Classical Islam and a liberal spirit seem to be fundamentally add odds. In his new book ‘Islam without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty’, Mustafa Akyol says this need not be so. Daniel Issing read Akyol’s book and reviewed it for the ESFL Blog.
For the superficial observer, few things could be further apart than an open-minded, cosmopolitan and genuinely individualistic worldview and the contemporary mindset of Muslim communities. What could be more anti-liberal and anti-modern than Sharia law and a scripture that calls for striking off the heads of disbelievers (Qur’an 8:12) and slaying the idolaters (Qur’an 9:5)? Add to that the deeply-rooted authoritarianism that plagues Middle Eastern countries and the wave of violence unleashed by Islamic terrorists during the last few decades, and you’ll get a pretty gloomy picture of Muslims that invites all kinds of stereotypes and resentment. In this setting, Mustafa Akyol’s “Islam without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty” is more than just the proverbial silver lining. Its mission? Nothing short of demonstrating that Islam, properly understood, is in fact compatible with liberty.
Let me get it straight right ahead: This book is no apology for Islamic extremism, no attempt to belittle or even defend religiously inspired suicide bombers and does not try to explain away the suppression of women or religious minorities in Islamic countries. Instead, Akyol shows that there is a more enlightened, humane tradition within Islam that denounces all these “inexcusable brutalities” and can help to reconcile the Muslim faith with the modern world. He does not deny that Muslims have shed a lot of blood, both among themselves and in conflict with other religions. But in many cases, the inspiration for these cruelties did not spring from Islamic sources, but from the particular circumstances on the Arabian Peninsula.
A telling example is Sharia law, known for its sometimes brutal corporal punishments. From our point of view, its practices are insupportable, but only until one takes a closer look at the context: At a time with no functioning police force, drastic and visible punishment was about the only functioning strategy of deterrence. The problem, Akyol writes, is that the Islamists who want to see Sharia law implemented literally forget about the purpose it was supposed to serve.
The classical liberal reader will rejoice many times over while reading this book, e.g. when Akyol praises the 14th century Islamic historiographer Ibn Khaldun for developing a “theory of economic liberalism that advise[s] governments to minimize taxes, secure private property, support free markets and avoid budget deficits.” Far from denouncing capitalism as crude materialism and a danger to sacred values, Akyol wholeheartedly embraces the dynamism the market system brings and stresses its positive, revitalizing and reformatory influence on religion. In a passage reminiscent of John Hasnas’ discussion of the rule of law, Akyol’s argumentation against having the Sharia imposed by the state would delight anyone leaning towards free market anarchism.
Of course, a system of natural liberties does not logically follow from the Qur’an. His interpretation, as Akyol himself repeatedly stresses, is just one out of many, and is decidedly shaped by time and circumstances. But he doesn’t always stay true to this insight, as he often quotes passages from the Qur’an to argue against a Hadith or interpretations competing with his own version. And this is the point that for me, a non-believer, is hardest to understand: Why try to deduce any real-world implications from a book that is more than 1,300 years old – which certainly has an important historical dimension, but also forgoes all the advantages of scientific reasoning? If it is true that one can find evidence to confirm just about any position one priory held in it, what, then, is the positive contribution of the scripture? Why not rely on sources that underwent a process of critical review, rather than trying to find truth and wisdom in a document created in the desert of 7th century Arabia?
Nevertheless, the book provides an excellent introduction to the history of Islamic thought and is highly recommended to everyone who insists that Islam is, and always has been, an inherently violent religion. And although the book seems to be directed to a Western audience skeptical of Islam, there is surely enough food for thought for the more “traditionalist” Muslims that insist on a literal interpretation of the Qur’an and the Hadiths. At a time when both camps seem to drift ever further apart, authors like Akyol could be the much-needed bridge between the two.
Daniel Issing studies Mathematical Physics at the University of Munich and currently works on his master’s thesis in the French Alps, where he also resides. He got involved in SFL in 2013 during an exchange in Canada and now serves on the European Executive Board as Regional Director for Germany. Being somewhat of a sport addict, he enjoys trail running, mountain biking and many other outdoor activities as well as reading, playing the guitar and traveling. Daniel is a fellow of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation.
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