Welcome to the Islamic Reformation (and How to Make Sense of bin Laden)

Speak­ing recent­ly on Stan­ford’s cam­pus, Reza Aslan, an Iran­ian-Amer­i­can schol­ar who has writ­ten for The New York Times, The Nation, and Slate, sketched out an inter­est­ing frame­work for mak­ing sense of recent trends with­in the Mid­dle East, and more par­tic­u­lar­ly with­in Islam itself (iTunes — feed N/A). His argu­ment is essen­tial­ly this: Islam is under­go­ing a ref­or­ma­tion that’s not ter­ri­bly unlike the one Chris­tian­i­ty under­went in the 16th cen­tu­ry. With­in Islam, we see indi­vid­u­als arro­gat­ing pow­er from the cler­i­cal estab­lish­ment, inter­pret­ing Islam for them­selves, and attempt­ing to return it to a more pure and orig­i­nal form. And what’s dri­ving all of this are three social and tech­no­log­i­cal inno­va­tions. First, the trans­la­tion of the Koran into many new lan­guages, which has made it acces­si­ble to wide­spread pop­u­la­tions, includ­ing non-Ara­bic-speak­ing peo­ple, for the first time.  Sec­ond, the par­tic­i­pa­tion in reformist move­ments by Mus­lims from the West, who bring their own indi­vid­u­al­is­tic per­spec­tives to the reli­gion. Third and most impor­tant­ly, the inven­tion of the Inter­net, which, much like the print­ing press dur­ing the 16th cen­tu­ry, has empow­ered new arbiters of Islam­ic law. Through the inter­net, new thinkers can get their ideas out there in unprece­dent­ed ways, mobi­lize sup­port behind a new body of reli­gious ideas, and com­pete effec­tive­ly with the old reli­gious order.

It is with­in this gen­er­al con­text of ref­or­ma­tion that Aslan places Usama bin Laden. Although the Islam­ic ref­or­ma­tion has been shaped by many mod­er­ate and pro­gres­sive fig­ures, there are, as with all refor­ma­tions, more rad­i­cal fig­ures who chal­lenge the tra­di­tion­al reli­gious insti­tu­tions and will resort to a patho­log­i­cal kind of vio­lence if nec­es­sary. In this instance, Aslan sees sim­i­lar­i­ties between bin Laden and more rad­i­cal fig­ures of the Protes­tant Ref­or­ma­tion. Give the talk a lis­ten. And let your­self get past the first 10 min­utes because it starts a lit­tle slow­ly.

See our Uni­ver­si­ty Pod­cast col­lec­tion.

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