other 2 Abrahamic religions (at the theological/educational/institutional levels) but I’m afraid the evidence of the last 70 years (when muslims were left to ‘clean their own rubbish’ and yet Islam returned strongly toward the past) show quite clearly that this omission is untenable.

    To conclude the atheists you criticize may have a wrong understanding of Christianity and its history but they are definitely mostly right in the case of Islam.

    *for example the fact that Reason was valued in Western Christendom (especially after Thomas Aquinas) played a vital role in the making of Modernity, the Reformation had its benefits but it’s unlikely that it alone could have lead to modern values




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    1. Hopefully history in the last century isn’t too recent to merit a comment; if it is, feel free to not approve this, Tim.

      How do you jive Nasser locking the Ikhwan up while promoting reform minded clerics to Al-Ahzar with your claim that the evidence indicates Islam has only been going backwards for 70 years? Reactionary Islamism only became a dominant ideology for countries in that part of the world after ’79, while Pan-Arab nationalism had far more support among Arab populations in the 50’s and 60’s. It’s also worth noting that reactionary Islam winning out over the progressive Arab forces has a lot more to do with cold war politics than anything intrinsic to Islamic practice.




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      1. I can’t see that I have made any “claim that the evidence indicates Islam has only been going backwards for 70 years”. I’m dubious about any and all claims about “Islam” as some kind of monolithic whole, so would never make any such claim.




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        1. Tim, only the initial paragraph was aimed at you, as I wasn’t sure if the era I mentioned was too close to modern times to violate your “Stick to history” rule. The rest of that post was aimed at metichristi’s claims. My apologies for any misunderstanding caused by my muddled writing.




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    2. in the last 70 years the Muslim world has seen colonial rule (Algeria even legally *part* of France), British protectorates, US intervention, secularizing autocrats, Islamosocialists, laïcist “éradicateurs,” and whatever the hell Baathism is supposed to be: everyone from al-Wahhab to Ali Shariati has been labeled “the Muslim Luther”

      most all the New Atheists, including Ali, backed the Iraq war (or if not that, against Iran) regardless of 9-11 involvement, for the reason that it would create an Arab Spring resulting a new Islam: in the past century, US interventionists have been marked by a tacit belief that with the right few tricks we can make any country into a mini-America, and the myths of the Reformation are fundamental to what the world’s “supposed” to look like




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    3. “Well I think you are too harsh with Ayaan. It’s true she got it wrong with the Reformation”

      Given that this was what my article was about, I can’t have been “too harsh”. Of course I understand what she is saying about a need for the Islamic world to intersect with the dominant Western global culture better and I agree with her on the whole. But she and other New Atheists keep referring to the Protestant Reformation in ways that show they have no clear grasp of the relevant history.




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      1. This post has many excellent aspects, but the major thesis that Hirsi Ali and others misunderstand the Reformation seems neither accurate nor interesting.

        She is saying Islam needs reform. Then you curiously try to imply that by “reform” she means she would be content to see the large scale bloodshed that took place in the Protestant Reformation take place during the Islamic Reformation she is advocating? And by “Reformers” she means anyone who reforms things, so that Daesh and Ibn Taymiyyah suddenly count as the “reformers” she is advocating for? These are straw-men and either a willful misunderstanding or illogical misinterpretation of her views. It is obvious and stated that she wants peaceful reform, positive reformers, and for the present to be better than the past, including better than the Protestant Reformation.

        Hirsi Ali is absolutely heroic in the risks and sacrifices she is bearing to advance the cause of reform. Few voices are as important as hers on this subject.

        At any rate, I’m new to the blog and looking forward to reading future posts for all of the interesting historical details you provide. Some great content here.




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        1. “She is saying Islam needs reform. Then you curiously try to imply that by “reform” she means she would be content to see the large scale bloodshed that took place in the Protestant Reformation take place during the Islamic Reformation she is advocating”

          Ummm, no I don’t imply any such thing. In fact, I clearly state otherwise. I note the bloodshed and oppression that was part and parcel of the Protestant Reformation and the Catholic reaction to it purely to make the point that claims the Islamic world needs “its Martin Luther” or “its Protestant Reformation” are based on a Protestant Sunday School caricature of history which presents a rosy hued picture of the Reformation, ignores its (to us) repugnant aspects and pretends that Protestants were mainly the victims of its violence, rather than equal perpetrators. As I state pretty clearly above “it is too simplistic to reduce the complex history of this period as ‘religious reform causes massive conflict and death’ … I present [these conflicts and massacres] as a reminder that Whiggish conceptions of the Reformation tend to accentuate what they see as the positive and brush aside the fact that the Reformation represented some of the bloodiest episodes in modern history.”

