Monday, September 16, 2013


Assalamualiakum here is a link to my latest book, 'Understanding Muslim Chaplaincy'
There is a discount for orders made through the publishers website

Thursday, May 09, 2013

Islam without extremes: a case for Muslim liberty review

Muslim World Book Review, volume 33, issue 3, spring 2013, pp. 44-47

Book Review:

Islam Without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty

Mustafa Akyol

New York, W. W. Norton and Company, Inc., 2011

P.p. 352. ISBN 978-039070866

Reviewed by Dr Mansur Ali

Cardiff University

Since the emergence of Islam on the modern political scene starting; from the Islamic revolution of Iran through the Rushdie affair to September 11 and beyond, a plethora of apologetic literature, both popular and academic, were produced to balance the existing bias with regards to public perception of Islam. Akyol’s Islam Without Extreme: A Muslim Case for Liberty attempts to go beyond apology. It is an attempt by the author to show to the world that where Islam has become synonymous with extremism, at least an interpretation of Islam can conform to ideas of Western liberal democracy.

The book is divided into three sections. Starting with autobiographical anecdotes, the author sets the contours of the book. As an eight year old, the author frequented his grandfather’s place to learn Arabic and the fundamentals of his religion. One day in his grandfather’s library he stumbled upon a prayer book which had three quotes written on the back. The two from the Qur’an deeply touched him whereas the one from the hadith (about beating children when they don’t pray) horrified and troubled him. He could not fathom his grandfather talking rudely to him let alone beat him. Not satisfied with his grandfather’s explanation, the author, 30 years later, after extensive study of Islam comes to realise that this oppressive mind-set has permeated the core of Muslim scholarship and society. He asks, ‘is this what really Islam enjoins?’

After thorough research, he comes to the conclusion that Islam is not to be blamed for this oppressive mind-set. Under two further sub-headings: ‘understanding just how brutal Islam is,’ and ‘understanding how brutal non-Islam can be’, he comes to the conclusion that authoritarianism is not associated with Islam a priori. Rather authoritarianism is a symptom of an illiberal mind-set due to deep seated political cultures and social structures in that part of the world. This is also the case with non-Muslim countries such as Russia and China. In other words could authoritarian Muslims be authoritarians who just happened to be Muslims? Through personal experience, the author is convinced that the only way that Muslims will flourish is through embracing liberty in all its manifestations. The rest of the book is an attempt to prove why this is not impossible.

In part 1, Akyol explains how Islam started off as an apolitical movement and how throughout the life of the Prophet a spirit of pluralism dominated the teachings of the Prophet. He then goes onto to discuss how Muslims, post- the Prophet, developed an illiberal reductionist understanding of the religion. The culprit to be blamed for this is Mr Hanbal (sic) ‘the radical cleric’ and a ‘petty landlord’ the chief of the literalists (ahl al-Hadith). A literalist reading of the Qur’an coupled with excessive reliance on hadith texts, which was like a ‘telephone game’, created a culture that heavily imposed limitations on the intellect. In contrast, the Murji’ites (postponers) in particular Abu Hanifa (?) were true pluralists as they postponed judgements about people to God. Their offshoot the Qadrites and the Mu’tazilites (the rationalists), through their arguments for the freedom of will and ontological truth and justice sowed the first seed towards an Islamic liberalism. However with the literalist gaining the upper hand Islamdom was reduced to a ‘Hadith wasteland’.

The defenders of reason stood no chance against their opponents. How could they when even the forces of nature were against them? Akyol believes that the war of ideas between the rationalists and their opponents is only the tip of the iceberg. The real cause of difference lies in the ‘desert beneath the iceberg’ and even as deep down as the environment. To put it simply, hadith scholars where of Arab Bedouin stock, fatalistic, tribal, ‘dislike changes as per Arab culture’ , ‘communal in nature’, ‘anti-luxurious’ had a penchant for the concrete and an aversion for the abstract iqta’ loving landlords who lacked dynamism and were followed by the less-educated classes. In contrast, the rationalists where non-Arabs from the merchant class who were well-educated, cosmopolitan intellectuals with an exposure to various traditions, philosophies and people. The arid land of the Middle East with its flat topography is also, at rock bottom, a perpetrator in fashioning this illiberal mind-set.

This analysis leads the author to ask that if the lack of economic dynamism was a cause for the stagnation of Islam, can Islamic liberalism be revived through a rebirth of economic dynamism in the Islamic lands? To answer this question the author turns his attention, in part two of the book, to the case of modern Turkey.

For the author, Turkey is a synthesis of Islam, democracy and capitalism with its free market economy. The reason for this is that the seat of the Ottoman power was in a geo-strategic position as it was on the fringe of the Muslim world bordering Christendom. Since Turkey didn’t have the same experience of being colonized like the Arab countries it was able to learn from the West the value of freedom and liberty. He blames colonization for the disintegration of ijtihad and individualism and the rise of jihad and communitarianism in the Muslim world. The author believes that Turkey is the new way forward towards a middle-class culture which revitalises Islamic values with the modern context. However, this will not come without any hindrance. And in the next section the author posits some ‘signposts on the liberal road.’

