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Mustafa Akyol, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, joins Chelsea Follett to discuss Islam's lost liberal tradition and why Muslims should reform the Sharia.

Mustafa Akyol: The Human Progress Podcast Ep. 15 Transcript

By Chelsea Follett @Chellivia

By Mustafa Akyol @AkyolinEnglish

The conversation between Mustafa Akyol and Chelsea Follett can be found here. The transcript is below.

Chelsea Follett: We are delighted to have Mustafa Akyol joining us on the 15th episode of the Human Progress podcast. Mustafa is an expert on Islam and public policy, and a dear colleague in the Cato Institute’s Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity. He writes regularly for the New York Times and has written many books, including this year, Reopening Muslim Minds: A Return to Reason, Freedom, and Tolerance, and most recently, Why as a Muslim, I Defend Liberty. How are you, Mustafa?

Mustafa Akyol: Thank you so much, Chelsea. It’s great to have this conversation with you, and thanks for your gracious introduction. It’s a pleasure to be colleagues with you. I’m happy that we have a chance today to talk about my latest book.

Chelsea Follett: Same. So let’s get right into it. Please, in broad strokes, paint a picture of what this book is about, and because this is the Human Progress Podcast, how does it relate to prospects for progress and the future of liberty in the Muslim world?

Mustafa Akyol: Sure. The idea for this book came about a year or more than ago when Aaron, our colleague from libertarianism.org, the Cato Institute. He walked in and said, “Mustafa, why don’t you write one book which puts all your arguments about Islam and liberty, that is religious liberty, economic, political, the broad value of liberty we cherish in just one accessible volume so everybody can get it and understand.” because I have other books Like Reopening Muslim Minds is a very deeply theological and philosophical. I say I make a lot of arguments there, but I wrote something backing Islam without extremes, and there are issues that I haven’t actually touched upon in any of those books. So I said, “Okay, that’s a good idea, and I’ll write something that puts all my arguments in a nutshell, but accessible, and also with new episodes, new history anecdotes, and new arguments.”

Mustafa Akyol: And so this book came out, and as you will see, there are chapters in it, like chapters about Sharia, chapters about some of the problems in the Islamic world, but also some of the basis for advancing liberty and some of the blessings of classical Islamic civilization too. People always think that everything in the past was bad and things are necessarily getting better, in a global scale, maybe, but also there are times that things go down, and I showed that actually certain things went down in the Muslim world in the past few centuries because of bad paths of modernization. Modernization was sometimes understood as building a giant state that suffocates civil society.

Mustafa Akyol: So you will see arguments about religious liberty, criticizing religious coercion. There are political ideas, like how do we establish an ideal state? Should it be based on conquest or should it be based on a social contract? Is there a basis for that in Islamic thought? There are… There’s also a discussion about… Something that most people may not know, liberalism in the classical sense of the term was already a very popular idea in the 19th century amongst some Islamic intellectuals. These are people like Namik Kemal in the Ottoman Empire or Tunisian Hayreddin Pasha. They were fascinated by liberal democracy, rule of law, freedom of speech, constitutional government that they saw in Europe, they admired it, and they looked back at the Islamic tradition, they tried to reconcile, and they did. They created these interesting ideas and theories. And I try to give a sense of those early thinkers in Islam which argued for religious, political, and economic freedom.

Chelsea Follett: Right. You speak about seeds of liberty or precedents for classical liberal policies in Islam, but also how some interpretations of Sharia today have resulted in infringements on human rights and liberties. But you speak about reforming Sharia as actually reviving Sharia. Could you tell us what you mean by that?

Mustafa Akyol: Yeah. I kind of go both ways and try to make a sense of the broader Islamic tradition. First of all, I borrowed the term, the seeds of freedom, from my friend and colleague, a good grade scholar, Daniel Philpott. He’s a scholar at Notre Dame. He’s Catholic himself, and he’s looking at Islam from a religious, different religious perspective, obviously. But he has this book, Religious Freedom in Islam, and he says, “Well, there are really powerful passages in the Quran that vindicate freedom.” One of them, and the most off-quoted one reads, “There is no compulsion in religion.” La ikrah fi din, in Arabic. There are other passages in the Quran, which say, “The truth is from your Lord God. Let anyone who want to believe it, believe it. Let anyone who want to disbelieve it, disbelieve it.” So that sounds like religious freedom. But when you look into the Islamic jurisprudence, that’s the interpretation of Sharia Islamic law, you will also see that these seeds of freedom were not cultivated.

