“Is Islam a religion of coercion and repression? Or is it 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?
There are many good reasons to ask these questions. Islamic societies in the contemporary world are really not beacons of freedom… Not a single Muslim-majority country today can be defined as ‘fully free’…”
Islam Without Extremes: A Muslim Case For Liberty” (Norton, 2011), primarily addresses the widespread prejudices in Western societies about Islam -- though neither prejudices about Islam nor those who need to learn more about it are confined to the Western world.
Akyol is a devout Muslim who believes in liberty. The main argument of his book can be summarized as follows: There are surely a number of political, social and economic reasons that explain the lack of freedom in Muslim-majority countries today. One of the reasons that need to be highlighted is the predominance of authoritarian and totalitarian interpretations of Islam. Contemporary Muslim societies need to establish respect for the rights and freedoms of both individuals and communities, and the only way to achieve this is by building democracies based on market economies.
Akyol argues that a liberal interpretation of Islam has a solid base in the Quran’s emphasis on an individual’s personal responsibility to his Creator and salvation through righteous behavior, as well as in the Islamic principles of “no compulsion in religion” and respect for religious diversity. An important part of Akyol’s book is devoted to the analysis of the struggle between the “Rationalist” and “Traditionalist” schools in Islam. He argues that between the eighth and 13th centuries, the Islamic world was the richest, strongest, most creative and enlightened region in the entire world. This was due to the predominance of the former school of thought that combined reason with belief. Rationalists argued that not only was an individual free to choose between heaven and hell, but it was also possible for human beings to discover the laws that governed the universe created by God by using their own reasoning. The development of science, arts and all other forms of creativity in the Islamic middle ages was due to the predominance of this approach.
The main reason for the stagnation that followed, according to Akyol, was due to the advance of the Traditional school that emphasized not the free choice of an individual but fate and predestination. It prioritized not the Quran but the hadith -- the sayings and deeds believed to be of Prophet Muhammad -- the authenticity of which was subject to much controversy. With the growing influence of the Traditionalist school, critical reason and thinking was marginalized and the Shariah (Islamic law) assumed an increasingly rigid character. Traditionalists brought to Shariah innovations such as stoning adulterers, killing apostates, placing restrictions on women, art and music, and punishing sinful behavior. None of these had a base in the Quran.
The rise of Sufi Islam, the popular mystical tradition in Islam, was partly “an effort to find a breath of fresh air outside this narrow and hard legalism and to create room for the individual.” The analysis of why and how the Rationalists lost against the Traditionalists in Islam constitutes one of the most interesting parts of Akyol’s book.
Akyol concludes his study with the following statement: “So it is time to stop seeing the world as divided between an Abode of Islam versus an Abode of War. Rather, what exists now is an Abode of Freedom versus an Abode of Tyranny. The former is what Muslims seek.”
As someone with only limited knowledge of Islamic history and philosophy, who is not religious but fully aware of the importance of religion in the lives of individuals as well as societies, I read Akyol’s book with keen interest. I highly recommend it not only for Westerners but also for Muslims who need to improve their understanding of Islam. I am informed that there are plans to publish the book in Arabic soon. Its publication also in Turkish would be highly welcome.
Published on Sunday's Zaman, 17 June 2012, Sunday
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