Osama and the Reformation

In an opinion piece for the Sunday Los Angeles Times, Reza Aslan argues that Osama Bin Laden should be viewed not just as a murderous criminal but also as a “principal figure” of the Islamic reformation, comparable to Martin Luther and other radicals of the Christian reformation.

Of course, there are those who reject the very idea of an Islamic reformation, let alone any attempt to draw parallels between the histories of Islam and Christianity. But while such parallels can be strained, there are certain similarities between the Christian and Islamic reformations that should not be dismissed, not least because they reflect universal conflicts found in nearly every religious tradition. Chief among these is the question of who has the authority to define faith: the individual or the institution?

In Islam, this question is somewhat complicated by the fact that it has never had a centralized authority — there is no “Muslim pope,” no “Muslim Vatican.” Religious authority in Islam is the province of a host of small, competing, though exceedingly powerful, clerical institutions that have maintained a virtual monopoly over the meaning and message of Islam for 1,400 years.

Yet, during the last century, as Muslims have increasingly been forced to regard themselves less as members of a worldwide community than as citizens of individual nation-states, a sense of individualism has begun to infuse this essentially communal faith.

Aslan’s No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam is now out in paperback.

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