Book Review: Islam Without Extremes
Traditional Islam and a liberal society seem to be fundamentally at odds. Mustafa Akyol says this need not be so.
For the superficial observer, few things could be further apart than an open-minded, cosmopolitan and genuinely individualistic worldview and the contemporary mindset of Muslim communities. What could be more anti-liberal and anti-modern than Sharia law and a scripture that calls for striking off the heads of disbelievers (Qur’an 8:12) and slaying the idolaters (Qur’an 9:5)? Add to that the deeply-rooted authoritarianism that plagues Middle Eastern countries and the wave of violence unleashed by Islamic terrorists during the last few decades, and you’ll get a pretty gloomy picture of Muslims that invites all kinds of stereotypes and resentment. In this setting, Mustafa Akyol’s “Islam without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty” is more than just the proverbial silver lining. Its mission? Nothing short of demonstrating that Islam, properly understood, is in fact compatible with liberty.
Let me get it straight right ahead: This book is no apology for Islamic extremism, no attempt to belittle or even defend religiously inspired suicide bombers and does not try to explain away the suppression of women or religious minorities in Islamic countries. Instead, Akyol shows that there is a more enlightened, humane tradition within Islam that denounces all these “inexcusable brutalities” and can help to reconcile the Muslim faith with the modern world. He does not deny that Muslims have shed a lot of blood, both among themselves and in conflict with other religions. But in many cases, the inspiration for these cruelties did not spring from Islamic sources, but from the particular circumstances on the Arabian Peninsula.
A telling example is Sharia law, known for its sometimes brutal corporal punishments. Akyol cites Harvard Law School professor Noah Feldman for context:
Before the modern era, no society had what we would today call a fully developed police department, and the classical Islamic constitutional order typically had just a handful of officers responsible for the enforcement of ordinary laws. Extreme and visible punishments serve as salient reminders to the public to follow the law. More important, if the odds of being caught and punished for wrongdoing are low, as they typically will be in a society without a police force, then the punishment must be set high to produce something approximating the right amount of deterrence. The corporal punishments of the Shari’a were clearly designed originally for such a world of very limited enforcement — much like the English common law that punished every felony with death.
In those times, drastic and visible punishment was about the only functioning strategy of deterrence. The problem, Akyol writes, is that the Islamists who want to see Sharia law implemented literally forget about the purpose it was supposed to serve back then, which is much less applicable to modern societies.
Akyol is a decidedly classical liberal, as becomes clear from many passages where he not only highlights the value of civil liberties, but also the importance of (relatively) free markets for human flourishing. He praises the 14th century Islamic historiographer Ibn Khaldun (the Muslim Adam Smith) for developing a “theory of economic liberalism that advise[s] governments to minimize taxes, secure private property, support free markets and avoid budget deficits.” Far from denouncing capitalism as crude materialism and a danger to sacred values, Akyol wholeheartedly embraces the dynamism the market system brings and stresses its positive, revitalizing and reformatory influence on religion.
Of course, a system of natural liberties does not logically follow from the Qur’an. His interpretation, as Akyol himself repeatedly stresses, is just one out of many, and is decidedly shaped by time and circumstances. But he doesn’t always stay true to this insight, as he often quotes passages from the Qur’an to argue against a Hadith or interpretations competing with his own version. In fact, it seems that one of the biggest criticisms of the book is that he downplays the importance of the Hadiths for the understanding of Islam. Writes Akyol:
Ironically, while zeaolously opposing rationality as a dangerous “innovation”, the People of Tradition [ahl al-hadith, an early Islamic juristic school — D.I.] brought their own innovations to the Shariah, such as the stoning of adulterers, the killing of apostates, social limitations on women, bans on art and music, and punishment for wine drinking and other sorts of sinful behavior. None of these are in the Qur’an; all of them are in the Hadiths.
Now that’s always a fun game to play, and it’s by no means original to Islam. I know Christians who are almost 100% certain that the Bible recommends free market capitalism as the proper social system, and I know many others (the large majority, in this case) who think that either the Bible doesn’t recommend any political system at all, or that it leans more towards an interventionist/socialist model. And this is the point that for me, admittedly not much of a believer, is hardest to understand: Why would you even try to deduce anything at all about how modern societies should run their business from a text that was written more than a thousand years ago, by people who had a very incomplete understanding of scientific reasoning, logic, you name it? If it is true that one can find evidence to confirm just about any position one priory held in it, what, then, is the positive contribution of the scripture? Put differently: Is it more likely to convince a Muslim to accept modern liberal institutions by pointing them to the relevant analysis of economists, political scientists, psychologists and philosophers, or by trying to argue that their interpretation of Islam is *wrong*?
This raises a further question, namely, who the target audience of the book might be. Lest its only purpose is to preach to the choir (liberal Muslims and Islam-friendly secular Westerners, or maybe just the classical liberal subsection thereof), who might stand a chance to see things differently after reading the book? Unfortunately, I fear that this number is small and unlikely to have an effect on the public debate. Self-styled Islamophobic crusaders will probably not alter their judgment that “not all Muslims are terrorists, but all terrorists are Muslims”. Traditional Muslims are unlikely to be convinced either, as Akyol speaks a very different language than a believer in the literal truth of the scripture.
Nevertheless, the book provides an excellent introduction to the history of Islamic thought and its many unknown or ignored facets. Personally, I’m somewhat more optimistic after the reading that Islamic societies aren’t beyond redemption (I remain a little skeptical about the prospects of liberalization and modernization in the Arab world, though), and I definitely learned a lot about a religion that I, quite frankly, didn’t know a whole lot about besides the common stereotypes. To end this on an upbeat note, I hand over to the author again:
[W]e need this free world for our individual selves. Each of us has a personal life to live — an amazing journey that starts with our birth and continuously unfolds while we grow up and experience a mind-boggling drama. We learn and discover, we achieve and enjoy, we fail and suffer…Liberty is what ever individual needs to be able to live such a fulfilling life, based on his own choices and decisions, successes and failures. Liberty is, you could also say, what everyone needs to find God.
Or to decide that there is, in all likelihood, no such entity.