Various Western intellectuals, ranging from Thomas Friedman to Ayaan Hirsi Ali, have argued over the past decades that Muslims need their own Martin Luther to save themselves from intolerance and dogmatism. The Protestant Reformation that Luther triggered exactly 500 years ago, these intellectuals suggest, can serve as a model for a potential Muslim Reformation. But is there such a connection between the Reformation in Christendom and the “reform” that is arguably needed in Islam?
To start with, it’s worth recalling that Islam, in the form of the Ottoman Empire, helped Protestantism succeed and survive. In the 16th century, much of Europe was dominated by the Holy Roman Empire, which had ample means to crush the Protestant heretics. But the same Catholic empire was also constantly threatened and kept busy by “the Turks” whose own empire-building inadvertently helped the Protestants. “The Turk was the lightning rod that drew off the tempest,” noted J. A. Wylie in his classic, History of Protestantism. “Thus did Christ cover His little flock with the shield of the Moslem.”
More importantly, some early Protestants, desperately seeking religious freedom for themselves, found inspiration for that in the Ottoman Empire, which was then more tolerant to religious plurality than were most Catholic kingdoms. Jean Bodin, himself a Catholic but a critical one, openly admired this fact. “The great empereour of the Turks,” the political philosopher wrote in the 1580s, “detesteth not the straunge religion of others; but to the contrarie permitteth every man to live according to his conscience.” That is why Luther himself had written about Protestants who “want the Turk to come and rule because they think our German people are wild and uncivilized.”