The call to freedom

 Islam Without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty, by Mustafa Akyol, Norton, RRP£16.99, 224 pages

Why did reason and freedom eventually flourish in Christendom while it declined in the lands of Islam, where in the early Muslim centuries there had been a brilliant civilisation, scientifically advanced, commercially dynamic, literate, urban and cosmopolitan in a way a Europe trapped in the dark ages could scarcely comprehend?

That is part of the question Mustafa Akyol sets himself in Islam Without Extremes. Others have done that before. But few contemporary Muslims have set out in their answer such a forthright and elegant Muslim defence of freedom. Read this book and you will realise that Islamic liberalism is not the oxymoron so many Islamophobes in the west, as well as Islamists in the east, suppose it to be.

Akyol is a young Turkish writer and commentator, a devout but liberal Muslim who supports – though critically – the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, which has won three elections in a row and, despite the prime minister’s authoritarian tics, expanded freedom and prosperity in Turkey. Akyol regards the Turkish experiment as a real path towards Muslim liberty – as do many of the Arabs who have this year overthrown nominally secular tyrants. Yet, Akyol sees the Turkish experience as only in part peculiar to his country, preferring to uncover its roots in the history and original beliefs of Koranic Islam.

In reclaiming the “authentic” Koranic tradition Akyol is “fundamentalist”: he uses the fundamentals of reasoned evidence to retrieve the original pluralist principles of Islam, before tracing their journey through a post-Koranic history in which stagnant local traditions triumphed over dynamic and universalist reason.

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 rigour to familiar material while marshalling under-examined detail in the history of what he calls Islamdom.

While the Koran introduced a host of freedoms, “such as “rights to life, property, privacy, movement, justice, personal dignity and equality before the law”, Akyol points out that “classical Islamic literature focused on duties”. The Sharia itself was conceived as a dynamic system of law intended not least to protect the ruled from their rulers. “Stoning, which has no basis in the Koran, probably came from Judaism” while the veiling and seclusion of women almost certainly derived from Persian and (Christian) Byzantine practice. The original polity of Medina in the Prophet’s time, moreover, was secular in that its charter protected equally the rights of Muslim and non-Muslim, who together made up the umma, or community. Today the word umma has mutated to mean exclusively the Muslim commonwealth.

Akyol’s underlying thesis is that rationalists lost the war of ideas within Islam between the 8th and 13th centuries to hidebound “traditionists” – the struggle between the ahl al-ray and the ahl al-hadith, the People of Reason and the People of Tradition. Islam moved from being a personal, theocentric religion – with no established church between man and God – to becoming theocratic. The Koran, the word of God revealed to Mohammed, was eclipsed by hadith, sayings or acts attributed to the Prophet. The hadith were based on legend and hearsay written down centuries after the Prophet’s death, a sort of lore (or sunna) of what Akyol terms “Prophetology”, littered with fabrications – such as an anathema purportedly issued by the Prophet against a group that came into existence only after he died. The hadith, reflecting the power politics and social mores of a desert society, eclipsed the Koran in the Sharia and dictated the thrust of classic Islamic jurisprudence, creating what French historian Maxime Rodinson called “the post-Koranic ideology”, specifically designed to limit the scope of rational enquiry.

The rationalist (or Mutazilite) school of Abu Hanifa, which seeded the greatest minds of the medieval world, was pushed aside by Ahmad Hanbal, the precursor of Wahhabism as practised in Saudi Arabia today. Hanbal “was famous for never having eaten a single watermelon because he could find no precedent for that in the tradition of the prophet” and he resonates with “some fundamentalist Muslims today, who refuse such ‘innovations’ as democracy by arguing that ‘the Prophet did not vote’,” says Akyol.

With intellectual stagnation and the proscription of “innovation” came a fall-off in trade and economic dynamism. The crusades cut Islamdom’s centre off from the Mediterranean and the genocidal Mongol devastations buried Abbasid civilisation in the 13th century. That Muslims were able subsequently to create super-states – the Ottoman, Mughal and Safavid empires – has something to do with the residual Hanafi influence on the first two and the Persian turn to Shi’ism.

Akyol is particularly good on how environment, economics and class tipped Islam towards the men of tradition. Whereas the Hanafis – and Prophet himself – were merchants, the Hanbalis were “petty landlords” in an arid agrarian system where land was ultimately held by the dynasties they would go on to serve as scribes and soldiers.

The late Ottomans, and significant late 19th and early 20th-century Arab Muslims, would seek to unlock the secrets of western success by reviving Islamic liberalism, an evolution interrupted by European imperial intrusion. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk then imposed an illiberal and authoritarian secularism on Turkey, a Jacobin “dictatorship of the seculatariat”. This spawned an Islamism alien to Turkey, “the illegitimate offspring of Kemalism”, to which the best antidote has proved to be freedom and free markets, the AKP’s retrieval of Islamic liberalism.

In this important book, Akyol balances a playfully dispassionate manner with an impassioned defence of the Muslim rationalist tradition, creating an even tone of reasoned principle – a tone that disarms the unwary as it creeps up in ambush.

David Gardner is the FT’s international affairs editor and author of ‘Last Chance: The Middle East in the Balance’ (IB Tauris)

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