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Islam Without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty
by Mustafa Akyol
Norton, 352 pages, $25.95

In a well-intentioned but problematic book, Turkish journalist Mustafa Akyol argues that the “original” teachings of Islam inherently championed liberty but were corrupted after Muhammad by the Arab mindset, and that Turkey’s exceptional Islam embodies these “original” teachings and must be taken as the model to emulate by all Muslims, as well as the standard by which non-Muslims judge Islam.

That Islam needs to modernize so that Muslims can live in harmony with others as constructive members of the global community has rightly been the central preoccupation of Muslim modernists since the nineteenth century. Like members of other religions, they tried to prove the compatibility of Islam with the values of modernity (including human rights, equality, and freedom of religion), but Akyol’s attempt to do so depends on secondary literature and is critically misinformed about Islamic history and religious thought, and also borders on ethnic prejudice in its use of negative stereotypes about non-Turkish Muslims.

Akyol argues, for example, that the Islam of Muhammad was liberal because the Prophet’s state in Medina was secular. This is a significant claim, and unfortunately he handles it with no scholarly or intellectual rigor. He cites only two examples: the first a consultation about war strategy Muhammad accepted and the second his admitting ignorance of plant-grafting techniques. We surely need more proof than that.

Obviously the most serious problem with Akyol’s point is that Muhammad was both a prophet and a statesman, and the Qur’an does not differentiate between the two, especially in the many cases where the Qur’an instructs Muslims to obey the Prophet, and does not make any suggestions that this obedience should be restricted to matters of religion. Moreover, Muhammad spent most of his career fighting other tribes to force them to join his religious community and convert to Islam. When he died, the first caliph, Abu Bakr, led a bloody war to force those who had dared leave to return to Islam. (Akyol asserts that Abu Bakr was as liberal as Muhammad and was acting to secure revenues, not to force Islam on people.)

Akyol is very selective in terms of what he picks from the Qur’an and Islamic history to validate his arguments and thesis. He is right to invoke the qur’anic declaration that “there is no compulsion in religion” as a reason for tolerance. But what does one do with countless qur’anic pronouncements to fight unbelievers until they believe in God? Or those injunctions to fight other monotheists until they return to proper worship of God?

The Qur’an says a lot of things, and often contradicts itself. Muslim scholars have devised hermeneutical systems to deal with contradictions. Akyol, however, offers no method for reading the Qur’an and does not seem to be aware that such systems exist.

One of the many hermeneutical systems that Muslims have applied to tackle the issue of contradiction in the Qur’an is abrogation: God made particular pronouncements and then amended them by revealing others. Another system verifies the qur’anic message on the basis of thematic reading and determines accordingly whether a verse has a general purpose that makes it timeless or a specific one that limits its application. Some have also argued that the original universal humanitarian message of God is conveyed in the verses revealed when Muhammad was in Mecca; those revealed after he immigrated to Medina were mostly meant to address the challenges of his day (including fighting) and ought not to be consulted on matters such as freedom and human rights.

Sunnism offers another way of understanding Islam, which Akyol also misunderstands. He writes that Sunnism is centered on the teaching of the Qur’an, but Sunnism believes that when the Sunna (teachings and way of life) of Muhammad contradicts the Qur’an, the Muslim ought to follow the Sunna.

Because Muhammad was both a prophet and a political and military leader, the Sunna addresses religious and nonreligious issues alike. Many modernist thinkers have struggled to separate these two. It is not easy to challenge the legacy of Muhammad, so instead apologists dismiss, as Akyol does, the embarrassing material as forgery by later groups who abused the message of Islam, which reduces the Sunna to an incoherent set of teachings. Islam as a living religion that might inspire reform and liberty needs much more than that.

Akyol is likewise wrong both in his conceptualization of the Mu‘tazila as a medieval movement that exhibited Islam’s original rationalism, liberalism, and tolerance”which he does in order to argue that their rationalism can enlighten modern Muslims and lead to the liberalization of Islam”and in describing every major medieval and modern rationalist as a Mu‘tazila (which is wrong in the case of every thinker he names). He traces the rationalism of the Mu‘tazila to ancient Greek philosophy (which was not the case) to show that Islam is an equal heir to this legacy with western modernity.

