An Attempt of Reinterpretation of Islam for Modern Age

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When the Cold War ended, a problem that the Western Bloc needed to handle with left behind: Fighting Muslim groups that were established and used against soviets as proxies during the Cold War.

The establishment of these groups were overlooked on purpose if not supported against “godless soviets” by the West during the Afghan war. Those fighters who were mostly from Arab countries used their experience and engaged with violent acts against their ‘un-Islamic’ administrations after they returned back their homes. If the threat had been limited to those countries they would not have been considered a major problem by the westerners. However, 1990s were the years that the violence against civil and military targets was escalating in both Islamic and other countries. That orgy of violence peaked with 9/11 attacks and, alas, that evil act coincided with an US administration which was supported by arms and oil lobby and they were willing to conduct military operations in soils of Islamic countries to strangulate ‘terror’ in its home.

The military operations or so called war on terror started, two countries were occupied, more than one million people were killed and millions were displaced and things got worse. It was a spiral of violence and the more the arms were used the more it got worse. It was a witch-hunt era that put millions of Muslims into suspect position in the Western world. Movies and TV shows which are full of clichés and false portrayal of Muslims by biased ‘experts of Islam’ strengthened the phobias of westerners.

Since then academic studies have been published and questions were asked such as “What Went Wrong?”, “Why Do They Hate Us?”, ‘Is Islam compatible with democracy/capitalism/liberalism?’, ‘Why did Muslims remain underdeveloped?’ Furthermore it was noticed that things were changing very quickly and now the ‘Muslim issue’ was a problem at home. More than 20 million in Europe and 6-8 million in USA Muslim communities were resistant in nature to the melting pot of, especially, the United States. Some said ‘Militant Islam Reaches America’, some told fairy tales about Prophet Muhammad packed as ‘The Truth about Muhammad’ and some more intellectual ones offered a violent way, “hitting the Arabs between their eyes with a big stick” to put them in line.


The rising Muslim presence in Europe and USA led traumatic outcomes and the westerners sometimes showed incredibly exaggerated reactions. Although the recent Breivik slaughter in Norway is marginal in action the ideas of murderer have been voiced loudly in Europe for a long time by right wing political parties. Surprisingly, Mario Borghezio, an Italian member of the European Parliament and a far-right figure said he liked the ideas, if not the acts, of Breivik. “Some of the ideas he expressed are good, barring the violence, some of them are great,” Mario Borghezio told Il Sole-24 Ore radio station. These concerns about identity reached such a level that Bernard Lewis, one of the most widely read scholars of the Middle East, whose advice is frequently sought by policymakers, felt the need to warn Europe as such, ‘Islam could soon be the dominant force in a Europe which, in the name of political correctness, has abdicated the battle for cultural and religious control.’


Some more intellectual ones offered a violent way, “hitting the Arabs between their eyes with a big stick” to put them in line.

To the West, peaceful or violent, Islam is a ‘problem’ and it needs to be solved. It needs to be transferred into a position that will not be ‘harmful’ and a ‘threat’ to the functioning of the western system. Beyond preventing the threat coming from the Islamic world, to take advantage of its vividness and dynamism a process of transformation has been launched. In order for this aim to come true some divisive categorizations and labels have been designated and used for Muslims for a long time in accordance with their behaviours and attitudes towards the western system and values. These labels were; radical, fundamentalist, moderate, mainstream and sometimes extremist, fascist and terrorist. Plenty of books have been written and so called experts were employed to spread these labels and ideas that they represent. Posing majority of the Muslims as problem that needs to be somehow dealt with, it became obvious that solving the problem will start by changing the interpretation of the source, that is, Islam.

In this process some ex-Muslims who have deserted Islam allegedly after experiencing some unpleasant events emerged and they understandably allied with that notorious hatemonger gang of Islamophobia in Europe and USA. They published books and blogs, and participated TV shows and used their personal sentimental tragedies to smear all Muslims and Islam.

On the other hand a group of Muslim intellectuals take a different approach and they rightly try to persuade the westerners that Islam, as a religion, does not have the defects that its opponents accused of having, and moreover they claim that Islam is compatible with the values of modern western civilization such as secularism, democracy and human rights. Since 9/11 the efforts trying to reconcile the western values with Islam have been rising up.

