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Can Islam be liberal? Review of “Reopening Muslim Minds”

Farah Adeed, a doctoral candidate at San Diego University, California, reviews Mustafa Akyol's intriguing book, "Reopening Muslim Minds: A Return to Reason, Freedom, and Tolerance". He examines the Muslim intellectual debate between Asharites and Mutazilites that is believed to have led to the downfall of Muslim intellect. Must Read article!

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Why do Muslims generally oppose critical thinking and the idea of individual freedom? What led to the fall of the Muslim world in the 12th century? Is there any crisis in Islam today? Can Islam be liberal (or liberalized)? These are the questions every other scholar of Islam is attempting to address in the face of rising authoritarianism and underdevelopment in the Muslim world.

To play his part, Turkish-American writer and renowned scholar of Islam, Mustafa Akyol, wrote an intriguing book, Reopening Muslim Minds: A Return to Reason, Freedom, and Tolerance. This review summarizes the main arguments of Akyol, lauds his contribution and finally points out some ‘more’ questions with regard to Islam and its basic tenets from a public policy standpoint.

At the outset, Akyol points out that “there are the apologists, who argue that there is simply no problem within Islam today” and, on the other hand, “there are Islamophobes, who cherry-pick all the problems within Islam today in order to depict the entire religion in darkest terms”. He, through his latest book, intends to make “an intervention into this big crisis of Islam”.

The content of the book reveals that it is not a book of Political Science or History, but a book which deals with Islam, its doctrinal history, controversies and evolution, and finally it proposes a case for a “liberal interpretation of Islam” and “an Islamic Enlightenment”.

To highlight the importance and scope of human reason, Akyol begins his book by Ibn Tufail’s famous novel The Improvement of Reason. Hayy ibn Yaqzan, the protagonist of 12th-century tale, is an important fictional character for Akyol to develop his case.

Read more: EXCLUSIVE! Mustafa Akyol: How to Unlock the Muslim Mind?

Hayy grew up alone on a deserted island but had a defined moral system to regulate his life. The boy used his senses, explored the world around him, and discovered the laws behind the working of the natural world.  Through this novel and character, the Muslim philosopher Ibn Tufayl “was trying to carve out a legitimate place for philosophy in a religious tradition that had become unfriendly to philosophy.” He intended to defend reason in a society where revelation was considered the only source to develop a moral system.

Asharites and Mutazilites: Islam’s early battle of ideas!

Akyol uses the story of Hayy to introduce us to the rift between two early schools of Islamic theology known to us today as the Asharites and Mutazilites. The discussion serves two broad objectives: first, the writer explains how rationality was downplayed in the Muslim world and how this led to the stagnation of Islamic jurisprudence; second, there is a piece of evidence from history to propose a case for a liberal interpretation of Islam.

The debate between these two schools was, among several other things, about two basic questions: do humans have free will? Also, do humans have an ethical compass (“conscience”) to have a sense of “right” and “wrong,” even without the guidance of revelation?

The Mutazilites answered these questions in affirmative. The Asharites, on the other hand, argued for a rigidly defined “predeterministic view of the world”. They also insisted that without the revealed law (Sharia) there would be no ethical value, no “right” and “wrong.” Finally, for political reasons that Akyol explains, Asharites won the battle of ideas. This victory closed “the door toward rational views and reform for centuries.”

The Mutazilites placed particular emphasis on human reason which, they argue, was “a gift of God to find the truth” and was always there even when “there is no revelation”. Similarly, Muslim philosophers like Al-Kindi, al-Farabi (d. 950) and Ibn Sina (d. 1037) advanced such thinking, which allowed to benefit from the achievements of all humanity. Akyol especially highlights great thinker from Muslims Spain, Ibn Rushd, “who brought Muslim philosophical tradition to maturity.” Besides “written laws” of religion, Ibn Rushd argued, human nature also has “unwritten laws” such as compassion or gratefulness, which would help check the misinterpretations of religion.

Read more: How can Muslims stop living in history? GVS Exclusive Interview with Prof. Ahmet T. Kuru

Asharites victory over Mutazilites: Downfall of Intellectual Islam?

The Ashʿarites vehemently opposed these views and argued for an inflexible view of religion. For the Asharites, revelation is “the only source of moral value”. It created an impression that every question about morality and ethics must be addressed on the basis of scripture.  It led to an “over-inclusive scripturalism,” whose influence Akyol shows in the “fatwa culture” in the Muslim world today. It is a culture, in his words, that “legislates every minute detail of life and every possible question, so nothing is left for individual Muslims to decide on their own.”

It should be noted that while making such criticisms, Akyol repeatedly refers to the Qur’an as his guide. For example, when agrees with the Mutazilites that humans have an ethical compass, he reminds that the Quran “describes itself as a ‘reminder,’ reminding people of the truth and values that should be innately known to them.” When he argues for understanding the intentions behind religious verdicts — instead of blind obedience — his reference is again the Qur’an, which “presents divine commandments with intelligible reasons.”

Akyol also touches upon the much-discussed influence of al-Ghazali, a great Ashʿarite scholar, who wrote a landmark book The Incoherence of the Philosophers and condemned “Muslims philosophers” for kufr, or “infidelity”. al-Ghazali even added a brief verdict, notes Akyol, in the last page of this book that they can be “punished with death.” Yes, al-Ghazali was also a nuanced thinker who incorporated some aspects of philosophy, such as logic, Akyol grants. Yet still, he had a negative impact by criminalizing ideas. And instead of free, open debates among Muslims, he advocated censorship, as evident in his words on the philosophers:

“It is necessary to shut the gate so as to keep the general public from reading the books of the misguided as far as possible … on account of the danger and deception in them. Just as the poor swimmer must be kept from the slippery banks, so must mankind be kept from reading these books; just as the boy must be kept from touching the snake, so must the ears be kept from receiving such utterances.”

Al-Ghazali remains to be a powerful Muslim intellectual whose influence on the present-day interpretation of Islam is clear.  But Akyol calls Muslims also to look more carefully into the ideas of Al-Ghazali’s main critic, Ibn Rushd, whose wisdom inspired many Jews and Christians, and paved the way to European modernity.

The crux of Akyol’s arguments is simple and clear: an extremist view of Islam is nothing but a historical interpretation (not the actual religion). Similarly, there can be, Akyol believes, a liberal interpretation of Islam which could generally be in line with the themes of the holy Quran and Hadith.

Akyol’s arguments are both fascinating and persuasive. However, some of his ideas sound ‘contestable’ if not ‘controversial’. For example, Islam has, as another scholar of Islam Shadi Hamid notes, a complex legal system that probably demands a pertinent ‘role’ in the public sphere. In other words, Akyol does not deal in detail or with the required clarity as to how Islam relates to politics. (This seems to be the topic of another book by him coming out soon: “Why, as a Muslim, I Defend Liberty.”)

Read more: EXCLUSIVE! Mustafa Akyol: Is Islam facing a crisis?

Finally, a liberal interpretation of Islam may work for a few scholars or smaller communities in the US or the UK but for the complex and religiously conservative societies historically embedded so-called Islamic ideals are likely to overshadow reason and free-thinking. One of the reasons behind this apparent pessimism is the widespread political use of religion. Bertrand Russell noted in his famous book Power: A New Social Analysis that: “It is the fate of most religious institutions, sooner or later, to be used by bold men for secular purposes, and thereby to forfeit the reverence upon which their power depends.”

Farah Added is a doctoral candidate for Political Science at San Diego State University, California, USA. He previously worked as Asst. Editor GVS. He can be followed @farah_adeed on Twitter. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Global Village Space’s editorial policy.

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