It is rare to find in a single work a carefully documented intellectual history of Islam as well as a cri de coeur for contemporary reforms—or at least it is rare to find both tasks done well. Mustafa Akyol’s Reopening Muslim Minds, however, impressively achieves both feats with substance and elegance in a work that deserves to be acclaimed and widely read. Akyol, a Turkish journalist and senior fellow at the Cato Institute, has devoted his career to this trio of freedom, reason, and tolerance within Islam, making the case that “we Muslims don’t have a shortage of good ideas and good values”—and that those ideals are ripe for reclaiming. In Reopening Muslim Minds, he takes the reader on a journey from the Constitution of Medina (622 CE) to COVID, traveling through 12th-century Ibn Tufayl’s novel of reason and enlightenment, Hayy Ibn Yaqzan, through the rise and demise of medieval kalām, or dialectical theology, and on to science, rationalism, and tolerance.
Reopening Muslim Minds: A Return to Reason, Freedom, and Tolerance
By Mustafa Akyol
Unlike some reformist works that blanket over the difficulties confronting 21st-century Islam, Akyol is clear-eyed about the dire losses to the Islamic world from these various turns away from reason, freedom, and tolerance. But unlike any number of works for Western audiences that begin and end with such tales of decline, Akyol continuously highlights what is hopeful, calling attention to the elements of Islamic tradition that are ripe for recovery and cultivation today. In his chapters recounting “How the Sharia Stagnated” and “How We Lost the Sciences,” he guides the reader through a “hall of fame … [of] Muslim minds who championed reason, freedom, or tolerance—sometimes at the expense of their lives.” These range from 11th-century Mu’tazilite scholar Abd al-Jabbar, who reinterpreted the Qur’anic and biblical story of Abraham’s sacrifice of his son as a misunderstood dream, to 14th-century polymath and defender of scientific observation Ibn al-Khatib, to Tunisia’s famed scholar, reformer, and (now imperiled) parliament speaker Rached al-Ghannouchi.
The book is impeccably referenced and annotated, so the reader seeking a more strictly scholarly direction has ample resources to do so. Such scholars might especially appreciate Chapter 8, “The Last Man Standing: Ibn Rushd,” in which Akyol surveys the promise of the Andalusian philosopher’s rationalist oeuvre for the contemporary world. In addition to exploring Ibn Rushd’s (Averroes, in the West) famous “truth does not oppose truth” argument in The Decisive Treatise, which declares the compatibility of human wisdom and divine Law, Akyol also wades into more controversial territories, such as jihad and women’s rights, using Ibn Rushd’s lesser-known commentaries on Plato’s Republic and Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. Here, as throughout the book, Akyol takes pain to link modern ideals with the history of Islamic thought.
Inevitably for a book of such breadth, one wishes at times for greater depth. In recounting “why we lost reason,” for instance, Akyol stresses the undeniably important historical turn from rationalist Mu’tazilite thought, which predominated the first few centuries of Islamic civilization, to the more voluntarist Ash’arī strain, which emphasizes God’s will over His rationality and that still influences Islamic thought and society today. He might, though, have added to this discussion another historical tension, that between the falāsifa, or the philosophers in the Greek (especially Aristotelian) tradition, and the mutakallimūn, or practitioners of dialectical theology. Akyol writes that the two sorts of thinkers were “lumped together, and delegitimized forever, as the deviant branches of the true faith.” There is truth to this, but differentiating the two could add texture to his tableau: Ibn Rushd was a philosopher in the Peripatetic tradition; his sources were straightforwardly not divine. In fact, in The Decisive Treatise, he advocated (against his opponents, al-Ghazali chief among them) the study of non-Muslim philosophy by pointing out that Muslims use tools for religious sacrifice without taking into account whether the toolmaker was Muslim. Islam, in other words, needn’t rest on exclusively divine grounds but could, even should, make room for rationalist developments. This tradition of falsafa—the term itself showing its Greek, rather than Islamic, origins—could not often coexist easily with the theological kalām tradition, which began from revelation. Ibn Rushd himself, in his Commentary on Plato’s Republic, wrote that the views of the mutakallimūn on God’s will represented “an opinion close to sophistry, very far from the nature of man, and far from being the content of a Law.” Might such a dismissive attitude toward theology also help explain the turn away from rationalism?
This same rationalist-voluntarist fight, to Akyol, finds clear expression in what he terms the “Islamic Euthyphro Dilemma.” This dilemma, adapted from the eponymous Platonic dialogue, raises the question of whether, in the words of the 12th-century theologian and jurist al-Kiyā’ al-Harrāssī, good and bad are “grounded in any essential property [of the act],” thereby allowing rational investigation into the nature of the good, or whether, on the other hand, they are “grounded simply in God’s command and prohibition,” as voluntarism would have it. The answer had to be the latter to al-Kiyā’ and his intellectual successors in the Ash’arī school of theology, which took over from the earlier rationalist Mu’tazilī school. For Akyol, this is one of the great tragedies of the history of Islamic thought, as it effectively rendered rationalist theology heretical. Still, it is noteworthy that Akyol terms this rationalist-voluntarist quandary a dilemma, suggesting (rightly, in my view) that neither horn provides a suitable answer to the source of morality. The voluntarist horn of the dilemma presents its problem immediately—if indeed God’s command is sufficient not only to ascertain the good but in fact to render an act good, then God can command horrific things that we are obligated to do. It must nevertheless be acknowledged that the rationalist horn presents a problem as well: To “imagine that morality may have a source other than religion—such as human intuition and reason,” as Akyol seems to favor doing, means that there is a standard, a source of morality, that is higher than God.