Islam Without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty


One of these intellectuals Mustafa Akyol, a Turkish political commentator and writer, has published a book titled “Islam without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty”. Known as the son of Taha Akyol, a famous liberal journalist in Turkey, Akyol made his first appearances in TV shows on the evolution theory through which he discussed and challenged Turkish professors who had had fossilized knowledge and were unaware of up-to-date developments in their academic branches such as biology, palaeontology and genetics. Akyol was, then, the only Muslim member of Intelligent Design, a movement whose supporters propose a theory which holds that certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process such as natural selection. He testified in favour of introducing Intelligent Design in the Kansas evolution hearings which were held in May 5 -12, 2005 by the Kansas State Board of Education and its State Board Science Hearing Committee to change how evolution and the origin of life would be taught in the state’s public high school science classes.

Mustafa Akyol neither proposes something new in his book nor makes such an argument. What he does is simply reiterate and revive the ideas of Muslim liberal reformist scholars such as Jamal al-Din Afghani, Muhammad Abduh, Rashid Rida and Muhammad Fazlur Rahman in an articulate manner taking advantage of current political and social conditions of the Islamic world.

Akyol begins his arguments with first political and intellectual divisions in Islamic history: Caliph Ali and his supporters, Muawiyah and his supporters, Kharijites and Murjiites. Akyol favours the Murjiites and declares that they opted for rational choice as telling that it is simply impossible to solve a dispute over righteousness, only God would have the ultimate knowledge so humans should refrain from decisive judgements about each other. From this point on Akyol tells us a history of Islamic thought comprised of war of ideas of ‘traditionalists’ and ‘rationalists’. The same arguments go on with Abu Hanifa, Mutazilites, House of Wisdom and use of rationalism versus the domination of an all-encompassing sunna, Ahmad bin Hanbal and pressure of tradition and lack of interpretation. All through these depictions Akyol says that although at the outset rationality and interpretation was employed effectively in Islamic thought in later era, tradition and status quo became dominant. Then in the fifth chapter, Akyol explains reasons for decline of rationalism in Islamic thought and jurisprudence: These are ‘nomadic character of Bedouin Arabs, isolated life of the traditionalists from society, agriculture and military based economy, arid environment of the Middle East which caused the conservatism of the Arabs found expression in Sunnah and finally political structure in the area which is expressed as oriental matrimony.’ These arguments are either taken directly from orientalists’ books on history of Islam or backed with their ideas. Then Akyol tells the Ottoman part of the adventure of Islamic thought which differed with its ‘Turkish style Islam’, crosschecking his arguments that he claimed in the previous chapters. We learn from Akyol how the Ottomans adapted themselves into changing conditions of the time and the contributions of Islamic reformists into new theology of Islam. Yet political conditions did not let the Islamic world change itself. The western countries’ colonialism prevented Muslims’ adoption western ways and manners, and Muslim peoples showed a reaction against European aggression by giving up their enemies’ political and social values and systems.

The first criticism that can be made about Mustafa Akyol’s book is that his references are mostly comprised of orientalists’ works. After Edward Said ’s famous study named Orientalism which criticized the orientalism as being an intellectual back-up to imperialism under the guise of an area of knowledge and research, the orientalism has gained a pejorative meaning in some people’s minds; but I do not mean this. One can study books of orientalists and learn useful things and indeed he should do. However learning your religion from orientalists’ studies and base all your ideas and theories on their books just damages your way of thinking and decreases the seriousness of your arguments. When you see in Akyol’s book that the source of the following hadith “He who makes money pleases God” is given as Fernand Braudel’Civilization and Capitalism you feel someone is pulling your leg.

The other disturbing point about Akyol’s book is his eclecticism. Generally and in this book Akyol does not abstain expressing distrust about the authenticity of the hadithes since they are allegedly have been recorded 150-200 years after Prophet Muhammad’s departure. However Akyol is not hesitant to quote above-mentioned hadith from Fernand Braudel to express Islam’s approval of and compatibility with liberal capitalism. This is a general and chronic discrepancy that all reformists show consistently in their publications. Akyol is one of the most passionate champions of the Turkish Religious Directorate’s ongoing project of preparing a new modern collection of hadithes which will be comprised of selection from a variety of hadith corpora.

