Who Defines Religious Faith?

In his book No God But God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam (Random House, 2005), Reza Aslan writes:  “The violence and bloodshed we are witnessing in large parts of the Islamic world are chiefly the result of an internal struggle between Muslims (rather than a war between Islam and the West), but also to stress that the current conflicts within Islam are those with which all great religions grapple as they face the challenges of modernity.”

Aslan references the Christian Reformation, which was initiated by Martin Luther in 1517.  As the Reformation spread and grew, so did conflict between Christian groups, including riots, massacres, and wars, culminating in the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648) and the English Civil War (1642-1651).  Interestingly, Islam is nearly as old now as Christianity was during the time of the Reformation.

Later Aslan asks, “Who has the authority to define faith: the individual or the institution?”  In answering his own question, he wrote, “As religious authority passes from institutions to individuals, there will be men and women whose radical reinterpretations of religion will be fueled by their extreme social and political agendas…. If religion is indeed interpretation, then which meaning one chooses to accept and follow depends on what one is trying to extract from the text.”

Let me repeat again what Aslan pointed out – Islam is nearly as old now as Christianity was during the time of the Reformation.  If individuals with their own interpretations of the Christian faith shattered Catholicism and created new faiths based on their own agendas, isn’t it possible that individuals can do the same to Islam?  If religious interpretation is defined by individuals, who controls the narrative of the faith and who guards its beliefs?


Image credit: Martin Luther (1483–1546) from the workshop of Lucas Cranach the Elder, c. 1532; at the Metropolitan Museum of Art






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