"Islam needs its own enlightenment"

Turkish author and journalist Mustafa Akyol is one of the foremost pioneers of an Islam reconciled with modernity. Musa Bagrac spoke with Akyol for Qantara.de about his new book "Reopening Muslim Minds: A Return to Reason, Freedom, and Tolerance" and the chances for Islamic reform

By Musa Bagrac

Mr Akyol, one of the core themes of your book is the question of "immoral religiosity". For many Muslims, moral behaviour is possible through religiosity alone. Someone who prays regularly is therefore also morally upright. In Turkey, the Islamists have been in government for about 20 years. Yet society seems to have lost its moral compass. How can this be explained?

Mustafa Akyol: It is indeed a common view among conservative Muslims today that the liberal West may be advanced in terms of science and technology, but "we" are much more virtuous, and we should do everything to preserve our morals. And since Muslims often equate morality with religious practices and sexual puritanism, it is hardly surprising that such attitudes are widespread.

Yet if we measure morality in terms of more universal values – such as honesty, trustworthiness, fairness, impartiality, or the lack of corruption and nepotism in a political system – our confidence begins to falter.

I know this well from Turkey, where “immoral piety” has become the much-discussed character of a new ruling elite. These are Islamic conservatives, who are pious in terms of religious practices – such as wearing headscarves or abstaining from alcohol – but their rule has become synonymous with deeply unethical examples of corruption, authoritarianism, arrogance, cruelty, deceit and all kinds of ugly Machiavellianism.

I refer to this Turkish tragedy in my book in the chapter, "How We Lost Morality". Equating morality with religious do's and don'ts, without an ethical philosophy based on principles, has created this problem – and not just in Turkey, but in many other Muslim societies as well. The way forward requires reconnecting religious law (Sharia) and universally accepted ethical values.

Cover of Mustafa Akyol's "Reopenng Muslim Minds. A Return to Reason, Freedom and Tolerance" (published by St. Martins Essentials)
In his latest book, published in April 2021, Akyol examines the causes of the crisis of Islam in the modern world and describes possible paths to a new understanding of this religion. He shows how values usually associated with the Western Enlightenment - freedom, reason, tolerance and a quest for knowledge - are certainly present in Islam, but have all too often been forgotten in favour of a dogmatic view, often for political reasons

Is religion necessary for morality?

In the West, it can be seen that secular people have moral integrity. Doesn't this contradict the Muslim idea that religion is necessary for morality?

Akyol: The lived experience of humanity, especially today, shows there is no simple correlation between morality and religion. In other words, secular people behave ethically, too, sometimes even more so than those who claim to be religious.

Traditionalist Muslims sometimes deny this fact, but that is only because they subscribe to the "divine command theory of ethics".

According to this theological doctrine, human actions are "good" or "bad", not because of any inherent value in them that we can discern with our conscience, but only because God says so. For example, theft or murder are bad deeds, but only because God condemns them through revelation. Had God told us they were good deeds, however, then they would be good.

In my book, I argue that this theological doctrine – established by Ash'arism, the dominant theological school in Islam – is at the root of many problems in religious thinking among Muslims today. But I also show that there is alternative doctrine, which is no less Islamic: "objective ethics".

This means that theft or murder are objectively bad things, that is why God has condemned them. Even if we hadn't received divine revelation, we would still be able to understand that they are bad, however, thanks to our inherent conscience and our moral convictions.

Objective ethics imply that while religion calls us to be moral, morality is a universal human value that goes beyond any religion. Reviving this doctrine, I believe, is key to any meaningful religious reform in Islam.

The ugly realities of a pre-modern world   

According to traditionalist Islamic law, it is legitimate for a female child to be married to a much older man. That is a moral perversion; how can this Gordian knot be untied? 

Akyol: It is a good example. Of course, most Muslims would consider a "marriage" between a 12-year-old girl and a 60-year-old man abhorrent, but it is true that you can find some strict Islamic scholars who justify it. Why? Because in traditional Islamic law, puberty was seen as the legitimate marriageable age. My argument is that there is nothing "Islamic" about this, it was just the culture of the age – throughout the entire world. Similarly, traditional Islamic law justified slavery and concubinage, not because these were inventions of Islam, but they because were the ugly realities of a pre-modern world.

The key here is being able to sparate "the religious" from "the historical". It is also having a universal outlook, so one can realise the ethical value in the education of girls (instead of marrying them off at 12), the broader emancipation of women, or in the abolition of slavery. But this really requires re-thinking the meaning of Sharia in Islam, which is what I try to offer in my book.

In your book "Islam Without Extremes", published in 2013, you attested to Turkey's much more liberal, open and democratic path. Today, however, Turkey looks more like a 'Nightmare on Elm Street'. Is religion responsible for this?

