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When Wahhabism Was Western

Reader Anastasia sends this fascinating blog post by Philip Jenkins, commenting  iconoclasm as central to the Reformation. Excerpts:

For anyone living at the time, including educated elites, the iconoclasm was not just an incidental breakdown of law and order, it was the core of the whole movement, the necessary other side of the coin to the growth of literacy. Those visual and symbolic representations of the Christian story had to decrease, in order for the world of the published Bible to increase.

In terms of the lived experience of people at the time, the image-breaking is the key component of the Reformation. In the rioting and mayhem, a millennium-old religious order was visibly and comprehensively smashed.

This is precisely what Wahhabism, the extreme sect of Sunni Islam that is the state religion of Saudi Arabia, and the creed espoused by many contemporary Islamic radicals, has accomplished, and seeks to accomplish. Jenkins:

Modern Westerners are rightly appalled by such acts as desecrations of humanity’s cultural heritage. But such outrage demonstrates a near-total lack of awareness of the West’s own history. Nothing that the Islamists have done in this regard would cause the sixteenth century Protestant Reformers to lose a moment’s sleep. They would probably have asked to borrow hammers and axes so they could join in.

I am sometimes bemused to hear Western commentators call for contemporary Islam to experience a “Reformation,” by which they mean an opening to freedom and toleration. That is of course an extremely distorted view of Christianity’s own Reformation. Arguably, Islam has been going through its own Reformation for a century or so, which is exemplified by the Wahhabis and Salafists. That’s the problem.

Read the whole thing. 

Orthodoxy went through its own iconoclastic controversy in the eighth century, a movement driven in part as a reaction to Islam. The victory of the Orthodox over the iconoclasts is celebrated to this day as a feast in the Church.

The starkest image I’ve personally encountered of the catastrophe the Reformation wrought on the Image was on a visit to England’s Salisbury Cathedral. The violence the Reformation’s iconoclasm wrought on the building was shocking to me. It reminded of ghastly images of the faces of Muslim women splashed with acid by men who hated them.

UPDATE: Gang, don’t miss Jenkins’s important qualification:

In comparing the Protestant Reformers with contemporary Wahhabis, I am not commenting on their theology, their attitude to violence, or to social issues like the status of women. I am speaking very specifically about attitudes to images in religious devotion, and the absolute supremacy of the written text, with the physical iconoclasm that followed from those positions. Could I make that any clearer?

More on this. Look, I don’t believe that contemporary Protestants are violent iconoclasts as their historical predecessors often were any more than I believe contemporary Catholics are holy warriors, as their medieval predecessors were. I think some of you Protestant readers are being thin-skinned. It is useful, I think, when regarding some contemporary Islamic practices with horror to reflect on the fact that we have done the same things in our Christian history. The Crusades were holy wars, same as the Muslims have (though our Scriptures don’t commend jihad, as theirs do). Wahhabi iconoclasm? Christian Byzantine emperors tried the same thing back in the day, as did Reformers in the West centuries later. And for that matter, secularist French Revolutionaries did the same thing to French churches and cathedrals in the name of anti-religion. Similarly with the Bolsheviks and Orthodox icons, relics, and churches. Furthermore, as the traditionalist Catholic David J. White remarks in the comments section here, the iconoclasm within the Roman Catholic church, both liturgical and in terms of Church design and ornamentation, in the wake of Vatican II caused tremendous auto-destruction.

Jenkins — who, I think, is Episcopalian, not Catholic — made his remark with reference to a new scholarly work of history out now that calls attention to the political meaning of iconoclasm. The author, James Noyes, writes about how religious iconoclasm preceded tectonic changes in the political order in various societies. I’ve not read the book, The Politics Of Iconoclasm, but it sounds quite interesting. It is, from what I’ve read, a comparative study of Calvinism and Wahhabism as purifying, reform movements within Christianity and Islam, respectively, that were, ironically, modernizers, and forerunners of the modern state. Noyes appears to contend that it is impossible to disentangle politics from theology in both cases, and he traces the connection and their historical effects.

This is important stuff, and it doesn’t go away by being outraged that somebody finds a connection between what Calvin et alia did in the Reformation and what Wahhab et alia did and are doing in Islam, any more than the connection between medieval Christian theologies and practices of holy war can be entirely disconnected from the contemporary Islamic practice of jihad. There are, no doubt, important differences, but also important similarities.

UPDATE.3: The more I think about it, the more this helps me to understand the struggle within contemporary Catholicism between the iconoclasts of the Second Vatican Council and the Traditionalists. The Novus Ordo Mass and the stripping of the altars was meant to signify a dramatic break from the past, and to shatter the old religion, all in the name of reform. I was writing just now to a Reformed friend who takes issue with this post, telling him that I’m starting to understand even more deeply why Catholic modernizers, which includes the institutional Church, feels so threatened by those who want to bring back the old Mass as something for their own use. It would be like a nostalgic Protestant sect petitioning the master of the Geneva cathedral to allow them to re-adorn a side chapel as it was in the Catholic days, for the sake of their group’s worship. This can’t be allowed in the new order, any more than a Catholic bishop could have allowed pagans who once worshiped where a new church stood to have a back corner for their own rites.

Mind you, the comparison fails because the Tridentine mass is not the mass of a different religion, but is still valid (and universally so). But to many of the Vatican II reformers, it’s a medievalist challenge to the Reformed modern church.

UPDATE.4: A Reformed friend and reader writes:

There was no such concept of “humanity’s cultural heritage” before the Reformation.  The Reformation was the very thing that made conceiving of religious artifacts as a “cultural heritage” possible, thus enabled the opening of a new secular space within which such objects could be venerated as a “cultural heritage” and ultimately sponsored, created, and preserved.  It was the Reformation’s insistent transference of the locus of transcendence to the bible and to the community of the faithful that freed such objects from the wrath of the competing faithful and opened up a whole new flourishing of artistic and cultural expression that could occupy a newly created societal sphere–the secular.  This was not an unmitigated good, and many (myself included on occasion) have laid responsibility for the ills of the sacred-secular split at the feet of the Reformers, however, neither was it an unmitigated evil, and on the whole, I count myself glad, if in a qualified way, that the Reformation created the conditions out of which arose a secular sphere and all of the attendant cultural advances and political advances in freedom that have come with it.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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