TCS Daily

Does Islam Need a Luther or a Pope?

By Edward Feser - December 4, 2003 12:00 AM

It has become the conventional wisdom in the two years since 9/11 that the trouble with Islam is that, unlike Christianity, it never had a Protestant Reformation. The idea seems to be this: Christianity was (so it is held) rigid and authoritarian before Luther and company came along and paved the way for liberal democracy, science, and all things modern and good; Islam's problem is that it remains stuck in its "Medieval phase," still awaiting Reformers of its own.


This analysis dovetails nicely with the conceptions most people have these days of the Reformation, of traditional Catholicism, and of freedom and rationality and their relationship to authority and tradition. It is, for that reason, completely worthless. For such conceptions rest largely on clich├ęs whose content owes less to actual historical fact than to the needs of Reformation and Enlightenment era anti-Catholic polemic.


Scholars like Stanley Jaki have painstakingly demonstrated that the scientific revolution was a natural outgrowth, rather than a wholesale rejection, of the Medieval Catholic intellectual tradition, and the oversimplifications and distortions inherent in the standard anti-Catholic reading of the Galileo episode have been exposed in books like Wade Rowland's recent Galileo's Mistake. Henry Kamen's work on The Spanish Inquisition documents similar distortions typical of accounts of that event, and Thomas Madden's A Concise History of the Crusades makes evident that the Crusades were in essence nothing more than a (failed) attempt to turn the tide of centuries of Islamic aggression and liberate once-Christian lands long suffering under Muslim conquest - something for which modern Westerners owe no apology. The notion that the Medieval Church lay in darkness, oppression, and superstition, desperately awaiting liberation by a coarse German monk, is, in short, a myth.


But there is another and deeper problem with the received analysis. The fact of the matter is that those aspects of Islam that seem to put it unalterably at odds with the modern world are, for the most part, precisely those that it shares in common with Protestantism; and that those features of modern Western civilization most crucial to the maintenance of liberty and scientific reason owe far more to the Catholic Church than they do to Luther and Calvin.


The Rule of Law


To see that this is so, we need to understand something of the nature of modern civilization, of the dispute between Protestantism and Catholicism, and of Islam.


To start with the first, there is, in my view, no more penetrating account of our civilization than that provided by the work of the economist and social theorist Friedrich A. Hayek (1899-1992). Hayek is, of course, well known for his defense of the market economy, but no less significant is his analysis of the social and cultural preconditions for the survival and flourishing of such an economy. The key is the stability of individual freedom, private property, and contract made possible by the rule of law -- something by no means to be identified with the mere existence of laws, understood as decrees issued by some governing authority.


Indeed, it is possible for many such individual decrees to exist, and even to be enforced, in the total absence of the rule of law. A dictatorship, whether headed by a single despot or a party, might issue any number of orders brutally and effectively implemented by the prospect of torture or imprisonment. But this would amount to the exact opposite of the rule of law in Hayek's sense, for such orders would by their nature be arbitrary, their existence and enforcement owing entirely to the ever-changing whims of those in power. Such a system would in substance differ not at all from sheer lawlessness, distinguishable from Mafia-style criminality only in that the Mafiosi would in this case be wearing police uniforms.


It is the arbitrariness or discretionary power itself that is most crucial to such lawlessness, however, and not the brutality of the methods with which it is backed up. A benign and well-meaning authority -- the traditional socialist economic planner, say (at least in his self-conception) -- would also govern in a way at odds with the rule of law if his decisions rested not on any objective principle but rather on caprice or even high sentiment. For what matters to the rule of law is that there is an order of rules that operate impersonally, independently of the will of any governing individual or body, and to which even such individuals and bodies must submit, whether or not they approve of the consequences of applying such rules.


This is part of why socialism turns out in Hayek's view to be incompatible with the rule of law: there simply cannot be any system of impersonal rules that guarantees a distribution of wealth or income satisfactory to the socialist, for there will, given differences in individual abilities and circumstances, always be cases in which individuals follow the rules and yet end up economically far better or worse off than others do, so that socialist governing officials would constantly have to intervene arbitrarily in the lives of individuals to "correct" for these deviations from their favored pattern of distribution.


Another, highly relevant, reason socialism is incompatible with the rule of law is that no socialist authority could possibly have all the knowledge of economic circumstances germane to the central planning of an economy. The determination of how best to use economic resources requires information concerning a vast constellation of local conditions and individual abilities and needs, all of which are constantly changing. In a capitalist economy, such information is encapsulated in the prices generated by the free operation of the impersonal law of supply and demand, prices which, in effect, signal to consumers and entrepreneurs how best to use available resources. The socialist planner would seek to abolish this law, however, and all he has to replace it with is his own subjective and arbitrary estimation of what people ought to have and ought to produce. The inevitable result is the massive wasting of resources, poverty, and tyranny that have characterized every real-world experiment in socialist planning.


What Is True of Economics...