Does “reason” as a “source” of morality solve the problem, or does it simply solve some aspects of it only to raise other problems? The rationalist French Enlightenment was closely linked with violence, and secular totalitarian regimes of the 20th century have invoked reason and rationalist “progress” in their own immoralities. What, then, prevents reason from producing its own excesses—or is there any such thing? I do not mean to suggest that the dilemma necessarily poses an insurmountable problem; the Christian notion of humans having been created in the image of God and participating in divine reason, for instance, may well do the trick. But it does make matters more complicated than what a simple return to the rationalist Mu’tazilism—or even to Ibn Rushd’s Hellenizing philosophy—can resolve.
Still, here too Akyol leaves a trail of crumbs for those who are interested in going deeper. His treatment of Kevin Reinhart’s notion of what is ma’arūf, known, and how this form of knowledge—different from both scientific knowledge, ‘ilm, and reason, ‘aql—might do some of the epistemological work I am suggesting, and as he does throughout the book, Akyol points the reader in the direction of excellent scholarship on the matter.
Reopening Muslim Minds is not only about reason, of course; both freedom and tolerance are given their due attention. In one of the most provocative chapters, “Back to Mecca,” Akyol argues for a Qur’anic hermeneutic resembling that of Mahmoud Mohammed Taha, the 20th-century Sudanese mystic who saw in the Qur’an a two-part message: first, an essential, universal Islam, with messages of peace and tolerance, as contained in the Meccan verses, then the more contextually specific verses handed down in Medina. Akyol similarly argues that the Medinan verses that advocate, for example, “slay[ing] the pagans where you find them” (2:191), be “understood as temporary commandments given in a specific context of war—similar to the militant passages one can also read in the Hebrew Bible.” In the following chapter on apostasy, however, Akyol takes the additional step of advocating a more skeptical stance toward one of the primary sources of sharī’a, the hadiths (sayings of the Prophet Mohammad, as recounted by a number of more and less authoritative sources). Doing so, Akyol argues, would lead to a much less coercive Islam; in fact, he writes that “like almost all other coercive elements in Islamic law, the punishment for apostasy comes from not the Qur’an, but the hadiths”—and that “there are good reasons to be cautious of them [i.e., the hadiths].”
Akyol is right to point out that the Qur’an has no temporal punishment for apostasy; this is related to his later advocacy of the Irja’ tradition, which etymologically and doctrinally called for the “postponement” of punishment from this earth to God’s judgment in the hereafter. All these discussions are part and parcel of—or perhaps even culminate in—Akyol’s clarion call for political freedom through “giving up coercive power in the name of Islam.” Though he does not explicitly advocate a positively secular state, the removal of coercion in the name of Islam surely implies it, and Akyol does write that the experience of Muslim “minorities in the West, or as majorities in secular states ranging from Bosnia and Herzegovina to Indonesia,” presents “a much brighter story than those in coercive states such as Saudi Arabia or Iran.”
There are difficulties with this approach, however. First, if indeed the Medinan verses were revealed in and for a specific context, it is difficult to argue that Islam is not inherently political, for it requires one to hold that the verses were intended not to convey morality but rather tactics meant to direct the lives of a specific community in a specific time and place. But what is this if not political? Relatedly, as Akyol himself acknowledges, one of the reasons that apostasy had a temporal punishment among early generations of Muslims was that “the very concept of ‘religion’ was more comprehensive than what we think of today. It was not just a belief, but also communal belonging and political allegiance.” Again, this is true—and it was true for Mohammad and his band of followers—but it makes it difficult to argue that Islam was first a moral and religious message that only later became political.
But there is one other potential obstacle to Akyol’s admirable vision for Islam. Akyol writes of a “communitarian spirit” in Islam that, I would add, certainly has its benefits and beauties, but that has, to Akyol, hindered the advancement of the dignity of the human person in Islamic societies. As Akyol writes, “Having no compulsion in religion will also require a new Muslimhood—not as collectively disciplined communities, but rather self-disciplined individuals.” Such individuals “will follow not the dictates of others, but the dictates of [their] own moral compass[es].” Here, as with the horns of the Euthyphro dilemma, it is not clear that the solution to the excesses of one horn is simply to choose the other horn. The individualist-communitarian pendulum can swing too far in either direction, and one should be cautious in advocating a full embrace of individualism, as we in the West see amply. Beyond this, if indeed Islam is more inherently political than Akyol professes—which I acknowledge remains an “if”—then to shift from a communitarian orientation to an individual one is to alter the very nature of the religion itself.
Robert “Musa” Cerantonio, an Australian-born Muslim convert who, until his 2019 imprisonment, was widely considered to be one of the most influential jihadi preachers in the world, is said to have adopted Islam as a teenager, after two years of reading about the tradition. In a 2015 interview with The Atlantic’s Graeme Wood, he acknowledged that although he felt a firm religious obligation to pledge allegiance to ISIS’s then-leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as the legitimate caliph of all Muslims, he also experienced a visceral reaction against the violence that Islamic State members are required to enact. Extremism has many tragic elements, but one of them is surely the false choice a figure like Cerantonio expressed—that between fulfilling his religious obligation and following his humane instincts, the very instincts toward reason, freedom and tolerance that Reopening Muslim Minds links with authentic Islamic sources. One wonders what might have happened had young Robert read Akyol’s book during those two formative years.