NON-FICTION: IS ISLAM COMPATIBLE WITH LIBERTY?

Published November 28, 2021
Scholars at an Abbasid library during the ‘Golden Age of Islam’ which, Mustafa Akyol maintains, was “exceptionally open-minded for its time” | Wikimedia Commons
Scholars at an Abbasid library during the ‘Golden Age of Islam’ which, Mustafa Akyol maintains, was “exceptionally open-minded for its time” | Wikimedia Commons

"A State which dwarfs its men, in order that they may be more docile instruments in its hands even for beneficial purposes, will find that with small men no great thing can really be accomplished.” — John Stuart Mill

Apostates and blasphemers are beheaded in Saudi Arabia, lynched by angry mobs in Pakistan and publicly hanged in Iran. The Malaysian government is mulling over amending the current Sharia law to propose punishments against social media users for insulting Islam and “promoting the LGBT lifestyle.” In Afghanistan, the Taliban’s senior commander Waheedullah Hashimi has made it clear that “there will be no democratic system at all because it does not have any base in our country.” He has also clarified that “we will not discuss what type of political system should we apply in Afghanistan because it is clear. It is Sharia law and that is it.”

These are all Muslim-majority countries. Therefore, one is justified in asking a simple question: what is wrong with the Muslim world?

For the sake of understanding better, we may raise a set of some important questions to understand the rise of authoritarianism and Islamist movements in the Muslim world. What is Sharia? Is it an article of faith to implement Islamic laws to ensure the supremacy of Islam? Is Islam inherently anti-modernity and anti-democracy? Does Islam propose the establishment of a state to implement Sharia laws? Is there any compulsion in Islam? Can Muslims be liberal?

It is not an easy task to grapple with these ideas and challenging questions in the face of rising extremism in the Muslim world. We have recently seen protests by religious parties in Pakistan and Indonesia under the pretexts of various religious (Islamic) reasons which further complicate the situation.

Mustafa Akyol’s latest book is another open invitation to critically examine the popular Islamic discourse about a value that is crucial for human dignity, happiness and prosperity

Mustafa Akyol, a Turkish-American scholar of Islam, recently wrote two books to address these questions and offer an alternative view. The first, Reopening Muslim Minds: A Return to Reason, Freedom, and Tolerance, is an insightful take on the origins of intellectual stagnation in the Muslim world and an open invitation to re-examine Islamic thought, to create an inclusive, liberal world.

Akyol’s latest book, Why, As a Muslim, I Defend Liberty, is an interesting read and another open invitation to critically examine the popular Islamic discourse about “a value that is crucial for human dignity, happiness, and flourishing: liberty.”

The author rightly diagnoses the problem as, a) an urge to “conquer” and “prevail” in the name of Islam, and b) the enforcement of Sharia through coercion, which has surrounded the Muslim minds. He explains that “Some Muslims want to impose fiqh [jurisprudence], which is the human interpretation of the Sharia.” The desire to ban alcohol, punish apostates, force women to wear hijab and imprison freethinkers stemmed from the “coercive” interpretation of Sharia as developed in the mediaeval Muslim world.

Sharia is primarily based upon the Holy Quran, but relies on three sources: hadith, ijma [consensus] and qiyas [analogy]. When discussing Sharia and its various sources, Akyol quotes another scholar, Fazlur Rahman, and distinguishes the “Quranic worldview” from the dominant post-Quranic worldview.

The latter is the result of mediaeval context, scholars and even rulers, and therefore is less sacred. Admittedly, historical evolution and development have made the very notion of Sharia a contested political reality. The problem, however, is that “some Muslims still see the standards of that mediaeval Islamic jurisprudence, which reflect the culture of those times, as the divinely mandated Sharia that is valid for all times and all peoples.”

Akyol challenges some Sharia-based popular narratives that defy the value of freedom, reminding us of Verse 256 of the second surah, Al Baqarah. The verse begins by proclaiming, “There is no compulsion in religion.” But Akyol shows that some clerics don’t agree with the broad implications of the verse, insisting, “No, actually, there is compulsion in religion.”

He also laments the increased Islamicisation of laws in countries such as Pakistan and argues that confusion between “adultery” (zina) and “rape” and requirements such as the testimony of four adult male eyewitnesses has not only created heart-breaking tragedies, but also led to serious concerns about the way religion is understood and practised.

Interestingly, unlike secularists in the Muslim world, Akyol proposes to “revive” the most important “political function” of Sharia. After giving various examples from Muslim history where Sharia prevented despotism, he suggests that what needs to be revived is the idea that a law is above all the states and rulers and everyone is accountable before it. The fundamental idea is, argues Akyol, that rights of humans are “above” all states, and states derive their legitimacy from protecting human rights.

Quoting more examples from Muslim history, the author maintains that the “golden age of Islam” — which Muslims often recall with nostalgia — had a secret: it “was exceptionally open-minded for its time”, and makes note of the Majlis al Munazarah [Salon of Debate] and Bayt al Hikmah [House of Wisdom] from the Abbasid Caliphate. Intellectuals from different religious backgrounds attended the meetings and debated theological matters without any fear. Freedom of speech, in other words, was not something that the early Muslims feared.

In one chapter, ‘Islam’s Lost Heritage of Economic Liberty’, Akyol talks about capitalism, its definition and then introduces the idea of an “emphatically charitable Islamic capitalism”, which raises more questions than it answers. Capitalism, as we have seen historically, is not an abstract principle, but a system of class relations. The class relations — between the working class and the bourgeoisie — cannot be fixed through “institutionalised care and support for the poor and the needy.” In other words, putting the word ‘Islamic’ before capitalism can neither reduce the exploitation of capitalism, nor can it fix the global crises of capitalism.

Perhaps the most intriguing chapter in the book is the last one, ‘Is Liberty a Western Conspiracy?’. When they hear any argument for “liberty” (or, worse, “liberalism”), some Muslims immediately react, he says, suspecting an “imperialist agenda.” He also notes that this is quite understandable, because Western powers often used “spreading freedom” as a justification for colonialism. Here he boldly criticises France, Britain and the United States.

However, Akyol says, the exploitation of freedom doesn’t mean that freedom has no value. Then he reminds us of the “Islamic liberals” of the late 19th century, such as the Ottoman intellectual Namik Kemal or the Tunisian statesman Khayr al Din, who had admired Western liberties not for the sake of the West, but for the sake of Muslim societies, and by reconciling them with Islam.

“They were right, and they had an impact, but our trajectory has not yet gone right,” writes Akyol, speaking of those earlier “Islamic liberals.” Then he adds: “That is why, as a Muslim walking in the footsteps of those forefathers in the early 21st century, by honouring their sacrifices and sharing their hopes, I still defend liberty.”

** Why, As a Muslim, I Defend Liberty can be downloaded free of cost at www.libertarianism.org*

The reviewer is a research assistant at San Diego State University. He tweets @Farah_adeed

Why, As a Muslim, I Defend Liberty
By Mustafa Akyol
Libertarianism.org Press, US
ISBN: 978-1952223174
192pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, November 28th, 2021

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