Islam, Protestantism and Divergence from Catholicism

Francis Lynch FAITH Magazine January-February 2007

Protestantism and Islam: Points of Contact

Protestantism may well have begun as a genuine movement of reform. Accepting the teachings of the Church, its adherents wanted to bring the practice of the Church into line with its teachings. This is the object of all Christian movements. However, it very soon developed into something far more radical, jettisoning basic Christian teachings, bringing in doctrines entirely new to Christianity, and having to meld the results into a coherent whole. This involved developing doctrinal and practical solutions to new problems in the field of Christian faith and morals.

Most of Protestant teaching was conventional Christianity, with some being revived from St Augustine and the early fathers. Where there is novelty there is also often a strong similarity with Islamic doctrine. Perhaps there is an interestingly similar dynamic involved in the rejection of traditional Christianity that both these belief systems, to varying extents, share. Whilst the very title of “Protestantism” depicts its genesis as a reactive movement, it is the case that strong protests against the Christian doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation form part of the Koran and so of Islamic faith. It is also noteworthy that Luther issued his own translation of the Koran in 1542, along with a confutation of its soteriology—the key point of Islamic and protestant divergence.

Islam was not a distant or peripheral force in the Europe of the 1520s. The Ottoman Empire had taken Constantinople in 1454. Many scholars had fled to the west, especially to Rome, bringing with them first-hand knowledge of Islam and its practices. Some of these may well still have been alive when Luther visited Rome in 1510. A resurgent Ottoman Empire took Belgrade in 1520 and Hungary in 1526, coming to the very heart of Europe.

Scriptural Fundamentalism

Protestantism was a move closer to the Islamic view of Scriptural authority. The traditional Christian view is that Christ founded the Church which wrote the Scriptures, ratified them and gains constant nourishment from them. Their definitive meaning derives from the same Church which produced them. Luther’s view that Scripture is the only guide to faith and practice is similar to the Islamic view of the Koran. As Muslims are gradually discovering, this view is too optimistic: all Bible believing Protestants from Luther to the present-day have required a huge substructure of unacknowledged assumptions and beliefs by which they interpret the Bible, and which don’t come from it.

One of the most popular Islamic criticisms of “Christianity” is to show that the divergence in interpretation of the Bible is far greater than that concerning the Koran. Seeing such divergence as evidence against Christianity is based upon the Protestant-Islamic view of scripture (and in any case the gap is gradually closing). The Koran had described Jews and Christians as ‘people of the book’, which can be misleading. All literate religions have sacred books, but to suggest that the Scriptures of the Christians and Jews are the key element of these religions is mistaken. The Protestant emphasis did give an added impetus to the wider distribution of the Scriptures in translation. Again, this echoes the Koran, which was written in the language to be understood by the people.


The Reformation was also a move in the direction of Islamic belief on the question of the sacraments, and related ideas about the priesthood. Sacraments, by which grace is given to the people, are a crucial part of Christianity. One of the key sacraments is Holy Orders since only the priest says Mass, hears confessions, confirms, ordains and annoints. Islam has no priesthood, no sacraments, no sacrifice, no temple, and no altar. These things are not unrelated. The priest is one who (in any religion) offers sacrifice and the altar is the place of sacrifice. A religion without sacrifice does not have priests or altars. Luther’s denial that Holy Orders is a sacrament changed the nature of the priesthood.

The priest tended to become a minister or a functionary with duties more akin to a schoolmaster than a sacred person. He no longer wore symbolic vestments, but rather, like everybody else, he wore the uniform of his trade. The vessels (if any) were not sacred and could be handled by anyone. The altar became a table, to be moved as required. The church itself commonly became a meeting place, with no sacred character, and needed no special reverence when not in use for services. The services themselves tended to concentrate on the readings from the Scriptures (in the vernacular) and the sermon became a central part of the service.

Protestantism is then a convergence with the Islamic understanding of ministry and religious services. Luther, and most Protestants, retained two sacraments: Baptism and the Eucharist. Both of these soon lost their sacramental character. When baptism became “believers’ baptism”, the decisive step became faith in Christ (and the Scriptures) and baptism became not an infusion of faith and grace, but only the public acknowledgement of faith. This comes very close to Islamic practice; one becomes a Moslem by acknowledging ones faith in Islam in front of witnesses. This is all a shadow of the Judaeo- Catholic sense of God’s abiding, sanctifying, sacrificial, ritualistic presence amongst his people.