          And I am not taking issue with Ali’s call for greater liberalism in Islam nor am I saying that she is calling for an Islamic re-run of the Reformation and the Wars of Religion. Again, as I clearly say above “Ali is almost certainly not ignorant of the fact that the Protestant Reformation she lauds led to all this bloodshed and upheaval. It just seems that she feels, like the Whig historians she gets her historiography from, that the ultimate outcome of this pain was worth it. She and others seem to think that if a Martin Luther could arise in the Islamic world the theocratic grip would be broken in many Muslim countries and a separation of ‘church and state’, secularism, liberalism and modernity would dawn across the Islamic world.” I’m primarily taking issue with her Whiggish idea that the Protestant Reformation led directly to secularism, liberal values and church/state division. It did not. In fact, if one side or the other had managed to prevail in Europe instead of fighting each other to exhaustion by the end of the seventeenth century, we may have ended up with either a far stronger Catholic theocracy or a continent wide network of Puritan regimes.

          I have my own views on whether Ali’s particular calls for reform are really the answer she claims, but those are political views and this is a blog about history. The point of my article is people like her refer to the Protestant Reformation in ways that show they have a feeble, biased and quaintly outdated grasp of the relevant history and often make arguments that are nonsensical as a result.

          I’m glad you’re finding the articles here useful.




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          1. You keep saying that this blog is about history, not politics, but then you write sentences like the following:

            “Curiously, the neo-conservative sympathies of the late Christopher Hitchens seem to be becoming the norm among the New Atheist doyens, with many of them proving fairly reactionary on social and political issues.”

            I had an itching to ask what views count as “fairly reactionary” with you and who the “doyens” of the New Atheist movement are (especially since you have made such statements in former blog posts); to me it seems that a real right-winger (not just someone who thinks there are only two genders and white men are not the scum of the Earth) would stay well clear of the New Atheist movement, even those right-winders who are atheists themselves, who, while they do not believe in god, think religion is an essential part of Western civilization or the like. But then asking such questions would be politics, not history; so am I allowed to ask such questions at all in this comment section?




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          2. Hitchens supported the invasion of Iraq in 2003, downplayed the Haditha massacre in 2005, wrote an article that women “aren’t funny” and declared Holocaust denier David Irving to be “a great historian”. Dawkins has told rape victims that they shouldn’t get drunk and said that date rape isn’t as bad as “stranger rape”. Sam Harris has repeatedly attributed extremist ideas not just to Islamic extremists, but to “Islam” generally. These aren’t exactly left wing views. And these are just some of the leaders of the “movement”. Look at people like Carl Benjamin aka “Sargon of Akkad” and others of that side of the “movement” and you’ll find “atheist activism” has a definite right-of-centre element. As I said, there is a schism in “the movement” that is playing out at the moment and the days of New Atheism being a purely left or “progressive” phenomenon are over, if they ever existed at all.




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        2. I doubt anyone who reads this blog would disagree with the notion that Islamic practice should become more open and liberal. That isn’t the issue with Ali; the issue is whether she’s being honest in her understanding of the historical factors that got us to the current rut in the middle east, or simply twisting history to support her thesis. Tim already touched on how her calls for an event similar to the protestant reformation in Islam indicate that she has a very whiggish, pop history understanding of said event and its significance. I’ll throw in a couple other issues:

          1) Ali’s claim that Western culture and Islamic culture are at war seems to fly in the face of the actual relations between the West and radical Islamism. Far from being at war, the NATO bloc has had rather amicable relations with radical Islamists and used them as a counter against Soviet leaning Arab Nationalists. If anything, the NATO bloc has gotten along best with Islamists out of the competing ideologies in the region.

