Book Review: “Islam Without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty”

Screen Shot 2013-09-15 at 3.26.21 PMReviewed by Dr Mansur Ali Cardiff University

Islam Without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty
Mustafa Akyol

New York, W. W. Norton and Company, Inc., 2011 P.p. 352. ISBN 978-039070866

Muslim World Book Review, volume 33, issue 3, spring 2013, pp. 44-47 Book Review:

Since the emergence of Islam on the modern political scene starting; from the Islamic revolution of Iran through the Rushdie affair to September 11 and beyond, a plethora of apologetic literature, both popular and academic, were produced to balance the existing bias with regards to public perception of Islam. Akyol’s Islam Without Extreme: A Muslim Case for Liberty attempts to go beyond apology. It is an attempt by the author to show to the world that where Islam has become synonymous with extremism, at least an interpretation of Islam can conform to ideas of Western liberal democracy.

The book is divided into three sections. Starting with autobiographical anecdotes, the author sets the contours of the book. As an eight year old, the author frequented his grandfather’s place to learn Arabic and the fundamentals of his religion. One day in his grandfather’s library he stumbled upon a prayer book which had three quotes written on the back. The two from the Qur’an deeply touched him whereas the one from the hadith (about beating children when they don’t pray) horrified and troubled him. He could not fathom his grandfather talking rudely to him let alone beat him. Not satisfied with his grandfather’s explanation, the author, 30 years later, after extensive study of Islam comes to realise that this oppressive mind-set has permeated the core of Muslim scholarship and society. He asks, ‘is this what really Islam enjoins?’

After thorough research, he comes to the conclusion that Islam is not to be blamed for this oppressive mind-set. Under two further sub-headings: ‘understanding just how brutal Islam is,’ and ‘understanding how brutal non-Islam can be’, he comes to the conclusion that authoritarianism is not associated with Islam a priori. Rather authoritarianism is a symptom of an illiberal mind-set due to deep seated political cultures and social structures in that part of the world. This is also the case with non-Muslim countries such as Russia and China. In other words could authoritarian Muslims be authoritarians who just happened to be Muslims? Through personal experience, the author is convinced that the only way that Muslims will flourish is through embracing liberty in all its manifestations. The rest of the book is an attempt to prove why this is not impossible.

In part 1, Akyol explains how Islam started off as an apolitical movement and how throughout the life of the Prophet a spirit of pluralism dominated the teachings of the Prophet. He then goes onto to discuss how Muslims, post- the Prophet, developed an illiberal reductionist understanding of the religion. The culprit to be blamed for this is Mr Hanbal (sic) ‘the radical cleric’ and a ‘petty landlord’ the chief of the literalists (ahl al-Hadith). A literalist reading of the Qur’an coupled with excessive reliance on hadith texts, which was like a ‘telephone game’, created a culture that heavily imposed limitations on the intellect. In contrast, the Murji’ites (postponers) in particular Abu Hanifa (?) were true pluralists as they postponed judgements about people to God. Their offshoot the Qadrites and the Mu’tazilites (the rationalists), through their arguments for the freedom of will and ontological truth and justice sowed the first seed towards an Islamic liberalism. However with the literalist gaining the upper hand Islamdom was reduced to a ‘Hadith wasteland’.

The defenders of reason stood no chance against their opponents. How could they when even the forces of nature were against them? Akyol believes that the war of ideas between the rationalists and their opponents is only the tip of the iceberg. The real cause of difference lies in the ‘desert beneath the iceberg’ and even as deep down as the environment. To put it simply, hadith scholars where of Arab Bedouin stock, fatalistic, tribal, ‘dislike changes as per Arab culture’ , ‘communal in nature’, ‘anti-luxurious’ had a penchant for the concrete and an aversion for the abstract iqta’ loving landlords who lacked dynamism and were followed by the less-educated classes. In contrast, the rationalists where non-Arabs from the merchant class who were well-educated, cosmopolitan intellectuals with an exposure to various traditions, philosophies and people. The arid land of the Middle East with its flat topography is also, at rock bottom, a perpetrator in fashioning this illiberal mind-set.

This analysis leads the author to ask that if the lack of economic dynamism was a cause for the stagnation of Islam, can Islamic liberalism be revived through a rebirth of economic dynamism in the Islamic lands? To answer this question the author turns his attention, in part two of the book, to the case of modern Turkey.

For the author, Turkey is a synthesis of Islam, democracy and capitalism with its free market economy. The reason for this is that the seat of the Ottoman power was in a geo-strategic position as it was on the fringe of the Muslim world bordering Christendom. Since Turkey didn’t have the same experience of being colonized like the Arab countries it was able to learn from the West the value of freedom and liberty. He blames colonization for the disintegration of ijtihad and individualism and the rise of jihad and communitarianism in the Muslim world. The author believes that Turkey is the new way forward towards a middle- class culture which revitalises Islamic values with the modern context. However, this will not come without any hindrance. And in the next section the author posits some ‘signposts on the liberal road.’

Section three is an exposition of three key areas which the author had identified as hindrance towards a theology of liberty: They are freedom from the State, freedom to sin and freedom from Islam. Through an analysis of textual and historical sources, he arrives at the conclusion that for an individual to prosper in spiritual growth, no outside forces can interfere with his relation to God. Hence the Islamic State is not a requirement, a person should not be coerced into leaving sins which is not synonymous to crime and a person should be given the liberty of renouncing Islam without the fear of execution.

At this point a few observations are in order. First and foremost, this book is trying to do more than the pages would allow and therefore a lot of the discussions are superficial and not nuanced. For example any discussion on environmental determinism in understanding the mind-set of hadith scholars has to explain the fact that six out of six of the authors of the canonical hadith collections were not Arabs but Central Asians. The author gives the impression that the al-Maturidi was sympathetic towards the Mu’taziltes whereas al-Maturidi wrote no less than five refutations on the Mu’tazilites. There is also an issue of the sources that the author uses. One wonders why the author confines himself to the studies carried out by Schacht, Crone, Lewis on hadith and not consult the works of scholars such as Motzki, Jonathan Brown, Lucas to get the other side of the story. The author argues that the roots of individualism and liberalism are found in the Qur’an. One can argue that this is merely reading into the Qur’an what the author holds to be of value. This is not new, Ameer Ali found in the Qur’an the whole moral code of Victorian England and Muhammad Qutb read the Qur’an through socialist lens. In the last section the author states that alcohol should not be banned and in a country where alcohol is banned it cannot be proven if people are observant of the law. Whilst in theory this is true, how pragmatic is it? Why criminalise drugs or prostitution if it is consensual and there is no exploitation involved?

In conclusion it can be said that if this is an apology for Islam the author has done a good job. On the other hand if this is a serious attempt to reform Islam and is meant for practicing Muslims, the author needs to carry out original research and not weave a narrative out of secondary sources especially the works of anti-Muslims like Bernard Lewis and Bat Ye’or and the tabloid press. One has good examples of this in high quality research carried out by Muslim scholars such as Sherman Jackson.

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