Reopening Muslim Minds:
A Return to Reason, Freedom, and Tolerance
by Mustafa Akyol
St. Martin’s, 336 pages, $28
Islam,” Mustafa Akyol writes in his latest book, “is not the powerful, creative, sophisticated, beautiful civilization that it once was.” Instead, Akyol argues in Reopening Muslim Minds, Islam is in a crisis, a crisis that cannot simply be blamed on Western colonialism or imperialism. Islam’s crisis is due to the rise of movements skeptical of human reason and secular sciences and eager to use coercive political power to suppress dissent. Reopening Muslim Minds is a courageous and thoughtful book. Akyol pulls no punches with those he accuses of distorting Islam. At the same time, he displays his sincere faith in a loving God.
Akyol begins with the tale of a police interrogation he underwent in Malaysia. In 2017, Akyol was giving two talks at the invitation of a moderate Islamic organization there, and planned to give a third. After his second talk, however, officers of the Malaysian “religion police” confronted Akyol and expressed their concern about his support for religious liberty. When Akyol attempted to leave the country the next day, he was stopped at the airport and taken for questioning. After a night in a detention room and a meeting with a judge in the morning, Akyol was finally released, thanks to an intervention by a high-ranking Turkish politician. However, the Malaysian translation of his book Islam Without Extremes was soon banned.
The officials in Malaysia (the same country that has banned Christians from using the word “Allah” for God) were particularly concerned about his argument that Muslims should be free to leave their faith, a case he makes in part by referring to a verse in the second chapter of the Qur’an: “There is no compulsion in religion.” For many Muslim scholars this verse means that no one should be compelled to accept Islam, but it does not allow Muslims to choose another religion. This view is found in some translations of the Qur’an, including (not surprisingly) that of the Malaysian Department of Islamic Development: “There shall be no compulsion in religion (in becoming a Muslim).”
The question of religious liberty is at the heart of Reopening Muslim Minds. Akyol insists that humans have the ability, and the right, to sort out truth from falsehood without the interference of a state or a mufti. To defend this point, Akyol turns in the first chapter to the example of a book (sometimes considered the first Arabic novel) written by a Spanish Muslim named Ibn Tufayl, entitled Hayy ibn Yaqzan. Sometimes imagined to have influenced Robinson Crusoe, Hayy ibn Yaqzan tells the story of a boy who is raised on an island who comes to understand truths about the natural world, and eventually about God, through reason alone.
The message of Ibn Tufayl in his curious book is a starting point for a larger critique of the dominant currents in Islamic theology. Sunni Muslims today generally follow the views of a theological movement known as the Ashʿariyya, named after Abu al-Hasan al-Ashʿari, who died around a.d. 936. The Ashʿaris, however, were not the first theological school in Islam. Al-Ashʿari himself began his career affiliated with a movement known as the Muʿtazila, which for some centuries continued to compete with the Ashʿariyya. The most famous difference between the two movements centered on the question of whether the Qur’an was created (as the Muʿtazilis held) or uncreated, existing with God from all eternity (as the Ashʿaris held). This difference, however, grew out of a larger conflict over fundamental principles of faith and reason.
Akyol describes this conflict as Islam’s “Euthyphro Dilemma,” referring to the Platonic dialogue in which Socrates asks Euthyphro whether piety is marked by the will of the gods or by its own nature. Ashʿaris largely held that whatever God wills in revelation is good, whereas Muʿtazilis insisted that goodness can be known even without (or “before,” as they put it) revelation. This led the Muʿtazilis to all sorts of arguments regarding both the nature of God (who must be just) and the nature of humans (who must be free).
The Muʿtazilis, however, almost completely disappeared from the scene of Sunni Islamic theology. Though a few Abbasid caliphs enforced Muʿtazili doctrine in the early ninth century, they were followed by a whole series of caliphs (and religious scholars) who condemned Muʿtazilis as heretics, or worse, apostates (whose blood could thus be licitly spilled). The standard Sunni Islamic doctrine, as summarized in a whole series of medieval creeds, insisted that God’s will is to be accepted without asking “how.”
This voluntarist disposition had certain consequences for theology. For example, predestination (in Arabic, qadar) became standard doctrine. It also had consequences for politics and society. As Akyol explains, most Sunnis held that leaders (or imams) who are unjust or unethical must be obeyed as long as they profess Islam and carry out jihad against Islam’s enemies. Akyol argues that there are also implications for the decline of the sciences in the Islamic world, as Ashʿarism was often accompanied by the doctrine of occasionalism, which held that every natural movement was produced by God. Thus, for example, the fourteenth-century Ashʿari scholar al-Iji criticized astronomy because it suggested that celestial bodies move with their own principles and not through the will of God.
Akyol also calls to his side in this effort the Spanish philosopher Ibn Rushd, known to the West as Averroes. Rationalism did not die with the disappearance of the Muʿtazilis, he explains, because it was embraced far to the West by Averroes. While an Ashʿari by the name of al-Ghazali wrote a book titled The Incoherence of the Philosophers, condemning philosophical doctrines (and even suggesting that philosophers could be executed for their errors), Averroes responded with The Incoherence of the Incoherence, defending the ability of humans to grasp truth through reason. Averroes also held (relatively) moderate views of jihad and argued (following Socrates) in his Commentary on Plato’s Republic against structures of society that relegate women to “procreation, rearing, and breast-feeding.”
