Middle East Resources

Lessons from Luther’s Reformation

Dr. Hashem Saleh’s Reflections on Martin Luther

By Bassam Michael Madany

Al-Awan is an Arabic-language website that posts articles and book reviews contributed by reformist Arab authors and intellectuals. On 4 June, 2015, it published an article by Idris Sheroud about Hashem Saleh’s view of the German reformer, Martin Luther.

Hashem Saleh is a Syrian writer and translator; after graduating from the University of Damascus in 1975, he attended the Sorbonne University in Paris, and received his Ph.D. in Modern Literary Criticism, in 1982. He authored three books that were published by the “Arab Rationalist League.”

Everyone in the Middle East and the Islamic world is identified by their religious faith.  Dr. Saleh is a Muslim.  I am a Christian and my formative years and education took place in the Levant, where I mastered both Arabic and French. From my youth I was aware of European authors critical of the Christian faith. Muslim dismissal of it was simply an understood reality.  Therefore, when I learned of Dr. Saleh’s positive views of Martin Luther’s life and work I was intrigued.  I cannot recall any Muslim writer ever offering a positive appreciation of a Christian leader.

As I look over the titles of the books Dr. Saleh has published it seems clear to me that  he has become disappointed, perhaps even disillusioned, with the Arabs’ inability to modernize or connect in even the most basic ways with the modern world.   These titled are telling: “The Failure of the Arab Intifadas” (reference to the “Arab Spring”); “Orientalism: Between Its Supports and Its Detractors”; “Islam and the Closing of Its Theology”; and “The Problem of Islamist Fundamentalism.” 

I have taken excerpts from Mr. Sheroud’s review of Hashem Saleh’s article on Martin Luther to illustrate how some Arab’s minds are proving to be more open to modern realities than many others in their Islamic communities.

“Hashem Saleh contributed three articles on the German reformer, Martin Luther, in which he highlighted the importance and the genius of a man who became the new conscience of Europe, the leader of the Reformation, and the defender of the doctrine ‘Justification by faith.’ This doctrine served as an answer to the angst that had impacted Europe at that period in history.  Mr. Saleh regarded Luther as the one who had provided the healing of his contemporaries, after finding his own “healing” through the forgiveness of sinners by faith. That constituted Luther’s gift to his contemporaries.

“According to Mr. Saleh, it was Luther’s personal “anxiety”, that is his frantic search for peace of mind, due to his consciousness of his sins, that explains the Reformation he launched and its impact on both the German and the European peoples. Luther’s personal condition was symptomatic of the “anxiety” of his age, which explains the success of his reform movement.

“The religious leaders of his day had become very corrupt; Luther’s call for the reformation of the church resonated with the believers who had become weary of the accumulated traditions that added to the spiritual burdens laid upon them by the church authorities. Thus the intersection of the age’s angst with that of Luther’s required an urgent solution. Aware of this condition, Luther managed to change the relation between a Christian and his Lord; instead of dreading God, the believer learned of forgiveness, faith and love. Luther replaced the Medieval theology with a reformed or Lutheran theology.

“According to Mr. Saleh, this fact gave birth to the “European Conscience,” where each believer becomes personally responsible for his actions; so that whenever he disobeys the will of God, he seeks God directly for His forgiveness. That constituted the corner stone of the spiritual and intellectual structure which Luther founded, including a new hermeneutic of the Bible that differed drastically from the one that had reigned in the Medieval Church. Luther insisted on the primacy of the Bible as the source for faith and life; he rejected the traditions that contradicted the plain meaning of the Word of God.”

“Luther’s Reformation may be summarized as follows:

“First, it enabled the believer to understand the essence of the faith by distinguishing the Law from the Gospel.

“Second, it replaced the previously-held view of a severe and harsh God with that of a loving Father.

“Third, it enabled each believer to examine his/her own conscience, and to assume personal responsibility for his/her own actions.”      

