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.

Darul Uloom Publishes English Version of ‘Silk Letter Movement’ – 2/18/13

silk lettersilk letters 2asSalaamu Alaikum,

[This book can be obtained from Manak Publications, New Delhi and Maktaba Darul Uloom Deoband by emailing them at]


UPDATE: The PDF file of this book is available for download here.


Darul Uloom Deoband published the English version of Silk Letter Movement compiled by Hadhrat Maulana Muhammad Miyan Deobandi. The book was translated into English by Maulana Muhammadullah Qasmi and published in association with Manak Publications New Delhi.

The book Silk Letter Movement is a historical description of the heroic struggle waged by the Muslim scholars of Deoband (between 1913 to 1920) for the freedom of India. It aimed at overthrowing the British rule from India by allying with Ottoman Turkey, Imperial Germany and Afghanistan. The movement was named after the ‘Silk Letters’ from Maulana Obaidullah Sindhi captured by Punjab CID. This book is based on the British India records of ‘Silken Handkerchief Letters Conspiracy Case’ which are now preserved in India Office London.

The book opens with an introduction to the Revolutionary Movement of Shaikhul Hind Maulana Mahmood Hasan Deobandi who was the real leader of this movement.


Maulana Muhammad Miyan Deobandi (1903-1975) was a leading Islamic scholar, historian, author and freedom fighter from Deoband. He served as General Secretary to Jamiat Ulama-i-Hind and was an active member of its Working Committee, as he was member of Darul Uloom Deoband’s Majlis Shura (Governing Council). He authored scores of books on various topics especially Indian Muslim history. He also served as Mufti and Shaikhul Hadith of Madrasa Ameenia Delhi. His book ‘Aseeran-e-Malta’ was rendered into English as ‘Prisoners of Malta’.


Muhammadullah Qasmi, (born in Hanswar, Faizabad, now Ambedkar Nagar UP India in 1979) graduated in 1998 and completed Islamic Jurisprudence (Mufti) course from Darul Uloom Deoband. He started his career at Markazul Maarif Education and Research Centre (MMERC), Mumbai in 2002 as a Research Fellow and Online Mufti. Presently, he is working as Editor Darul Ifta website and Coordinator in Internet Dept of Darul Uloom Deoband. His book Madrasa Education: Its Strength and Weakness published in 2005 was one of the pioneering works on the topic.


Courtesy of

Islam and Secularism by Syed Muhammad Naquib al-Attas

ISBN: None
Author: Syed Muhammad Al-Naquib Al-Attas
Publisher: Hindustan Publications
Pages: 200 Binding: Paperback

Written more than twenty years ago, this book is one of the most creative and original works of a Muslim thinker in the contemporary Muslim world. The author deals with fundamental problems faced by contemporary Muslims and provides real solutions, beginning with a discussion on ‘The Contemporary Western Christian Background’ in Chapter (I), followed by his analysis of the concepts (which he newly defines) of ‘secular’, ‘secularization’, and ‘secularism’ in Chapter (II). All this is then contrasted in Chapter (IV) of the book entitled ‘Islam: The Concept of Religion and the Foundation of Ethics and Morality’. Based on all the preceding explanation, the author proceeds to analyze the Muslim ‘dilemma’ by declaring that it should be resolved primarily through what he calls the “dewesternization of knowledge” or, conversely, the “islamization of contemporary knowledge”, an original concept conceived and elucidated by the author for the past three decades. Numerous original and profound ideas are contained in this book—arrived at chiefly through critical study of the Muslim tradition—such as the concepts of din,‘adl, hikmah, adab, ma‘na, and ta’dib, and their significance in the development of an Islamic system of education. The rationale for the islamization of contemporary knowledge and the establishment of a truly Islamic university was in fact provided for the first time in contemporary Muslim thought by this author long before the appearance of the present book, which explains these interconnected subjects more concisely. Further, the appendix entitled, ‘On Islamization: The Case of the Malay-Indonesian Archipelago’ is an actual explanation and application of the seminal ideas discussed in the book. This is a must read for all Muslims and those concerned with the problems and effects of secularization in our world today. This book has been translated into most of the major Islamic languages of the world— Turkish, Arabic, Urdu, Indonesian, Bosnian, and Persian.

