Book Review: "Islam without Extremes" by Mustafa Akyol

I have recently read a book by Mustafa Akyol titled "Islam without extremes", which is trying to answer the great mystery in Islam. The author quotes David Forte who makes the following statement:

There is a great mystery in Islam. Islam should have been the first civilisation to have abandoned slavery; it was the last.Islam should have been the first to establish complete religious liberty; today, non-muslims siffer egregerious persecution in Muslim lands. Islam should have been the first to establish social equality for women. Instead, women who stray outside the family's code of behavious are murdered with impunity. Islam should have been the foremost civilisation to observe humanitarian laws of war, but its empires have been no different from others; some claim they have been worse.

The author then goes about discussing this paradox, first starting with what went right - the early Islamic period followed by what went wrong.

The first thing to get out of the way is that this is not a text book - it is a person's opinion and analysis of the past and rpesent and it should be taken as that.

The book is divided into three parts, the first is early Muslim history starting in the times of the prophet Sallallahu Alaihi Wa Sallam (Peace and Blessings be upon him) and moving forward. The author seems to be a major fan of the mutazilite school of thought and sees their presence in the early Muslim history where they presented rational and liberal arguments as being important to the early Muslim society.

The book then moves forward at how the early muslim dynasties supported one or another group of Muslims - the Ummayad caliphate had a major problem with legitimacy in the eyes of the people so they favoured another school which did not consider free will as highly important and said "if God had not wanted the Ummayaads to rule, they wouldn't be, but the very fact that they are in power proves their legitimacy as they are there by God's will."

In a similar way, other dynasties also supported or opposed various schools of thought and law, but over time the libertarian and rational schools started to "lose" as they generally would be opposing the ruling elite.

Of the 4 schools of fiqh, the author mentions that he considers Imam Abu Hanifa the most rational and almost goes to the extent of suggesting that he would ignore hadith and not consider them too important, which seems strange to me.

He continues that it was Imam Shaf'i who gave ahadith greater prominence in rule making and that methodology to a greater or lesser extent was eventually taken up by all the schools or influenced their behaviours.

A question that had been posed on tribune by another person who read the opening chapter was "does the author reject hadith outright?" as the opening chapter seemed to indicate the liberty expressed in the qur'an and then contrasted with the strictness in a specific hadith.

The answer to this question is "no" but with the caveat that while he considers the hadith important for matters of morality, he does think that the amount of fabricated ahadith and their lack of contextualisation require them to be analysed. He also mentions how in Islamic history due to the number of fabrications it was possible to find a hadith to support any view that anyone had.

From the 4 Imam's the author is pretty disparaging of Imam Ahmad Ibn Hanbal, who's views he considered least rationalist and very rejecting of opposing views where his followers would generally avoid transacting with other muslims to avoid "corruption" and "pollution" of themselves, something he find similar to modern day extremist phenomenons.

He goes on to mention how he considers the famout hadith relating to bid'ah to have been fabricated in this later time period, but does not provide his justification for it.

Mustafa Akyol charts the pretty early Muslim world which he considered to be more libertarian minded (and also less sexist), but charts how the ideas of liberty and tolerance (and trade) over time gave way to other ideas that were less liberal, and less tolerant of trade (the elite found it easier to tax land compared to trade and so after about the third century, the tax system gradually morphed to favour agricultural society instead of a business oriented one, something that was only confronted in the 19th century, but the return to classical reforms was a little too late).

From here, Mustafa Akyol jumps to the later part of the ottoman empire and the early part of the Turkish state.

He contrasts how muslim intellectuals of the late 19th century ad the early 20th century were almost unanimously liberal, while the secular forces of the turkish state found at the fall of the ottoman empire often were not - and that this trend continued in turkey even after the fall of the Ottoman empire, which was unique compared to other places because the author believed that because (eastern) Turkey had not been occupied by western powers, the people there did not need to resist the western world and all it stood for - even if the ideas were initially from Islamdom.

It was interesting to read how the attempt of reforms in the late ottoman period giving equal rights was resisted by the christian clergy who wanted none of it. (and how previously they had been greateful for the Ottoman empire which was tolerant of them unlike many european states).

The author contended that many reforms were not completed or failed mainly because the ottoman empire in the late 19th century was weak and suffered great existential threats.

