In September 2017, Mustafa Akyol, a prominent Muslim scholar of Turkish descent, was invited to deliver series of talks on “enlightened Islamic values” by The Islamic Renaissance Front, a small Malaysian organization dedicated to the promotion of religious tolerance and opposition to extremism. It was not Akyol’s first lecture-tour of the country, and he felt pleased and satisfied at the conclusion of the penultimate lecture, focused on the Quranic injunction “there is no compulsion in religion.”
Alas, the feeling was short lived. Soon the religious police showed up to interrogate him about his talk. On the advice of his friends, he cancelled his next lecture and decided to leave the country. But the authorities were not done with him yet. He was detained at the airport, subjected to further cross-examination at the Sharia court and held for eighteen hours. It was only after the intervention of his father, a respected scholar in Turkey, who contacted the right authorities in Turkey and Malaysia, that he was finally allowed to leave. His brief negative experience at the hands of religious authorities in a country he is very much fond of left a lasting impression.
At a relatively young age, Mustafa Akyol has become an internationally recognized scholar, journalist and author who has made his mission to promote the supremacy of logic, reason and tolerance, the hallmark of early Islamic civilization, through his books, lectures and articles. Currently associated with Washington’s Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, as a senior fellow, Akyol is not a theologian but an academician, who has analyzed the history of Islamic philosophy and jurisprudence from the vantage point of a researcher. His latest book, Reopening Muslim Minds, A Return to Reason, Freedom, and Tolerance, is perhaps the most compelling and most erudite of all his publications. It abounds with references to a plethora of medieval and modern Islamic and Western sources, providing easy-to-follow descriptions of complex and arcane issues that evoked fierce debates in the medieval era, such as whether the Quran was created or is eternal, and the belief in predestination.
Akyol marshals evidence drawn from powerful sources, including the Quran and Hadith, to argue that many of the harsh sentences being peddled today as Islamic are in fact rooted into tribal customs prevailing during the early centuries of Islam
The book recounts how inflexibility and extremism gradually seeped into Islamic traditions and discourse following the passing of the Prophet and the reign of the righteous Caliphs. Much of it, the author contends, can be traced to the imperatives and exigencies of the monarchical regimes that existed in the first Islamic century, especially the Umayyad dynasty. One can readily discern in the narrative the author’s admiration for the Mu’tazila, their doctrinal beliefs and philosophy anchored in reason and rationality. The Islamic sect, now extinct, emerged following the overthrow of Umayyads in 750 and flourished during the rule of the 7th Abbasid Caliph al-Mamun (813-833), who is especially known for his support of the House of Wisdom in Baghdad. The Mu’tazila as a group were the first to learn from Greek philosopher’s heritage the role of human reason in understanding independently of revelations. Akyol quotes al-Kindi (801-873), the great Arab polymath associated with the House of Wisdom, “We ought not to be ashamed of appreciating the truth and acquiring it wherever it comes from, even if it comes from races distinct and nations different from us.”
In a chapter entitled “Why we lost reason, really,” Akyol traces how and why the Mu’tazila school, its followers and exponents were wiped out. He recounts the plight of the sect during the reign of the 10th Abbasid Caliph al–Mutawakkil (822-861), who reversed the religious dogma imposed by Caliph al-Mamun, the belief in the createdness of the Quran, and freed imprisoned Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal. “Mu’tazila became the new outcasts, to be purged, lashed and jailed.” In time, their creed was brutally suppressed by Abbasid rulers, and in 1017, all Mu’tazila scholars were ordered to publicly retract their heresy and to desist from any public or private teaching of their convictions.” Anyone who professed Mu’tazilite beliefs was considered an infidel deserving the death penalty.
That edict ended any semblance of religious tolerance, reason, or independent thought among Muslims. So complete was the rout of the Mu’tazila school that it is nearly impossible today to find any corpus of literature that they generated. Akyol cites extensively the seminal work of a giant of medieval times, Ibn Rushd (Averroes) (1126-1198), born in Cordoba in the waning days of Muslim rule in Spain. He was a philosopher, jurist, savant and is lauded for his commentaries and unique interpretation of Aristotle’s work. He advanced compelling arguments to counter the thesis of al-Ghazali that philosophy somehow contradicted Islamic teachings. Ibn Rushd, who served as a judge, suggested “that the written Sharia laws had to be checked according to universal ethical values and the changing circumstances of the human society.” His statue has been erected outside the city walls of Cordoba by the Spanish Government to celebrate his seminal contributions, a rare honour.
Akyol’s book deals exquisitely with some of the most vexing issues of our time, such as the fate of apostates, the punishment for blasphemy and certain other crimes, under the Hudud in Sharia law. Akyol marshals evidence drawn from powerful sources, including the Quran and Hadith, to argue that many of the harsh sentences being peddled today as Islamic are in fact rooted into tribal customs prevailing during the early centuries of Islam. The Prophet himself and his associates practiced a policy of mercy and forgiveness, preferring them over harsh sentences. Akyol strongly advocates grant of full rights to non-Muslims in a Muslim-majority country, such as Pakistan and Turkey. He cites the Marrakesh Declaration of 2016, signed by hundreds of Islamic scholars and intellectuals expressing opposition to religious bigotry, vilification, and denigration of non-Muslims.
Reopening of Muslim Minds is not a book designed for leisure reading. It is a scholarly book, and some chapters are especially dense, narrative complex and difficult to grasp. Since the views expressed are somewhat unorthodox, the book is certain to ignite controversy, especially criticism from those who believe that any new, malleable interpretation of religious texts (ijtihad) are motivated an intimidation by western philosophy and impulses borrowed from European enlightenment.
The book packs in its 300 pages a large corpus of knowledge and describes the progression and development of Islamic philosophy and emergence of diverse religious sects. Mustafa Akyol has identified some of the contours and mileposts leading to an ideal Islamic civilization which, if realized, might bring much needed reforms and modernization to our culture. Unfortunately, contemporary trends are not encouraging, as many Muslim countries today are attempting to revert to a fictional and imaginary past, away from the realities of the 21st century.
The writer is a former assistant professor, Harvard Medical School and a retired health scientist administrator, US National Institutes of Health