Radical Individualism

Two other points relating to the priesthood are relevant here. Firstly, the Christian priest is a Pontifex, a bridge, a constant channel of grace between God and man and is often a channel of prayer from man to God. He prays for the dead. None of these occur in Islam, or in Protestantism. Islam in fact explicitly denies that the living can help the dead in any way, as do most branches of Protestantism. Secondly we have issues of priestly celibacy, monasticism and religious vows. Christianity has always admired and looked up to monks and hermits, seeing in them a real attempt to forsake this world for the Kingdom of God. It has always admired and usually demanded celibacy from its priests. The Koran itself praised Christian monks for their charity and benevolence, but there was no place in Islam for monasticism. Celibacy was despised. Protestants deprecated both celibacy and monasticism and both virtually disappeared from Protestant countries. Luther had been a monk and had taken solemn vows, but readily forsook those vows to get married. Generally, Christians take vows very seriously but in Islam they are easily dispensed if they become inconvenient. In the play A Man for All Seasons St Thomas More says that when we take a vow we hold our very selves in our hands. You don’t get this in Islam, or in Luther.

We turn now to the destruction of images. Luther allowed and other reformers encouraged or even enforced a widespread and devastating iconoclasm. The fury of this destruction may be traced to the sacred or sometimes miraculous reputations of some images, or to their association with prayers for the dead, or perhaps to social causes. A similar iconoclasm had occurred in the Byzantine Empire in the eighth century under the influence of Islam. Islam and Protestantism rejected both images, and the intercession of saints often associated with them.

Marriage and the Position of Women Undermined

Turning to morals, it has often been noticed that the ethics of most religious systems are very similar to each other. Those of Islam and Catholicism differ most in the areas of marriage and the position of women and of the relation between religion and state.

A Muslim is expected to marry. But marriage is a contract with the possibility of divorce is built into it, not a lifelong commitment. Polygamy is also allowed. Less well-known is the fact that a man may also, in certain cases, keep concubines. Traditional Christianity forbids these things but the early Protestants allowed all of these arrangements. One of the scandals of the Reformation was the bigamous marriage of Philip of Hesse, conducted by Luther himself. Luther was not keen on it; he suggested concubinage as a compromise.

One of the greatest and most far reaching of the changes in the social life of Europe caused by the Reformation concerned the position of women. Outside the domestic circles, the main channel for education and advancement for women was the church. They were educated at convent schools, could rise to become prioresses or abbesses of great houses and were numbered amongst the scholars, Saints, mystics and martyrs of the church. Many achieved fame for their letters or spiritual writings, women like Juliana of Norwich, Catherine of Siena. and Theresa of Avila.

Furthermore, they could find constant visual aids and role models in Our Lady and the female saints depicted in churches and books. All these were swept away in Protestant countries. This doesn’t seem to have been an oversight. Many of the reformers had a deep distrust of women in any positions of power. The domestic position of women could have become grim as well were it not that that the early Protestant experiments in this area were effectively abandoned. Polygamy never caught on. The official recognition of concubinage was short lived, and divorce became very rare to be indulged in only by the rich.

State Theocracy

What about the relations between church and state? The Ottoman Sultan claimed to be the successor of Muhammad and the spiritual leader of all the Muslims. He was of course still bound by the Koran and Islamic practices, but there was no conflict between church and state. This appealed to many reformers. It became a model for Protestant states, where generally the prince, rather than a priest, was head of the church, and at the highest level directed its affairs. Finally, Luther believed that reason was so corrupted by sin that it could not be relied upon. The radical transcendence of Allah produces a similar downplaying of the harmony of faith and reason.

I have tried to suggest that many of the major Protestant innovations have a relationship with Islam. Perhaps there are sociological similarities. One might even think that some of the Protestant ‘innovations’ were not really novelties at all. I would certainly not suggest that Protestantism imported every idea from Islam, clearly most of the key Protestant ideas are Christian. Nor do I think that all the innovations came from Islam. Outstanding exceptions are justification by faith alone, and possibly the Protestant distaste shown towards pilgrimages and honouring the saints. There may be something to learn from all this about the way in which pious men rebel against the idea of divine, incarnational authority and activity living on down the centuries in the Church.