An interfaith examination: Islamic Thought Through Protestant Eyes
What if the Protestant Reformation was as much about Islam as it was with Catholicism? We all know the story, a German priest called Martin Luther angered by what he saw as the excesses of the Catholic Church and certain doctrines it espoused, nailed 95 pieces of theses to the door of a church symbolising his objections, unwittingly triggering the reformation leading to the creation of Protestantism.
Protestantism started out as a protest against Catholicism turning into a full sect with different beliefs, practises and doctrines, but while anti-Catholicism might have been a key feature of the Protestant movement, Islam played a lesser-known role in the formation of the Christian sect. Mehmet Karabela’s Islamic Thought Through Protestant Eyes aims to fill the gap in historical knowledge on how engaging with Islam helped shape Protestant beliefs and doctrines.
"The obsession with Islam was partially driven by fear of things like the Ottoman Empire, but also intense curiosity, especially in light of the rejection of the intellectual authority of the Catholic Church, there was a sense they needed to make sense of the world with new eyes"
Some historians such as Kecia Ali have argued modern Islam is increasingly protestant with a growing emphasis on things like relying only on the Quran, Hadiths and the first generation of Muslims as authority figures, a position born out of interaction with western Christianity through things like European colonialism, American-led globalisation and other related forces.
Karabela’s adds to this perspective by getting us to think of earlier times and the ways in which Protestantism was influenced by Islam. In particular, German Lutheran institutions and universities took up the professional study of Islam in the 17th and 18th centuries with a mixture of hostility and intrigue.
The connection to Islam is made very clear by the theologian Johann Ulrich Wallich whose book comes with an illustration of a papal crown and above it a turban of the Ottoman sultan and a snake circle connecting them with banners that read, “unequal agreement in matters of fate,” and, “each of you either kill or shun!”
Of this image, Karabela writes, “The satanic depiction of the headdresses of the Sultan and Pope draws an equivalency between Islam and Catholicism, the serpents symbolizing both as evil. The Protestant reader, as he or she delves into an account of the exotic heresy of the Turks, is thereby encouraged to draw parallels with the superstitions and heresies of the Catholic Church.”
Islamic Thought Through Protestant Eyes breaks down the different themes found in Lutheran scholarship on Islam and has translated excerpts, everything from theology, philosophy to the Sunni-Shia divide were of interest to the Christian scholars.
The different Christian thinkers saw Islam as a false deception since one major theme of Protestant works is the idea that Islam is morally lax as a religion.
Christian Benedikt Michaelis, an 18th-century theologian, “argues that Muhammad deliberately and cunningly created a morally lax religion to win converts.” Michaelis claims Islam only requires believers to keep the faith in the heart, which enables Muslims to commit blasphemy and deny God if threatened with physical violence for believing in Him, there is no need to fear sin since Islam says God is all-forgiving, Michaelis asserts.
"Mehmet Karabela has provided an invaluable services by giving us access to Lutheran thinkers and shows us how they analysed Islam to better understand Christianity"
As evidence, Michaelis cites the Quranic passage from 2:185, “God wants easiness for you and does not want difficulty for you.” Michaelis says Islam uses ease towards sin to take a permissive attitude towards everything from prayer to sexuality, as so Islam appeals to the ‘debased’ tastes of people making it easier for them to convert.
He contrasts this with Christianity where a believer can never lie about their faith, especially in the face of persecution, and so martyrdom is especially glorified within the church. What is interesting about Michaelis interventions is he is not only looking at Islam but also has Catholicism in mind too, for him studying Islam is also about understanding the boundaries of the Christian faith and forming new ideas in light of it.
Aside from theology Lutheran scholars were also interested in the rational philosophy of Islam, while they all agreed with Islam as a religion impeding the development of rational philosophy, not all of them agreed on the exact cause. Johann Peter von Ludewig showed great interest in Pre-Islamic Arab philosophy, which he saw as full of wisdom and connected, although very distinct from, Greek philosophy.
However, rational philosophy lost its way with the ascent of the Prophet Muhammad, Ludewig contests, as he was illiterate and in order to remain politically in control, he criminalised the study of it. Only Christian influence on Islam later revived philosophy in Ludewig’s view.
While Ludewig’s thesis is no longer accepted today, what it does reveal is the diversity of ideas and challenges the Lutherans were grappling with. We have to also remember that these Protestant scholars were operating in a pre-Imperialist and thus pre-Orientalist context, the degradation of Islam was not motivated by the conquest of Muslim lands, but by the spiritual and religious confrontations they were dealing with.
Mehmet Karabela has provided invaluable services by giving us access to Lutheran thinkers and showing us how they analysed Islam to better understand Christianity.
The obsession with Islam was partially driven by fear of things like the Ottoman Empire, but also intense curiosity, especially in light of the rejection of the intellectual authority of the Catholic Church, there was a sense they needed to make sense of the world with new eyes.
Usman Butt is a multimedia television researcher, filmmaker and writer based in London. Usman read International Relations and Arabic Language at the University of Westminster and completed a Master of Arts in Palestine Studies at the University of Exeter.
Follow him on Twitter: @TheUsmanButt