Mustafa Akyol: They were sometimes even suppressed, because Islam grew was an… Got interpreted in an age of empires, religious authoritarian regimes, tyrannical rulers, which didn’t need these ideals of liberty and didn’t necessarily cultivate them. And the idea that religion should not be forced on anybody didn’t go well with imperialism, which was the idea, ruling idea, and the concept of the time. So that’s why, for example, I show in the book that when you read the Quran and you come to “there is no compulsion in religion,” it’s fascinating, and when you look into what it meant in the Prophet Muhammad’s life, you see, “Wow! It was against the idea that people should be converted to Islam, so it was against forced conversion.” That’s quite remarkable.

Mustafa Akyol: But then I quote a contemporary scholar from Turkey, a conservative one, who says, “No, no, no, this doesn’t mean that there is no compulsion in religion.” He says, “There is no compulsion to the religion only, but when you’re in it there is all sorts of compulsion.” So they’re kind of limiting the meaning off there. And I show why that has happened, and why that shouldn’t be understood as the universal true message of Islam. On the other hand, for example, when I speak of how to revive or what to revive from the Sharia, I make an emphasis there, which might not be obvious to some people. The value that we call separation of powers, that Montesquieu brought into Western political language, and which in the US turn into checks and balances. You say there’s the executive, and the legislative branch, and these are separate, and it’s important to keep them separate. That already existed in classical Islam, to an extent. The idea that Sharia, that is, God-given law is separate from the ruler, and it is even above the ruler. Actually, sometimes worked as a constraint on the rulers.

Mustafa Akyol: And I show, like tell the story of an Ottoman Sultan, Sultan Mehmed II, who persecuted a Greek architect, and then the Greek architect went to a court, the Sharia court, and sued the Sultan, and he was summoned to the court and he was given a punishment to actually compensate for the architect. So this is not something you can find in Saddam’s Hussein’s Iraq or today’s Bashar Assad’s Syria. Unfortunately, some of the good values we could detect were partly lost, and some troubling interpretations became more dominant, so I think we are in a really grim period in the history of the Islamic civilization. But I’m trying to show that we do have seeds of freedom, and we can cultivate them with the right perspective, and the book is a call to have that perspective.

Chelsea Follett: You also find a lot of reasons for optimism in the history of Islam, right? You speak about how the first Muslim state in Medina, in some ways anticipated social contract theory. And you speak about especially the Golden Age of Islam, and how there was a time when the Muslim world was at the forefront of progress in many areas, and was relatively very tolerant. So could you walk us through some of that history?

Mustafa Akyol: Sure, definitely. By the way, you also wrote about the Islamic Golden Age, and the thriving of philosophy, and science, and medicine at that time, so congratulations for that.

Chelsea Follett: Baghdad.

Mustafa Akyol: You wrote a great article. It is indeed known to students of history that about 1000 years ago the Islamic civilization was the world’s most productive civilization, and most enlightened in many respects. There was more religious freedom compared to Christendom. That’s why Jews fled from Europe to the Islamic world, especially the Ottoman Empire, where there was more religious pluralism, and where… That’s why it was Muslims who studied Aristotle, or Plato and other Greek philosophers, and brought that whole philosophical Greek tradition back to Europe, via Spain, at a time that Europe was really in a more dogmatic frame of mind. And actually, most Muslims know this. It’s a nostalgia among Muslim communities around the world, like 1000 years ago we had the best scientists, 1000 years ago Muslims were the ones who measured the size of the Earth, or calculated… Or invented algebra, or advanced mathematics and all that. Not invented, but in most cases, advanced, let’s say. That’s why the word algorithm comes from, Al-Khwarizmi, and there are so many words in English, of course, that have Arabic roots precisely for this.

Mustafa Akyol: And by the way, of course, there are Arabic numerals. [chuckle] They came from the Arab world, obviously. But what was the secret of that Golden Age is I think the big question. And you will find some Imams today saying, “Oh, we were great, and because we were pious, and God blessed our piety with earthly success.” And it’s a romantic explanation, and when you look at the facts you don’t find that Muslims became less pious over time, or the piety is necessarily the explanation. But I say there was another explanation, that the Islamic world was, for its age, unusually cosmopolitan and open-minded. Muslims could study Aristotle, and Plato and not get branded as heretics [chuckle] for that, where they could translate these books. Later, it happened though, studying of philosophy became criminalized over time. Or I mentioned an institution that few people may be aware, there’s this courtly discussions called ‘majilis al-munazra’ or Salon of debate.