What is true of economics is also true more generally, in Hayek's view. The problem with socialism is that it seeks to abolish the impersonal principles of respect for private property, freedom of contract, market competition, and the like and replace them with the purportedly more rational and compassionate decrees of social engineers. The result is irrationality and suffering on a scale unmatched in human history, for such engineers are simply incapable of harnessing the vast body of information about local circumstances and individual abilities and needs that the conscious design and control of a complex economic order would require.


But the same problem afflicts every attempt to impose, by fiat and on a massive scale, a new order of things whose origin lies in the vision -- moral, social, economic, or religious -- of a single individual or small group of individuals. Individual human beings are simply too limited in their knowledge and understanding to create, all at once, a workable and humane system of law, morality, or government.


By contrast, the hoary and impersonal products of tradition, though they may seem superficially to be less rational than the novel insights of individual intellectuals, poets, and artists, are in fact far more rational, for, reflecting as they do the experience of millions of individuals over many generations, and having survived the winnowing forces of cultural evolution, they embody far more information about the concrete details of human life than any individual theorist can hope to acquire. Traditional practices and institutions must, then, get the benefit of the doubt. If they are ever to be altered -- and Hayek doesn't deny that they sometimes can and must be -- the burden of proof must always be on the innovator rather than the conserver of tradition, and (especially where the institution or practice is very ancient and widespread) the change can never be more than piecemeal, a tinkering around the edges that leaves the core of the practice or institution intact.


The defender of civilization, then, must in Hayek's view necessarily be the enemy of all those who would overthrow the products of tradition, and substitute for them their own idiosyncratic visions. He must be the enemy, that is, of all forms of what Hayek called "constructivist rationalism": the tendency, embodied most vividly in modern times by socialists and proponents of the sexual revolution, to seek to construct wholesale an entirely new order of things according to some artificial design alleged to be more "rational" than some ancient existing order. And such opposition makes the defender of tradition the true upholder of freedom and rationality: for there can be no true freedom divorced from the rule of law and the equal submission of all to rules whose authority does not rest on any individual's arbitrary will, and there can be no true rationality that ignores the collective wisdom of millennia and arrogantly substitutes for it the piddling and eccentric musings of intellectuals and social engineers.


Protestantism, Catholicism and the Rule of Law


Now, what does all this have to do with Protestantism, Catholicism, and Islam?


Consider that the debate between Protestants and Catholics has always at bottom been about authority: does it lie ultimately in the Church or in the Bible? At first glance it might seem that the Protestant answer is a distinctly Hayekian one: the Bible, rather than the Church or the Pope, ought to be the believer's guide in all things, and as such the believer might seem to be liberated from the arbitrary will of those holding ecclesiastical power.


But appearances are deceiving. For the Bible does not, of course, in any literal sense interpret itself. And yet each believer, being his own "priest," is supposed to have direct access to the meaning of the text, without the need for guidance by an authoritative Church.


So what are believers to do when they are not sure what the Bible means, or when they disagree as to its meaning? The standard Protestant answer is that the Holy Spirit will lead the believer into understanding. But what criteria are there for determining exactly what the Spirit is saying, or whether He is really speaking to one at all? Here the believer must inevitably fall back on his own private judgment. The result, notoriously, has been the splintering of Protestantism into thousands of denominations. The Bible ends up saying whatever the individual believer thinks it says -- however ill-educated or bigoted that believer might be, and whatever extra-Biblical agenda he may unconsciously be reading into it. Every man becomes, in practice, his own authority -- which means, in effect, that there is no authority at all.


There is, that is to say, no rule of law in the religious sphere, but rather sheer lawlessness: the majestic and objective will of God as enshrined in the Bible is imperceptibly transformed into the puny, subjective will of the believer who interprets it.


That believer may also go on to found a sect, thereby creating a sphere within which to enforce that will -- a sphere which constitutes an attempt, a la constructivist rationalism, to sweep away the institutions of the past and create a new order from the ground up on the basis of nothing more than the insight of the individual believer himself.


The revolutionary socialist or libertine has, paradoxically enough, an analogue in every sectarian who sets out for the umpteenth time to re-invent the theological wheel, promising that in his teachings we have, at long last, a true understanding of God's will. And the subjectivist and lawless consequences of sola scriptura are only exacerbated by that other great watchword of Protestantism, sola fide. "Faith alone" is for many a Protestant the ground, not only of salvation, but ultimately also of knowledge. "Reason is the devil's whore," Luther tells us, and it "must be deluded, blinded, and destroyed."


One cannot imagine Aquinas or the other great thinkers of the Medieval Church saying such things. The Catholic idea was always rather that the individual preacher, theologian, or mystical visionary cannot put aside the duty of testing his claims against the light of reason as much as against the light of Scripture. And Scripture itself must always be understood, not according to the limited perspective of the individual reader, but in the light of reason and of the Tradition of which the Bible is a part, a complex body of teaching that has come down from the Apostles and Fathers, and the contents of which have been illuminated by innumerable saints and Doctors of the Church, all of them as subject to it as the average believer.


