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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
"Islamic liberalism is not an oxymoron.". . . . Excellent book review!!