          2) Ali’s view that Islam is the root cause of the lack of liberalism in that part of the world is similarly complicated by looking at non-Islamist regimes that were also illiberal and oppresive. The police state in Arab nationalist regimes, pan or regional, can not be placed on Islamism, an ideology Arab nationalists often opposed.

          3) Ali doesn’t understand the significance of Pan-Arab nationalism, and doesn’t mention Nasser’s promotion of reform minded clerics to Al-Azhar. One would think that the most beloved Arab head of state in the era having one of the highest bodies in Islamic scholarship open the doors to women and ending takfir against Shi’a is exactly the type of reform Ali desires, yet it gets no mention in her work.

          4) Ali argues that the Arab conquests were so rapid and successful because they were brutal events filled with mass conversions by the sword. The consensus of Orientalists is that the Arab conquests were so successful because of the many willing infidel allies who saw the Arabs as a reprieve from the Sassanids and ERE fighting themselves to a nub. Copts were the majority religion in Egypt centuries after the conquest, which wouldn’t be the case if they had been subjected to a non-stop forced conversion campaign.

          Frankly, you’re not going to get an accurate understanding of Islamic practice and the problems in the middle east by reading Ali’s work. W Montgomery Watt’s “Islamic Fundamentalism And Modernity” would be a much better starting point on the topic.




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  7. Good, comments are working now. Not a fan of Dawkins but his drunk rape tweets seem more of a rule of thumb suggestion than a lazy dismissal of the victim’s plight.drunk accusations without any DNA or witness testimonies can lead to horrible consequences if the suspect was wrongly accused . and I don’t think that carl can be called an atheist activist (he is an atheist, I admit)as he seems to try to combat the encroachment of third wave feminism into academia and the system of privilege they believe men have(see patriarchy) over women, rather try to convert people to atheism.shockingly Thomas Smith apparently has bought into the feminist rhetoric of “listen and believe”
    and thinks white privilege is real(or widely accepted as the norm)
    just my thoughts




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  8. Tim,
    On the point of rhetoric and hostility towards people of the Muslim faith – I do think it’s now well past the time when the event of sixteen years ago was recognised as a piece of history, and we started speaking of ‘events of September 11th., 2001″. There are people born after that event who are now in secondary school, and who genuinely believe, or suppose by default that ‘9/11’ describes a very recent , or some permanent, event. It was certainly clever PR to coin the catch-phrase, but it serves mere jingoism these days. And America certainly had its revenge. For 3.000 of its people lost in the twin towers, the number of CIVILIAN casualties in Afghanistan (by the time I stopped counting) had surpassed the number of six million.

    So please – “September 11th., 2001”.




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    1. New Atheism was incipient before 2001, but against US Christian fundamentalism: it was oriented towards creationism and the dangers (real and hallucinatory) of “not believing in science”: in the 90s Evangelicalism’s threat was conceived as an extension of Christianity’s inherent villainy as expressed in the Crusades and Inquisition (NAs certainly aren’t known for keeping their denominations straight)

      9-11 was simply taken as confirmation of the inherent dangers of religiosity, and furthermore that the mainstream of a religion is guilty of providing “cover” for its extremists: the logic was that the terrorists are the only true believers, while the vast majority eschewed hijacking only because they hedged or had been tamed by the liberal state




