THE LEADING EDGE
I have a personal history with the Turkish writer Mustafa Akyol and his quest for a Muslim case for liberty, which seems worth relating here. The story begins with the devastating terrorist attack on the Twin Towers of New York City’s World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. After that enormity, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and U.S. President George W. Bush made statements, evidently for the purpose of calming angry Americans, that Islam is a religion of peace, which in no way condones terrorism. The implication was that the terrorists were merely deranged individuals, and the fact that they were Muslims merely coincidence.
I thought that those statements, however well-intentioned, were at best half-truths, and I published something suggesting that the terrorists were probably more nearly correct in their understanding of Islam than were the Western politicians who found it politic to deny that Islam bore any responsibility for the attack.
I received in response an email from Mustafa Akyol, a name then unfamiliar to me, saying that, as a Muslim, he had admired my writings about evolution, but he thought that my post-September 11 comment had contained a misunderstanding of Islam. I thought his criticism might contain a valid point, so I replied that I would be glad to learn more about his own understanding of Islam.
This reply led to further email exchanges and eventually to a personal meeting at a Muslim conference in San Francisco, after which Mustafa came to my house in Berkeley for dinner. By then we had become firm friends, and I have encouraged American magazines to publish articles by Mustafa. Our relationship is very much on a first-name basis, so I refer to him that way in this article.
Two Contrasting Stories
In the introduction to his book Islam without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty, Mustafa tells two family-related anecdotes that, together, go far to explain what motivated him to seek out the basis for a Muslim argument for liberty. Mustafa received his basic instruction in Islam from his kindly grandfather. One day he found a book in his grandfather’s library, which had two quotes on the cover. One of the quotes inspired him. It said that since God had created man and endowed him with many gifts, it should be an easy matter for man to return thanks. Upon reading this quote from the Qur’an, Mustafa resolved to be more regular in giving thanks to God (Allah).
Reading the second quote, from the Hadiths (the reported sayings of Muhammad, from Muslim tradition), Mustafa felt dispirited. It said that if your son turns ten years old and still does not pray, beat him. Contemplating how kindly and patient his grandfather was, Mustafa was shocked to learn that some Muslims believe that Muhammad himself had instructed his followers to beat their sons in order to get them to pray. What value would such prayer have if the son prayed only to escape a beating?
The second defining event of Mustafa’s childhood occurred when, at the age of eight, he was taken by his mother to visit his father in a Turkish military prison in 1981. Although his father bravely tried to show cheerfulness to his son, Mustafa later learned that the prisoners, including his father, were routinely tortured. Mustafa’s father had been sent to prison because he was an outspoken journalist who supported freedom so strongly that the military rulers marked him down as an enemy of the regime. Subsequently, Mustafa learned that his father had been executed.
Here was a crime in an overwhelmingly Muslim nation that could not be blamed on Islam. The military rulers were strong promoters of a secular Turkey, and were enforcing a strict secularism on a religious people.
The meaning of these two stories is that among the vast population of Muslims, there are those like Mustafa’s grandfather, who are loving and gentle teachers of Islam, and there are those who use coercion and force to get their way. When these coercive Muslims want to justify their ways by referring to some Muslim precept, they usually find the desired text in the Hadiths rather than in the Qur’an.
It is strange that some Muslims seem to prefer the Hadiths to the Qur’an, because only the latter records the revelation by God (Allah) to Muhammad. Muhammad himself always distinguished between teachings that he had received by revelation and statements that came only from his own wisdom. Muhammad is revered by Muslims as the faithful messenger of the divine revelation, but when he spoke from his own ordinary human wisdom, he was as capable of error as other men.
Despite this distinction, some Muslims will even say that a line from the Hadiths can supersede a teaching of the Qur’an itself. Mustafa has told me that he admires the Protestant doctrine of sola scriptura. Perhaps a similar doctrine might be of benefit to Islamic teaching.
The Medieval War of Ideas
Mustafa relates how Muhammad himself, when he fled from persecution in Mecca to Medina, established there not a theocracy, but a polity governed by a compact between the Muslims and the two Jewish tribes that also resided there. The agreement was that each group could go on practicing its own religion, with all of them being obligated only to defend their city from attack. Thus, religious pluralism had a place in Islam from the start. Unfortunately, this historical moment of pluralism fell apart under the stress of warfare, and one of the two Jewish tribes that lived in Medina was massacred for having aided the common enemy.
After Muhammad died, the unity of all Muslims, which he had fostered, quickly came apart. A civil war between Ali, the fourth caliph and a cousin of Muhammad, and the Muslim governor of Syria created the Sunni-Shia split that still bedevils Islam.
In the two centuries following the split, there was a lengthy debate among scholars over how to apply the general principles of the Qur’an to the new disputes that were erupting in changed circumstances, as Islam became not only a creed, but also a vast empire. Mustafa devotes two chapters to this medieval war of ideas. These chapters are fascinating and deserve careful reading, but in the interest of brevity, I will give only a simple summary here.
On one side of the debate was the party of reason, who understood the Qur’an itself to stipulate that reasoned discourse was the appropriate way to resolve specific problems that were left undecided by the Qur’an. On the other side was the party of tradition, which said that “excess of reason” was leading Muslims away from a true understanding of Islam. The scholars of the party of tradition insisted that the correct path lay in recovering and following the customs of Muhammad’s lifetime. They also said that the principal source for knowing these traditions was the Hadiths, which the party of reason largely rejected as inauthentic.
At the end of the medieval period, the party of tradition triumphed over the party of reason, an outcome that Mustafa attributes to the cultural circumstances of desert life.
The Overriding Question
Islam without Extremes is enormously valuable as a corrective to the impression of Islam we are likely to get from hearing about terrorist attacks in the newspapers and on television. It is well written and an entertaining read. My reservation about the book is that I do not know how many Muslims around in the world are like Mustafa in wanting to rescue the rational and liberal strain in Islamic history and thus not only state a Muslim case for liberty but also demonstrate it in reality.
The all-important thing is not what I would like Islam to be, or even what Mustafa would like. It is what millions of Muslims around the world would like. The question is particularly timely now, in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, when Muslim countries are debating and voting on what sort of society they want to have. Recent attacks on
Letters Welcome: One of the reasons Touchstone exists is to encourage conversation among Christians, so we welcome letters responding to articles or raising matters of interest to our readers. However, because the space is limited, please keep your letters under 400 words. All letters may be edited for space and clarity when necessary. firstname.lastname@example.org
“Peace-Seeking Muslims” first appeared in the March/April 2012 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
An introductory subscription (six copies for one year) is only $29.95.