Neither Reformation nor Enlightenment: The Seeds of Religious Freedom Within Islam


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By Daniel Philpott

“What Islam needs is a Reformation.” One often hears claims like this made in the Western media. Put another way, it is an Enlightenment that Islam really needs.

Both of these haphazard pastings of Western history onto Islam are defective. Protestants proved just as capable of repression as Catholics and by and large did not come to advocate religious freedom until 150 years into the Reformation. Likewise, the Enlightenment bore an uneasy relationship to religious freedom, skeptical as it was toward religious authority and revelation. It culminated in the French Revolution, which advanced (some) rights of man while beheading religious men and women. Both analogies would impose religious freedom on Muslims according to logics external to the Islamic tradition. Neither, then, is likely to appeal to contemporary Muslims.

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Daniel Philpott is Professor of Political Science at the University of Notre Dame. In April 2016, Dr. Philpott delivered a version of these remarks for the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University as the 2016 Charles E. Test, M.D., Distinguished Lectures. He based the lectures on a book that he is completing, Religious Freedom In Islam? Intervening in a Culture War.

First published in Public Discourse  January 31, 2017

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