Islam Without Extremes

by Rowan on August 28, 2012

“In other
words, could authoritarian Muslims just be authoritarians who happen to be
Muslim?”

 

Mustafa Akyol is a
journalist for Hurriyet, the number one English language publication in Turkey,
and in my experience, a solid newspaper. In his book, “Islam Without Extremes,”
Mr. Akyol takes on a very ambitious thesis, and over the course of about
three-hundred pages goes from that thesis through many interesting examples to
prove it. His thesis is three pronged: First, the preponderance of
authoritarian regimes in the Muslim world (past and present) is due to cultural
reasons, not anything inherent in Islam; on the contrary, early Islam was really
not authoritarian at all. Second, Islam is used to justify things which really
stem from culture. Lastly, people have lost sight of the fact that the Prophet
(S) was just a man.

 

“In such a primitive world, what
Muhammad achieved for women was extraordinary.” Karen Armstrong, British
anthropologist

Akyol begins his
book with evidence that far from being an authoritarian book that commands
blind obedience, the Holy Qur’an is the, “divine core,” of a faith that does
ask us to unquestioningly believe in certain things, but also commands us over
fifty times to “reason, to think.” The Holy Qur’an, in his view, did not mark
the beginning of some heavy-handed authoritarian ideas to oppress for all of
time, but an incredible amount of new human rights that turned an inequitable
tribal society on its head. Islam truly represented an egalitarian, human
rights revolution:

 

For the first
time, women were granted inheritance rights. For the first time, the idea that
an “Abyssinian slave” was equal to, perhaps even greater than, a free man, and
that slaves had legal status, were indeed people, made law The Prophet’s last
speech forbade blood feuds, and banished any idea that one race is superior to
another. Even animals’ status was improved, as it was deemed unfair to animals
to overburden them with cargo, and one lady of ill repute was even guaranteed
paradise merely for satiating a dog’s thirst. Ironically, Medieval Christendom
criticized Islam for the rights in conferred on women and slaves, and when the
British came to rule much of the Muslim world, their colonial regulations
stripped many of these rights away.

Abu Hanifa the
businessman vs. Imam Ahmad the land lord

Akyol goes on to
opine that much of what we now consider orthodox in Islam is the result of a
great war of ideas that took place in the early centuries of Islam. In the
early years, followers of the likes of Abu Hanifa founded a school of thought
based on deriving rules from Qur’an, but also in large part from “qiyas”
(reasoning and analogy), and the members of his school came to be known as the
“idea people,” who took hadith with a large grain of salt. In opposition were
the likes of Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal, who scoffed at the idea of any part of the
Qur’an being figurative, and who promoted hadith as the ultimate source of any
information; he is famous for having refused to eat watermelons because he
could find no hadith showing that Rasululah ever ate one. Abu Hanifa and his
ilk were businessmen, entrepreneurs; Hanbal was a land lord. Going further, the
author believes that people like Hanbal are responsible for the current view of
the Prophet (S) as an “all-knowing seer of the future,” despite the fact that
the hadith themselves relate him saying just the opposite.  Also, it is considered that the institution
of the Sunnah (observed actions of the Prophet) have been taken, wrongfully,
from being a general guideline, modest in scope, to becoming a “stagnant force
in history,” suffocating any new thought. Whereas Abu Hanifa considered a thing
to be lawful until proven otherwise, Hanbal considered it haram until proven
lawful.

The author, being
Turkish himself, spends a lot of time writing about Turkish and Ottoman history
and the way that their religious scholars approached things.  According to Akyol, the Ottoman Empire’s top
religious scholar was known as the “Sheyh Ul Islam,” and that these men took a
rather progressive approach to Islam, granting women many rights, deeming a
handshake with the opposite sex halal and relations with non-Muslims as
acceptable; compare this to tribal leaders in the Hijaz who deemed the
Ottoman’s “apostates” because of these perhaps-liberal ideas. Akyol goes on to
talk about how the Ottomans warmly welcomed Jews from various parts of Europe,
one leading member of their community even encouraging Jewish immigration to
the Ottoman Empire; this stands in direct conflict with hadith that the author
would call deeply suspicious, such as those describing the “evacuation” of Jews
from the Arabian Peninsula. Akyol calls the Ottoman Empire’s time as masters of
the Muslim world a “revival,” not just because of the fresh, practical approach
they took to the interpretation of Qur’an and hadith, and the practical way
they actually governed.

Mr. Akyol goes on
to describe in great detail the battle between Mustafa Kemal’s ultra-secular
regime, which carried on long after his death, and those practicing Muslims,
championed by Said Nursi, who fought for liberty, in an Islamic guise, all the
while rejecting violence and “revolutionary Islam.” This battle cost the a few
Turkish prime ministers their jobs, sometimes even their freedom, sometimes
even their lives, when the army removed them from power for the crime of trying
to slow down, or bring to a halt, the Kemalist agenda. In closing, he describes
how the ruling AK Party has succeeded in bridging Islam and modern prosperity.
He chronicles the plight of three hijab-wearing university students publishing
a book demanding that property stolen from non-Muslim minorities be returned to
them, and that Kurds be treated like full citizens; merely having the freedom
to wear hijab at university was not enough for these young ladies.

All in all,
Mustafa Akyol attempts to use Islamic sources, and also non-Muslim praises for
the liberties potentially inherent in Islam, to convince the reader that Islam
was and still is something that not only does not encourage tyrants, was not
designed to help land lords suppress intellectuals, but was meant to be the
exact opposite. While I believe the author takes some of his points too far,
“Islam Without Extremes” is a valuable addition to modern Islamic political
thought, and I hope that books like this really serve to change how people
think about Islam and liberty.

 

“There is a great mystery in Islam.
Islam should have been the first free society on Earth; it was the last. It
should have been the first civilization to establish religious freedom; today,
non-Muslims suffer egregious persecution at the hands of Muslims. Islam should
have been the first society to establish equality for women; women who stray
outside their familial code of honor are murdered with impunity. Islam should
have been the foremost to establish humanitarian laws of war, but its empires
have been no different than others, some claim they have been worse.”

Be Sociable, Share!

Leave a Comment