Islam Without Extremes: A Muslim Case For Liberty

Written by Mustafa Akyol on November 30th, 2013

Islam without Extremes

Islam Without Extremes was longlisted for the 2012 Lionel Gelber Prize



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“From furious reactions to the cartoons of Prophet Muhammad to the suppression of women, news from the Muslim world begs the question: is Islam incompatible with freedom? With an eye sympathetic to Western liberalism and Islamic theology, Mustafa Akyol traces the ideological and historical roots of political Islam. The years following Muhammad’s passing in 632 AD saw an intellectual “war of ideas” rage between rationalist, flexible schools of Islam and the more dogmatic, rigid ones. The traditionalist school won out, fostering perceptions of Islam as antithetical to modernity.

However, through his careful reexamination of the currents of Muslim thought, Akyol discovers a flourishing of liberalism in the nineteenth-century Ottoman Empire and the unique “Islamo-liberal synthesis” of present-day Turkey. Only by accepting a secular state, he powerfully asserts, can Islamic societies thrive. Persuasive and inspiring, Islam Without Extremes offers a desperately needed intellectual basis for the reconcilability of Islam and religious, political, economic, and social freedoms.” — Publisher (W.W. Norton)



“At a time when Muslims’ own understanding and interpretations of Islamic faith and practice have never mattered more, Mustafa Akyol presents a powerful and cogent case on the sources of liberalism and democracy that exist within the faith. In this highly readable and valuable book Akyol cites major events, movements and ideas in Islam little known to non-Muslims–and even to many Muslims–who just assume that the authoritarian and inflexible interpretations of Islam are the ‘real Islam.’ Akyol passionately argues why this isn’t so and raises great hopes for the future evolution of liberal and democratic thought and practice within Muslim society.” — Graham Fuller, author of A World Without Islam

“In a touching and deftly woven personal narrative, Mustafa Akyol illuminates one of the central challenges of East-West relations today: Islam’s adaptation to modernity. He traces a direct line from the enlightened Islamic scholars of the Middle Ages to their counterparts in the contemporary world, underscoring the differences between progressive Islamism and the more controversial strains of political Islam. Throughout this fine book, he incorporates lessons from Turkey–both Ottoman and Kemalist–for other Muslim societies and even the West.” — Parag Khanna, author of The Second World

Mustafa Akyol traces the often forgotten history of liberalism in Islam and provides an intellectual path for liberalization to flourish today. His case is compelling, coming as it does from someone who is both a faithful Muslim and a committed liberal.  This book is a must read for Americans and others of all religious commitments.” — Kris Alan Mauren, Executive Director, Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty

Book Jacket

“Early on a cold January morning in 1981, Mustafa Akyol, then eight-years-old, accompanied his mother to the suburbs of Ankara, Turkey. Together they were visiting Akyol’s father, an outspoken journalist held prisoner in the country’s military barracks. The Turkish military had seized power, and those, like Akyol’s father, who respected Islam were jailed. It was a period of crushing authoritarianism in the name of a secular state.

This experience stayed with Akyol as he finished his studies and became a well-respected journalist and political commentator in Turkey. He continued to wonder: Could the authoritarian regimes in Muslim countries derive not from Islam but from the deep-seated political cultures and social structures endemic to that part of the world? How else to explain the presence of authoritarianism in a secular state, like Turkey, as well as in “Islamic” states such as Iran or Saudi Arabia?

To answer these questions, Akyol, a devout Muslim, turned to both the Qur’an and a diverse array of historical and contemporary scholarship to trace the roots of liberty and tyranny in the world of Islam. In accessible and searching prose, Akyol begins at the very genesis of the religion. According to Akyol’s interpretation, the death of Prophet Muhammed in the seventh century ushered in a “medieval war of ideas”. Some Islamic schools of thought defended reason, freewill, and pluralism. Others promoted a more rigid and dogmatic interpretation of the faith. As the latter camp triumphed, because of the powerful classes of the Orient, a less rational and more static mindset began to shape the region. The more trade declined, Akyol argues, the more the Muslim mind stagnated.

After the 18th century, the ruling elites of the Ottoman Empire, eager to modernize, imported liberal ideas along with institutions from the West, gradually leading to a dawn of “Islamic liberalism.” But Akyol’s historical survey demonstrates that even these valuable efforts to effect change continued as a top-down process in which the majority of the society remained uninvolved. The way to liberal reform was also tragically blocked by the stasis inherent in the socialist and statist models toward which the Muslim world was mistakenly driven in the 20th century.

