By Elise Hilton#
Is Islam a religion of extremes? It certainly can appear to be. Muslim women in certain areas of the world cannot appear in public uncovered or without male escort nor are they are not permitted to drive a car. Just last fall, we saw a Christian Pakistani woman sentenced to death by stoning for allegedly blaspheming the prophet Muhammad. Throw in terrorist factions like Al-Qaeda who have hijacked the name of Islam and an understandable wariness sets in. The question arises: can a religion connected with such extremism be reconciled with the principles of human freedom, justice, and liberty? In his book, Islam Without Extremes, Turkish journalist and devout Muslim Mustafa Akyol earnestly addresses this pointed question that has undoubtedly become one of the central issues of the modern world.
Akyol believes Islam without extremes is not only possible, but vital to the future of the faith and the global economy. He also clearly believes that Islam without extremes does not require the compromise of one’s faith. Akyol’s aim in this book is to show that Islam is relevant in today’s world, and is not only NOT a threat to liberty, but a religion that has much to offer the world in terms of stabilizing economies and governments. For instance, the earliest days of Islam showed that it was a “business-friendly” faith. The Prophet himself was married to a well-to-do businesswoman, and property rights, inheritance laws and fairness in trade were all strengthened by Islamic teaching.
In the book, Akyol lays out a concise history of Islam (necessary for those who may be unfamiliar with the origins of the faith), and then delves into the intriguing areas of interpretation and application of not only the Qur’an, but the Hadiths, a collection of the “example” (Sunna) of the Prophet Muhammad (considered by some Muslims to be nearly “on par” with the Qur’an).
The Hadiths, no Muslim would dispute, were compiled by men, unlike the Qur’an, which Muslims (by and large) believe was “received” in recitation by the Prophet Muhammad from God via an angel. However, the Qur’an is a pretty short book; it doesn’t cover a lot of territory. In order for Muslims to apply the Qur’an, there are few choices. Either each person decides how the Qur’an applies, or a tradition of application had to come about. Thus, the Hadiths were born, in order to answer the question (perhaps crudely), “What would Muhammad do?”
Akyol’s contention is that the Hadiths, while borne out of necessity, were often not infused with reason. In fact, as the author points out, in early Islamic history, there were two basic schools of thought: the People of Reason and the People of Tradition, and that Tradition won out, at least in terms of the creation of the Hadiths Akyol presents one anecdote where a man refused to ever eat watermelon because he could find no record of the Prophet Muhammad doing so.
The challenge of any book-based religion, bound in history, is to meet modern challenges and remain relevant in any time and place. For instance, how does a Catholic deal with in-vitro fertilization when the Bible says nothing about it? Is a Jew bound to each and every law prescribed in Scripture? Akyol’s contention is that much of the Hadiths and Shariah law were formed in a particular time and place (based on political and not religious convictions) and often are not Qur’anically based, or rooted in any actual example of Muhammad’s. They are, Akyol argues, apocryphal at best, politically- and personally-motivated at worst. Therefore, they lose their relevancy to the modern Muslim believer.
However, shortly after the death of the Prophet, Akyol proposes that the School of Tradition cut off the young Islamic community from the economic mainstream that was flowing through the Arabian Peninsula, effectively isolating Muslims from doing trade with non-believers. This type of isolation affected not only economy, but art, language, science and many resources. It was not until the Ottoman Empire (beginning in the late 13th century and stretching into the 20th) that Islam began to regain its economic footing. The Ottoman Empire, of course, was a “Renaissance age”, if you will, for Islam: a time of great innovation in many areas of thought, art, philosophy and culture. However, there has remained skepticism of free-market enterprise within Islam and many Islamic nations.
It is here the author directs his focus on Turkey (and stays there for most of the remainder of the book). Turkey’s unique political history (its sympathy for the West, for example, and its governmental roots in both constitutional and parliamentary rule) certainly made for a sound basis for a free-market economy. Akyol credits men like Said Nursi and especially Turgut Ozal with creating not only a far-more stable political situation than most Muslim-majority countries enjoy, but with liberalizing the nation’s understanding of what it took to compete financially on a global scale.
Ozal’s policies were based on the freedom of ideas, religion and enterprise. Ozal believed, according to Akyol, that a planned economy built on free trade would lay the foundation for a robust Turkish economy. His era, ending with an untimely (natural) death, is known as the Ozal Revolution.
Of course, economic freedom does not occur in a vacuum. Free trade brings with it exposure to travel, communication with people from all over the world, information, money to buy luxury items, and the experience of other cultural norms, fashions, mores and ways of life. Whether one experiences such exposures as “good” or “bad” is based on many things, but the exposure is there nonetheless. Islam, if it is to be open to the free-market economy in other places in the world, will also have to learn to deal with all of these. Islam, Akyol asserts, must embrace democracy.
Once we start looking for “a state for Muslims”, we will soon end up with a commonsense solution. Since no particular Muslim can claim to have theocratic authority, and since there are all sorts of Muslims with diverse views, ideas, and aspirations, the only system that will be fair to all would be one that would include all of them in the political process: a democracy….
Akyol very clearly states that democracy cannot be based on Shariah law, as that would be a theocracy. And, he strenuously makes the point that a secular state and a secularist state are two different things: a secular state remains neutral to religion, while a secularist state is hostile to religion. It is the secular state, Akyol contends, that will allow every Muslim true freedom: the freedom to pray as he or she ought, to follow the example of Muhammad as he or she sees fit, the freedom to submit to the will of God as he or she understands that. It is also this secular state, this democratic state, that will allow Muslim men and women – so inclined – to be entrepreneurs in business, to compete fairly in the global marketplace and to bring the commandment to do good and avoid evil with them into that market. It would also considerably strengthen the Muslim ability to bring charity to those less fortunate – a strong enjoinder in the Muslim faith.
Mustafa Akyol does a thorough job of illustrating that Islam is not a religion of extremes, but a religion of personal goodness, provided that goodness is a free choice. The book is accessible to anyone with even the slightest knowledge of Islam, as Akyol provides a succinct history lesson. It is clear that his point of view is Turkish, and moderate in terms of politics and faith, but that moderate view is the view that leads one to conclude that Islam and its adherents can become profound contributors to the realm of free-trade and global economics. Akyol’s book is highly recommended for anyone who wants to answer the question of whether or not Islam is an “extreme” or viable option when examining issues of liberty, freedom and justice. Akyol’s answer is that Islam offers a coherent and vibrant addition to this global dialogue.