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  9. Well I think it is quite clear that Ayaan gives too much weight to the Protestant Reformation in the making of Modernity but at the same time what she proposes is in fact a counterpart of the Radical Enlightenment in Europe (see ‘the 5 things to be reformed’ in my above post). Her ‘Luther’ is not the counterpart of the Christian Luther but let’s say a much more radical Muhammad Abduh (an Egyptian neo-Mutazilite and an early modernist) who advocated ijtihad and who believed sincerely that the precepts of the early Islam were fully compatible with Modernity (via all sort of tortuous re-interpretations of course).
    Well now it turns out that these early neo-Mutazilites (like Abduh and others) were labelled initially, in the 19th century, as ‘salafists’ by the mainstream muslims (because they put way less emphasis on Tradition than the traditionalists). So at limit Ayaan has a point here, islam needs this kind of ‘Reformation’ 🙂 Returning to serious things yes it is true that she misunderstood the relevance of Protestant Reformation in the making of Modernity but, in my view at least, she is basically right in what regards what is to be done if we want a modern Islam which to never return in important ways to the past.
    And this brings me to the point I made above about islam going strongly toward the past in the last 70 years. I did not argue that you defend that, I said that facts show this quite clearly that (if we think at the average level in the population, the mantra with the ‘monolithic islam does not work here) islam went back strongly toward the past (islamism rampant at least in the last 40 years, sharia still at least influencing the laws basically everywhere: see as a model ‘The Cairo Declaration on Human rights in Islam’, even the moderate islam in the West is on the verge of collapse: search on the net for example ‘The slow death of moderate Islam’ etc).
    The conjecture that modern Western values can be adapted to the Islamic world via minimum of change at the level of islamic theology has been proved in the last 70 years as being at least a severely degenerative ‘research program’ (compare this situation with the Japanese case; they were left, like muslims, after WW2 to ‘clean their own rubbish’ and they did so easily). I think it’s time for a dfferent approach, it’s true now that the idea of a divine emperor has always been marginal in shinto,. Like that of Ayaan for example.
    I could easily reverse the accusation and say that those liberal Christians or atheists who attack Sam Harris, Ayaan Hirsi Ali or Richard Dawkins for criticizing Islam (via a shallow analogy with their criticism, sometmes too strong indeed, of Christianity) are misunderstading Islam and the lessons of history.




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    1. You keep saying Islam has only been going backwards for 70 years. To repeat, you still need to account for ignore Nasser and Pan-Arab Nationalism’s popularity, and the moves they made at Al-Azhar and against the Ikhwan, to demonstrate this claim has any validity. You speak of the problems caused by legal codes based on Sharia; yet, according to James P. Piscatori’s analysis in his 1984 book “Islam in a World Of Nation-States”, the majority of laws in the countries he studied were incorporating the Code Napoleon, not Sharia.

      Per your request, I googled “The slow death of moderate Islam.” Nothing of note and certainly nothing from an academic press comes up when I google this.

      Your comparison between Japan and middle east regimes doesn’t make much sense. At what point was the region left to clean up it’s own mess? It certainly was not during the cold war.

      What evidence is there that Harris and Dawkins understand Islam and lessons from history pertaining to the faith? Neither of them speak Arabic, nor do they have any appreciable understanding of the history of the region.




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  10. Above it’s ‘The quiet death of moderate islam’ (search on the net). By the way those who claim that authoritarianism in the muslim world has little or nothing to do with Islam or that the Islamic states are secular should read for example Nonie Darwish’s book ‘The Devil We don’t know’.

    I think she’s basically right, as much as sharia at least influences the laws there will be no real progress. Indeed it becomes very, very, difficult to pass legislation which contradicts it, this being why the islamists accept to do some concessions: they know that this is unlikely to lead to changes beyond recognition (like in the Christian world). There may be other causes indeed for the existing situation but the Islamic religious factor is definitely very important (Reason still severely downplayed, especially when applied to religion itself).

    There is a reason why even the most liberal Islamic countries (e.g. Tunisia) are very different from the nominally Christian countries (UK), this even after centuries of exposure to Modernity.

    PS I don’t think Ayaan has ever advocated that ‘islam was imposed by the sword’ in the other interpretation than ‘The Islamic law was imposed by the sword’ which is the naked truth. Secondly I don’t think that the ‘dhimma worked well overall’ stance is beyond dispute, this in spite of the 180 degrees rotation of the orientalists after WW2 (Arthur Tritton for example, writing before WW2, largely disagree with this view; in our days Robert Wistrich takes seriously the conjecture put forward by Bat Ye’or that the discriminatory dhimma laws were a cause for the transformation of large Christian communities in minorities in just a few centuries, Egypt included by the way).




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    1. So rather than cite an orientalist, historian, or political scientist with relevant training and qualifications to demonstrate that nominally secular Arab nationalist police states behave oppressively because of Islam, you cite an anti-Islam demagogue whose primarily known for being a Christian convert and founder of “Arabs For Israel”? Also, since when is Robert Wistrich considered an orientalist?




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  11. Hey Tim, While I reading your article, I found this part interesting:

    ” Finally, the conception that our liberal values, which we tend to share with our Whiggish forebears and hopefully apply more consistently to others than they did, stem wholly or even substantially from the thinkers of the Enlightenment is dubious as well. While many of the ideals of the eighteenth century philosophes certainly did permeate modern thinking to the point where many of them are unquestioned today, it is also true that many of the practical steps to bringing liberty and education to the masses came not from bewigged aristocrats in Parisian salons or London coffee houses but by earnest Quakers and evangelical vicars.”