Yet Akyol finds an important exception in contemporary Turkey. There, a nascent Muslim middle class is reinterpreting religion with a more modern mindset. Slowly, the Turkish people are embracing liberal thought and speaking out for all freedoms. The stage is set for “an experiment unprecedented in the history of Islamdom.”

Islam Without Extremes makes the complex story of liberty in the Muslim world accessible and intriguing, while also putting forth provocative, religious arguments for a secular state, “freedom to sin,” and freedom from Islam. With passion and clarity, Akyol synthesizes liberal ideas and Muslim faith as he powerfully points the way towards an Islam that can make peace with open society. Islam need not “secularize” itself, but rather, can coexist with religious, political, economic, and social freedoms.

Persuasive and inspiring, Islam Without Extremes is a desperately needed intellectual basis for the reconcilability of Islam and liberty.”


14 Comments so far ↓

  1. beril says:

    This is what Islam needed to be wholly understood not only by West but also by Turkey and by East. So far, all the wrongs and mistakes made by people who are ‘muslim’ have been attributed to Islam, the religion itself. But one should be able to differentiate between what is wrong according to Islam and what is wrong in practise of some muslims.We should see the discrepencies between the sayings of Quran and what people do. It’s taking the easy way out to evaluate, even insult the religion by only looking at the bad practises, as most people do in West and many in Turkey. I liked Akyol’s saying : “Could authoritarian Muslims be just authoritarians who happen to be Muslim?”.
    How happy is the one who contributes to understanding of Islam, the religion of all times and of all countries. Thanks, and good luck on your path…

  2. Arık Boğa says:

    Trying to demonstrate the least known aspects of islam, and the effort for showing perhaps somehow wrong data and spoiled practices of the most effective religion, in addition ushering the misunderstandings derived from not the instance of islam, the Quran, rather from the tradition
    without any doubt deserve gratitude.

  3. Mye Flatley says:

    Is the slaughter and eating of animals an extreme behavior to you? Should the ritual slaughter of lambs be excluded from Islam?

  4. Scoffs At You says:

    okkkkkkkkkkkkkkk, another kid trying to change Islam, so many came and went. Any monkey now seems to be a scholar of Islam. Islam is not the religion created from philosophy or from nothing. Allah has ordained this religion. He will preserve it. You will fail in vain and go unnoticed.

  5. freda says:

    Islam is compatible with freedom. It brought teachings which showed God sees men & women as equal (many hundreds of years before we in the US thought of it).It forbid killing female infants and the right for both girls and boys (including orphans) to have an education. Again it would be centuries before we protected the rights of children in the west. As for animals, halal slaughter is done to bring the least amount of suffering. The slaughterer must say a prayer and look into its eyes and thank it for its life. It can’t be slaughtered around another animal. Our factory farming methods are filled with cruel inhumane treatment of these poor animals. But telling this to people who put their fingers in their ears and refuse to hear us will keep holding on to their distorted views. Islam has its ugly parts, but it has beautiful parts also. The prophet was known for making peace treaties. The only battles were in self-defense. Quran tells Muslims when the offensive pull back, we must also. And there are rules about not harming women, children, the elderly, places of worship, trees or animals. This is how the vast majority of Muslims know that Al-Qaeda commits crimes not tolerated in Islam. If one innocent person is killed, Quran says it is as if the murderer killed all of humanity. Its time to stop being bullies because that is all it amounts to when we call Muslims every ugly name in the book. That is when the bullies need to look in the mirror and ask who might have a dark place in their hearts. Quran says to respond to the ignorant with peace.

    Peace to all!

    Freda the Sufi who loves to read Rumi and spend time at sites like

  6. American reader says:

    Mr. Akyol, several weeks ago I stumbled upon your TED talk and was immediately inspired to learn more about your ideas and positions from your book. As an American who has only recently begun to discover and observe for herself what the Muslim culture and Islam are really about during travels to Central Asia and Istanbul, Islam Without Extremes provided a much needed background into what the Qur’an, sharia law, and Hadith are and are not, a fascinating trip through the history of the Muslim world, and a truly engaging perspective about the political landscape in Turkey today and how it continues to evolve. Your scholarship and objectivity in debating controversial topics make your writing continuously interesting. Thank you! You have provided a valuable platform from which global citizens can engage with each other about the rightful places of Islam and democracy in modern society.

