Book Review: Islam Without Extremes by Mustafa Akyol

Epigraph: Thus, have We made of you an Ummat justly balanced, that ye might be witnesses over the nations, and the Messenger a witness over yourselves. (Al Quran 2:143)

Islam Without Extremes

Piety And Pluralism

Source: The Wall Street Journal

Book written by Mustafa Akyol (born 1972) is a Turkish writer and journalist. Akyol has said he would describe himself as a Classical Liberal.

Reviewed by Matthew Kaminski on August 12, 2011

Piety And Pluralism: Liberal democracy can grow on Muslim soil if neither Islamists nor secular strongmen are allowed to mix religion with politics.

Modern Turkey dazzles the eye and addles the mind. With growth in double digits and shiny new buildings everywhere, the old “sick man of Europe” looks more like a Eurasian China—though with minarets, an aggressive media and free elections. The man who oversaw this rebirth, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, began his political career from within Turkey’s Islamist movement. He won a third term in June in a landslide, campaigning with an iPad in one hand and prayer beads in the other. In recent years he has sidelined the powerful Turkish military and sought to loosen decades-old restrictions on traditional Muslim dress. Some of his opponents are in jail on treason charges. Critics call him a dictator and an Islamist. His supporters credit him with the country’s economic miracle and its new openness to democratic principles.So which is it? To find an answer, a good place to start is Mustafa Akyol’s “Islam Without Extremes.” A columnist for English-language papers in Turkey, Mr. Akyol offers a delightfully original take on Turkey and on the prospects for liberal democracy in the broader Islamic Middle East. Throughout the 20th century, Turkey and other Middle Eastern countries were offered a choice between secular and religious authoritarianism. What the Muslim world needs, he says, is a “synthesis of Islam and liberalism.” Today’s Turkey comes closest to that ideal.Mr. Akyol, a pious Muslim and a classical liberal, begins his case by proposing a serious rereading of the Quran. “The idea of freedom—in the theological, political, or economic sense—was not unknown in classical Islamdom, as some have claimed,” Mr. Akyol writes. He notes that the Quran, compiled in the seventh century, broke with the traditions of its time and place—by mandating protections for property, appealing to the judgment of reason and promoting the idea of a rule of law (as opposed to rule by the whim of despots). Taking inspiration from the separation of church and state in the American constitution, Mr. Akyol suggests that a liberal democracy can be built on Muslim soil as long as neither Islamists nor secular strongmen are allowed to mix religion with politics.Mr. Akyol offers a historical narrative that shows how, within Islam, an idea of freedom was lost over time. Islam was once the world’s “supercivilization,” a leader in science and the arts as well as a great military and economic power. Arguments over what brought it low have raged for centuries. Mr. Akyol blames the triumph of “the culture of the desert” in the Middle Ages. In the language of our day, the Muslim world lost its competitive edge.In its early phases, Mr. Akyol says, Islam was a religion “driven by merchants and their rational, vibrant and cosmopolitan mindset.” But ultimately “the more powerful classes of the Orient—the landlords, the soldiers and the peasants—became dominant, and a less rational and more static mindset began to shape the religion. The more trade declined, the more the Muslim mind stagnated.” Applying this historical lesson today, Mr. Akyol claims that “socioeconomic progress in Muslim societies” may change Islam itself—leading to progress in “religious attitudes, ideas, and even doctrines.”

In any culture, an open society and a free economy are the foundation stones of liberalism. In the Muslim world, Turkey’s experience is most instructive. As the Ottoman Empire crumbled, the founder of the modern republic, Kemal Atatürk (1881-1938) took inspiration for his republican secularism—to the liberals’ regret—from France’s rigid laïcité, which put religion under the aegis of the state. His centralized government and statist economic ideas came from Bismarck’s Germany. Atatürk was the last century’s least bloody and probably most successful social engineer. After his death, Kemalism remained locked in place for decades. Turkey was beset by coups and economic crises. By the 1980s it had reached a point of stagnation, if not crisis.

