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

Mustafa Akyol, Senior Fellow on Islam and Modernity at the Cato Institute, discusses his new book Reopening Muslim Minds: A Return to Reason, Freedom, and Tolerance with GVS Assistant Editor Farah Adeed. Akyol talks about blasphemy laws, the rise of unreason and some basic tenets of classical Muslim jurisprudence. He explains how Muslims can promote a culture of science and reason in the 21st century.

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Mustafa Akyol, Senior Fellow on Islam and Modernity at the Cato Institute, USA, and the author of Islam without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty, long-listed in 2012 for the Lionel Gelber Prize, discusses his new book Reopening Muslim Minds: A Return to Reason, Freedom, and Tolerance with GVS Assistant Editor Farah Adeed.

GVS: I have read your latest book Reopening Muslim Minds: A Return to Reason, Freedom, and Tolerance, and it is in fact very interesting! My first question to you is: What is your argument? More importantly, how is it different from your previous book Islam without Extremes?

Mustafa Akyol (MA): Thanks for reading my book. In it, I actually don’t have a single argument, but many arguments about Islamic theology, jurisprudence, and history that are interwoven into one big story. If you want the gist of that story, it is that we Muslims need a major “renewal” (tajdid) in religion, by accepting the full meaning of the Qur’anic maxim, “there is no compulsion in religion.” (I show that this Qur’anic maxim was trivialized or even “abrogated” by classical jurisprudence, but only due to the norms of that time.)

This argument from the book may help: The big remedy we need—call it a great “reform” or “renewal”—is really having “no compulsion in religion.” It is, in other words, giving up coercive power in the name of religion. This means no more religious and moral policing, no threats to apostates and “innovators,” no persecution on the pretext of blasphemy laws, no public floggings or stoning for sinners, and no violence or intimidation in the family. It means accepting that “religion is advice,” as a hadith in Sahih al-Bukhari reads, and advancing Islam only with advisory means, such as preaching, counseling, exemplifying, and educating.

How is this book different from my now-decade-old book, Islam without Extremes? Well, if that book was 101, Reopening Muslim Minds is 404. In other words, this new book gets into the depths of some of the issues I only barely touched in my earlier book. Ibn Rushd was mentioned there only in one sentence, in Reopening Muslim Minds I have a whole chapter about him. My new book also elucidates some of the sad lessons I have drawn from the politics of Turkey and the Arab world in the past decade.

GVS: Your book traces the origins of the rise of unreason in the Muslim world. Can you briefly explain if it is the result of (mis)interpretations of the Holy book or a byproduct of political control of religion?

MA: First, let me note that this discussion may look initially bizarre to some Muslims. They may say, “Islam has always valued human reason, so there is no problem worth talking about.” Indeed, even most rigid Salafis will tell you that one must first  have aql, or reason, to be a Muslim; because you need to comprehend religion first, in order to believe in it.

But in the formative centuries of Islam there was a heated dispute among the mutakallimun, or theologians, on a much deeper question: Could human reason know what is ethically “good” and “bad,” even if there was no divine revelation? In other words, could all humans, including non-Muslims, have moral values thanks to their fitra, or nature? Or rather did all moral values come only from the Sharia?

In my book, I explain the terms of this dispute, and how it broadly divided Sunni thinking into “rationalists” (such as most early Hanafis, Mu’tazila, philosophers such as Ibn Rushd) versus the “traditionalists (the Ash’aris and Hanbalis). The latter believed that there is no ethical value outside of the Sharia. Then I show how this theology led to an insular worldview — if “infidels” have no moral worth, why would Muslims read, say, Aristotle? The same theology also led to a more strict and literalist understanding of the Sharia, marginalizing the rationalist Ahl-al Ray, or “People of Reason,” most of which were early Hanafis, such as great Imam Abu Hanifa himself, who gave greater authority to human reason in Islamic jurisprudence.

I also argue that the victory of the traditionalists against the rationalists was not because that they were more grounded in the Qur’an, as many Muslims think today. It was largely because they were more useful to the despotic regimes that dominated the medieval Islamic world.

GVS: You argue that “scientific research continued in post- Ghazalian Islam” but “only as confined to very narrow, and essentially unprogressive areas.” How do you explain it?

That is a quote in my book from the late Abdelhamid I. Sabra (passed away in 2013), who was a major scholar of the history of science in the Muslim world. I took that quote from him, along with a few other insights in a chapter titled, “How We Lost the Sciences.” In that chapter, I revisit the old debate about whether the condemnation of Muslim “philosophers” by Imam Ghazali had a negative impact on “philosophy” in medieval Islam, which included what we call “science” today. I note that the early Orientalists who blamed Ghazali were wrong: they had missed the nuanced approach of Ghazali, who had appreciated logic and “naturalized” some of the Greek sciences. But I also disagree with the now-decades-old defense of Ghazali, which does not realize the chilling effects of the narrowing of legitimate thought. It went as far as Ahmad al-Faruqi al-Sirhindi, a very prominent seventeenth-century scholar from India hailed as mujaddid, or “renewer” of Islam, condemning all the “stupid sciences of the philosophers,” such as geometry.

