We often wonder how Europe and America reached such a level of rationality and religious tolerance, with dozens of religions, sects, and beliefs coexisting in peace. Open debates on religions and their history in prestigious Paris, London, and New York universities; in their libraries, shelves upon shelves of philosophy, psychology, and anthropology books and magazines discussing the evolution of humankind and the human brain over the course of thousands of years.
Among the factors that led to the West’s prosperity and advancement is a German monk by the name of Martin Luther. Despite the passage of five centuries since, Luther’s ideas that changed the face of Europe and the world forever are still relevant to many. The importance of Luther’s story lies in the lessons from which we can benefit in today’s world, which has become burdened by a culture of hatred and racism. This man, who chose to become a monk after being hit by thunder, took three groundbreaking steps.
The first was rejecting the idea that salvation can only be achieved through the torture of the self for sins committed, which requires man to practice long and difficult tasks and rituals. Luther himself had suffered from mental anguish due to his obsession with cleansing his dirty soul from indelible sins, which pushed him to make confessions that lasted up to six consecutive hours for fear of the dark destiny that awaits him.
Then, upon a thorough study of the Bible, Luther discovered that this exhausting idea is erroneous. He substituted it with a simple yet more important idea: that salvation is a gift of God’s grace to his believers, for God blesses and has mercy on the souls of humans, who do not need to burden themselves with cleansing their souls of imagined guilts. This idea liberated people from the weight of the incessant feeling of guilt, changed the prevailing miserable outlook on life, and linked man to God directly without the need for mediators.
The dark horizon of life suddenly turned bright. People started thinking of life and how to enjoy it instead of constantly thinking of death and hell.
This was, in one way or another, the springboard of firm Protestantism. If people were constantly worried about torture and death, how could they fill their lives with work and invention? What good is any of it if their fate is surely tragic?
The second key step Luther took was translating the Bible from Latin, which was only read and understood by clergymen, to the German language. This revolutionary step at the time allowed common people to read their sacred book for the first time, without the need for a mediator or interpreter. Ever since, the hegemony of priests began to shake and recede gradually until it faded completely.
Luther’s third feat was publicly and explicitly challenging the Papal authority when he hung his Ninety-five Theses, a list of objections to the Roman Church’s corruption, onto the gate of the church of Wittenberg. During a visit to Rome years before, Luther had been pained by the sight of the glamour and grandiosity in the Church and its institutions, while the poor, ill, and needy lay helpless at their doors. As luck would have it, Luther’s Theses spread quickly due to a new invention by Gutenberg: the printing press, which could be likened to Facebook and Twitter in today’s world. His ideas spread quickly and amassed many followers and supporters. Eventually, these ideas shaped Protestantism as we know it, which departed from Rome’s authority. That was on 31 October 1517, the day Christianity split forever.
One of Luther’s key objections was the indulgences that the corrupt Papal Church had begun selling for monetary profit, sending priests and missionaries across Europe to collect these funds in exchange for alleviating the torture of sinners in the Purgatory, the place where pain and punishment are inflicted on a soul after its death, according to Catholic beliefs.
Luther rejected this idea, arguing that salvation can only be granted by God and for free, not by humans; an argument that shaped the concept of religious reform. The relationship with God is an individual one and needs no mediators. Humans can read and interpret religious texts themselves, without the need for radical, corrupt priests. Only God can grant His mercy and grace, without the need for torture or levies.
Soon after, wars broke out between the two sects, the most famous of which was the 30-year war between 1618 and 1648. Nonetheless, Luther’s ideas did not recede. Rather, they prospered and gave birth to new branches of Lutheranism, some of which Luther himself opposed for becoming too liberated. His ideas also fueled social revolutions, such as the Peasants’ Revolution in 1524, a furious revolt against peasants’ dire living conditions that was soon squashed, with over 100,000 of them dead (Luther opposed it).
Luther was a daring, charismatic figure who adored debates and life. These were some of the qualities that contributed to the eruption of his intellectual, religious, and historical revolution, which proves that personal qualities play a significant role in major historical events.
Religious reform was the beginning of the European Renaissance and the eradication of religious intolerance. It was followed by major intellectual eras, such as the Age of Enlightenment, the Lumiere Movement, and Modernity. Many figures and reasons led to these European and American renaissances that fascinate us today, and Luther was surely one of them.
In our world today, one could pose questions such as “Where is Islam’s Luther?” and “When will Islam’s Luther come?”. However, these would be erroneous questions. Islam’s history and present abound with scholars, intellectuals, and philosophers -- Muslim and non-Muslim -- who provided reasonable and spiritual interpretations of Islam that preserve its pure core and connect it to today’s world, all while ridding it of the fundamentalism that blinds it. There are dozens, or perhaps thousands, of Luthers of Islam.
In the age of the Caliph Al-Ma'mun, translation flourished, the rhetoric of rationality prevailed, and philosophy prospered. Debates were held between those who hold different ideologies or religious beliefs without fear or worry. Due to this intellectual freedom and cultural openness to the world, translation, science, and culture thrived, and great philosophers emerged whose teachings are still valued today, such as Al-Tawhidi, Miskawayh, Al-Ma’arri, the Brethren of Purity, and others. However, as we know, this enlightenment faded and the Golden Age dissipated, giving way to an era of intellectual stagnation. Meanwhile, Europe was in the final days of its medieval ages and on the cusp of scientific, industrial, intellectual, and technological revolutions that crowned it as a master of the world to this day.
As such, the question of “where is the Luther of Islam” is wrong. It should instead be: Where is Islam’s Frederick the Great? The King of Prussia, who earned the title of Enlightened Despot, embraced major philosophers in Europe like Kant and Voltaire, and gave them the freedom to think and carry out scientific research, which helped their ideas spread and prevail over fundamentalism after bitter clashes. We could also ask where is Islam’s Catherine the Great, who also embraced and helped spread intellectualism and philosophical culture and rationality. Without the support and protection of these leaders, we would have likely never heard of these intellectuals, nor of Luther before them.
An intellectual and scientific renaissance cannot flourish in the void. There are, indeed, many factors that help it spread and enshrine rational and scientific thinking and values of tolerance and modernity in the minds of people, to destroy fundamentalism once and for all. Perhaps enlightened leaders and politicians who believe in the future are one of the key requirements for such a renaissance to prosper.
This article was originally published in, and translated from, pan-Arab newspaper Asharq al-Awsat.