Islam without Extremes A Muslim Case for Liberty

* A review of Mustafa Akyol’s “Islam Without Extremes” by Muhammad Ali Siddiqi

A THEME now dominating new works on Islam is a forceful denunciation of its perceived takeover by the conservative — ‘traditionalist’ — school that came into being centuries after the revelation of the Holy Quran. Many Western scholars, Karen Armstrong among them, assert that, during the earlier centuries, Islam was a progressive force with a liberal attitude toward women, minorities, intellectual freedom and the arts. The latter centuries saw the hijacking of Islam by conservative ulema, who interpreted the religion in a way that distorted its original character and turned it into a retrogressive force abhorring change and denying freedom of expression.

Theocentricity, says Turkish scholar Mustafa Akyol, was Islam’s unique character, because it rejected intermediaries between man and God. This precisely is Islam’s tragedy, for today we have a powerful class of clerics who have forfeited a Muslim’s right to think for himself.

Two themes dominate Akyol’s philosophy: one, Shariah cannot be imposed. Doing so would mean establishing a fascist system. As he puts it, “a democracy based on the Shariah will be neither a democracy nor based on the Shariah.” Two, Muslims must think for themselves. This will enable them to reject what he believes to be non-Islamic if not anti-Islamic strains that have become part of Muslim values. While Islam transformed the people of the territories it conquered, it was in turn transformed by “pre-existing and long-established cultures” of the peoples within its realm. These “long-established cultures” affected and overshadowed Islam’s pristine message. Thus, the Muslim world fell victim to a ‘post-Quranic’ system which imposed on Muslims a harsher way of life not visualised by the Quran. For instance, music was not declared illicit by the Quran but by scholars “who constantly expanded the list of bans.”

Akyol rejects the very idea that it is the state’s duty to “spread good and suppress ill” and asserts that originally “forbidding the wrong” was interpreted as a limit on the executive’s powers; later it became an instrument in the hands of the executive. Trying to serve religion via government, he says, does more harm than good, and quotes Sudanese scholar Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na’im as saying: “Enforcing [Shariah] through coercive power of the state negates its religious nature, because Muslims would be observing the law of the state and not freely performing their religious obligations as Muslims.”

Islam without Extremes dwells at length on what the Abbasid caliphate’s early period would be remembered by history for — the cultural and scientific bloom and unrestricted debate between different schools of thought. The basic clash was between the Traditionalists, who frowned upon “innovations,” and those who brooked no restrictions on free thought by insisting on reason as the fundamental tool for interpreting and explaining Islam. However, what amazes Akyol is the contradiction in the Traditionalist school’s approach to religion. While they condemned “innovations,” they themselves introduced “their own innovations to the Shariah.” He explains: “the stoning of adulterers, the killing of apostates, social limitations on women, bans on art and music, and punishments for wine drinking” are not to be found in the Quran. The purported misogyny in Muslim societies, he says, was introduced by medieval scholars. The disappearance of Mutazila philosophy with its emphasis on rationalism was, according to Egyptian scholar Ahmad Amin, the greatest tragedy for the Muslim world.

In one respect, the Akyol book is priceless, for it dwells at length on the debate that went on in Ottoman society in the 19th century when the empire was in decline. The scholars which this era produced, and their theories, in some cases radical, largely remain unknown to Pakistanis, because few South Asian scholars knew Turkish or bothered to go beyond the conventional courses of Islamic discourse. This is a tragedy because this deprived them of the benefit of an intellectually stimulating and voluminous literature that constituted the Ottoman response to challenges from forces unleashed by modern Europe. For instance, a commission set up in 1868 produced a 16-volume magnum opus that had as its lodestar the Abbasid Rationalists’ maxim that “changing times legitimise the change of law.”

It quoted a 15th century Turkish scholar, Jalaluddin Dawani, as saying the state had a right to introduce new legal rulings that did not exist in Shariah if they were beneficial to the people. Other thinkers, some of whom pleaded for radical reforms, included Ziya Gokalp, Ahmet Hilmi, Ismail Ertugrul, Hakki Izmirli, Sabahattin Bey, Doktor Hazik, and so on. Some of the recommendations, especially those called Tanzimat, were implemented by the government, and their impact was so pervasive that Tunisia (self-governing within the empire) abolished slavery in 1846, and the mayor of Tunis wrote a letter to the US consul general in 1863 asking the Americans to reconsider their attitude toward slavery in the name of “human mercy and compassion.”

Islam without Extremes makes a strong case for individual liberty, freedom of expression and free thought and argues that except for the basic religious sources, we must not adopt religious interpretation of the past for today’s world. Abu Hanifa, according to Akyol, was accused of neglecting Sunnah in favour of analogical reasoning, especially because he was also a proponent of human freedom. The author quotes him as saying that neither the community nor the government has the right to interfere with the liberty of the individual.

* Please click here to see where this review was originally published.