    I was reading about liberalism today, trying to learn about the origins of it and how it eventually formed into “modern liberalism”, while reading many websites, they always credit John Lock as the founder of liberalism and give no credit to Quakers or evangelical vicars.

    Matter of fact, when typing “orginal of liberalism”, into google, you get this:

    People also ask:

    When was liberalism created?

    “The 17th-century philosopher John Locke is often credited with founding liberalism as a distinct philosophical tradition. Locke argued that each man has a natural right to life, liberty and property, while adding that governments must not violate these rights based on the social contract.”

    So obviously Google isn’t telling the whole story here..I was wondering if you had any idea why and if you could maybe go into a little more detail about the origin of liberalism? I’m fairly new to history and I think I put too much trust into what I read on google, or maybe it just takes much more research / reading books in order to get completely accurate information on things like this? Or maybe I’m just nitpicking here about this small detail and it’s not really a big deal? Sorry for the long post, would appreciate your thoughts on this.




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    1. Google is right, more or less, to trace the beginnings of modern liberalism as a political philosophy to Locke, though his ideas obviously had earlier antecedents and he had predecessors (e.g. Milton). My reference to “earnest Quakers and evangelical vicars”, however, was more to the practical elements that arose in society at around the same time that, it could be argued, did as much or even more to lay the foundations of liberal democratic values. It was the radical egalitarianism of people like the Quakers (and before them, the Diggers and Levellers) that underpinned the ideas that led eventually to universal suffrage and the end of the slave trade. And it was similar ideas among high minded clergy, mainly of the evangelical Protestant variety, that – for a variety of motives – saw public education and the rights of workers as something worth striving for. I would argue that these things had far more actual impact on the world than most of the salon conversations and finely bound volumes of the writers who are usually held up as the great giants of “the Enlightenment”.

      As with the history of science, this part of history is one that some (such as the New Atheists) like to pretend was wholly secular and consisted entirely of free thinkers rejecting or at least ignoring religion and everything to do with it. History is never that neat.




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        1. I’d agree that secularism grew out of a tension and compromise between the religious and political spheres that arose in medieval Europe. I wouldn’t say you could characterise that as “secularism originated from Christianity”.




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          1. Though the many different churches of Protestantism broke up the monopoly of the “One True Church.”




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  12. The absolute rule by just one church, religion, was breaking up. In the beginning of what would eventually become secular individualism.

    Similar dividing forces exist in Islam.




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    1. The idea that one church breaking up into many somehow automatically led eventually to “secular individualism” is not a coherent conclusion. As I say in my article above, it’s a classic example of the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy. And if division from one religious structure leads directly to “secular individualism” then why didn’t Islam, which began to divide and spit centuries before the Protestant Reformation, give rise to “secular individualism” long before we see it arise in western Europe? This is exactly the kind of hopelessly simplistic pseudo-historical analysis my article is warning against.




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      1. Yes, it was only one of dozens of necessary factors. But as central as religion is in many cultures, any decentralization was extremely important. For 500 years, protestant ministers spoke about the right of different people to read the Bible on their own. To come up with their own readings of it. Even in Islam, regional, national variations have developed. To the point that Kemal Ataturk in the 1920 ‘s, was able to set up the nation of Turkey as explicitly founded not on religion, but on national secular government.




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        1. I’m sorry, but “decentralization was extremely important” is an assertion, not an argument. And it overstates how “centralised” pre-Reformation Europe was anyway. Religiously, there had always been tensions between the churches in various kingdoms and the Papacy (that’s one reason why we keep seeing anti-Popes, for example). Then there was the continual struggle between the Church and the state, in the form of the Investitute Dispute, the Empire-Papacy rift and various smaller local disputes along the same lines. Finally, you need to actually show that any such “decentralisation” did indeed lead directly to “secular individualism”.

          In Islam, I’m afraid Ataturk’s secular Turkey comes far too late to sustain this line of argument. And that entity was inspired by western European ideals, not something to do with divisions in Islam that had happened over a millennium earlier.




