The unexpected similarities between Muslim reformers and Luther

The unexpected similarities between Muslim reformers and Luther

Desirée Custers

Desirée Custers

Master student of Arabic and Islamic Studies at the KU Leuven. Holds an MA in International Politics and Conflict Studies, University of Leiden and Utrecht.

Last year, several European countries celebrated the 500-year anniversary of Luther’s Protestant reformation (1517). This reformation offered a way to unite rational thinking, science and belief, something that has also been said about the Muslim reformers during the Arabic Naha. This article will draw a comparison between the Protestant and Islamic reformist movement and will show that they share some remarkable similarities.

Luther’s reform

In the 16th century Martin Luther (1483-1546) published 95 theses which questioned the doctrines and lifestyle of the Roman Catholic Church including their corruption and manipulating a feeling of guilt among citizens to sell indulgences so that full or partial remission of their punishment would be granted. Furthermore, he rejected several teachings from the Roman Catholic Church. For example, he thought that salvation and eternal life is received through the believer’s faith in Jesus Christ as redeemer from sin.


Martin Luther by Lucas Cranch the Elder (1529). Source: Wikipedia.

Although much can be said about Luther’s reading of the Bible, I would like to mention in this article that he held a literal interpretation the text. This is not to mean that he was a complete literalist seeing as he read the psalms of the old testament as allegorically. Rather, it meant that he rejected the speculative Catholic tradition of interpretation.

Luther also called for a personal relationship between the individual and God, something that he partially made possible by translating the Bible from Latin into German. He encouraged believers to read the holy book themselves and through this get back to the roots of the Christian believe rather than follow the Roman Catholic Church.

The Nahḍa


Nahḍa is the Arabic word for “awakening” and refers to a period of renaissance that began with Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in 1798 and continued with the subsequent Ottoman rule of Muḥammad ʿAli Pasha who invested in the education and modernization of Egypt.

Among others he sent Arab scholars to Europe on educational trips and implemented a printing press system that spread information to large parts of the Arabic world. A succession of scholars and thinkers continued the modernization in fields such as religious thought, Arabic literature and the development of the Arabic language. Names include Sayyid Jamāl al-Dīn al- Afghānī (1839- 1897) and Muḥammad ʿAbduh (1849-1905).


al- Afghānī. Source: Wikipedia


To start, both the Protestant reform and the Nahḍa started with a discontent of the political and economic situation. Both Europe under the religious rule of the Roman Catholic Church and under the land division system of feudalism, as well as Egypt under the late Ottoman rule knew a period of poverty and decay.

Second, both movements called for a reinterpretation of the religious book that advocated a personal relationship between believer and God. Luther’s interpretation was received as liberating by many because the institution of the Church standing did not stand between the individual and their God.

Modernist Islamic reformist thinkers in the Nahḍa reinterpreted classic dogma’s of Islam. Al-Afghānī and ʿAbduh for example, condemned the blind imitation (taqlīd) of the religions views of the ʿUmma (the Islamic authority at the time). They advocated for every Muslim to


read the Qurʾan themselves and to use reason and personal interpretation (ijtihād) when reading.

Third, both movements encouraged the development of science and the use of rationality. The Protestant reform rejected the Catholic refusal of scientific experiments and inspired the search for knowledge. Its literal interpretation of the Bible inspired the search for knowledge because it prompted people to look at the world around them as it is empirically and not speculatively.

During the Naḥda science and knowledge was encouraged by the practice Ijtihād. Al-Afghānī, for example, thought that science should be based on philosophical thinking and he formulated a theory of knowledge to argue that Islam is compatible with scientific inquiry.

Side notes

Despite the similarities between both movements, some side notes should be made. The Nahḍa reformist movement was not the only Islamist movement that called for the return to the fundament of religion. The Wahhabist reform (18th century) called for a literal reading of the Qurʾan. However, this movement led to the creation of a Salafist dogma that is often (although not always correctly) related to terrorism.

Furthermore, the Protestant reform aimed to change the Church from the inside. The Islamic reformists focused on the Islamic religion itself, although it at times did involve institutions primarily in law and education (for example in the famous Azhar university of Cairo).

Third, the Islamist reformist movement took place in the context of increasing religions exchange between Europe and the Arab world and the continued resistance to European colonialism and imperialism. Islamic reformism thus aimed to select particular (western) science and technology while preserving their own religious convictions creating their own identity in a modernising and globalising world. The protestant reform, on the other hand, did know the same context of religious exchange.

Modern Muslim reformers

More recent Islamic thinkers have also attempted to reform Islam. Naṣr āmid Abū Zayd (1943-2010), for example, argued that when reading the Qurʾan, one should take into account that it is not only a religious book, but also a cultural and historic work. He thus called for a critical reading of the Qurʿanic texts. For holding these views he was forced to leave Egypt and he settled in the Netherlands.



Naṣr Ḥāmid Abū Zayd. Source: Wikipedia

Muḥammad Naʿīm (b. 1946) fled from Sudan to the U.S. for his view that a distinction should be made between the Meccan and Medinan verses in the Qurʾan. The first group, revealed to the prophet before his migration to Medina, contain messages on humankind and the foundations of religion while the latter involve direct laws and duties. According to Naʿīm, Meccan verses should get priority because they are eternal truths, Medinan verses were appropriate in the time of their revelation but are perhaps not applicable to contemporary society.

A last example is Amina Wadūd (b. 1952) an American Muslim theologian who reads the Qurʾan from a feminist perspective and who argues that women should be able to be religious leaders.

Amina Wadūd’s book Qurʾan and Woman: Rereading the Sacred Text from a Woman’s Perspective (1999)

In conclusion, both the reformation inspired by Luther and the reformations of the Nahḍa thinkers called for a reinterpretation of religion in which the holy book would be read in a sincere manner while at the same time allowing for modernist, scientific developments.

In the Islamic world of today, modern thinkers have followed the example of both these movements in their (re)interpretation of Islam and the Qurʾan that agrees with the modern world, be it in the Arabic world or in the West.