Akyol: Turkey is a great disappointment – the biggest disappointment of my own life. Because I was among those who supported the early years of the AKP (Justice and Development Party), when Turkey accomplished some important legal reforms and also seemed destined to join the European Union. But then, once they consolidated power, I saw the same AKP take a U-turn towards corruption, authoritarianism, hate-mongering and sheer cruelty.

Islam and authoritarianism

Who is to blame? There is no simple answer, although part of the blame rests with Turkish political culture, which is infamously combative, state-centric, and chauvinistic. Unsurprisingly these are ills that are rife in Turkey’s secularist circles as well.

Yet developments in Turkey also have to do with Islam, which is the main point of reference for the new ruling elite. They clearly use it to justify authoritarian rule, blind obedience to a "great leader", and hatred against those who are depicted as the "enemies of Islam" or "traitors" to it. (This is true for not just "Erdoganists", who have the upper hand, but also "Gulenists", who went from being their closest allies to their worst enemies, in an intra-Islamist power struggle.)

So, yes, Turkey’s tragedy definitely has something to do with Islam, and the way it is instrumentalised for power, which is a deep-seated problem I explore in my book.

You give much space to interpretations of religious texts that cultivate freedom, while others prefer those that underpin obedience. Methodologically, these approaches are similar. What makes your "Islamic freedom" special compared to other interpretations?

Akyol: Muslims with widely differing values consult the same Koran and arrive at different interpretations. As a Muslim who values liberty, I am inspired by Koranic statements such as "there is no compulsion in religion", or "to you your religion, to me mine". Other Muslims who believe in supremacy and coercion in the name of Islam take other verses as being more definitive, such as: "Fight those who do not believe in Allah and the Last Day… until they are subdued".


The main problem here is that supremacist and coercive interpretations became the mainstream view during the formative centuries of Islam. The tolerant verses I just noted were either "nullified", or at least limited in scope. My argument is that this interpretation was not derived from the Koran.

Instead it was a requirement of the political needs of the early Muslim empires, which operated in a brutal world of violence and coercion. Yet we live in a radically different world now, where peace, freedom and human rights are universal norms, and we Muslims need to revive the spirit of the "nullified" verses that call for a live-and-let-live attitude between Muslims and others.

You emphasise that the Muslim belief in destiny plays into the hands of authoritarian leaders. Would you say that – taking Turkey as an example – the AKP, through the Diyanet religious authority, the theological faculties, the religious communities and orders, is spreading an Islam that always puts society and politics first, instead of being oriented towards nurturing free and mature individuals? 

Akyol: During the first century of Islam there emerged a staunchly fatalist doctrine called jabriyah (Compulsionism), supported by some alleged hadiths, which denied that humans have free will. Later, the mainstream Sunni doctrine, Ash’arism, mitigated this extreme fatalism to some extent, but it is still a dominant theme in Muslim culture.

Fatalism is repeatedly used by authoritarian rulers to evade their responsibility when they fail to govern or make rational decisions. It also plays down individual responsibility, as you point out, which is one of the reasons I discuss fatalism and its negative effects on Muslim societies.

The nuances of Enlightenment

It is often discussed in the West that the Islamic world needs urgent enlightenment. Do Muslims really have a problem with enlightenment?

Akyol: What Islam needs is its own Enlightenment. And my book is indeed an argument for that. But let me add that the European Enlightenment had its own nuances. There was a radically secularist Enlightenment, most influential in France, which often challenged and even supressed religion in the name of reason and freedom. But there was also what historian David Sorkin calls "the religious Enlightenment", the spirit of which was to reconcile religion with reason and freedom. It is the latter type of Enlightenment I admire, and it is also the kind of Enlightenment I advocate for the Muslim world.

You list the following three groups as obstacles to Muslims living in harmony with modernity: Salafists, Islamists and conservatives! The established Muslim associations in Germany exhibit all the characteristics of a reactionary, stock conservative category. Even though the number of liberal Muslims is small, conservative Muslims are massively bothered by them, accusing them of being westernised, modernist, Orientalist. What do you think is actually the problem?

Akyol: Since most of those strict conservative Muslims have come to the West from Muslim-majority societies, aren’t they too "Westernist"? There must be something they appreciate about the West, to want to live there. And that something, to me, is obvious: since the Second War, Western liberal democracies are the safest, freest and fairest societies in the world, at least when compared to the Muslim world. No wonder even Islamists who are persecuted in their own nations often flee to the West, where they find freedom of speech and the rule of law.

