Mustafa Akyol: «It is Time for a New Islamic Enlightenment»

Kuala Lumpur, September 2017. Mustafa Akyol, a prominent Turkish scholar and writer, once a columnist for Hürriyet and now a senior fellow at the Washington-based Cato Institute, lands in the Malay capital to make the case for ideas expressed in his latest book-manifesto: Islam without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty. He will leave town 48 hours later after personally experiencing the distance there is between intellectual ambition and harsh reality: detention and questioning first by the religious police and then by a Hakim Syarie, a Sharia judge.

In addition to the “provocative” title of his presentations, what stands at the very core of the theological dispute is a verse in the Qur’an: La ikraha fi al-din; “There is no compulsion in religion”. According to Akyol, it is one key to free Islam from any monist anxiety – be that apostasy, blasphemy or intolerance for other faiths; according to Malayan religious guardians, this is a phrase taken out of its real context, if not inexistent. It was this episode that marked the beginning of Akyol’s journey through fourteen centuries of Islamic thought – Reopening Muslim Minds: A Return to Reason, Freedom, and Tolerance, (Macmillan, 2021) – so as to convince his fellow worshipers across the globe that calling for an Islamic Enlightenment does not remotely mean compromising with the Western “enemy”. Quite the opposite, it means retrieving that outstanding legacy of tolerance that once made Islam great – as he explains in this interview given ahead of his speech at the 2021 Carthage Seminars.

Ever since that unfortunate night in Kuala Lumpur, you have been mulling the idea of “reopening Muslim minds”. Where does such operation start, Mr. Akyol?

From a simple and much more widely shared idea than anyone would envisage. The Islamic world is today in a deep crisis, and most Muslims would agree with that, as they have been unhappy with this state of affairs for the past two centuries. At the same time, many Muslims do remember that a thousand years ago, the Islamic world was far more advanced than other civilizations, especially Christendom, especially Europe. A thousand years ago, we had the world’s best scientists, we were inventing algebra and geometry, we were studying and translating the greatest Greek philosophers. We were actually enlightening Europe. So I ask this question in my book: What was the secret of Islam in its earliest centuries? Why was Islam a more productive, enlightened civilization whom others looked up to, and how did it cease to be so? Some people would claim we were a great civilization because we were pious and God rewarded us, so we should simply be pious again – that’s essentially the Islamist argument. Some people would say, there’s no reason for our crisis other than colonialism: that is the root of all our problems. And I would agree that colonialism was a great tragedy for the Muslim world, but the stagnation began long before that. My argument is that the Islamic world was magnificent and creative because it was cosmopolitan, because Muslims were open-minded for their times; they didn’t shy away from learning Greek philosophy, or from other pre-existing traditions – the Christians, the Jews, the Hindus, etc. Essentially, they had this universal vision that there is wisdom within Islam, but also outside of Islam. Also, within Islam, there were sects, there were tensions, conflicts, even civil wars, but there was not a monolithic understanding of Islam imposed by the State. There were Sunnis and Shiites, proto-Sunnis and Shiites, and there were different schools of thought. We lost that cosmopolitanism, and Islamic thought gradually stagnated.

Why did that happen?

That’s a long story and one I try to retrace in-depth in my book, revising the ideas of different historians. Theologically, a few stages were certainly crucial. One was the criminalization of unorthodox thought. If you studied Aristotle, and you believed in some of his ideas – you became a Kāfir, an infidel. That was a step taken, unfortunately, in the 11th century, particularly under the influence of the Imam Al-Ghazali. Of course, one should note that in Christian Europe too, you had that very same idea; it was not very fashionable to study philosophy as a separate wisdom from religion. Secondly, I highlight the relevance of an interesting discussion in early Islam about the meaning of Sharia, still a burning issue today, between the Mu’tazila and the Asharites – the two major schools of thought in early Islam. According to the Mu’tazila, the rationalist school, God’s commandments indicated ethical principles that are also knowable by human reason. When God commands, “Do not steal”, that is because stealing is wrong in itself, and people would know this thanks to their conscience even without religion. This allows a universalistic outlook, indicating that non-Muslims can have moral wisdom too, because it is inherent in the human conscience. According to the Asharites, the opposite is true: when God says “Do not steal”, stealing becomes wrong simply because God says so. There is no ethical truth outside religious law. This latest interpretation, the divine command theory understanding, came to dominate Islamic thought after the 12th century, with the marginalization of the Mu’tazila. Muslims increasingly had this idea that all the ethical wisdom you need is in your religious tradition – so there is nothing to learn from outside it. And nowadays one sees traces of this approach, such as when any religious scholar or authority in Islamic regimes simply rejects any external call for the respect of “universal” human rights. How can they be so, if all value comes from Sharia?

A set of norms and rules reflecting 9th or 10th century society.