So, I espouse a “third view,” articulated by Abdelhamid I. Sabra, and also recently by Dimitri Gutas, one of the world’s foremost experts on the “Graeco-Arabic” heritage in medieval Islam, which admits that there was not necessarily a “decline” but stagnation in late classical Islamic thought. Moreover, I believe the real discussion must be not on Imam Ghazali, who is a complex figure, but the dominance of Ash’ari theology and its denial of causality in nature.

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I also infer a broader lesson from this longstanding discussion on Islam and science: Some of the Orientalist critiques of the Islamic world have been indeed prejudiced and crude, but the defensive reaction to this problem has turned into another mistake, as it avoids the healthy self-criticism we Muslims need today.

GVS: Throughout this book, your focus remained exclusively on doctrinal and theological matters while explaining the case of the Muslim world. Don’t you think there are multiple causes of unfreedom as we can see in the face of far-right populism in the west?

MA: Of course. There are huge threats to human freedom and dignity in many corners of the world today. Moreover, some of these threats target Muslims. Far-right populists in the West that you mentioned are among them, as well as the far-right Hindu nationalists in India. China’s industrial-scale, genocidal oppression of Uyghur Muslims is another tragedy before our eyes. As a Muslim with a pen, I see it as my moral duty to support the rights of fellow Muslims against all such threats.

But the same moral duty calls for criticizing fellow Muslims when they happen to be the oppressors — and also challenging the religious justifications they may be using.

GVS: “There are Islamophobes, who cherry-pick all the problems within Islam today in order to depict the entire religion in darkest terms,” you wrote. Do you think this deliberate effort to “promote bigotry against Muslims” helps extremists in the Muslim world to seek popular legitimacy for their anti-modernity narratives?

MA: Exactly. We have a vicious cycle between Islamophobes in the West who say Islam is an intolerant, violent or misogynist religion, and Muslim extremists (and even some mainstream but rigid conservatives) who will prove them right, while also using them to shut down any debate among Muslims about religion. They typically say that if we speak about any renewal or ijtihad in Islam, we will be playing into the hands of the anti-Islamic forces in the West who want to alter our religion.

These rigid conservatives also blame reformist Muslims for taking the West as their guide. They don’t realize, however, it is themselves who have taken the West as their guide — just in the reverse. In other words, they will refuse to reconsider any issue in Islam, simply because some Western liberals or feminists raised that issue.

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The right approach, I believe, is to get rid of this obsession with the West (as either blind imitation or fanatic opposition), and to think about what ethical vision that we Muslims of the 21st century are offering to the rest of humanity. When people of goodwill, from any civilization, look at Muslim societies today, do they see admirable virtues, or rather ugly scenes, including what I call “immoral piety” — an important theme in Reopening Muslim Minds.

GVS: You have talked about Pakistan and blasphemy laws in your book. I would like to know your opinion as to how can Pakistan deal with religious extremism, which is the result of “medieval jurisprudential tradition.”

MA: I think Pakistan, a country for which I have a heart, had the right approach to religion in its very founding, which Quaid-i-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah expressed beautifully in 1947:

“You are free; you are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other place or worship… You may belong to any religion or caste or creed — that has nothing to do with the business of the State.”

I think that was the right ideal for Pakistan, and that is the right model for any Muslim country: Religion must be practiced by Muslim individuals and communities, voluntarily, while the state must be neutral, only protecting the rights of its citizens, regardless of their beliefs. Because if the state imposes a specific religion, it inevitably imposes the beliefs and laws of one sect against another, which inevitably violates the Qur’anic principle: “There is no compulsion in religion.”

But how will we convince all the Islamists who believe there is in fact compulsion in religion? It is not easy, but I believe that forceful arguments for freedom and toleration must come from Islam itself.

In my new book, that is precisely what I do. On the matter of blasphemy, for example, I show that punishing people for insults against Islam has simply no basis in the Qur’an. The basis that is found in the Sunna is also misleading — certain individuals reportedly executed by first Muslims on the orders the Prophet Muhammad (P.B.H) were involved in not just satire but active enmity during a time of war. On the other hand, there are also incidents in Prophet’s life where he did not punish blasphemous words when they were just words. He rather showed compassion and magnanimity, which should be our guiding principles today.

GVS: What can Muslims do at the individual as well as state level to bring science and reason back to their lands? 

MA: Well, we should first need to promote a culture of science and reason. In fact, most Muslims today will say that they want to see more scientific creativity in the Muslim world. Fine, but how do we achieve that? I will tell you how not: Not by disowning your first Nobel Prize winning scientist, the late great Abdus Salam, for his religious beliefs. Not by threatening minorities or intellectuals, which will lead to brain drain from your county. History shows that societies rather become creative when they have freedom, so people can think without fear, and they have rule of law, so everybody knows that the road to success is hard work — not being from the right sect, right party, or knowing the right people.

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These were also the secrets of our much-yearned Golden Age of Islam, when we Muslims were more open-minded and tolerant than Christendom, which was then suffocated by religious fanaticism. For complex reasons, which I tried to demonstrate in Reopening Muslim Minds, the tables have been completely overturned today. For a real recovery, we Muslims first need to see what went wrong.