Woodcut "Arab astrologers with measuring instruments", Venice 1513 (photo: picture-alliance)
The heyday of Islam: under the rule of the Abbasid dynasty (749-1258), the humanities and natural sciences experienced a tremendous upswing. In particular, the capital of the Abbasid Empire, Baghdad, emerged as a hub for research and education. "Until a few centuries ago, the signs were exactly the opposite," says Mustafa Akyol. "The Islamic world was more enlightened, wealthier and freer... But today refugees are fleeing the Muslim world. And we should ask ourselves why this is so"

I would want to see the same values – freedom of speech, rule of law, as well as economic prosperity, which is closely linked with freedom and justice – in the Muslim world. Does this make me "Westernist"? Not really, because I want these not for the West, but for the sake of the East. I want Muslims around the world to enjoy the same level of political, legal and economic rights that a German or Canadian citizen enjoys. To depict this as illegitimate "Westernism" is either the self-serving propaganda of Eastern despots, or self-defeating reactionism.

I should add that the gulf between West and East isn't written in stone. In fact, until a few centuries ago, the balance was tilted in the opposite direction: the Islamic world was more enlightened, wealthier, freer. That's why Spanish Jews fled Christendom and found refuge in the Ottoman Empire, which offered them incomparably more religious freedom. But today refugees are fleeing the Muslim world, rather than making a beeline for it. We should honestly ask ourselves why.

Nationalism, tribalism – and the lust for power

Traditionalist Islamic jurists see the lack of equality and justice between the sexes as being caused by a lack of consistent implementation of Islamic law. Is this true?

Akyol: There is no one single cause for all the problems in the Muslim world, which is a very diverse set of more than 50 nation states, each with very different concerns. Syria is not a brutal dictatorship because of Islam, and the same is true of, say, Turkmenistan. Turkey, my country, has been oppressing minorities such as the Kurds for decades out of secular nationalism, not Islam.

Yet there are also dictatorships or militant groups acting in the name of Islam. Or misogynist interpretations of Islamic law that keep women subordinate to men, or criminalise unorthodox ideas with grim verdicts on apostasy or blasphemy. My work focuses on criticising these troubling interpretations of Islamic law, but I would like to remind readers that there are many other negative forces at play in the Muslim world, such as nationalism, tribalism, and that universal human problem: lust for power.

During the pandemic we have seen how the ubiquitous Ash'arite concept of fatalistic destiny leads people to indulge in careless behaviour. Is it possible to free oneself from these shackles and if so, how?

Akyol: By and large, the Muslim world actually didn’t fare too badly in the pandemic: mosques were closed in many countries and religious leaders called for precautions. But there were pockets of irrationality, mostly visible in Pakistan, where some clerics opposed not only social distancing, but they even denied there was any contagion at all. And as I argued in my book, this view is based on a hadith which reads, "al-adwa", or "there is no contagion".

This was used by Ash’arite scholars for centuries to oppose contagion, while also upholding a theological doctrine: that there is no cause-and-effect in nature, every occurrence being created separately by God instead. And this is just one example of how some theological doctrines have prevented Muslims from developing a scientific view of the world. Of course, it is possible to move beyond such doctrines, but first we need to admit that they are problematic.

Modern knowledge for Muslims

You are against the Islamisation of modern knowledge. So what value should knowledge have in the world of Muslims who come to terms with modernity?

Akyol: What Islamic intellectuals in the modern world need is not the once-popular project of the "Islamisation of knowledge", but the "integration of knowledge". The latter implies that there is an Islamic framework that is valid for Muslims, but there is also a broader universal framework that is valid for all humanity, including Muslims. Therefore, instead of thinking that they must have an "Islamic economy" or "Islamic state", Muslims should engage with all the economic or political wisdom of the entire human race. Just like there is no "Islamic" chemistry or physics, and no need for Muslims to "Islamise" them.

How can the collective Muslim consciousness be freed from conspiracy theories that fuel hostility against the West and Jews?

Akyol: Conspiracy theories have become very seductive in the modern Muslim world, among both Islamists and nationalists, because they offer an easy solution to a deep problem. They explain away the underdevelopment of the contemporary Muslim world not by critically looking within, which is necessary for healing, but by blaming enemies on the inside and out, which is a dangerous delusion.


Let’s not forget that conspiracy theories can became dangerously popular and destructive in any society that feels under stress. They were the driving force behind European fascism in the interwar period, and their recent popularity in the United States is quite worrying. So, Muslims societies aren’t the only ones who fall prey to this delusional worldview, which foments hate and anger against imagined enemies, but provides no solution or remedy to real problems.

How Muslim minds can be protected from such delusions? Perhaps by realising that this is a "bid’a" (innovation) – something conservatives normally abhor – in the Islamic civilisation. Because pre-modern Muslims really didn’t have a conspiratorial worldview, as one can clearly see from the Ottoman political culture. If anything, the Ottomans were rather confident about their place in the world, and they were unacquainted with any of the "Zionist conspiracies" that today’s so-called neo-Ottomans are obsessed with.