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6 replies

  1. An Important Excerpt from Akyol’s chapter: Freedom from the State
    AMONG THE MANY EPISODES from the life of the Prophet Muhammad, two are exceptionally curious.
    The first is a short discussion between the Prophet and one of his companions right before the famous Battle of Badr, which took place in 624, between Medinan Muslims and Meccan pagans. The night before the battle, the Muslim army had to camp nearby, and the Prophet, as commander in chief, suggested one location. Yet one of his men, al-Mundhir, felt that staying on higher ground would be preferable. So he walked up to the Prophet and asked, “O Messenger of God, is your opinion based on a revelation from God, or is it war tactics?”
    “No revelation, the Prophet replied. “Just war tactics.”
    “Then this is not the most strategic place to camp,” al-Mundhir said. He gave advice that the Prophet liked and followed. It was advice, Muslim tradition holds, that helped win the battle.
    What is interesting about this story is that it illustrates
    distinction the early Muslim community made between God revelation and the Prophet’s personal judgment. The latter, apparently, you could dispute-provided there was a good reason.
    The second episode underlines the same principle. Here, reportedly, the Prophet advised his fellow Muslims about date farming, but his suggestions proved unhelpful. So he declined to offer further advice, saying, “I am only human. If I ask you to do something concerning religion, then accept it. But if I ask you to do something on the basis of my personal opinion, then, [remember], I am only human.”
    From both of these anecdotes, which appear in harmony with the Qur’anic verses that emphasize the humanness of the Prophet, Muslims can derive two important lessons. First, only God is all-knowing and all-wise. All human beings, including the messengers of God, can err. Since they are most righteous and they receive God’s revelation, the messengers still have authority over believers, which is why the Qur’an orders Muslims to “obey God and His Messenger.” Yet even the messenger of God can be disputed, with all due respect, when he acts based on his personal judgment and not from direct communication with God.
    Second, in a world in which even the Prophet cannot be regarded as an unquestionable authority, nobody can.

    Another Hadith in favor of secularism:
    Umm Salamah relates that the Holy Prophet said: I am but a human being. You bring your disputes to me for decision. It might happen that one party might be better versed in presenting his case than the other and I might decide in his favor according to what I hear. But, if I decide in favor of one contrary to the right of the other, I merely allot a brand of fire to him. (Bokhari and Muslim)

    Note: We are quoting from the book Gardens of Righteous, chapter 26. You can find the book online here:

  2. Another Review

    There is not and never has been only one way to look at Islam. Despite all national and international controversies about the relationship between Islam and Liberty there are a number of examples of modern and open-minded Muslims who reject Islamic extremisms and favor freedom while at the same time being committed to the Qur’an. The Turkish journalist Mustafa Akyol belongs to the rising group of people for whom being a Muslim and advocating liberty are not a contradiction but compatible if not even logical.

    In his book “Islam without Extremes. A Muslim Case for Liberty”, published 2011 in New York, Akyol starts by telling the story how as a child he was torn apart by the religious instructions he received by a wise, religious and good-hearted grandfather on the one side who taught him about the liberating message of Islam and by some intolerant texts he found in the Hadiths. Already early in his life Akyol began to ask himself whether Islam was a religion of coercion and repression or a religion fully compatible with the idea of liberty – “that individuals have full control over their lives and are free to be religious, irreligious, or whatever they wish to be.”

    Obviously Akyol shares the second view but he admits and shows in his book that in the history of Islam there are and always have been elements which tried to give the “enlightenment of the Orient” sparked of by the spreading of the Qu’ran a negative twist. Already in the middle ages there has been a “war of ideas” between scholars of Islam as Akyol points out. They had different views on the right interpretation of the Qu’ran and the Hadiths. This war of ideas repeated itself in the history of the Osman Empire and the later Turkey where liberal and tolerant voices accepting religious diversity and advocating individual freedom were fighting with nationalistic and fundamentalist forces trying to discriminate minorities and bringing Muslims under political, social and religious control.

    However, intolerance was not only the characteristic of Muslim fundamentalists but also of the secularist state which was established in Turkey under Mustafa Kemal “Atatürk” and his successors and prevailed until recently. “Atatürk” and his followers used (sometimes brutal) state power to oppress religion and offend religious people by declaring that modernization and Islam were incompatible. This opened the door for a whole series of human rights violations against freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, press freedom or the simple right to decide on how you want to dress and how your children should be educated. Therefore Akyol welcomes whole-heartedly the present Turkish Government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan which based on Islam shows its willingness to uphold freedom and democracy after the bad experiences of enforced and abused secularism.

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  3. Akyol welcomes whole-heartedly the government of Erdogan which is based on islam but shows a willingness to uphold democracy and the accompanying freedoms, according to him.
    Something is wrong. Erdogan has virtually rolled back the secularism which was in Turkey. He has gradually resurrected the extremism which had been in coma for almost a millennium. Under the present regime, democracy is being exited through the backdoor. There is a return to dictatorship and the personality cult. To criticize Erdogan or his government has dire consequences. Some generals who were opposed to his re-islamisation of Turkey were slammed with a phoney coup plot and disgraced out of service. Journalists and academics whose positions do not coincide with the supreme leader’s have an unpleasant environment to work in.
    The Kurds, who want independence, are being subjected to another round of persecution and one of the results was the bomb blast of last weekend. That has been blamed on the Kurds but it is suspected that it may have been the handiwork of government to win sympathy and prop up its sagging popularity ahead of the upcoming election. In the last one, Erdogan won but with the slimmest of margins while the opposition faired better.
    Akyol will have difficulties convincing the less gullible that he is against extremism while applauding Erdogan, his roll model. It was the Turkish president, then as prime minister, who said that it was an insult to create a dichotomy in the muhammadan world by regarding some as moderates. Islam is one, he said. That includes what others call extremism.
    Akyol’s islam cannot be divorced from extremism.

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