By Roshan, New Age Islam
14 June, 2015
Name of the Book: Islam without Extremes—A Muslim Case for Liberty
Author: Mustafa Akyol
Published in India by Viva Books Pvt. Ltd., New Delhi
Price: Rs. 495
Given the horrors that continue to be committed in the name of Islam by some self-styled ‘Islamic groups in different parts of the world today, it is hardly surprising that many non-Muslims have serious misgivings about Islam and those who claim to follow it. Harsh, extremely literalist, punitive, misogynist and hate-driven interpretations of Islam and the brutalities that follow from them continue to reinforce widespread negative stereotypes about Islam and Muslims across the world.
But, as noted Turkish journalist and scholar Mustafa Akyol reminds us in this inspiring, informative and incisive book, Islam (like every other faith) is far from being monolithic. There are, he points out, diverse and competing understandings or interpretations of Islam. Despite their claims to represent ‘the true Islam’, supremacist and exclusivist interpretations of the faith are just one of many different interpretations, each of which claims Islamic normativity.
Akyol helpfully reminds us that just as there are narrow, violent, patriarchal, supremacist and grossly illiberal interpretations of Islam, there are also interpretations of Islam that are just the opposite—peace-loving and compassionate, understandings that champion a range of human freedoms and that embrace religious pluralism and peaceful coexistence. Given the increasingly horrific crimes being committed by extremist Muslim groups that grab the headlines every now and then, this reminder is immensely useful.
Akyol takes us through a journey that starts off with the times of the Prophet Muhammad, describing the impressive reforms, in beliefs, values, outlooks and practices that Islam sought to bring about in human society. The message preached by the Prophet, he shows, was a truly liberating one. But not long after the Prophet’s demise, he tells us, multiple and conflicting interpretations of this message emerged. Some of these interpretations clearly went against the basic ethos of what the Prophet had taught. Akyol describes how fabricated reports falsely attributed to the Prophet and prescriptions of certain legal scholars that reflected extreme literalism, deeply-rooted misogyny and fierce hostility to the use of reason, gave rise to repressive and regressive interpretations of Islam that gradually began to acquire considerable influence, often being backed by rulers. Yet, throughout this period, other interpretations of the faith, that respected reason and individual rights and sought to reflect on sacred texts in a contextual manner, survived. Akyol, who does not conceal his preference for the latter, believes that these interpretations of Islam, that have deep historical roots, need to be revived and popularized today. This “Islam without Extremes” is what this immensely-readable book is all about.
Akyol reflects on the rich tradition of Muslim scholars who, down the centuries, adhered to an understanding of Islam that championed a range of human freedoms that were in line with some key contemporary liberal values. ‘Islamic liberalism’, he claims, is, thus, not an oxymoron. Rather, he seeks to argue, it is very much part of the legacy of the centuries’-old Muslim religious tradition.
This exercise, of highlighting the rich legacy of ‘Islamic liberalism’, has a very contemporary purpose. Through it, Akyol seeks to advocate for a range of freedoms in Muslim societies today using ‘Islamic’ arguments. Akyol is acutely aware that radical Islamists are vehemently opposed to many such freedoms, which they readily denounce as ‘un-Islamic’. Akyol seeks to answer them by insisting that these freedoms are actually in accordance with Islam, rather than being antagonistic to it.
This insistence, that certain key liberal values and freedoms are compatible with Islam, is also an answer to objections raised by people who are critical of Islam, for what they regard as its hostility to individual freedoms.
In this way, Akyol seeks to respond to the objections of two sets of potential critics—radical Islamists and radical secularists—both of whom insist that Islam and certain key liberal values and freedoms are inherently opposed to each other.
Conflict between religious liberals and religious literalists has, Akyol informs us, been an integral part of most of Muslim religious history (This is probably true of almost all other religious traditions, too). After taking us on a quick trip through a history of over a thousand years, Akyol brings us to the mid-19th century, where he describes the flourishing of liberalism in different Muslim countries, with Muslim scholars championing a range of liberal reforms, using Islamic arguments to back them. Just a few decades later, though, Akyol shows, this tradition was rapidly marginalized, with the emergence of competing narratives—in particular, aggressive secular nationalism and radical Islamism. Akyol sees Western imperialism and the brutal despotism of secular dictators in Muslim countries who were vehemently anti-religion as playing a major role in helping to catapult Islamism to the centre-stage as a reaction, this, in turn, causing Islamic liberalism to be pushed to the periphery.
Islamism, with its obsession with political power and coercive rule, Akyol believes, is a departure from the Islamic tradition rather than an affirmation of it. “[…] Islamism, and its violent offshoot, Jihadism,” he says, “is more of a political phenomenon than a religious one.” Despite the clout that radical Islamists seem to exercise today in some Muslim contexts, Akyol remains optimistic about the prospects for liberty in Muslim countries. He sees hope, for instance, in the rise of advocates of ‘Islamic liberalism’ in his country—Turkey—whom he describes in considerable detail. These are people and organizations rooted in an understanding of Islam that sees certain key liberal values and freedoms as not just not opposed to Islam but, in fact, as integral to it.
Admittedly, the ‘Islamic liberalism’ that Akyol so passionately espouses reflects just one understanding or interpretation, among many, of Islam. Not everyone will accept this particular understanding as normative, though. One is not sure if Akyol seeks to claim that Islam and liberalism (as understood in the contemporary West) are fully compatible, in every sense of the term. If he does not, he is possibly on firm ground, but if he does, critics might argue that this claim is as untenable as the insistence that the two have nothing in common at all.
A more clear understanding of what exactly Akyol means by ‘liberalism’ and of how it might differ from contemporary Western-style liberalism would have helped readers develop a more in-depth understanding of the project that Akyol seeks to advance. A critical appraisal of Western-style liberalism, along with reflections on how an Islamically-inspired liberalism might help to address its limitations, would have added value to the discussion. That said, Akyol’s main thesis—that a progressive interpretation of religion is a pressing necessity in Muslim contexts (and this is true of other contexts, too) is very well taken.
This book is a real gem, one that anybody interested in religious and political developments in Muslim contexts will certainly find useful. Given that in our highly interconnected contemporary world developments in Muslim contexts often impact heavily elsewhere, probably just about everyone interested in the way the world as a whole is going will find this book un-put-down-able.