Islam Without Extremes

Mustafa Akyol

15th Jan 2012

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Publisher: WW Norton and Company

Date Published: 7th Oct 2011

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With the events of the Arab Spring and the recent victory of political Islam in elections in Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco, the role of Islam in public life is big news again.

Western governments who once refused to truck with Islamists in the Arab world are being forced to reexamine their preconceptions about the religion and its role in the state. The US has made clear over recent months that it will engage Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, something that would have been unthinkable even a few years ago.

Previously, the term “political Islam” brought to mind the strict interpretation of Shari’a law applied in Saudi Arabia, or Iran’s own brand of revolutionary Islam although, even prior to December 2010 and the beginning of Tunisia’s revolution, it was clear that the face of Islamism was changing rapidly.

In light of this, journalist and writer Mustafa Akyol puts forward the case for religious reform in his new book, Islam Without Extremes, in which he traces origins of the strictly literalist interpretations of the Qur’an, most notably Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia, that have become popular across the world in the last century and which form the basis of many countries’ judicial systems in the Muslim world.

In the centuries following the revelation of the Qur’an, scores of legal schools of thought emerged across Islamdom: each had their own interpretations of the Qur’an and the Hadith, texts relating the deeds and sayings of the Prophet Mohammed, and gave what they saw as the best interpretation of how Muslims should live and codified laws.

The two dominant schools are the Hanbalis and the Hanafis, the former arguing for a literal reading of the Qur’an, and the latter favouring an interpretation based more on the use of reason. Akyol argues that the dominance of the Hanbalis and their rigid views on what Islamic law should be has led to the stagnation of the religion and that the spread of the school’s interpretation by Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabis has created a crisis in Islam.

However, Akyol suggests a solution in Turkey’s modern history. The author sees the Ottoman Empire as a model of Islamic tolerance, a state where religious belief was widespread and devout, but tolerant and progressive too.

More recently, Akyol says that the rise to power of Tayyip Receb Erdogan’s Peace and Justice Party (AK Parti in Turkish) as a role model for modern Islamic reform – the party is hugely popular and a reputation for fair dealing. Their astounding rise to prominence is all the more impressive in the light of the country’s history of militant secularism. 

Islam Without Extremes is undoubtedly an interesting and sincere call for reform in the Muslim world, and the author gives an impressively concise introduction to the principles of Islamic jurisprudence and the way that the Qur’an still forms the basis for lawmaking and governance in many countries.

However, given the intensely complicated nature of the subject matter, Akyol’s history of Islamic law is overly-simplistic and gives the reader a little-nuanced overview.

According to Akyol, the Hanbalis are fanatical and scared of reason, while the Hanafis are intelligent and innovative and he makes little effort to show the subtle distinctions within each of the two opposed schools of thought. Sadly, this leaves the reader with a reductive and highly imperfect understanding of the topic, a crying shame given the importance of Islam in the civil state at the moment.

Akyol’s version of the history of Islamic legal thought lies perhaps in his background as a journalist and his lack of formal training in the field. Other contemporary Islamic thinkers, notably Tariq Ramadan, who studied at Cairo’s Al-Azhar University, have given more comprehensive accounts and are better placed to suggest possible reforms.

Not only this, but Akyol’s reading of Ottoman and Turkish history is also problematic: although he admits that at times the Ottomans persecuted minorities, he seems to ignore the Empire’s faults after the Tanzimat, or reforms, that took place in the 1840s. Minorities were still subject to persecution after this date, and the bloody sectarian civil war in Syria and Lebanon in the 1860s is a clear example of this. The author is strangely uncritical of the AK Parti who, for all the good work they have done, have a questionable record in human rights and freedom of expression,

For its faults, Islam Without Extremes is an interesting and timely read, and Akyol is an engaging writer, mixing his reading of Islamic history with his own experiences of spirituality, linking his personal belief back to his childhood memories of his father’s imprisonment by Turkey’s military governments.

Islam Without Extremes and the idea behind it are commendable and well put forward, but the author’s lack of religious credentials is telling in his uncritical examination of Islamic law, and his selective reading of Turkish history make this account far from perfect.    

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