Description from the publisher:

Information about the author —

Syed Muhammad Naquib bin Ali bin Abdullah bin Muhsin al-Attas (1931-)

Syed Muhammad Naquib al-Attas, born September 5, 1931 in Bogor, Java, is a prominent contemporary Muslim thinker. He is one of the few contemporary scholars who is thoroughly rooted in the traditional Islamic sciences and who is equally competent in theology, philosophy, metaphysics, history, and literature. His thought is integrated, multifaceted and creative. Al-Attas’ philosophy and methodology of education have one goal: Islamization of the mind, body and soul and its effects on the personal and collective life on Muslims as well as others, including the spiritual and physical non-human environment. He is the author of twenty-seven authoritative works on various aspects of Islamic thought and civilization, particularly on Sufism, cosmology, metaphysics, philosophy and Malay language and literature.

Al-Attas was born into a family with a history of illustrious ancestors, saints, and scholars. He received a thorough education in Islamic sciences, Malay language, literature and culture. His formal primary education began at age 5 in Johor, Malaysia, but during the Japanese occupation of Malaysia, he went to school in Java, in Madrasah Al-`Urwatu’l-wuthqa, studying in Arabic. After World War II in 1946 he returned to Johor to complete his secondary education. He was exposed to Malay literature, history, religion, and western classics in English, and in a cultured social atmosphere developed a keen aesthetic sensitivity. This nurtured in al-Attas an exquisite style and precise vocabulary that were unique to his Malay writings and language. After al-Attas finished secondary school in 1951, he entered the Malay Regiment as cadet officer no. 6675. There he was selected to study at Eton Hall, Chester, Wales and later at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst, England (952 -55). This gave him insight into the spirit and style of British society. During this time he was drawn to the metaphysics of the Sufis, especially works of Jami, which he found in the library of the Academy. He traveled widely, drawn especially to Spain and North Africa where Islamic heritage had a profound influence on him. Al-Attas felt the need to study, and voluntarily resigned from the King’s Commission to serve in the Royal Malay Regiment, in order to pursue studies at the University of Malaya in Singapore 1957-59. While undergraduate at University of Malay, he wrote Rangkaian Ruba`iyat, a literary work, and Some Aspects of Sufism as Understood and Practised among the Malays. He was awarded the Canada Council Fellowship for three years of study at the Institute of Islamic Studies at McGill University in Montreal. He received the M.A. degree with distinction in Islamic philosophy in 1962, with his thesis “Raniri and the Wujudiyyah of 17th Century Acheh” . Al-Attas went on to the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London where he worked with Professor A. J. Arberry of Cambridge and Dr. Martin Lings. His doctoral thesis (1962) was a two-volume work on the mysticism of Hamzah Fansuri.

In 1965, Dr. al-Attas returned to Malaysia and became Head of the Division of Literature in the Department of Malay Studies at the University of Malay, Kuala Lumpur. He was Dean of the Faculty of Arts from 1968-70. Thereafter he moved to the new National University of Malaysia, as Head of the Department of Malay Language and Literature and then Dean of the Faculty of Arts. He strongly advocated the use of Malay as the language of instruction at the university level and proposed an integrated method of studying Malay language, literature and culture so that the role and influence of Islam and its relationship with other languages and cultures would be studied with clarity. He founded and directed the Institute of Malay Language, Literature, and Culture (IBKKM) at the National University of Malaysia in 1973 to carry out his vision.

In 1987, with al-Attas as founder and director, the International Institute of Islamic Thought and Civilization (ISTAC) was established in Kuala-Lumpur. This institution strives to bring an integrated Islamization into the consciousness of its students and faculty. Al-Attas envisioned the plan and design of every aspect of ISTAC, and has incorporated Islamic artistic and architectural principles throughout the campus and grounds.

Al-Attas maintains that modern science sees things as mere things, and that it has reduced the study of the phenomenal world to an end in itself. Certainly this has brought material benefits, however it is accompanied by an uncontrollable and insatiable propensity to destroy nature itself. Al-Attas maintains a firm critique that to study and use nature without a higher spiritual end has brought mankind to the state of thinking that men are gods or His co-partners. “Devoid of real purpose, the pursuit of knowledge becomes a deviation from the truth, which necessarily puts into question the validity of such knowledge. [Islam and Secularism, p.36]

Al-Attas views Western civilization as constantly changing and ‘becoming’ without ever achieving ‘being’. He analyzes that many institutions and nations are influenced by this spirit of the West and they continually revise and change their basic developmental goals and educational objectives to follow the trends from the West. He points to Islamic metaphysics which shows that Reality is composed of both permanence and change; the underlying permanent aspects of the external world are perpetually undergoing change [Islam and Secularism, p.82]