Mustafa Akyol: In the Abbasid caliphate, the Caliph would call Christian theologians, and Muslim theologians, and would say, “Discuss theology and make all the best arguments.” And Christians, actually, I write there, Christians were scared at the beginning, like, “Can we really say something critical of Islam inside an Islamic caliphate.” The Caliph said, “This is a fair majilis say what open majilis say whatever you say.” And some people who heard this were shocked, “Oh my God, offensive words are being said against Islam,” but it wasn’t punished. And that was the engine of intellectual dynamism, because being exposed to different ideas, thanks to free speech, thanks to cosmopolitanism, was the driving force. And I think the decline of the great Islamic civilization, and ultimately, which led to the current crisis, began with the criminalization of ideas. “Oh, one sect of Islam is true. These are heresies, and heresies should be suppressed. Oh, philosophy, philosophy is a heretical thing, we should never study it. We can get a little bit part of it, but then the rest is bad.”

Mustafa Akyol: And this got worse and worse, and in the modern era it just turned into another crisis. Any idea that comes from… Now, ideas don’t come from Greeks anymore, but from the West, right, from liberal thinkers. “Oh, no, no, we don’t need these. This is all heresy, this is all the whispers of the devil.” So that sort of closed-mindedness is a problem, and I show that we Muslims should reopen our minds again to think on these issues. One thing, Western Colonialism contributed to this crisis, because when you occupy people and say, “We brought you freedom”, they will not like freedom, and I make that point there as well too. So there’s a geo-strategic angle in this problem that I’m talking about. But it is still important to be able to distinguish what is colonialism, what are the good ideas of progress. And we should not forget that in the West, colonialism has been criticized and rolled back, thanks to free speech, right? People were able to criticize western foreign policy, which is exactly what we need in Muslim-majority countries.

Chelsea Follett: Right, and you talk about how even though some Muslims do think of free markets or classical liberalism and political liberalism as something from the West, something colonial, actually, there are a lot of precedents in Islamic history for these things. For example, you talk about economic freedom in the early Islamic societies.

Mustafa Akyol: Exactly, and I mean, that chapter, The Lost Heritage, Islam’s lost Heritage of Economic Liberty, that’s a chapter in Why I defend liberty. Actually, as I do in every chapter, I begin with a story there. I mean, when you actually go to Istanbul, millions of people go to Istanbul, my hometown as tourists, and most of them go to the Grand Bazaar, which is a shopping mall built centuries ago, by the Ottomans. And when you walk into it, there are nice gates, gorgeous gates, and on one of them there is an Engravement in Arabic, and it writes “Al Kasibu Habibullah “, which means God loves those who earn. And it’s like a promotion of business, basically. Like something that God loved, business and businessmen and merchants, traders. And who said this? Oh, it’s a saying by Prophet Mohammad.

Mustafa Akyol: Why? Well he was himself was a merchant. Actually, most early Muslims were merchants because Islam was born in a commercial environment. And Islam promoted trade, and thanks to that, Islam created a medieval capitalism, which was very creative. And for example, Muslims, instead of carrying money in a very long distance and with all the dangers affiliated with that, they started to write the amount of money in one location and to go and cash on the other place, and they called it sakk, which means written document, which became the cheque in Europe. So I show these kind of cross-cultural influences. There’s a whole literature actually by scholars like… From Maxime Rodinson to Benedikt Koehler, I mean most recently, who has written about the influence of Islam on western capitalism, and I try to show some of the highlights there. I also recall and highlight a medieval Islamic thinker, Ibn Khaldun who actually created a theory of this.

Mustafa Akyol: I mean, he has this fascinating book, Muqaddimah: Introduction to World History. And he’s hailed as the pioneer of many of the social sciences that we have today. And he has many great ideas, but one thing is that he makes the argument that for a state, for a country to thrive, he called them kingdoms or Sultanates, taxes should be low so that people have incentive to do business. And if taxes are too high, that will discourage people from engaging in trade and business, and he says, “Civilization will decline and collapse.” Basically, he’s making a free market… Defense of free-market against a intrusive state, against a state-managed economy. And it’s no accident that he inspired Arthur Laffer. You know, the Laffer Curve comes from Ibn Khaldun. He inspired Ronald Reagan. Reagan quoted him in a TV show once… I’m sorry, not a TV show, but like a press release, but it was on TV, even quoted, Reagan quoted Ibn Khaldun in a New York Times article. So there is a Islamic contribution to the idea of free markets and a free economy.

Chelsea Follett: Right. So the secrets to a success then of the Islamic Golden Age, you have economic freedom, reason, openness, cosmopolitanism, but also…

Mustafa Akyol: Freedom of speech. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.

