- Hardcover: 352 pages
- Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; 1st Edition edition (7 Oct. 2011)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0393070867
- ISBN-13: 978-0393070866
- Product Dimensions: 15 x 3 x 21.8 cm
- Average Customer Review: 15 customer reviews
- Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 582,332 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
Islam without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty Hardcover – 7 Oct 2011
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This book is the product of wide reading and reflection, and written with clarity and verve light-years away from the clotted prose of much Islamic theology and the bilious polemic of most Islamist tracts. It brings freshness and rigour to familiar material while marshalling a great deal of under-examined detail in the history of what he calls Islamdom. --David Gardner, Financial Times
About the Author
Mustafa Akyol lives in Istanbul and is a columnist for the Turkish newspaper Hurriyet Daily News. He has written opinion pieces for The Washington Post, the International Herald Tribune and Newsweek. Author website: www.thewhitepath.com
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Secondly, I learned a lot about the development of the Quran and the Haddith, and thus about Islamic culture and religion. At first there was the Quran, the book that was written by Muhammed, and of course there was Muhammed himself. Both sources of information were available to the people of Muhammed's time. Then the Prophet died, which was an unfortunate event. After his death, people tried to make sense of both his teachings and of the Quran, but found that difficult. Then they remembered some of the Prophet's teachings and wrote them down. But, they also came up with new teachings, teachings that weren't Muhammed's, but were fitting for the ideas that people were striving for. To me, this put the whole Hadith in a completely new perspective and showed me that there is not necessarily one way or method in Islamic thinking.
This book taught me that the development of the Islam - and religion in general - has been closely related to the context in which it was founded: the desert of the Middle East. Christianity developed in a context of many small and larger cities of the Roman Empire, whereas Islam developed in the desert and though a bedouin lifestyle. To me - in line with Akyol - this explains a lot of the customs and ideas that can be found in the Quran and in the Haddith.
The fact that economies in the Middle East have been growing for some time now, the fact that a middle class is coming into existence, and the fact that the role and influence of the West (Europe and the USA) in the Middle East is declining, all these developments give me hope for a better, more prosperous and peaceful future. In this book Akyol showed that these developments - and many more, of course - have shaped the development of Islam during the last few centuries in general and Turkey in particular. They help to infuse a sense and feeling of and striving for liberty in people.
And finally the most important lesson of this book, Islam is not a priori incompatible with secular liberal democracies. History has shown that it is possible, albeit not easy, to combine a secular and liberal state with Islam. Moreover, some Islamic theologians believe that there is no argument to be made against a modern form of Islam, one that is compatible with the modern and post-modern society we live in in the West. Hopefully, the revolutions in the Middle East - Egypt, Syria, Tunisia - will help to bring this message of hope, aspiration, imagination and possibility to the fore!
Akyol shows that in many ways the morality and ordinances of the Qur'an and of the Sharia were an advance on the customs prevailing at the time, even if they fall short of the liberal values of our own time. When they do, the problem is that the religious authorities maintain positions that were progressive then, but are no longer so today. This is not unique to Islam - there are examples of this also in the orthodoxies of other religions, both in the past and in the present.
That is of course not the only problem. Much worse are the cases when Islamic authorities and teachings attribute to their faith oppressive rules which cannot be found in and even run counter to the Qur'an. The most striking departures from the Qur'an are when the use of reason and spirit of free enquiry is stifled or when there is intolerance towards the other monotheistic faiths - even intolerance by one Islamic sect towards another.
The earliest perversion of the Qur'an's teaching is found in the hadiths - which include collections of sayings of the Prophet said to have been passed down by some of Muhammad's Companions of the Medina period. They had been compiled over the years since his death, and the majority of them were pure invention to justify particular vested interests or attitudes. By the 9th century there were some 600,000 of these sayings, and a number of Islamic scholars weeded out around 99% of them as inauthentic - but those that they accepted still reflected 9th century attitudes which were often quite different from the more progresive ones of the Qur'an, although they were given - and are still often given - equal authority with it.
But there have been periods in the history of Islam when the use of reason, of enquiry and of toleration prevailed. This was particularly true between the 8th and the 13th century when the ahl al-ray (the People of Reason) flourished and when the Islamic world was far more advanced and made far more contributions to scholarship, philosophy, mathematics, astronomy, the other sciences and commerce than was the case in Christian Europe, so much so that the 12th century Renaissance in Europe was heavily indebted to the Arab world. But ahl al-ray was always contested by the ahl al-hadith (the People of Tradition), and by the end of the 13th century the latter had achieved a dominance and snuffed out the most open-minded and productive period of Islam. Akyol has some interesting suggestions why it was the conservatives who won that struggle in the Abbasid Empire.
He sees a more enlightened form of Islam in the Ottoman Empire, especially during the 19th century when there were fitful attempts to modernize and liberalize the Islamic state, mostly (though Akyol does not mention this) under the pressure of Britain and France, on whom the Empire depended for protection against Russia. Non-Muslims received equal rights with Muslims, freedom of expression was proclaimed, constitutional reforms were introduced (though also withdrawn, in one case for the 31 years between 1877 and 1908). Akyol strikes me as rather disingenuous when, while condemning the murderous expulsion of the Armenians in 1915, he ascribes them "not to the Ottoman system, but to its fall" - what about the Armenian massacres of 1896? (True, the motive for these barbarities - including the atrocities in the Balkans in the 1870s - were dictated not so much by religious intolerance as by resistance to nationalism, but as in these cases the nationalists were also Christian, that distinction is somewhat blurred.)
The growing penetration and control by the West of the Islamic world initially led to attempts by some intellectuals to modernize Islam, but eventually the hostility to the West became so intense that some Muslims turned western ideas (self-determination, nationalism) against the West, while others rejected all its values in favour of a militant and intolerant Islam. Akyol concludes that militant Islam is essentially a political tool rather than a genuinely spiritual movement.
But there is still hope for a liberal Islam, and Akyol sees it emerging in post-Ottoman Turkey, whose history he gives us. First there was the dictatorial suppression of Islam in Kemal Atatürk's secular state; then elected governments that were not Kemalist enough for the army, which overthrew them in 1950 and again in 1980 and 1997. But in 2002 and again in 1907 Erdogan's AKP won the elections of 2002 and 2007. The AKP is a moderate Islamist party which encourages, but does not impose Islamic practices (like women, if they chose, being allowed to wear the veil in public); and this time the army did not interfere (for reasons which Akyol does not explain). Turkey today is secular state that allows religious freedom to all, not a secularist state that is hostile to religion. Though in a 2013 postscript Akyol is concerned about Erdogan's increasing authoritarianism, Turkey's is the kind of "Islam without Extremes" of which Akyol has high hopes. And in the final section of the book, he eloquently gives his own opinion of the positions a liberal-minded Muslim should take up against the harsh attitudes of his intolerant co-religionists, and time and again he cites verses in the Qur'an itself in support.
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