This is a Tradition that the Church herself does not create but merely preserves and passes on -- emendations to that Tradition occurring only very infrequently, deliberately, gradually, and minimally, and always in a way which merely draws out the implications of what was there already rather than introducing some novel or foreign element. The authority of councils and Popes is at bottom merely the authority of the night watchman who guards a museum whose works he could not have created himself, and would not presume to tamper with. The teachings of a Pope are never strictly his teachings, but merely those of the 2,000-year old institution of which he is a temporary steward and to which he must submit as dutifully as any of the faithful. Far from being an arbitrary despot, he is merely the servant and executor of a system of law he did not make and cannot change. He is, one might say, the very model of the Hayekian statesman, transplanted into the sphere of religion.


The rule of law, or rather its theological analogue, is thus the very essence of Catholicism -- just as its rejection is of the essence of Protestantism. This essence was preserved by the Medieval Church's refusal to submit itself to the State, viz. to the contingencies of arbitrary political power. And this distinction between Church and State has survived the Reformation to become one of the most prized elements of Western Civilization. Or at least it has in those countries in which some Protestant sect or other hadn't captured the apparatus of government: it must never be forgotten that it was Calvin, and not some Medieval Catholic, who founded in Geneva the world's first Christian totalitarian state, that it is Lutheran bishops who were traditionally the paid employees of German and Scandinavian governments, and that it is the Church of England, and not the Church of Rome, whose head is a secular monarch.


The Relevance for Islam


Perhaps the relevance to the question of Islam is starting to become clear. For there has never been in Islam any more than in many Protestant denominations what there has always been in Catholicism -- a distinction in principle between Church and State, a distinction guaranteeing the independence of the former and strict limitations upon the latter. Muhammad was not only a prophet, but also a head of state and a commander in chief, and his followers have always sought faithfully to emulate him in this as in his other qualities. Like Luther and Calvin, he did not inherit his doctrine from any existing institution: the Koran came to him straight from God, or so he tells us, and the reader must simply obey it. Nor did he, any more than Luther or Calvin, leave behind him any authoritative interpreter. One reader is in practice as good as any other, and an effective mullah requires no more of institutional link with the Prophet than a functioning Protestant minister needs to be in communion with the Pope. Nor is reason any less subservient to the text -- that is to say, to the reader's own understanding of the text -- than it is in Protestantism: sola fide has its Muslim parallels as surely as sola scriptura does.


One consequence of all this is that there is no mechanism in Islam, as there is in Catholicism, for an application of the principles of an ongoing Tradition to new circumstances -- be they social, political, scientific, or technological -- by drawing out heretofore implicit consequences. That is, there is no broad and complex body of teaching of which its sacred book forms but a part, and thus no resources as authoritative as the text itself to appeal to in applying it to the modern world. There is simply a dead letter, revealed once and for all centuries ago, and presupposing a historical context to which one must, in obeying the revelation, strive constantly to return. Hence if modern science and liberal democracy seem foreign to the world of the Koran, so much the worse for them. Another consequence is that there is, quite simply, no more of a basis for concluding that this Muslim sect is more "authentically" Islamic than that one than there is for saying that Lutheranism is more authentically Protestant than Calvinism. In particular, the suggestion that semi-Americanized Muslim college professors have a greater claim to authenticity than Wahhabi autodidacts is little more than a risible liberal fantasy. And Muhammad himself - who was, after all, not exactly a touchy-feely multiculturalist - would in any event clearly have resonated to the rough martial spirit of the latter more readily than to the bland gentility of the former.


To these considerations we might add the oft-noted parallels between the abstract and overwhelming Will that is Allah and the similarly impersonal and forbidding God of Calvinism, the Deity in both religions issuing orders that have no basis other than that Will itself and predestining men to a salvation or damnation whose justice they can neither fathom nor question. There is also in both religions (and in paradoxical juxtaposition to their suspicion of reason) the cold rationalism of an iconoclasm that will tolerate neither sacraments nor images, and an anti-humanism that despises the works of man even when he aspires to glorify God. The Taliban who dynamited those Buddhist carvings thereby demonstrated their kinship, not to the Medieval Catholics who venerated Plato, Aristotle, and other great writers of pagan antiquity, nor to the Renaissance Popes in their patronization of the arts, but to the Protestant mobs whose vandalism purged so many once-Catholic European churches of their stained glass, statuary, and beauty.


In short: if the problem with Islam is that it seems constantly to give rise to sects violently hostile to secular institutions, to reason, and to cultured sentiment; that the countries in which it predominates have a chronic tendency toward theocratic despotism; and that as a religion it exhibits no institutional structure that might finally impose some discipline on the chaotic and lawless spiritual impulses that it generates -- if all that is the problem (which it surely is), then it is absurd to hold that the solution is for Islam to find its Martin Luther. It has already had its Luther, not to mention its Calvin and its Henry VIII, all rolled into one: his name was Muhammad. What Islam needs is a Pope.


Edward Feser ( is Visiting Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, and author of On Nozick (Wadsworth, 2003).


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