Analysis

It is refreshing to read the reflections of a Syrian Muslim scholar on Martin Luther and the Reformation he initiated. Dr. Saleh understood the spiritual problem that made the Roman Catholic monk anxious. Luther wanted the assurance of God’s forgiveness; however the Church’s remedy was cumbersome and failed to provide Luther what he longed for. The monk’s anxiety, referred to as “illness” in the Arabic text, I took for “spiritual” illness. It was also the same “illness” that afflicted the German laity. Luther’s success in finding the “cure” based on the Holy Scriptures, was appropriated by the Germans as well as other Europeans.

Comments

As an Eastern Christian, I trace the roots of my faith back to the First century.  Over the years since that time much turmoil between Muslims and Christians has occurred.  Even more is occurring at the present time as Christians are being murdered by Islamic extremists all around the world.  Christians and Jews and other religious minorities have, more often than not, been the recipients of very harsh treatment by the adherents of Islam.  Therefore it is gratifying to read such a sympathetic analysis of the great event that happened in the Christian world of the Sixteenth century when the German monk, Martin Luther launched the Protestant reformation! Dr. Saleh’s interest doesn’t happen in a vacuum. He is one of several Arab intellectuals who are struggling with the challenge of reforming and modernizing Islam. In fact, I consulted Al-Awan’s website and found 4700 entries by various Arab writers who are dealing with this subject.  On 27 June, 2015 Hashem Saleh’s column had this title: “Why Don’t They Stop Making Car Bombs in Ramadan?  

The six-page article is a plea from a man hoping against hope that someday, the Arabs will overcome their ancient, unbending Islamist mentality! But how is that dream to be fulfilled? In the case of Martin Luther, he solved his personal “anxiety” by going back to the Scriptures of the Christian faith. Specifically, he studied Saint Paul’s Letter to the Church in Rome, written in the middle of the First Century, A.D. The teaching of Chapter 1: 16, 17 suddenly became clear to him, and his personal appropriation of its truth enabled him to preach it to others.  And so it was that the Protestant Reformation began and changed the Western World.

“For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith.’ (ESV)

“The just, or the righteous shall live by faith.” That’s the heart of the Christian Good News. Luther declared all the teachings of the Church that contradicted this plain truth, must be rejected. Good works, penance, purchasing indulgencies won’t avail.

When it comes to Islam, returning to its sacred text, the Qur’an, won’t solve the problems faced by adherents to this religion. Salafism, more commonly referred to as Wahhabism or Fundamentalism takes its cues from the Qur’an, the Hadith, and Sunnah. These sacred documents will only re-inforce the beliefs of the radicals and motivate them even further. The Da’esh revolutionaries[i]  are waging war all over the Middle East and elsewhere, claim to be the true representatives of Islam.  Their attempt to re-establish the Caliphate indicates the seriousness of their purpose, if not to others, at least to themselves, and is a highly motivating feature of their total worldview.

It is not my intention to dampen the hope of Dr. Saleh for a bright Arab and Islamic future. Nor do I want to diminish the importance of his book on Martin Luther, or Mr. Sheroud’s review of it. Having studied the writings of other Arab reformists, there definitely is a desire of many of them to demand a new hermeneutics of the Qur’an. For example, those violent texts, known as “Ayaat al-Sayf” (The Sword Verses), must be seriously confronted, and their relevance declared as no longer normative for the present day. When that basic step is taken, the reformation of Islam would have seriously begun!

Postscript  

I have discussed the topic of the need for a new hermeneutics of the Qur’an in two previous articles: Toward a Tanweeri (Enlightened) Hermeneutics of the Qur’an

http://www.answering-islam.org/authors/madany/hermeneutics1.html

An Example of the New Enlightened Hermeneutics of the Qur’an

http://www.answering-islam.org/authors/madany/hermeneutics2.html

 

[i] Da’esh is the Arabic acronym for “Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.” It evokes the memory of the early Islamic caliphates that were centered in Syria and Iraq. Its flag is similar to the black flag of the revolutionaries who toppled the Umayyad Caliphate in 750 AD, ushering in the rule of the Abbasid Caliphate whose capital was Baghdad. In the Western media, Da’esh is represented by the acronyms of ISIS or ISIL!