Mustafa Akyol Speaks about Liberalism and Islam

David Blondin

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Renowned journalist, columnist, and author Mustafa Akyol spoke at the University of Minnesota on liberalism and its relationship with Islam. Akyol’s speech was based on his book Islam Without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty, which explores the relationship rational thought has with Islam compared to the dogmatic rigid Islamic traditions that are associated with radical Islamists. 

Akyol started his lecture giving an anecdote about his arrest in in Malaysia September 2017. The religious police arrested Akyol for giving a speech advocating for the freedom of religion. The premise of Akyol’s argument for religious freedom comes from a popular verse in the Quran repeated by religious Muslims that states that there is no compulsion in religion (Al-Baqarah 256). Akyol stated that in Muslim majority countries like Turkey, Egypt, and Bosnia, there would be no issue with apostasy. Why is this not so in countries like Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, and Iran? 

Akyol explored the idea of liberalism within Islam from a theological and a historical lens. Akyol spoke about how everything in Islam starts with the Quran. Being created by Allah does not require a Muslim to follow a mullah or an ayatollah, only the prophet Muhammad. The Caliphate, or religious/political institutions that followed Muhammad were not divinely mandated but rather created by man. These Islamic states developed their shariah, or Islamic laws, based on temporal decisions rather than on dogmatic morality. Akyol pointed out corporal punishments like caning, stoning, or cutting of limbs existed because in desert societies, where Islam first developed, there was no infrastructure to imprison offenders. Deterrence was only possible through physical harm. 

Akyol pointed out that as Islamic civilization developed, their societies maintained the morality prescribed in the Quran but changed jurisprudence based on changing societal situations. An example of this phenomenon that Akyol mentioned is the current situation with women’s rights in various regions of the Muslim world. Until last year, women were not allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia. This law is derived from a verse in the Quran that states that women should not be left in the desert alone. The Arabian Peninsula was a wild country during the time of Mohammad; making this law logical. 

Akyol gave other examples of tribal practices legitimizing by religious interpretation by local leaders such as the burqa, female genital mutilation, and alcohol prohibition. Akyol explored that a religion whose holy book gives women property rights before Christian and Jewish societies should not be used to dehumanize them. 

Islamic society is credited for preserving works of Western thought, including Aristotle, Plato, and various histories. These same societies created an environment that natured renowned intellectuals in the sciences and humanities that followed rational thought. If Islamic society followed rationalism at one point in time, why is there a strong rise in dogmatic Islamism in parts of the Islamic world?

Akyol mentioned how the West has treated Islamic countries as a problematic situation. When the West, which is associated with modernized liberalism, props up dictators and supports neo-colonialism, the inhabitants are likely to have a negative disposition towards the West. Akyol believes that for the Islamic world to embrace liberal Islam, the West needs to facilitate more conversations and condemn human rights violations.