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  13. Religion is self evidently important in many cultures. I noted the logical, causal link between the individation of Protestant churches, and individualism.

    Islam was out of sequence with Christiainity … because it started 600 years later.




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    1. Simply using the word “individuation” for the fragmentation of Protestant Christianity doesn’t somehow mean it is “logical” that this therefore led to “individualism”. The rise of humanism predated Protestanism by at least two centuries and the first ostensibly secular regime, in revolutionary France, was in a Catholic country and owed nothing much to any fragmentary Protestantism of centuries earlier. And history doesn’t work in some kind of automatic Eurocentric “sequence”, developments happening as a matter of course when a culture reaches the right point on a timeline. This is all cartoon history and precisely the kind of simplistic gibberish I’m arguing against in my article.




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      1. Yes, elements of humanism existed just before – and encouraged – Protestantism, by putting more emphasis on every man, and his own encounter with a Bible in a language he could understand.

        These were some of the major parts of a very long chain of development.
        Which lead in 1776 to American democracy; power to the people. Overthrowing the Divine Right of kings; two forms of somewhat centralized power. Which was in turn emulated by a largely but not completely Catholic – and partly Atheist, Voltarian – French intellectual elite. And the Rights of Man.




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        1. No, not “just before”. We see humanism as early as Dante and elements of it in the philosophy of the thirteenth century. And anyone can create an illusory “long chain of development” by cherry picking elements and declaring their sequence equals dervation. History is never actually that neat, linear or teleologically deterministic.




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  14. Summarizing history on a mobile, with my thumbs, in a comment box, does impose some necessary brevity.

    But interestingly if we, like most historians, take Petrarch as the first major example of humanism in the West? Then interestingly, it is almost exactly 600 years to the appearance, in Islam, of Ataturk. The first great secular Eastern Islamic hero.




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    1. Your brevity isn’t really the problem. No-one has seen Petrarch as the beginning of humanism for about 70 years at least – G.G Walsh’s Medieval Humanism was published way back in 1942. The old fashioned idea that Petrarch sprang out of nowhere ignores things like Eriugena’s Ciceronian work, the clear humanism in Dante, Boccaccio and Chaucer and many other earlier examples. And this idea that secularism somehow appears 600 years after humanism in some kind of teleological determinist “sequence” is totally ridiculous.




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      1. As we say in historiography, “nothing comes from nothing,” to be sure. In this case, there was an ancient, nascent humanism well before Petrarch, fl. 1330 ACE. However, Pretrarch is usually credited as the first “major” figure; whose close proximity to the rather humanistic Renaissance suggest influence there.

        It may be that it’s an odd coincidence that there was roughly 600 years gestation time between him and a similar Islamic figure. But it seems like an odd coincidence. Given that Islam started 600 years after Christianity.

        In historiography, there have been hundreds of theories about common or even master patterns in the development of different cultures. Though they are currently unpopular among some, the relatively new disciplines of Sociology and Anthropology seem to confirm countless in-common patterns, structures, of various types, in many if not all cultures.




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        1. Whatever. The silly simplistic “sequence” you seem to think history runs along is ridiculous. As is your idea that Petrarch and Ataturk are in any way “similar figures”. Seriously pal – give it a rest.




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          1. Though they are dissimilar in most ways, both Petrarch and Ataturk were thought to inroduce a new degree of secular humanism into otherwise religious cultures.

            In any case, however much you may reject such a parallel, you still have the central problem; failing to adequately note that in Ataturk, Islam does actually have a modern, secualized Muslim.
            Just as the very religious west eventually generated, somehow, a secular segment. Even many atheists.

            How did some secular culture, even atheism, emerge in the West, and even now and then, in the east? The simple attribution of this to a single vague sentence about secular states somehow interactting with religion, is even simpler than my own brief sketch, offered here




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          2. I don’t actually give any kind of outline of how secularism arose in the west, precisely because trying to reduce that to any kind of “sketch” or even to a long article would not be adequate. That’s kind of the point. Glib summaries, especially silly cartoonish linear teleologies like “Protestantism led to greater individualism and so secular pluralism” are caricatures of how history works. “Ataturk was equivalent to Petrarch in these [highly selective and actually dubious] ways” is even worse.




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