Chelsea Follett: Yes, freedom of speech. But also limited government. You talk about how, moving a little bit later in time, during the Age of Absolutism in Europe, when the king was above the law in so many countries, in the Muslim world, this was not the case. You have a great story to illustrate this about a Sultan and an architect that will stay with me forever I think. Would you like to talk about that a bit?

Mustafa Akyol: Yeah. Yeah, sure. That is the chapter titled, What We Should Revive From the Sharia. First of all, most of us… Most of the people who may be hearing us, when they hear the word Sharia, it might have negative connotations, understandably so, because there are terrible things done in the name of Sharia today in Saudi Arabia, Iran, Taliban in Afghanistan, because they implement a brutal… Corporal punishments are very illiberal understanding of the laws. There are a lot of problems there, and I show them actually in the book. There’s a whole chapter on why terrible things are being done in the name of Sharia. But I also show that the original intentions were generally good, but when you have a blind obsessive textualism, that leads to many problems. But the other thing is, as you said, classical Islamic civilization was successful partly because, yes, the political authority was constrained, it wasn’t absolute. The ruler just couldn’t declare anything he wanted, for example, the ruler couldn’t confiscate any property.

Mustafa Akyol: Most of the time, rulers love to confiscate. I mean they wanna plunder, and that’s what a Sultanate or kingdom, most of the time in the world history, brought to people. But because of the Sharia, which is God’s law above the rulers in the Islamic civilization, a civil society developed and they’re especially known as the Waqf, that’s the Arabic term. And the English translation is “Foundation”. Charitable foundations were formed in the classical Islamic civilization. Foundations that supported hospitals, soup kitchens, libraries, schools, madrasas, madrasa means school in Arabic. It’s not necessarily, you know, a bad institution it’s just any kind of school.

Mustafa Akyol: So these are all financed by charitable foundations that were separate from the government, and they were protected from the government’s encroachment. The government… The Sultan couldn’t get them because they’re protected by Sharia and the Sharia is above the Sultan. So this is actually the kind of limited state idea that that has worked well in the Western tradition. Unfortunately, what happened in the 20th century, in late 19 and early 20th century is that these charitable foundations in the Islamic world, which were separate from the government, which were autonomous, were gradually confiscated by governments. Why? Because the modernity they aspired to was inspired from fascist Italy or sometimes colonial powers, the French colonial rule in Algeria limited these… Confiscated some these foundations. So we always think of modernity as a progressive force. It can be if it is liberal, but let’s not forget, fascism was moderate. At some point, it was new.

Mustafa Akyol: So unfortunately, the Muslim world imported… I mean, there were already problems in the tradition, but in the modern era, some of the bad ideas from Europe, like Arab socialism, socialism became Arab socialism, or like a fascist state, a one-party state, these were incorporated into parts of the Muslim world, Arab republics like Egypt, Syria, Iraq. These are Socialist Republics in their foundations, and all the foundations were confiscated, taken over by the state. So today, by accepting a liberal political order, liberal in the classical sense like a limited government, free markets, free speech, Muslims will be also reviving some of the values they already had before this wrong turn in the modern era. That means limited government, private companies, charitable foundations and other foundations. So therefore, because we already got some ideas that are modern but were bad. I’m calling modern ideas that are good and also that have some roots in Islamic tradition.

Chelsea Follett: Right. Progress is not a straightforward path. You show how the success of classical Islam was due to particular policies and institutions, and you also show how many of those traditions were lost, how there was a conflict there between different jurists, some of whom were called the people of reason and others who were the people of theology. Could you walk us through what happened?

Mustafa Akyol: Sure, definitely. That is about the interpretation of Islamic law, so there are two approaches. This began… First of all, law has become a very important issue in Islam since the beginning. It’s partly because Islam is a bit like Judaism, where the halakhah, the observance of the law, how you eat, how you pray, how you live, how you organize society is connected to religion, and also because Muslims had states to rule, they needed law for those. So law-making, legislation, has become a key issue, it’s called fiqh or jurisprudence, interpretation of the Sharia that’s “God-given law”. But in the beginning there were two… You see two schools of thought. One was called, as you said, Ahl al-Ra’y in Arabic, which means people of reason or people of considered opinion, and Ahl al-Hadith people of traditions or narrations. What was their difference? Well, the Ahl al-Ra’y, the people of reason, they were based in Iraq, in the cosmopolitan cities of Iraq and at the time, Iraq was the world’s most cosmopolitan place.

