Islam without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty

By Mustafa Akyol; Published In 2011
Genres: Religion, Islam, Nonfiction, Politics, History
According to Gerber, the Shariah principle here was unmistakably individualist: “The rights of the state are depicted as opposed to the rights of the individual, and the latter are found to be superior.

a nun in the tenth century was so impressed with Cordoba, a city in then–Muslim-ruled Spain, that she called it “the ornament of the world.”54 The freedom Islam offered to the peoples of the Orient, and the way it stimulated the individual, was critical to this grandeur.

Anything in western capitalism of imported origin,” notes Fernand Braudel, the great French historian, “undoubtedly came from Islam.

As Islamic liberalism waned, and resistance arose against the West and its influence, that very resistance started to replace genuine religiosity as the basis of Islam. The creators and the followers of this trend—Islamism—began to define Islam not as a path to God’s blessings and eternal salvation, as it is defined in the Qur’an, but instead as a political ideology that will help Muslims fight the Western-dominated world system.

Franz Rosenthal, the late professor of Arabic studies, said the following about him: The modern reader can hardly fail to notice that the Muslim philosopher succeeded in giving a true description of the essentials of democracy. He also captured the full meaning and significance of the concept of political freedom for the happiness and development of the individual.

Freedom of person, of the press, of participation in government; without this, material prosperity is not possible. Freedom inspires men to work by giving them the assurance that they will receive the reward of their work; economic prosperity is not possible without the free movement of goods and people, and also that free economic association to which modern Europe owes its material achievements. . . . Without freedom too there can be no diffusion of knowledge.

Gerber, who studied seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Ottoman court decisions, points to examples of Ottoman muftis (official jurists) who, despite being paid by the government, “did not hesitate to speak out against the government when [they] came face to face with an injustice.

In his Epistle on Free Will, the leader of the Qadaris, an ascetic scholar named Hasan al-Basri, openly challenged Umayyad caliph Ibn Marwan.14 One of al-Basri’s followers, Ghaylan al-Dimashqi, went even further. Rulers did not have the right to regard their power as “a gift of God,” he argued; they had to be aware of their responsibility for people before God. He even asserted that if all Muslims truly obeyed God and His law, there would be no need for any caliph.

In this sense, Islamism in Turkey was at least partly an unintended consequence of Kemalism. The latter’s zeal against Ottoman tradition impoverished Islamic thought, suppressed even its most moderate proponents (such as the Nur movement), and created a vacuum that a radical Islamism of a foreign origin could fill. The 1960 coup contributed to this void by destroying the Democrat Party, whose center-right umbrella had been uniting nearly the entire Islamic camp. Had Menderes survived, politically and literally, Erbakan and his Milli Görü? probably would not have found an audience. That’s why Turkish historian Ahmet Ya?ar Ocak, a respected expert on Turkish Islam, thinks that the country’s radical Islamists can well be regarded as the “illegitimate sons” of its radical secularists. The Turkish Herodians, in other words, unintentionally helped create Turkish zealots.

It is possible, however, to have a democratic political system without fully acknowledging individual liberties—such as freedom of speech, assembly, religion, or property ownership.

liberalism (a political philosophy based on individual liberties) and democracy (a political system based on representation) often are intertwined.

Liberal politics are incompatible with . . . a [religious] community, unless it is further believed that the individual members of the community have been endowed with reason and free will by their Creator and that they have no certain knowledge of what were/are the Creator’s intentions. —Leonard Binder, Islamic Liberalism

Moreover, unlike the classical period, in which the Shariah was a check on the powers of the executive, it now became an instrument of the executive.

Other problems in the Shariah, such as misogyny, come from the fact that Islamic law incorporated a great many medieval attitudes, customs, and traditions during its formative centuries. Stoning, which has no basis in the Qur’an, probably came from Judaism.

Saladin even paid for the ransom of some of the Franks, as his personal almsgiving. The Christians were so positively impressed by this humaneness that legends flourished in Europe that Saladin had been baptized a Christian and had been dubbed a Christian knight.34 He was, in fact, simply a Muslim ruler who abided by the Shariah.

Some liberal theorists have seen a parallelism between this function of Islamic law and the “natural law” tradition of Europe, on which the liberal political tradition rested.

The answer lay not in faith but in another factor that created trouble for Islam from the very beginning: political power.

The Christians’ “exaggerated fear of sex” continued until modern times, whereas Islamdom remained more sex-friendly until, again, modern times. Even the more conservative scholars of the Shariah had written about “women’s right to sexual pleasure.

The democratic process begins with free and fair elections, but the winners of these elections tend to use political power in authoritarian ways, such as the suppression of the opposition or the silencing of critics.

The medieval Islamic world . . . offered vastly more freedom than any of its predecessors, its contemporaries and most of its successors. —Bernard Lewis, historian of the Middle East1

The Prophet brought a message relevant for all ages, in other words, but he lived a life of his own age.

The Qur’an promoted work and trade and defined commercial profit as “God’s bounty.”38 The Prophet, himself a merchant, is on the record with such sayings as: “He who makes money pleases God.”39 He is also known to have rejected calls for price-fixing, noting that only God governs the market.40 “Muhammad,” as French historian Maxime Rodinson succinctly put it, “was not a socialist.

These religious Turks soon got their facts right. The liberal West, they realized, was better than the illiberal “Westernizers” at home.

Today, the problem is that most contemporary proponents of the Shariah overlook these historical circumstances and insist on a literal implementation that does not pay attention to its purposes. Imam al-Shatibi in the fourteenth century had sorted out the purposes, or “higher objectives,” of the Shariah, listing them simply as the protection of five fundamental values: life, religion, property, progeny, and the intellect.

What is needed, then, is a rule of law whose purpose is to protect not the ruler or a privileged class but the rights of each individual. This was, notably, what law meant in Islamdom. And the key concept was what has recently become a dirty word: the Shariah.

When Ala-ud-din Khilji, a fourteenth-century Muslim ruler in India, wanted to overtax his wealthy Hindu subjects, he was dissuaded by his top scholar because doing so would violate the property rights recognized by Islam.

When such a freedom-promoting government exists, al-Farabi added, “people from outside flock to it,” and this leads to a “most desirable kind of racial mixture and cultural diversity,” which would guarantee the flourishing of talented individuals such as philosophers and poets.35 Sounds a bit like America, doesn’t it?