For al-Attas, Islamic metaphysics is a unified system that discloses the ultimate nature of Reality in positive terms, integrating reason and experience with other higher orders in the suprarational and transempirical levels of human consciousness. He sees this from the perspective of philosophical Sufism. “No formulation of a philosophy of education and a philosophy of science along Islamic lines can be developed by ignoring the great contributions of the Sufi masters on the ultimate nature of reality.” [in the conclusion of his Commentary on Hujjat al-Siddiq]. Al-Attas says that the Essentialist and the Existentialists schools of the Islamic tradition address the nature of reality. The first is represented by philosophers and theologians, and the latter by Sufis. The Essentialists cling to the principle of mahiyyah (quiddity), whereas the Existentialists are rooted in wujud (the fundamental reality of existence) which is direct intuitive experience, not merely based on rational analysis or discursive reasoning. This has undoubtedly led philosophical and scientific speculations to be preoccupied with things and their essences at the expense of existence itself, thereby making the study of nature an end in itself. Al-Attas maintains that in the extra-mental reality, it is wujud (Existence) that is the real ‘essences’ of things and that what is conceptually posited as mahiyyah (‘essences’ or ‘quiddities’) are in reality accidents of existence. This is al-Haqq, the Truth, a wajh (aspect) of God. [Intuition of Existence, p. 6, 7]

The process of creation or bringing into existence and annihilation or returning to non-existence, and recreation of similars is a dynamic existential movement. There is a principle of unity and a principle of diversity in creation. “The multiplicity of existents that results is not in the one reality of existence, but in the manifold aspects of the recipients of existence in the various degrees, each according to its strength or weakness, perfection or imperfection, and priority or posteriority. Thus the multiplicity of existents does not impair the unity of existence, for each existent is a mode of existence and does not have a separate ontological status” [On Quiddity and Essence, p.33]. He clarifies that the Essence of God is absolutely transcendent and is unknown and unknowable, except to Himself, whereas the essence or reality of a thing consists of a mode of existence providing the permanent aspect of the thing, and its quiddity, endowing it with its changing qualities.

Al-Attas makes no attempts to accommodate modern Western scientific spirit through a reinterpretation of Islam, or to naively import Western technological skills and products while simultaneously keeping intact the traditional understanding of religion. Problems in the world, he says, are not because of illiteracy or ignorance of modern knowledge; the reasons are epistemological and metaphysical. Modern sciences must be acquired, but their philosophical foundations must be recast into the Islamic metaphysical framework. “We do affirm that religion is in harmony with science. But this does not mean that religion is in harmony with modern scientific methodology and philosophy of science. Since there is no science that is free of value, we must intelligently investigate and study the values and judgments that are inherent in, or aligned to, the presuppositions and interpretations of modern science. We must not indifferently and uncritically accept each new scientific or philosophical theory without first understanding its implication and testing the validity of values that go along with the theory. Islam possesses within itself the source of its claim to truth, and does not need scientific or philosophical theories to justify such a claim. Moreover, it is not the concern of Islam to fear scientific discoveries that could contradict the validity of its truth.” [Prolegomena, p. 38]

Islamic science must interpret the facts of existence in correspondence with the Qur’anic system of conceptual interrelations and its methods of interpretation, not the other way around, by interpreting the system in correspondence with the facts.

Since the role of science is to be descriptive of facts, and facts undergo continual change by virtue of their underlying reality which is process, modern philosophy and science, in a secular way, consider change to be the ultimate nature of reality. Al-Attas maintains that reality is at once both permanence and change, not in the sense that change is permanent, but in the sense that there is something permanent whereby change occurs. Change does not occur at the level of phenomenal things, for they are ever-perishing, but at the level of their realities which contain within themselves all their future states.

Al-Attas advocates that the categories of knowledge which were fundamental to the Islamic tradition are fundamental to any real modern education. In the traditional Islamic worldview, knowledge was of two kinds, the open-ended fard kifayah knowledge, which includes the natural, physical and applied sciences, and the fard `ayn, the absolute nature of the knowledge pertaining to God and the spiritual realities and moral truths. Fard `ayn knowledge is not static, but dynamic, and it increases according to the spiritual and intellectual abilities as well as social and professional responsibilities of a person. Contemporary modern knowledge needs to be delivered from its interpretations based on secular ideology. This requires “a critical examination of the methods of modern science; its concepts, presuppositions, and symbols; its empirical and rational aspects, and those impinging upon values and ethics; its interpretations of origins; its theory of knowledge; its presuppositions on the existence of an external world, of the uniformity of nature and of the rationality of natural processes; its theory of the universe; its classification of the sciences; its limitations and inter-relations with one another of the sciences, and its social relations” [Prolegomena, p. 114].