Section three is an exposition of three key areas which the author had identified as hindrance towards a theology of liberty: They are freedom from the State, freedom to sin and freedom from Islam. Through an analysis of textual and historical sources, he arrives at the conclusion that for an individual to prosper in spiritual growth, no outside forces can interfere with his relation to God. Hence the Islamic State is not a requirement, a person should not be coerced into leaving sins which is not synonymous to crime and a person should be given the liberty of renouncing Islam without the fear of execution.

At this point a few observations are in order. First and foremost, this book is trying to do more than the pages would allow and therefore a lot of the discussions are superficial and not nuanced. For example any discussion on environmental determinism in understanding the mind-set of hadith scholars has to explain the fact that six out of six of the authors of the canonical hadith collections were not Arabs but Central Asians. The author gives the impression that the al-Maturidi was sympathetic towards the Mu’taziltes whereas al-Maturidi wrote no less than five refutations on the Mu’tazilites. There is also an issue of the sources that the author uses. One wonders why the author confines himself to the studies carried out by Schacht, Crone, Lewis on hadith and not consult the works of scholars such as Motzki, Jonathan Brown, Lucas to get the other side of the story. The author argues that the roots of individualism and liberalism are found in the Qur’an. One can argue that this is merely reading into the Qur’an what the author holds to be of value. This is not new, Ameer Ali found in the Qur’an the whole moral code of Victorian England and Muhammad Qutb read the Qur’an through socialist lens. In the last section the author states that alcohol should not be banned and in a country where alcohol is banned it cannot be proven if people are observant of the law. Whilst in theory this is true, how pragmatic is it? Why criminalise drugs or prostitution if it is consensual and there is no exploitation involved?

In conclusion it can be said that if this is an apology for Islam the author has done a good job. On the other hand if this is a serious attempt to reform Islam and is meant for practicing Muslims, the author needs to carry out original research and not weave a narrative out of secondary sources especially the works of anti-Muslims like Bernard Lewis and Bat Ye’or and the tabloid press. One has good examples of this in high quality research carried out by Muslim scholars such as Sherman Jackson.

Mukhtasar al-Quduri review

Muslim World Book Review, volume 33, issue 3, Spring 2013, pp. 78-79

Book Review:

The Mukhtasar al-Quduri: A Manual of Islamic Law According to the Hanafi School

Translated from the Arabic with Introduction and notes by Tahir Mahmood Kiani,

(Taha Publishers LTD. 2010). Pages 761. ISBN 9781897940709

Reviewed by Dr Mansur Ali

Cardiff University

This is the translation of small opuscule, al-Mukhtasar, written by the head of the Baghdadi Hanafi guild Abu ‘l-Husayn al-Quduri (d. 428/1037); and is one of the first works of the Mukhtasar genre only to be preceded by al-Tahawi (d. 321/933). Books in the Mukhtasar genre were used to quickly train lawyers in the sacred law as well as for memorization for reference purposes. The Mukhatsar of al-Quduri gained much popularity in the Hanafi School of thought due to the position its author held in the guild as well as the superior arrangement of its contents, which hitherto was missing from legal text books. It was incorporated into the Darse Nizami syllabus taught in the religious seminaries of the Asian sub-continent as well as their affiliate seminaries in the Western world as an elementary text of Islamic sacred law.

With the steady growth of Islam in the public sphere coupled with the demands for accessibility of classical Islamic literature, translation of classical texts has found a niche in the book market. The translation under review is another example of the steady growth of translations of elementary pedagogical texts.

The translation, mostly, is clear and precise, and is honest to the Arabic. It boasts many benefits to its merit. First of all the inter-linear Arabic text with the English translation makes it easy for novices to compare and contrast the two languages. Where classical Arabic rarely employs punctuations, the translator breaks down large passages into bullet points without compromising the Arabic. He also uses sub-headings to group themes together which are missing in the Arabic. This then adds another layer of contribution to al-Quduri’s already superior arrangement. The translator uses square parenthesis to bring out the ellipses in the, otherwise somewhat obscure, Arabic text. Excessive use of footnotes has been used to clarify and elaborate issues. These take on many forms, from explaining literary conventions (ft. 8) to simple clarification (ft. 118) to making the book relevant for the modern context such as his discussion on Zakat on silver (ft. 169), medicine (ft. 216) and money in the modern context (ft. 295).

The translation has an exhaustive content page without which it would have been difficult to manoeuvre around the 761 pages. It also has endorsements from the author’s teachers as well as from Shaykh Muhammad al-Ninowi, who in very eloquent Arabic situates the author and the book in the wider context of the development of Islamic Sacred law. The translator also has a small section on jurisprudence (usul al-fiqh) as well as his methodology in translating this text. Finally, he has appended an exhaustive glossary and a useful table on the Zakat of livestock which can be quite mind-numbing to read in the Arabic.

This is a very good and useful translation; however for this reviewer the translation follows the Arabic grammar too closely which at times makes the English archaic. A more idiomatic translation would have read better although the translator acknowledges these limitations in the introduction. This translation is recommended to all those who are thinking of studying Islamic law and is a welcome addendum to the library of translated pedagogical texts.