Indeed, and that was understandable at the time. But today humankind has reached a different stage. That is why I call on fellow Muslims to rediscover Islamic thought, and especially those thinkers who were branded as heretics, and who actually had good ideas that Muslims need today. Muslims should be, firstly more open-minded about Islamic tradition itself and then, more open-minded about the world. I believe that what we need to do is reconcile our Islamic traditions, including religious law, with the achievements of humanity. And I believe Islam has to take the step, the conscious step, of accepting liberal values, like Catholicism did in the 1960s with the famous declaration Dignitatis Humanae by the Vatican in 1965. I am not an Imam, I am not a Sheikh, but as a Muslim intellectual, I am calling for this, and I am showing how this can be done, without abandoning the core values of our faith.

You are therefore calling for historic change in Islam, just like the Vatican Council was for the Church. For a true Islamic Enlightenment actually, in the name of some great early Islamic scholars, such as Ibn Rush or Ibn Tufail. But how would you envisage that happening in practice?

Yes, I do speak of the need for an Islamic Enlightenment, and I stress the adjective, as this shall be based on Islamic sources and traditions, not merely copying Western Christian tradition. Now is something like that possible in today’s Islam? Yes, and it is in part already there. Take Sheikh Yahya Cholil Staquf, whom I interviewed recently, the leader of Nahdlatul Ulama, Indonesia’s largest Islamic organization: he is calling for a humanitarian Islam, as he says, and for us to abandon those illiberal, authoritarian, violent teachings in our tradition, for those are not eternal values of Islam. Or look at the right things that Rached Ghannouchi, the leader of Tunisia’s Islamist party Ennahda has been doing; he has taken a lot of steps towards a conciliatory understanding of Islam within a democratic framework. So there are some Islamic pockets, organizations or individuals, which are already embarking along this journey. Of course in Islam, we don’t have a central authority, but an incredible spectrum of positions, so it is more difficult than the Pope issuing a declaration. That’s why what I’m trying to do is to make this idea of change accessible to a wider audience, saying “Hey, fellow Muslims all around the world, we have to talk about these issues”, pushing for and presenting a roadmap for an Islamic Enlightenment.

American think-tanks and campuses are very stimulating places for mulling such ideas, Muslim-majority countries much less so, wrote The Economist reviewing your book, more or less gently accusing you of being “an American-inspired optimist”.

Well, that’s funny. I am Turkish. I’ve been living in the United States only for the past four years, and I was making these arguments even before I had anything to do there. And that is because I’m relying on a genuine tradition, late Ottoman Empire Islamic liberalism. There were people like Namik Kemal who admired Western constitutionalism and the idea of freedom, and they wanted to integrate this with Islam, just like some reformists did in many other Arab centres. Yes, I have the chance of living and working in America, but I am somebody rooted in the Muslim world. Other great scholars before me also left their home countries in the same spirit; like Nasr Abu Zayd, who was declared an apostate because his ideas differed from orthodoxy forcing him to leave Egypt and go to Holland; or Falzul Rahman, who had to leave Pakistan for his own safety, and came to teach in the US. As for optimism, if somebody was sent back to 17th century Europe, to announce that the continent is bound to become a beacon of tolerance, where everybody will be free and respected, Catholics and Protestants will stop slaughtering each other, where even Jews will be fine, wouldn’t he or she be dismissed as an incurable optimist? When John Locke wrote his letter of toleration, it was in fact a radical idea, and certainly not everybody thought that it would be a successful idea. It became a successful idea because people pushed for it. And the same applies now. By experiencing dictatorship, civil war, violence in the name of religion, more and more Muslims are realizing that we need a big change. I am trying to be one voice articulating that change, and showing a path forward.

You dedicated this book to your beloved sons, “so that they may grow up with both Islamic faith and universal ethics”. How many generations do you think such a mindset change will require?

I dare not making predictions. I am just indicating what needs to change and what routes lead to such change. But I can say that I do see change: I do believe there will be a post-revolutionary Iran, when the current theocracy will be replaced by a more democratic society – whether in five years, ten years, it depends. I do see that behind Mohammed bin Salman’s tyrannical rule, some interesting changes in religious interpretation are coming to light in Saudi Arabia; so maybe that will initiate a cycle of change. And I do believe there will be a post-Erdogan Turkey, which will be freer and more democratic. So I want to believe that we are at the lowest point in the history of the Islamic civilization. We have seen ISIS, we have seen Al-Qaida, we have seen so many terrible things, but there is now a growing spirit of universality and cosmopolitanism, and there is a young generation that is really interested in that. What is important though, is to keep freedom alive in the West as well. Because if freedom becomes compromised in the West, if authoritarian populists seeking to crush the independent media gain power, or if racism spreads and Muslims are not tolerated, what kind of examples will be able to point out to as sources for inspiration? That is why I think we need a battle for freedom within Islam today and at the same time we need one within the Western world, too.


Cover Photo: Council on Foreign Relations.

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