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Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East 25.2 (2005) 407-437

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Reformation, Islam, and Democracy:

Evolutionary and Antievolutionary Reform in Abrahamic Religions

This article outlines an ideal type of reformation that may serve as an empirically grounded platform and a set of conceptual tools for analyzing the historical role of Islam and other world religions. In doing so, it reconsiders and makes comparative use of Protestantism, the one historically consummated ideal type, or the "real type," of reformation. The argument is structured around the four constitutive elements of the ideal type: the worldviews expressed in religious traditions; the golden age associated with the original, charismatic, or sacred phase of reform-prone religions; the organization or institutionalization of these religions; and the environmental context and external factors favoring or hindering alternative reform agendas. In and through the construction of this ideal type the article pursues two specific objectives. First, it explains the absence of a general concept of reformation in Weber's sociology of religion, demonstrates the need for one, and supplies it. In this regard, the article addresses the debate on reformation (and Islam) between ideationalist, materialist, and institutionalist followers of Weber and accommodates what it takes to be their lasting contributions in the spirit of Weber's own multicausal and historically anchored research program. Second, it offers an account of Islam that shows both its original rationalizing, universalist, and democratic development of Abrahamic monotheism and the subsequent, long-term, debilitating reversals arising from the orthodoxy's attempts to mark off and safeguard the golden age's legacy against "usurpation" by dynastic imperial states. The argument here follows the convergent claims of "orientalist" scholars and fundamentalist Muslims about the fusion of state and religion as the key distinguishing feature of Islam. However, it diverges from these stands in several important respects. First, it emphasizes that the fused state and religion were limited to the golden age (621–661 CE) of the prophet and his first four "rightly guided caliphs." Second, it took a divine or prophetic and a human or democratic form, and this rather neglected distinction should be helpful in moving the debate over the fusion of state and religion in Islam to one about the form that this fusion may take in the contemporary context. Third, with the rise of Umayyid's dynastic caliphate, the state-religion unity was reduced to an elusive ideal and redundant discourse that were effectively revived only through [End Page 407] Muslim encounters with western universalism and imperialism. Fourth, although these still unfolding encounters have engendered the fundamentalist as well as the modernist reform agendas in the last two centuries, both tendencies have solid grounds in Islamic history and thought. The article concludes by briefly applying the ideal type in question to the changing trajectories and prospects of these alternatives for achieving an Islamic reformation and addressing the question of "what went wrong" with Islamicate.1

Weber's Legacy: A Critical Appropriation and Reconstruction

Protestantism has been the movement with reference to which various religious figures in the Muslim world have been identified (and self-identified) as "Luthers" by both Western and Muslim writers in the past two centuries.2 The apparent failure of these to sustain their once apparently hegemonic movement has underpinned the opposed claims that either Islam is unreformable and as such a major (and perhaps tragic) obstacle to Islamicate's modernization or that it is in fact a dependent variable shaped by socioeconomic and political factors wherein the causes of the Muslim world's decline may be found. Either way, the conclusion is that a sustained developmental trajectory will arise, if at all, in Muslim societies despite or regardless of the Islamic orthodoxy.3 At best, socioeconomic and political modernization will continue to marginalize Islamic practices in various spheres without the need for an "internal" transformation of the orthodoxy. At worst, orthodox resilience will condemn Muslim societies to instability, backwardness, and rage resulting from inescapable subservience to a dominant and alien modernity.

Even though...


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