Mustafa Akyol: First there was Kufa and then Baghdad. So these were the cities where you had Muslims and the Christians and the Jews, and Zoroastrians and the Sunnis and the Shi’ites and different… All colors and centers of trade people were coming and going. So that cosmopolitanism led to a more rational and tolerant attitude, so these more progressive schools of thought evolved there. Whereas in Medina, in Hejaz, which is where Islam was born but which is a desert environment and nobody goes there unless for religious reasons, it’s not cosmopolitan, there’s not much trade, there’s not much change in social conditions. So the scholars based in Medina, and let’s say the broader Hejaz region resisted this rational approach. They said, “You’re just making laws out of your minds, but no, no, no, we have to find some sources for that. We have to figure out what the prophet said exactly on this.” So the idea that you should base everything in Islamic law to a text in the Quran or the Hadith, especially the Hadith because the Quran everybody accepts but the Hadiths are sayings of Prophet Muhammad, they were all around. So that created a more dogmatic approach to Islamic law. And that very effort actually, in my view, led to the proliferation of Hadith, sayings of Prophet Muhammad, which are by the way, not 100% trustable. These were written down almost two centuries after the Prophet… I mean, canonized two centuries after the Prophet.

Mustafa Akyol: And today, it’s not an accident that a lot of the troubling rules in Islamic law, apostasy laws, blasphemy laws, stoning a woman, all these come from the Hadiths. Whereas from an Ahl al-Ra’y people of opinion, let’s say, the rationalist perspective, you can criticize these things and put them in context or even doubt the authenticity of their basis in Hadiths. And this shows that religion and context influence each other, and unfortunately, a more dogmatic approach has influenced Sunni jurisprudence, which is the source of many problems that we have today. And I show, for example, how it has led to horrific consequences in Pakistan. There has been cases of women being raped and then sentenced for adultery. She’s persecuted once, she’s just violated once with a rape and then she goes to a court and they say, “There are no four witnesses to prove your case, so you are going to be sentenced for adultery”, because she got pregnant, that becomes an evidence of adultery. Which is a perfect and tragic example of seeing how a blind obedience to something written without understanding the context and the consequences of that verdict leads to because yes, the Quran asked four witnesses for accusations of adultery, but adultery and rape are very different things. And the original intention was protecting women from libels of adultery, as I show in the book.

Chelsea Follett: You talk a lot about different passages that have been twisted over time and the actual context of them. And one passage that you spend a lot of time on, is the one where the Quran says you must obey those in authority. And dictators love this passage because they interpret themselves to be those in authority. But then you talk about the actual context of that passage. Could you explain?

Mustafa Akyol: Sure. First of all, thanks for reading my book so carefully and meticulously and catching up all the important themes. I discussed that issue, there’s a chapter, “Should Muslims Obey Somebody?” And I begin by telling that. There’s this Quranic verse, which says, “Obey God’s prophet and those in authority among you.” And the Quran doesn’t say, who are those in authority among you. So every Islamic dictator basically claims to be that authority among you. So these could be states, leaders of states, like a leader of Egypt or Saudi Arabia certainly uses that sort of basis in religion. Also, it could be the leader of Islamist groups, communities, at least to cultish obedience to whomever is at the leader of that person is in authority among you. So this is a kind of teaching that has sustained a hierarchical, authoritarian social order throughout history. Every Islamic group somehow refers to it. In Turkey, I know people obey Turkey’s current president if they’re Islamically tied to him, saying, “Oh, he’s authority among us.” It’s not, of course, there are people in authority in liberal democracies too, but the relationship between you and them is contractual. You elect them, and they have limits, so you’re not supposed to obey. Well, if he’s chosen, he has to manage certain things, but he’s constrained by law, but the idea of obedience is more sweeping power and authority like it.

Mustafa Akyol: So then I discuss, “Well, what does this words really mean?” And I go back to the earliest interpretations, tafsir as we call in Arabic. Well, this words was about one specific incident. Prophet Muhammad had certain battles, sometimes he couldn’t go to battle, and he appointed one person to lead a battle. And there was a dispute between that person and another person, and the sahabah, these are like companions of the Prophet. So those two people had a dispute, and it was about that particular incident, so this is a commandment given in a particular context, like Prophet Muhammad, because he was the head of the first Muslim community, he had to lead the community. He was also making executive decisions, so people had to obey those executive decisions or the executive decisions of those who appointed. So it had a context, it has a time… It has a limited meaning, but it was taken out of context and led to the interpretation of obedience to any Muslim ruler anywhere, which helps all the charlatans, and so on and so forth. So I go back to some of these troubling interpretations in Islam from a perspective of liberty, and I show that they could be interpreted differently today. There were already alternative interpretations back then, maybe that before God, and this is how Muslims can look at these issues today, without abandoning their loyalty to the core of their faith.