Akyol’s understanding of capitalism is too simple if not superficial. To him there is not a distinction between Prophet Muhammad and a modern day CEO of a multinational company in USA because both their occupation is trade. He thinks if you are a Muslim and have an objection against and distaste for capitalism you are most probably influenced by socialism through Ali Shariati of Iran or Sayyid Qutb of Egypt. Firstly, capitalism is not simply trade. It is a philosophy, a way of life, a political system and a world view that changes, uses, and takes advantage of everything to sustain its order. In capitalist system the ultimate goal is profit and this system causes a lot of tragedy for human kind. Today some people are spending their holiday literally in space but some can’t find anything to eat. According to UN statistics 25% of the world population hold 80% of the sources and in the mean time some people are literally starving to death. How can it be possible that in the face of such a tragedy one can claim that Islam does not hold any criticism against such ‘a system’, on the contrary it encourages its implementation. Of course it is possible and imperative to draw a concept from the verses of the Qur’an and hadithes of the Prophet that criticizes and tames the abuses of the capitalist system. At least one has to notice the moral and economical bankruptcy, crisis and deadlock that capitalist system has got into and the protests and demonstrations seen these days in the western capitals which actually reflect just the top of the iceberg of the problems. The real problem with capitalism is ontological. Akyol closes his eyes to the other side of the coin.

Akyol enumerates names and movements in the second part of his book from early modern Islamic-Ottoman era which were establishing a link between liberal ideas and traditional Islam stating that there is an urgent need for ijthad (independent juristic reasoning) in Islamic jurisprudence. One of the names that Akyol tells his short history and ideas and draws intellectual support from is Bediuzzaman Said Nursi (1878-1960) who was an influential Islamic scholar educated in traditional madrasas of East Anatolia region of the Ottomans, and had an effective role in Second Constitutional Period and became an opponent to modern Republic of Turkey with his epistles on preserving Islamic faith and his thousands of followers. What is interesting about Nursi is that he is widely used and quoted by a variety of circles who has clashing ideas ranging from Turkish Hezbollah which was known with its atrocious tortures and murders ‘in the name of religion’ to ‘liberal Muslims’ like Akyol. Sometimes you see an Armenian writer mentions his name and expresses sympathy for him and in other times you see a nationalist author praises him. Whilst Fethullah Gulen, an Islamic leader of an International movement originated from Turkey and an outspoken supporter of interreligious dialogue, says he is inspired by Nursi’s works, another Muslim conservative columnist in dailyMilli Gazete, Mehmet Sevket Eygi who is a vitriolic critic of the former one, states that this movement distorted the ideas of Nursi after his death. One of the reasons of this widely quotation of Nursi by differing segments of intellectuals is the lack of total reading of his works and efforts. Evaluating an intellectual through inspecting some part of his books will not give us a true idea about him.


Mustafa Akyol

Nursi is an important figure who has witnessed to three eras of Turkish history; absolute and constitutional monarchical system of Ottomans and secular modern Republic of Turkey. However Nursi himself divides his life into two eras: Old Said and New Said. In the New Said era he was put under close scrutiny by government and he devoted all his effort into writing the epistles that he called as Risale-i Nur. His ideas about ijtihad in the Twenty Seventh Word in the Words book enlighten us about his position in discussions of ijtihad and reform.

I will just quote directly from him without adding any opinion. Those who are not satisfied can apply the book:

“… We are faced with a similar situation: the onslaught of un-Islamic and even anti-Islamic beliefs and customs from Europe, as well as many religious innovations and plenty of misguidance. Given this, how can we use ijtihad to open new holes and invasion routes in the citadel of Islam? To do so would be a crime against Islam and help its opponents.” (The Words, 498)

“But now European civilization is dominant. We face naturalistic philosophy’s heavy pressure, and the conditions of modern life scatter our minds and hearts and divide our efforts and cares. Our minds are estranged from spiritual issues. Thus even if one was as intelligent as Sufyan ibn Uyayna… he would now need ten times longer to become a mujtahid. If Sufyan became qualified to perform ijtihad in 10 years, we would need 100 years. As for his counterparts in our own time, our capacity has grown too dull to qualify for being a mujtahid. Our thoughts are absorbed in philosophy, our minds preoccupied with politics, and our hearts giddy with worldly life. We have removed our faculties from ijtihad to the degree of our preoccupation with modern sciences, and have remained backward in regard to it to the extent that we have concentrated on physical and worldly matters. Therefore we cannot say: “I am as intelligent as him. Why can’t I be on a level with him?” We have no right to say this, and we cannot be on the same level as Sufyan. (The Words, 499, Citations were extracted from Huseyin Akarsu’s translation.)

I consider these two passages are enough to show Nursi’s position for independent jurisprudence in Islamic issues in modern times in which Muslims are under western cultural, political and economical hegemony. The Twenty Seventh Word is an excellent epistle for those who want to learn why it is not a good time for adapting Islam into new political and social conditions of modern age. There is a modern world which does not tolerate anything a little different from itself in one hand and our beliefs which are characteristically contradicted with modern values on the other hand. It seems it is impossible to remain Muslims if we try to make reconcile and adapt to western values. However establishing an alternative world is possible. Why do not we try?