New Book Breaks Down Muslim ‘Monolith’

By Mark Scheel

To many non-Muslims, it might come as a surprise to learn that Islam is not a monolithic religion. Practices and observances can and do vary from region to region and from group to group. And headlines in mainstream media, particularly in Western countries, tend to emphasise the less flattering, repressive aspects attributed to minority groups while ignoring the many positive aspects of Islam’s mainstream majority.

A new book, Islam without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty authored by Turkish journalist Mustafa Akyol, however, helps correct a great many of those misconceptions, focusing especially on the misperception that Islam is an inherently authoritarian religion with little room for individual freedom. The work is a search for the roots of liberalism (in the classic sense) within Islam and a critique of the oppressive laws and attitudes within the religion – such as bans on apostasy or blasphemy – which the writer argues are based on tradition rather than revelation.

Akyol begins with a historical and theological overview of the development of Islam over the centuries and demonstrates that Islam’s core message – monotheism – saved the individual from “the bond of the tribe”. In other words, the Muslim way was grounded in the powerful idea that the individual is responsible to God and God alone. Akyol then explains how this Islamic message advanced freedom in the medieval Middle East, as evidenced by the principles of Islamic law (it becomes “rule of law, not of the ruler”). Nevertheless, disputes over freedom led to a serious conflict in medieval Islam, resulting in internal doctrinal struggles – such as the “Traditionalists” versus the “Rationalists”. Akyol even relates how non-religious factors, such as the geography of the Middle East, played a role in this “medieval war of ideas” by favouring less rational and more oppressive schools of theology.

The book also employs the examples of the oft-forgotten late Ottoman reforms and the political evolution in modern Turkey to shed light on the practice of Islam today and how contemporary Turkish society, and especially its “Islamic bourgeoisie”, is developing a liberal view of politics and economics that can serve as a beacon to the present-day Muslim world.

Finally, Akyol offers a vision for the future that suggests a means of dispelling the more authoritarian interpretations of Islam in favour of pluralist accommodation within and without that includes such seemingly controversial headings as “Freedom from the State”, “Freedom to Sin” and “Freedom from Islam.”

Throughout, Akyol’s touchstone is the Qur’an, and although he respects the “second source” of Islam, the hadiths (sayings and actions of the Prophet Muhammad), he argues for a critical revision of hadith literature, which he finds less reliable than what the traditional view might claim. He shows that most controversial aspects of Islamic law – from stoning to bans on apostasy or sinful behaviour – come from hadiths and not the Qur’an, and he argues that these hadiths might reflect historical attitudes rather than eternal injunctions of Islam.

Modern readers may find it surprising that during early Islam’s so-called “Golden Age”, many Christians were drawn to the intellectual freedom and progressive scholarly attributes of the faith and became more or less Muslim “wannabes.” Some forgotten but fascinating movements are introduced, such as the “postponers” (Murjiites) who, by their willingness to “postpone” the settling of religious disputes to the afterlife, created a base for tolerance that the 17th century British liberal philosopher John Locke would restate a millennium later. And some concepts that hold grave connotations in the West at present, such as “sharia law,” are seen within their historical context as an advancement and a force for fairness and liberation. One reason why most Muslims respect Islamic law is that it has protected the rights of the individual from the tyranny of despots.

Quite simply, Akyol’s treatise offers non-Muslims and Muslims alike a detailed examination of the faith that readers are bound to find elucidating, educational and thought-provoking. And it’s done in a spirit of invitation and shared enthusiasm – not to mention a pervading spirit of hope – rather than dry didacticism.

Akyol’s intent, it would seem, is not to be a Muslim Martin Luther – the figure of religious reformation some yearn for – but perhaps a Muslim John Locke, who articulates the importance of religious tolerance and individual liberty.

Mark Scheel is a writer and former editor based in the US.

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