  7. nyoped says:

    Islam without extremes only oppresses domestic opposition (including journalists, students, union leaders and academics). As long as they are not harmful to the West they are ‘ok’ in the eyes of the western pundits who think all Muslims are terrorists.

  8. Behruz Himo says:

    Thanks you Mustafa for this book and good luck!

  9. İlkay says:

    I stumbled upon your speech at TED. What you are trying to achieve is a long waited change on perception of islam for everyone. Thank you for your hardwork. By the way, will there be a Turkish version of your book?

  10. fahad says:

    Prime minister erdogan and his party is taking turkey into a conflicting situation with both western world and shia religious clerics.By going against asad regime in damascus turkey also have a big opportunity to win the hearts and minds of the people of arab streets.neo ottomanism have already is not only in the news articles!!!!

  11. nycturk says:

    I saw this book on the shelves at a New York bookstore. I told to me myself “here we go again.”

    Mustafa Akyol is a Turkish version of mix of Ann Coultar and Jonah Goldberg.

    Just like Ann Coultar, Mr. Akyol likes to use big words like liberty while arguing why government policies should be based on religious ideals.

    Just like Goldberg, Mr.Akyol likes to demonize the seculars. Using hyberbolic statements both Goldberg and Akyol often try to make seculars look like Hitler or Mussolini.

    The Turkish ruling party Mr. Akyol admires has been suppressing the opposition for 8 years now. Dozens of journalists are in prison (in most cases, without charges). Biggest newspapers had to learn not to criticize the government the hard way (some have been seized by the government while others slammed by billion dollar tax fines). But if you ask Mr.Akyol this very government is liberalizing Turkey (just like Ann Coulter claiming Bush liberating Iraq).

    Go and buy the book if you do not believe me. While at it buy the ones by Goldberg and Coulter too. It is precious to learn liberty from right wing authors who support oppressive governments/measures.

  12. ıstturk says:

    mr akyol ıs an intellıgent journalıst but ı do not agree wıth hım on relıgıous matters.

    we all know how lıberated can a muslm women be.

    some ıslamıc undısputable verses of quran about women says:

    -man havıng rıght to beat up women ın case of dısobedıence
    -women havıng a hıgh duty to obey her husband
    -man can dıvorce hıs wıfe any tıme as he decıdes(women havıng no rıght of opınıon at all)
    -man can mhave 4 wıves
    -women have less rıght than man on ınhertıtance
    -2 female wıtness equals 1 male wıtness.

    so thıs ıs the magnıtude of the lıberty that 50 percent of the islamıc society can have (the women) ıf that socıety ıs strıctly followıng up the holy verses of the quran.

    the only way to develop modern and liberal life style ın islamic countrıes ıs through laicism/seculıarızm.

    ıslam could be more open to lıberalızm ın economıc sense but ı am sure that there would stıll be lots of opposıtıons of ıslam to lıberal economy(for example to earn ınterest ıs prohıbıted ın ıslam.)

  13. Balbazar says:

    I believe even Mr. Akyol himself does not believe in his claims about rising anti-extremism in muslim societies.

    Here is an example that supports my point:

    – For a long time, Mr. Akyol defended “Intelligent Design” creationism as a scientific theory that is about to defeat the theory of evolution. He did this both in his English and Turkish writings.

    – About 2 years ago, he retreated from this position to a position that accepts theory of evolution as a the only scientific theory that explains diversity of life and defends “Intelligent Design” as a critique of the currently established scientific principles.

    – However, Mr. Akyol never came clean to the Turkish reader about this change in his position. He just stopped writing about evolution in Turkish!

    – So, what is the reason for this? Does Mr. Akyol think that the Turkish reader is not interested in the evolution-creation controversy any more? Or is he afraid that, if he declares his acceptance of the theory of evolution, he will be labeled an “infidel” by the “islamic intelligentsia” that is taking over the intellectual capital of the country as islamic extremism takes over the society and the government?

    Yes, I am claiming that Mr. Akyol himself is afraid of the rising islamic extremism in his own country, yes he is trying to sell this rising extremism as a divergence from extremism to the west.

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