Chelsea Follett: Right. So these are… There are many different interpretations. And you point out how in many cases these are the opposite of the original intent. The rule that was supposed to protect women from accusations of adultery now gets twisted, in some instances, to protect their rapists and so forth. But the original thing about the Sharia that you want to revive is something more akin to the natural law of Locke or of the American founding fathers, you say. Could you talk a bit about seeing Sharia as principles rather than this set of rules that lack context?

Mustafa Akyol: Sure, first of all, this whole argumentation may sound apologetic, or too defensive to some people, because they can say, “Oh, he’s trying to find good things in the beginning with Islam.” Well, as a Muslim, yes, I do believe there are a lot of good things at the founding of Islam. But also objectively speaking, there’s a reason why a religion becomes popular and inspiring and makes a hit in world history. If a religion has terrible teachings, generally people wouldn’t follow them and that religion would have died out anyway. So there is a liberating aspect of Islam as in early Christianity, or in Judaism. Judaism saved the Jewish people from sacrificing their children to Mesopotamian deities.

Mustafa Akyol: So there are a lot of things our great religious traditions did in human history, that’s why they captured hearts and minds. But once you institutionalize and stagnate a religion, it also becomes the perfect tool for abuse of power, blocking progress, and also, by applying textualism, you can say, this is what God told me, you can do it, but you can have terrible consequences with that, which wouldn’t be compatible with an ethical understanding of that religion. So that’s the kind of perspective I have here. So you were asking me natural law. First of all, natural law, what does it mean? Natural law is the idea that God has given humanity an internal conscience, an order of things. So even if there is no religion, people will be able to figure out ethical rules and figure out good and bad, and even without religion, people, human society can move forward because there’s an inherent natural quality to human beings, and there’s an inherent quality to nature, so it could be figured out. So this philosophy became more powerful than Christianity because there’s a lack of religious law. And also it led to the idea of natural rights, which gave us modern-day liberalism like John Locke made that argument.

Mustafa Akyol: Now I think bridging that perspective and the idea of a religious law is important. And this was done in Judaism by, first Maimonides and then Moses Mendelssohn, which led to the Jewish enlightenment. And I think in Islam, we need to bridge the same gap, and there are sources for doing that. I mean, Ibn Rushd Averroes, the great medieval thinker, he speaks about what we can call natural law, and he says there are unwritten laws of humanity, and there are written laws of our religious texts. And he says, if there’s a conflict, the unwritten laws of humanity, like justice, like compassion, like family and all that, should limit some of the written laws, because those written laws may need some changing. So, it’s a universalistic view.

Mustafa Akyol: So I think this is possible in Islam, and there is a particular tradition in the study of Islamic law called Maqasid or Intentions of Sharia, which can bring us to that point. This was a school of thought that emerged in the late Islamic, classical Islamic civilization. And we owe it to scholars who said, “Okay, there are all these commandments of the Sharia, but what does God intend with these commandments? Like, theft should be punished, Okay, what does God intend here? Oh, he intends to protect property.” So, with this kind of reasoning, scholars like Imam Shatibi from Spain, they said there are five basic principles: Protection of religion, protection of life, protection of property, protection of lineage and protection of intellect. So these are the five intentions of Sharia.

Mustafa Akyol: Now, if you look at the whole religious law with this perspective, and if you take the steps towards natural law, we can say, “Oh, protection of intellect, it’s a good idea. How do you protect it?” Well, maybe classical scholars didn’t discuss that much, but a government propaganda is against [chuckle] protection of intellect. Any totalitarian propaganda, right? So, actually, free speech is the basis of protecting intellect, because if you have one line all the time as you would have in North Korea or Stalin’s Soviet Union, you would lose, actually, your intellect and you would intellectually stagnate. So, that requires a step forward in thinking in Islamic law. But I think that’s possible. Some scholars are working on that, so I allude to that.

Mustafa Akyol: One more thing, Tunisian scholar Ibn Ashur, in the 20th century, added to these five principles another one and most important one, huriya, which means liberty. So he said, the intention of Sharia is liberty, and he extracted from this rules in classical Islamic law which called for liberating slaves, freeing the slaves. And he said, So the Sharia, the lawgiver, he said, aspires for liberty. So, I think, with such perspectives, it is possible to reconcile Islamic thinking with liberalism, in the classical sense of the word. And to reignite the call for liberty in the Muslim world, which is already powerful and popular in the 19th century, although it’s been derailed to a great extent by first western colonialism and then the reactionary ideologies of socialism and fascism and Islamism, which are still haunting Muslim societies.