The author mentioned the attempts at codifying existing shariah laws into one book in order to simlify things - something called the "mecelle" (does not return any google search results), something that remained law in many places, including Israel until the 1980's.

The final section chapters is based on modern problems that Muslims face and discusses his solutions to them, covering topics such as the Khilafah - according to him not needed, the state of Madinah was secular. Furhter he considers the trend to try and force a "religious theocracy" as a knee jerk reaction to the western domination of the past century where the proponents are often arguing for things that were never there in the past - he mentions how a certain group in the UK is calling for the imposition of shariah in the UK and eg the banning of alcohol for all people - something that has never happened in the Muslim world.

A further concern of the author is how proponents of such regimes favour systems that are not religious, but material and that the ultra enforcement of the rules forces people into the underground. He mentions in his support on the one hand that a prayer prayed without force is more likely to be from the heart than one to keep up appearances (somehting which is criticised in the quran to the level that hypocrisy is seen as worse than disbelief). Secondly he mentions how the ultra enforcement of segregation has resulted in a phenomena of lesbianism.

The author mentions how many Muslims are able to be more practising Muslim in western countries that Islamic ones.

The author also defends the right of people to sin as without this, the world is no longer a place where people are tested, which is something from life and mentions how the quranic verses referring to the hajj mention that the people must not hunt - and that they will be tested on their journeys even where the catch would be a hands length or so away.

All in all, I think it is an interesting read.

"Islam without extremes" should now be available from all good bookshops.

Comments

TPOS
Member since:
8 November 2008
Last activity:
9 hours 28 min

You wrote:

Of the 4 schools of fiqh, the author mentions that he considers Imam Abu Hanifa the most rational and almost goes to the extent of suggesting that he would ignore hadith and not consider them too important, which seems strange to me.


How would ignoring ahadith be a rational thing?

Quote:

He contrasts how muslim intellectuals of the late 19th century ad the early 20th century were almost unanimously liberal, while the secular forces of the turkish state found at the fall of the ottoman empire often were not - and that this trend continued in turkey even after the fall of the Ottoman empire, which was unique compared to other places because the author believed that because (eastern) Turkey had not been occupied by western powers, the people there did not need to resist the western world and all it stood for - even if the ideas were initially from Islamdom.
Huh :S Who were the secular people?

Quote:
Secondly he mentions how the ultra enforcement of segregation has resulted in a phenomena of lesbianism.

hmmm...

"How many people find fault in what they're reading and the fault is in their own understanding" Al Mutanabbi

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You
Member since:
24 June 2005
Last activity:
19 min 2 sec

ThE pOwEr Of SiLeNcE wrote:
You wrote:

Of the 4 schools of fiqh, the author mentions that he considers Imam Abu Hanifa the most rational and almost goes to the extent of suggesting that he would ignore hadith and not consider them too important, which seems strange to me.


How would ignoring ahadith be a rational thing?

According to understand it according to its context would be rationalist, taking it literally would be literalist. As always, the real world in sort of in the middle where there rationalists would be 51% on one side, with the literalists 51% on the opposing.

Or some may see that as 60/40.

The issue here is/was deciding what the context of the hadith is and its accuracy - a hadith could be word for word what the prophet Sallallahu Alaihi Wa Sallam (Peace and Blessings be upon him) said, or just a vague understanding that a particular individual had of what the prophet Sallallahu Alaihi Wa Sallam (Peace and Blessings be upon him) said and did, and then there would be issues such as making sure it really is a valid hadith etc with sound chain of narrators etc.

Here, Imam Abu Hanifa (ra), if he came across a hadith which seemed to have a sound chain, but the contents of the hadith did not fit and there was no other supporting ahadith/chains/narrations, he would not consider that strong enough to make a ruling on its own.

Quote:
Huh :S Who were the secular people?

There were people near the end who thought tht religion was a problem and wanted "enlightenment" European style and could not see some of the problems in europe (like fascism) or saw them as a part of being in a more enlightened society. These went from people who were just like that to others who thought it was a good idea to force it onto others.

Quote:
Secondly he mentions how the ultra enforcement of segregation has resulted in a phenomena of lesbianism.

hmmm...

It's not unheard of or the first time I have read such suggestions (and this is not just about saudi or just women - taking people to extremes generally results in extreme responses).

Its time to be angry.