Science, according to Al-Attas, is a kind of ta’wil or allegorical interpretation of the empirical things that constitute the world of nature [Islam and the Philosophy of Science, p. 116]. The natural world is a book with knowledge; but that knowledge is not evident merely from the physical phenomena; they are nothing but signs, the meaning of which can be understood by those who are equipped with proper knowledge, wisdom and spiritual discernment. Some natural phenomena are obvious as to their meaning, while other natural things are ambiguous; similarly there are clear verses (muhkamat) of the Qur’an, while other verses are ambiguous (mutashabihat). The scientifically relevant verses in the Qur’an necessarily open themselves for further interpretation, based on the cumulative knowledge of future generations. He says that the fact that the early Muslims were not cognizant of the many scientific truths embedded in the Qur’an proves that the discoveries of these truths will not contradict its universal spiritual and religious-moral teachings.

The signs of the external world must be understood via the same method as the valid interpretation and understanding of the written words of the Qur’an, namely through tafsir (direct interpretation) and ta’wil, a deeper and allegorical interpretation based on the clear and direct words. Similarly, religion is constituted by established (i.e. Shari`ah) and ambiguous (Haqiqah), aspects of the same reality and truth, and the reality of the latter is based upon the established truth of the former. [Commentary on Hujjat al-Siddi, p. 183]

Al-Attas says that the constituent parts of the fundamental bases of Islamic metaphysics are: the primacy of the reality of existence; the dynamic nature of this reality that is continually unfolding itself in systematic gradation from the degrees of absoluteness to those of manifestation; determination, and individuation; the perpetual process of the new creation; the absence of a necessary relation between cause and effect and its explanation in the Divine causality; the third metaphysical category between existence and non-existence (the realm of the permanent entities); and the metaphysics of change and permanence pertaining to the realities. It is within the framework of this metaphysics that the philosophy of science must be formulated. [Islam and the Philosophy of Science, p. 35, 36]

Excerpted from

To download the pdf of the book, see the following link:

Al-I’tidal fi Maratib al-Rijal (Al Etidaal) by Shaykh Muhammad Zakariyya al-Kandhalawi


Shaykh Shabbir Salojee’s Foreword:


Muslims everywhere are going through a period of uncertainty, turmoil and suffering. Throughout the world, there appears to be a concerted effort to wipe out the very presence of Muslims. Bosnia, Somalia, Algeria are the better known examples of this onslaught, but Muslims are under attack in many other countries. Kashmir, Cambodia, Burma are examples.

In South Africa, too, Muslims live in uncertainty. The country is experiencing a period of lawlessness and anarchy. There is an undermining fear of the future. Questions abound:

“What should we do?”

“Should we vote?”

“Whom should we vote for?”

“Why don’t we get guidance from the Ulema?”

Islam does provide an answer, but the answers for Muslims are different from the answers for non-believers. The causes for the elevation or degradation of Muslims are not the same as they are for non-Muslims.

A student of Sheikh-ul-Hadith, Hazrat Maulana Zakarriya Saheb, asked seven questions. Hazrat Sheikh’s reply was publised in a kitaab “Al-Eti’daal Fe Maraatibur-Rijaal”. This kitaab not only provides answers to the problems we are facing, but serves as a guide
according to which a Muslim’s life can be conducted.

It should be read and re-read. It should be studied carefully, so that full benefit can be derived from the advice and guidance of Hazrat Sheikh.

May Allah Ta’ala fill the graves of all our pious elders with noor, particularly the grave of Hazrat Sheikh-ul-Hadith, (Rahmatullah Alayh). May He grant them a high place in Jannat and may He create in our hearts true love for Allah Ta’ala and His Rasul
(Sallallahu Alayhi Wasallam). May He make all of us think of and live our lives for the ultimate end i.e. success in the Aakhirat. Aameen.

Shabbir Ahmed Saloojee
Principal: Darul Uloom Zakarriya.
Ramadaan 1414
February 1994