Chelsea Follett: Right, and you also make a very practical case for religious freedom using this metaphor of a plane crash and an island. Could you talk a bit about that?

Mustafa Akyol: Definitely, it’s actually a shipwreck, [chuckle] but…

Chelsea Follett: Oh sorry, it was a shipwreck.

Mustafa Akyol: You’re welcome, but, you know, it’s the same thing it’s… I begin that story titled… It’s in the chapter “Should Muslims Conquer and Prevail?” That chapter is designed to criticize the classical notion in Islamic jurisprudence that Muslims should be superior. They can conquer a land, they can take over a society, and they can tolerate non-Muslims. That’s good, but not as equals, with less rights, and Islam should be supreme and dominant. Now, with this idea, Muslims conquered half of the world, from Spain to India, a thousand years ago. And today, most Muslims don’t think that they will keep conquering the world anymore, that doesn’t look practical. But the idea that Islam should rule supreme in wherever Muslims are majority are still very powerful. And some, I criticize an American Muslim scholar of the more conservative persuasion. He says, “We like liberalism in America, we like the equal rights given to us here, but back there, in our home, in Pakistan, we’re not gonna call for it as we want to supremacy of Islam.” And I say, well, this is a little bit hypocritical, this is double standard and it’s not gonna work well.

Mustafa Akyol: And then I call on Muslims to use this thought experiment to think of an ideal political entity. And the thought experiment as you said is, I tell that, imagine there’s a ship going on The Atlantic and the ship goes into waters and some people survive and they go to an island and imagine some of them are Christians, others are Jews, Muslims, some are atheists, some are Hindu, there are gay men, and there’s another single woman and they are different kinds of people. I say, would you find it fair that the Muslims or the Christians take over the island in the name of Islam or in the name of Christ, saying that this is now a Christian island or an Islamic island, that everybody has to abide by the laws that we bring to you and you have to pay taxes, or we are the supreme rulers of this island. Or, which is actually the classical model, or is it better if they just sit down and say, well, we have different ways of life, we have different philosophies, we have different inclinations, and how can we live together? We can make a minimal agreement that we will not attack each other, nobody will steal each other’s property, there will be some spaces that is private for people. And then we can all share this life.

Mustafa Akyol: It’s a call for thinking in terms of a political contract instead of conquest. And I also show that there’s a story in the life of prophet Muhammad, which resembles that. The first time he went to Medina, he made a contract with the tribes there, including some Jewish tribes, which was based on equality, which later collapsed and unfortunately was forgotten in the age of Islamic empires. But I think thinking the idea of a political contract as the basis of any state is important. And if you have that vision, we can see what’s wrong with Saudi Arabia today or Iran today, or many of the Muslim states out there, which are basically supremacists in the name of Islam. And if we criticize supremacy against Muslims in the West, like white supremacy or their racist views, which are rightly so, we should also not whitewash supremacy in the name of Islam.

Chelsea Follett: Right, and of course, you talk about how secular governments are not necessarily liberal either. There is secular illiberalism, there are governments that have tried to make it harder for Muslims to practice their faith, and so there shouldn’t be a double standard there. If you believe in religious liberty in France, you should also believe in it in Saudi Arabia, right?

Mustafa Akyol: Right.

Chelsea Follett: Some people still fear that with the current state of things, maybe there isn’t the amount of hope that they would like regarding the future of liberty with Islam. So even though this isn’t something you talk about a lot in the book, the book is more historically focused, what do you see as the prospects for this more liberal interpretation of Islam becoming widespread?

Mustafa Akyol: I would remind them that if they looked at Europe or Christendom, as it was called in the early 17th century, they wouldn’t be very optimistic about the future of Christianity as well. There was the time of the 30 years war, where millions in Europe perished because of the wars between Catholics and Protestants. It was a time that writing a heretical book in England or France could put you to death by being beheaded or being burned alive at the stake, and it was a time that few Christians believed in these ideas of toleration and religious freedom and it was taken for granted that kings have divine rights, and that people with the wrong faith should not be tolerated. And that is despite the fact that when you look into the founding text of Christianity, New Testament, the Gospels, you don’t see dictatorial states. Jesus has a very peaceful and actually non-state, certainly, non-corrosive message, but Christians didn’t figure it out for a long time.

