The Incoherence of Mustafa Akyol’s ‘Ethical Objectivism’?

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House of Wisdom (Bayt al-Hikmah) in Baghdad, 737 CE

Notes on the Muslim Condition and Cavalier Attempts to Understand Islam

Wajahat Qazi

IN the nature of a book promotion, that took the form of an interview carried by Kashmir Observer, Gap Between Muslim  World and the Rest is Growing Wider, Mustafa Akyol – formerly a journalist in Turkey and now a Fellow at the Cato Institute- rattles off key observations from his book, ‘Reopening Muslim Minds: A Return to Freedom, Reason and Tolerance’. 

These key observations that apparently form the gravamen of Akyol’s book suggest, in the main, that the world of Islam has regressed because of ‘blind’ textual imitation and disavowal of critical thinking and reason thereof- the corollaries of which are freedom of religion and speech among other things-that Akyol seems to subsume under the broad rubric of ‘ethical objectivism’. The analogy that is drawn in the interview is of God’s injunction to Prophet Abraham (AS) to offer his son as a sacrificial offering that is then later transmogrified into offering of a lamb. Akyol dismisses this injunction not as a revelatory injunction but as a mere ‘dream’.

Before dwelling on the interview and offering my critique, I would, at the onset state that I am neither an Islamic scholar nor an authority on world religions nor someone who is an expert on the Western philosophical tradition- a veritably distinguished one that the West, after disaggregating it, in different permutations and combinations draws its well spring from. My vantage point is that of an average Muslim and that of common sense interspersed with my very basic understanding of Islam and its distinguished traditions and, above all the Quran.

Now returning to Akyol’s thesis, the core of which can be gleaned from the title that is suggestively loaded and rather an incorrect reading of Islamic history. Is the Muslim mind really closed? And what is the nature of ‘return’ that Akyol is alluding and referring to? Is this alleged ‘return’ the fountainhead of Islam? And, what accounts for the Muslim world’s ‘regression’? Does it emanate internally or externally?

On the face of it Akyol’s thesis is not original. The font of his assertions draw from the Muʿtazili tradition in Islamic history. While I disavow much knowledge of Mutazili’ tradition but in the main, this tradition harking back to the Abbasid period, does not question Islam and its precepts but roots for a vigorous Islamic rationalism, freedom action and the creation of the Quran. As stated, I do not have the intellectual and theological wherewithal to either fully formulate the Mutazila’ tradition or offer a vigorous critique. But, with respect to Akyol’s assertions, he appears to have drawn from this tradition, rather copiously and then brought to bear a synthesis with some major aspects of the Western philosophical tradition, mainly liberalism.

Starting point of a discussion of Islam, its philosophical tradition and other important and significant traditions has to be Islam itself. If the idiom and standards employed to understand are drawn from other philosophies, howsoever distinguished, this approach presents problems.

But the starting point of a discussion of Islam, its philosophical tradition and other important and significant traditions has to be Islam itself. If the idiom and standards employed to understand are drawn from other philosophies, howsoever distinguished, this approach presents problems. So what is Islam? Yet again I must profess my limitations- scholarly and intellectual to offer a deeper exegesis. But I will offer  an answer that is predicated upon my own understanding and experience.

Islam is, as is known, is a monotheistic religion, that has a set of faith based prescriptions for a person to be a Muslim: the kalima shahada (affirmation of being Muslim, by recitation of a kalima that states, ‘There no God but God and Muhammad (pbuh) is His messenger, followed by a set of injunctions to pray five times a day, offer charity (zakat), fast during Ramazan, perform the Hajj pilgrimage. This is the framework of being Muslim, the core of which, is emphatic belief in the unity and oneness of God and in the messenger of Islam, Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). There then is the distinguished corpus of Islamic law(fiqh), traditions(Hadees), and the venerable philosophical traditions of Islam and Irfan (roughly mysticism). Admittedly, this is a reductive delineation. There is more to Islam, Islamic history and philosophy but these are the core elements. The well spring and font of Islam is the Quran.

