Islam without Extremes-A Muslim Case for Liberty

Article excerpt

Islam Without Extremes--A Muslim Case for Liberty

By Mustafa Akyol

New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2011, 352 pages, ISBN 9780393070866, $25.95.

In Mustafa Akyol's book Islam Without Extremes, the author takes up the challenge to confront the many misconceptions and false portrayals of Islam as inherently conservative or violent by tracing back Islam's history, the development of political Islam, and offering his own vision for a modern and more liberal political Islam. Throughout his writings, he is implicitly and explicitly guided by the question why a dominantly conservative brand of Islam is nowadays present in many governments or societies. Yet in the course of the book, he contrasts (formerly) authoritarian and secularist Turkey with other Islamic countries, concluding that Islam may not be the reason for authoritarianism but that other factors are at play. Drawing also on his own experiences, religious beliefs, and Turkish heritage, Akyol analyzes the emergence of political Islam by deconstructing the past, meaning he sheds light on both conservative (Traditionalists) and more progressive (Rationalists) movements within Islam and supplements his evaluation of the movements with a discussion on other factors, such as the environment (desert vs. arid regions), cultural context (tribalism) or economics (commerce). To support his arguments and interpretations, he employs quotes from the Qur'an, Hadiths, and explains the socio-cultural setting that shaped and influenced the development of (political) Islam. Akyol focuses on the origins of Islam in the first part of the book and asserts that they provided a foundation for a more liberal future, citing women's rights (p.53) or the role of the individual (p.49). He then goes on to follow the blossoming of Islamic culture, trade and political life which all come to an end or faced stagnation from the 12th century (to a degree even earlier) on due to, among other reasons, the economic decline, and a lack of trade (pp.125-127).

However, aside the lack of economic development, Akyol also discusses the role the desert environment played on shaping the nature of Islam, the function of the middle class, and the role of the respective rulers of the land. This critical review will assess the latter point, the role and power of rulers in the Muslim world and how their interests influenced the development and interpretation of Islam. I strongly believe that one cannot stress enough the important role of government support or sanctioning of religion and the effects it can produce.

Akyol points out two of the caliphates, Umayyad and Abbasid, stating that they played an "important role in this story by frequently offering their support for the Traditionalists" (p.118). Even though he almost dismisses this statement in the next sentence by calling it a "superficial explanation" (p.118), I would have to disagree with this judgment. He claims that it is superficial because it does not explain why the authorities decided to support the more conservative movement and not the more reason-minded one. However, it does not have to in my opinion. It does not matter exactly why they chose the Traditionalists, the important part is that they did. From a rationalistic and political realism point of view, a ruler only makes decisions that will further the consolidation of his power, especially when faced with challengers to his power. A group that chooses to using reason, consisting mostly of "well-educated, cosmopolitan intellectuals" (p.122) might have well posed such a challenge. Therefore, it is only natural that a ruler would choose to align himself with a more tradition minded group that is interested in preserving the status quo and more averse to change.

Now one could argue that the case of the Ottoman Empire would disprove the theory of rulers supporting conservative Islam, since the Ottoman Empire took great strides at liberalization. …