Averroes’s ideas, however, were not well-received by his fellow Spanish Muslims. He was put under house arrest and his books were burned in Cordoba. Indeed, Averroes’s Commentary on Plato’s Republic (among other texts) did not survive at all in Arabic. It is known today only from translations into Hebrew by Jewish philosophers. For centuries, Averroes was largely ignored in the Islamic world—although recently certain intellectuals have, like Akyol, sought to redeem his reputation and commend him to Muslim readers. Akyol contrasts the disappearance of Averroes from Islamic intellectual life with the fate of another philosopher in Cordoba, Maimonides, whose thought became central to Jewish learning in subsequent centuries (so much so that he became known as the “second Moses”). Maimonides too had trouble in Islamic Spain: He was forced to feign a conversion to Islam and then flee for Egypt. Islamic Spain was not always the interreligious paradise that some imagine it to have been.
In the latter sections of Reopening Muslim Minds Akyol makes a case, on the basis of Islamic sources, for tolerance. Just as his case for reason is articulated as a return to an authentically Islamic movement (the Muʿtazila), his case for tolerance is articulated as a return to a different early Islamic movement: the Murjiʾa. What interests Akyol in the Murjiʾa is their position on the status of sinful Muslims (which was even more lenient than that of the Muʿtazila). Whereas most Sunnis condemned a sinful Muslim as something like a renegade (fasiq in Arabic) or, even worse, as an unbeliever (kafir), the Murjiʾa held that the status and eternal fate of such Muslims are known only to God. Akyol (and the Murjiʾa) are standing on solid ground. The Qur’an itself repeatedly speaks of God’s sole prerogative to judge.
Akyol laments that three types of freedom are regularly restricted in the Islamic world: moral and ethical freedom, freedom of religion, and freedom of speech. Moral and ethical freedom is regularly put in jeopardy by those elements of Islamic societies or governments (especially, but not only, in places like Saudi Arabia and Iran) that use some sort of coercive practice to eliminate “un-Islamic” behaviors such as drinking wine and dressing immodestly. Akyol asks (drawing on a Muʿtazili thinker named Abd al-Jabbar) whether any sort of action done under coercion has moral value. Regarding freedom of religion, Akyol acknowledges that all four Sunni legal schools (and most Shiʿite jurists) recommend death for apostates (some allow for a waiting period for the apostate to repent, or recommend for female apostates “only” imprisonment and beatings). He insists (quite rightly) that this punishment has no basis in the Qur’an and argues against the hadith that are most commonly cited in its defense.
The question of freedom of speech has been brought to the forefront in recent decades with blasphemy laws in Pakistan (some will remember the sad story of Asia Bibi), cartoons in Denmark, and the attacks on Charlie Hebdo. Long before these incidents, however, Muslim jurists were imposing penalties for blasphemy against Muhammad. On this point, Akyol advances a creative argument: The Qur’an itself countenances insults of the Prophet. The Qur’an alludes to unnamed opponents who accuse him of sorcery and mendacity; and yet it never threatens them with death. Instead, it formulates reasonable responses to these accusations. This, Akyol suggests, should be the only tactic of Muslims today when they are disturbed by reports of blasphemy. Meanwhile, Akyol’s argument might offer a lesson here for the West. Though Western societies have gradually eliminated blasphemy laws, they are beginning to embrace other sorts of restrictions on free expression (on social media and elsewhere). Are Western countries themselves committed to open discourse? Or will they have recourse to legal sanctions, or the power of media, in order to silence unwelcome voices?
The question of governance also enters Akyol’s analysis when he introduces the problem of the “ulama-state” alliance. By Akyol’s reading, Muslim religious scholars (ulama) have too often supported dictatorial leaders as long as those leaders support their efforts to Islamize society. One has the sense in reading Reopening Muslim Minds that this is not an abstract or ancient issue for Akyol. One notices, indeed, that this book is peppered with anecdotes regarding the spreading influence of political Islam in Akyol’s native Turkey. On this issue, too, Akyol finds inspiration in a Muslim thinker, in this case the historian and sociologist Ibn Khaldun.
In discussing the crisis in Islam today, Mustafa Akyol blames the decisions of Muslim scholars and Islamic societies to move away from rationalism and tolerance. The solution, for Akyol, is a return to the fundamental sources of Islam. Though Akyol has no shortage of criticism for Muslim scholars (especially those of an Ashʿari bent), he avoids any criticism of the Qur’an or Muhammad. Akyol ends with words of thanks to God: “I held on to His ‘firmest handhold’ decades ago, to falter at times, but never to fall.” People of all faiths will find much to agree with in Reopening Muslim Minds. By pointing to the importance of the conscience as a measure of good and evil, Akyol calls our attention to the dignity of all human beings.
Gabriel Said Reynolds is a professor of Islamic studies and the Crowley Professor of Theology at the University of Notre Dame.