But this modern perception of the Mu‘tazila is a fantasy. One wonders if Akyol really knows who the Mu‘tazila were. Their thought was in fact absolutist and intolerant of other Islamic views. For instance, the Mu‘tazila theologian Abu Hashim al-Jubba’i called his own father, Abu ‘Ali al-Jubba’i, also a famous Mu‘tazila theologian, an unbeliever worthy of hell on the simple grounds that he disagreed with him on some theological issues. Their views of non-Muslims were not any better; the majority of Muslim books written against Christianity, Buddhism, etc., were authored by Mu‘tazila scholars. They were not champions of liberty and rationalism in Islam and do not provide the precedent Akyol claims.

Problems are also encountered in Akyol’s representation of Turkish history to show that Ottoman and modern Turkish Islam have always heeded the original teachings of Islam and been models of liberalism. Akyol argues that the ‘ulema (religious scholars) of the Ottoman empire were agents of reform. But this is not true, for the majority were against secularization and westernization.

The reforms enacted by earlier Ottoman sultans against the will of the religious establishment were weakened under Sultan Abdulhamid II, which led to the reaction of the secularists who deposed him in 1909 and lashed out against the restrictive and backward role of the ‘ulema . This was also one of the factors behind the later rise of Kemalism (the movement by the first president of Turkey, Kemal Atat?rk, and his followers that created a modern secular state) and the institutionalization, even by compulsion, of reform in modern Turkey.

Akyol wants his readers to believe that the secularists and Kemalists were irrational, totalitarian, illiberal demagogues. In many ways, they were. But condescension toward the Islamic voice in Turkey was a reactionary impulse, shaped by the negative role of the ‘ulema and the conviction that tolerating them would curtail reform, as had happened under Sultan Abdulhamid II.

Akyol retells Turkish history to support his controversial thesis on the “exceptionalism” of Turks and their understanding of Islam, as contrasted with all other Muslims. In doing so he either ignores the major facts that undermine his arguments or dismisses every unfavorable case of Turkish brutality and intolerance as un-Islamic, un-Turkish, or inspired by a “foreign” Islam. He disregards the fact that massacres of Armenians in the Ottoman empire started as early as the 1890s with backing by members of the ‘ulema , for example, and constantly condemns Necmettin Erbakan, godfather of modern Turkish Islamism and the now-ruling AKP party, as inspired by a militant Islam foreign to Turkey.

There is yet nothing exceptional about the Turkish model, precisely because this is the first true experience of Islam in power in Turkey and it is too early to judge it. Akyol admits that the repressive secularist regime in Turkey fostered through elections a democratic process that allowed the religious voice to be expressed, when in other Muslim countries the Islamists turned to violence. But the serious question he does not address is whether the “liberal” Islam of the ruling AKP in Turkey (and other movements) is the result not of Islam’s intrinsic toleration but of the Kemalists’ and military junta’s suppression that forced some groups within Turkish Islam to moderate their views or risk complete political demise.

Other factors undermine his claim that Islam in Turkey is the only “original” Islam and not a modern phenomenon. Two he does not address are the role of money and investments from the Gulf region, especially Saudi Arabia, which he criticizes for its repressive Islam; and the support from a West eager to promote a moderate Islam in Turkey as an answer to militant Islam.

In Islam without Extremes , Mustafa Akyol surely aims in the correct direction, despite his Turkish religious nationalism and misinformed understanding of Islamic history and religion. He does make one important point, one many other reformers have already expressed: The key to reforming Islam is to recenter it around the “original” teachings of the Qur’an.

But the persistent conceptual challenge these reformers have faced, which he does not address, is how to understand the Qur’an without the Sunna of Muhammad or without significantly trimming it of the embarrassing material. This has been a central problem in modern Islamic thought. Since without the Sunna we cannot understand the Qur’an, modernists have not yet been able to devise a mechanism (except as apologetics) to deal with the problems of the Sunna without tarnishing the legacy of Muhammad.

Suleiman A. Mourad is professor of religion at Smith College.