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Renaissance and Religious Reformation

OurIndonesia – The concepts of liberalism and individual freedom re-emerged in western civilization during the renaissance in the 16th century. The renaissance was the historical period during which the principles of western civilization based in notions of democracy and freedom dating back to ancient Greece were revived after a long “dark age.” In fact, the word renaissance originated from the Italian term rinascimento which means to be “reborn”.

The “reformation” on the other hand, which occurred at the same time, involved a Protestant movement which provided an alternative form of Christianity which counter-posed the authoritarian and inherently conservative Catholic Church which dominated society and government during the medieval period.

The renaissance and reformation constitute the basic building blocks for modern western civilization, and constitute a historical period out of which many modern concepts such as modernism, humanism, rationalism, pragmatism and liberalism emerged.

For the purposes of contemporary debate about liberal Islam, when we use the terms renaissance and reformation our historical references should be made clear. Sometimes we are referring to a period of religious Puritanism dating to the middle of the twentieth century, and sometimes to the revival of Islam in the early 19th century. If, by the use of these terms, we wish to equate the Islamic renaissance and reformation with the European case, we need to look more closely at the history of Islamic civilization.

Islamic history also has alternating periods of glory and darkness. In fact, Islam was at its height from the 7th century until the mid 13th century, a period which basically coincided with the dark ages in Europe. Afterwards, Islamic civilization endured its own dark age or medieval period which lasted from the 14th up to the 19th century.

The crucial difference between these periods of glory and darkness in civilizations is one of intellectual production. In times of cultural renaissance, art, science, culture and philosophy flourish. In the dark ages, these mutually reinforcing realms are all diminished.

Therein a renaissance in Islam involves the return to earlier humanist values. A reformation in Islam involves a return to individual interpretation (ijtihad), that is to rational and philosophical approaches to religion. The terms do not refer to a return to and revival of religious Puritanism.


The Indonesian version of this article was published in IslamLib.