Given this, and Akyol’s suggestion that Muslims by taking recourse to ‘ethical objectivism’ – a loaded phrase: how, for instance, can humans being human be entirely objective?, and then employ this as an analytical grid to understand and apply Qura’nic injunctions, opens up the proverbial pandoras box. It implies that instead of the Quran being made the judgemental view on humans and the human condition, humans use their faculties to judge the Quran. This suggestion, in turn, then means that employing human judgement to judge the Quran, that we Muslims believe to be the word of God, Who we believe is Perfect. This forms the major critique of Akyol’s thesis. The corollary of this approach then is that the judgment on the Quran and its interpretation becomes common. That is, anyone and everyone can pick and choose from the Holy book, interpret and apply to his or her life in consonance with her or his intellectual faculties, prejudices, biases and world views. This approach could potentially lead to conflict within and without.

The Quran should be read, studied and approached by all but the grid that should inform this study has to be of a special nature and character, one that emphasizes getting to know the real message of the Holy book. A cavalier, lazy approach  in the study of the Quran can lead to undesirable, insalubrious consequences, especially when it is done by taking recourse to a different philosophical and intellectual tradition.

This is, on my part, not to privilege ‘order’ in the Muslim world over debate and discussion but merely to suggest that ultimately the exegesis and interpretation of the Quran have to be a domain of the experts- a suggestion that is not meant to imply monopoly of knowledge by these experts. Not at all. The Quran should be read, studied and approached by all but the grid that should inform this study has to be of a special nature and character, one that emphasizes getting to know the real message of the Holy book. A cavalier, lazy approach  in the study of the Quran can lead to undesirable, insalubrious consequences, especially when it is done by taking recourse to a different philosophical and intellectual tradition.

This is not to say Muslims must close their minds to other venerable traditions and distinguished scholarship of the world. We need to and we must engage with these. It is an imperative but only after a robust engagement and understanding of our own traditions.

This is an imperative to not only understand ourselves but also the world and what it has to offer. The world, defined as it is by dazzling and staggering diversity- cultural, philosophical, scientific, intellectual and so on- is a beautiful place to know, engage with and understand. It is here rather than elsewhere that Muslims have chosen to abdicate their responsibility and closed themselves. And it is here rather than a particular approach and method that the problem lies.

This is an imperative to not only understand ourselves but also the world and what it has to offer. The world, defined as it is by dazzling and staggering diversity- cultural, philosophical, scientific, intellectual and so on- is a beautiful place to know, engage with and understand. It is here rather than elsewhere that Muslims have chosen to abdicate their responsibility and closed themselves. And it is here rather than a particular approach and method that the problem lies.

The Muslim world’s regression does not accrue from something inherent and intrinsic. Yes, it has huge problems and issues. But, these are a combination of the external and the internal, that has made Muslims to retreat, disengage and indulge in hair splitting debates that are, in the final analysis, tangential and indulge in blame games. The world has moved on and is advancing at a staggering place. However, advancement and progress, important, in their own right must not be the yardsticks to gauge Islam. This would amount to getting the causality wrong. If there is a problem, it is with Muslims and not with Islam.

I am not being in denial when I assert this despite the staggering problems that the Muslim world is in the grips of. Yes, we, to repeat, need to and must engage with the world and even draw, in practical matters, from others. But the spirit of this engagement for this must emanate from the world of Islam. Reason and rationality, as important and relevant as they are, and as importantly these need to be integrated in understanding the world from various perspectives, can only be poor substitutes to understand the Ultimate Reality and the Word of God. Reality cannot be objectified and reified by mere reason. To understand it, reason is an important tool and a means but not the ultimate sine qua non. Let Muslims then imbibe this critical faculty to get a firmer grip on the world and its empirical reality but let the truth- esoteric, mystical and divine- be discovered by ways and methods that emanate from the spirit of Islam.

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Wajahat Qazi

Masters with Distinction in International Relations from the University of Aberdeen, Scotland. Worked as Associate Editor of Kashmir Observer.

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