Mustafa Akyol: And I believe today parts of the Muslim world are like early 17th century Europe. Blasphemy laws, violence, crusaders kind of people are there in the name of doing terrible things, in the name of Islam. Other Muslims are totally into 21st century, and it’s a very diverse scene, just… I want to just emphasize that, but there are pockets of orthodoxy and for worse radicalism and militancy that are like from the early 17th, 16th century Europe. But that changed in Europe. How did it change? Well, it changed with ideas of liberty, ideas of toleration, it changed thanks to people like John Locke which I go back and forth in the book. I go and visit his thoughts and see how it applies to Islam today. It changed with classical liberal thinkers, with US separation of church and state, which was a new thing in Christianity, in the history of Christianity. So I believe, yes, there are scenes in the Islamic world today, pockets of militancy, intolerance that is quite concerning, that’s why I wrote this book. But precisely because the problem is there, this is the time to make these arguments, and precisely because the problem is there, a lot of Muslims are looking for answers and looking for a way forward, and that’s why I’m disturbed with the current reality, but I’m hopeful for the future.

Chelsea Follett: Right, so the key is this flourishing of reason, of a respect for freedom that you articulate so well in this book. Where in the world—going completely beyond the book—where in the world right now do you see the most reason for optimism in Muslim society? And you talked a bit about Saudi Arabia, for example, but where do you see things not moving in the right direction?

Mustafa Akyol: Well, there are some Muslim majority societies that are already quite free and liberal. Bosnia and Herzegovina is one of them. Albania, these are South Eastern Europe countries. They don’t have Islamic law in their constitutions, there are pious Muslims, not pious Muslims and all kinds of minorities there, they don’t have any persecution based on religion. They were persecuted in the name of communism, so that’s a whole different thing. There are also other Muslim majority societies, you hear a lot of promising ideas for future, Indonesia is one of them. Indonesia, for example, has this institution called Nahdlatul Ulama, which is the world’s greatest Islamic organization, actually, in terms of membership, like more than 60 million people are members, it’s… Indonesia is by the way, the world’s most populous Muslim country. And they have taken pretty bold steps in criticizing supremacy or violence in Islamic texts and calling for a humanitarian Islam as they say it. And in almost every Muslim society… In Malaysia I was invited by the Islamic Renaissance Front who’s articulating human rights in the name of Islam and with Islamic argument. But that’s precisely why they are under the tutelage of the authorities and that’s precisely why I was arrested [chuckle], when I went there to speak as a guest of Islamic Renaissance Front.

Mustafa Akyol: So this battle is going on and there are thinkers, there are pockets of thought. Western Muslims are discovering I think the blessings of liberty among American Muslims. I see lot of people saying, “Well, we’re great to be… We’re glad to be living in America and not in a autocratic, theocratic state, because we can be Muslims in the way we really believe it.” And I think Turkey, my country, although politically going through a terrible, terrible time, I think it’s maturing to some extent, seeing how bad it is to mix Islam with power, and there’s a more enlightened view evolving. Even in Iran… Iran is a terrible country because of the authoritarian regime, but Iranian society includes a lot of people who are fed up with theocracy, and who are looking forward and one day there will be a regime change of some sort and maybe we’ll see a more peaceful, liberal, mature Iran. So the very fact that the scene is grim in many places, I think is the very reason to think that there may be change, and I see the signs of the change, and I want to help those signs of change and to show them a path forward. And that’s why I wrote, “Why As A Muslim I Defend Liberty”, and that’s why I already earlier this year, I published “Reopening Muslim Minds: A Return to Reason, Freedom and Tolerance”. And it’s great to discuss these with you, who is a fellow defender of Liberty Advocator Institute.

Chelsea Follett: Thank you so much for having this discussion, I hope that this book becomes very widely read and does have the impact that it should.

Mustafa Akyol: Thank you. Translations are coming, by the way.

Chelsea Follett: Fantastic.

Mustafa Akyol: Bosnian translation, a Turkish translation, Urdu probably, we’re working on those. So hopefully, it will be available in other languages too, and it’s widely available, people can freely download the PDF of the book at the libertarianism.org, or they can order the copies. And I’d love to hear thoughts of readers, which I’m getting already, and it’s going well.

Chelsea Follett: I greatly enjoyed it. It’s also very accessible, I would point out, even if someone doesn’t have a lot of prior knowledge on this topic, while also being a very dense for such a small book. You’ve put a lot in here.

Mustafa Akyol: Great, thanks. That’s what it was meant to be. I’m glad that it worked that way. Thank you.

Chelsea Follett: Well, congratulations on another great book and thank you for speaking again on the Human Progress Podcast.

Mustafa Akyol: Thank you Chelsea, it’s a pleasure to speak to you.

Chelsea Follett is the managing editor of HumanProgress.org and a policy analyst in the Cato Institute’s Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity.

Mustafa Akyol is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute’s Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity, where he focuses on the intersection of public policy, Islam, and modernity.


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