Twin worlds of state and religion

While in the Islamic world the state and religion are considered twins, you regard such authoritarian thinking as a weighty factor in its backwardness, and emphasise unequivocally that the goal of religion cannot be to establish a state. Referring to the Tunisian philosopher Ibn Khaldun (1322-1406), you even advocate the liberal view of  reducing the state. Can you explain what you mean by this?

Akyol: It is true that Islam has been connected to the state from the very beginning – from the first Muslim state in Medina that the Prophet Muhammad founded in the second phase of his mission, to the caliphate that ruled for centuries. But I agree with 20th century scholars like Ali Abdel Raziq, Seyyid Bey, or Mahmud Taha that this marriage with the state was "historical". In other words, the Prophet Muhammad founded a state in Medina only because he wasn’t allowed to preach Islam in his native Mecca.

After him, Muslims established an imperial "caliphate", only because that was the age of religious empires, and the universal message of Islam couldn’t spread with the civil "call" – or da’wa – as it is possible today. Breaking this historical link between Islam and the state is long overdue, because all it does is serve authoritarian regimes looking to exploit Islam for their own political ends.

Ibn Khaldun’s view of limited government is mostly economic – such as low taxation – but we find arguments for "Islam without a state" in the writings of some other medieval Muslim scholars, such as Mu’tazila theologians al-Asamm (d. ca. 816), al-Nazzam (d. ca. 840), and Hisham al-Fuwat (d. ca. 845).

Dispute about the Koran: revealed in history or eternal?

There is an ongoing dispute between those who argue that the Koran is eternal and uncreated and does not require commentary and those who argue that the Koran was revealed in history and, as such, requires interpretation. They see the Koran as a context-bound and interactive text that provides answers to people's problems. What are the advantages of this perspective and which problems faced by today's Muslims could it solve?

Cover of Mustafa Akyol's book, "Islam Without Extremes", (published by Norton & Co.)
In his book "Islam Without Extremes", published in 2013, Akyol still attested to Turkey being on a more liberal, open and democratic path. Today, however, Turkey resembles a nightmare in terms of democratic values. For Akyol, it is "the biggest disappointment of my own life. Because I was among those who supported the early years of the AKP (Justice and Development Party), when Turkey accomplished some important legal reforms and also seemed destined to join the European Union. But then, once they consolidated power, I saw the same AKP take a U-turn towards corruption, authoritarianism, hate-mongering and sheer cruelty"

Akyol: Almost every Muslim school of thought accepts that the Koran leaves some room for interpretation, but the scope of that interpretation varies widely.

I am critical of the mainstream Sunni doctrine that the Koran is "uncreated" – that it has existed with God for all eternity – because it leads to the perception of revelation as a monologue by God, instead of a dialogue between God and humanity.

Once we understand that the Koran is a dialogue, we can perhaps also understand why, for example, it punished theft with the amputation of hands.

After all, this was exactly how pre-Islamic Arabs punished theft, in a social setting where no prisons existed, and only corporal punishments were available.

Or the fact that the Koran allowed polygamy, because it was a necessary institution in a violent context where constant warfare led to a shortage of men. Similarly, the Koran addressed many customs of early 7th century Arab society, which are unknown in the modern world.

We can of course infer moral lessons from those historical episodes, but we cannot try to implement them today. Seeing the Koran in such historical context, I believe, is key to a more mature interpretation of it.

Liberal, tolerant and Muslim

You propound a theology of tolerance that is oriented towards the dignity of the individual and that seeks to offer solutions to many of the problems faced by Muslims. You therefore advocate an open attitude inspired by the schools of thought of the Murjia, the Mutazila and Islamic philosophy. What does such a theology offer Muslims living in the West and the world as a whole?

Akyol: Many Muslims in the West admire what they find there: democracy, freedom of speech, equality before the law, respect for all human beings regardless of religion and creed. There remain some problems, though, such as the intolerant interpretation of secularism in France.

Yet some of these Muslims cannot reconcile the modern liberal society around them with what they read in the classical religious sources, or with the fatwas they may hear uttered by conservative clerics.

My book is about showing these Muslims that they can be liberal and tolerant without giving up the fundamentals of their faith. I even argue that a liberal social order of freedom and tolerance is the best environment to be a good Muslim. Because it allows one to be a Muslim as one truly believes – and not as dictated by a regime or the "religion police".

Interview conducted by Musa Bagrac

© Qantara.de 2021

Turkish journalist and author Mustafa Akyol is a leading proponent of an Islam compatible with the values of democracy and enlightenment. Akyol writes regularly for the New York Times and Al Monitor magazine, among others. Since 2018, he has been working on the intersections between Islam and modernity at the Cato Institute's Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity in Washington, USA.