Mustafa Akyol book: the bible for the liberals in Malaysia - Lukman Sheriff

KUALA LUMPUR, 2 October - I've completed the book "Islam without extremes" for a while already and had a couple of times tried to put forth my view. Actually it's not easy to compress a book review on FB as there are many dimensions. So I thought I'll do this piecemeal from time to time.

Due to the hype and impression by the liberals being "the book" to read, I was expecting a heavy philosophical book touching on the conflict between Islamic and liberalism concept. There I thought the discourse would invoke Locke, Rawls etc against some of the writings like naguib al atas or even kamali's many writings. I thought I would need ages to complete. And boy what a relief! It was anything but. Otherwise I had to spend much longer hours just to follow the argument which reminded me of the arduous but interesting time doing jurisprudence in school dulu. Phew! Nasib baik.!

The book in my view is light and in fact an interesting account of a Turkish Muslim perspective. Those who have been to turkey would have realized the conflict in their history between secularism, Sufism and Islamism and this book provided an interesting account of it. Thus for Akyol, secularists are extremists as they had suppressed many Islamists. We don't have that experience here and thus many liberals think secularism is a sacred ideology to defend at all costs contrary to how Akyol wrote. Face palm. Tepuk dahi.

I break down this book into two major parts. The first substantial part was about justifying two important different interpretations of Islam. And the other shorter part he tackled what he thinks liberalism should be. For both to me the argument is not deep to have any significant philosophical underpinning or major thinking breakthrough. I will deal with the latter in another posting.

The former or main part of the book tries to explain from a historical perspective of the development of Islamic thinking. This is simply a light and easy reading. Most of the sources he quoted was secondary but acceptable. The read to me was thus interesting and quite enjoyable to be frank.

In essence he differentiates between two threads of Islamic thinking. One those of the people from arid or dry land and thus more rigid. Then the other from fertile lands/towns where they are traders.

Why did he create the dichotomy? To show that from Islamic history until the current Turkish period the rational liberal thoughts have existed since the prophet and Sahabah period. This rational and liberal thoughts have come from "traders"/ those from fertile land as opposed to those having rigid interpretation from the dessert like the wahabis/ hambalis.

But this is where his hypothesis is fraught with difficulty and lack critical analysis. I couldn't but help to think his writing is too constrained by the Turkish experience.

Let me illustrate. Going by his premise, we in Malaysia would actually be a few steps ahead than the Turkish liberal movement. We are essentially culturally a trading nation and nothing better to manifest our "trade and fertile land" background than the recognition worldwide that we are the top Islamic finance hub in the world. Having been involved in the industry, I see how practical and innovative we were. It was simply to me an exemplary model how we expound through usul fiqh various injunctions to developed Islamic finance.

In fact we are probably far ahead of the curve than turkey in that we have worked towards "Islamisation of knowledge". Thus we have people fairly conversant with western and Islamic philosophy and jurisprudence. That's how we have adapted and developed.

And this is where Akyol's hypothesis doesn't add much. If you notice we developed Islamic finance within the parameters of shariah of no riba. We build an industry from an Islamic epistemology combining with local and global needs. And mind you it's driven by a state. Now this seems very much opposed to Akyol's liberal argument where he cited certain liberal ulama in the past who have accepted interest as a fair charge and not riba. Thus unlikely to develop Islamic finance and would embrace western interest based financing model. The liberals would have taken a liberal interpretation of the riba prohibition Hadis and oppose state intervention on this.

So this dichotomy he created serves no purpose. It doesn't address how liberal conception can or cannot prevail over Islamic epistemology like many liberals seem to expound. In the case of Islamic banking it doesn't explain why should a liberal view accepting riba be preferred over non riba institution? Would our non riba Islamic finance driven by the government be deemed conservative and non liberal?

Please note that Islamic banking analogy was totally mine but is an apt example to his hypothesis.

It is for this reason I find the main hypothesis for the dichotomy of different interpretation and thinking between people from arid land and traders do not have much significance and does not lead to why there should be a liberal enlightenment. It lacks the academic robustness, too simplistic and constrained by the Turkish experience. Though it was an enjoyable read, this is the failing of the book.

Be that as it may, unlike some liberals here who doesn't recognise that there is a different Islamic epistemology, I must recognize his effort trying to deal with various injunctions. But I find that the usul fiqh argument not rigorous or again shallow that many here who are not scholars are able to retort. The fiqh argument appears incomprehensive and selective. I will explain this further in other postings. Suffice to say at this juncture I don't see that this book should be banned as many of our scholars can easily explain this. Just that I'm surprised why this is a bible for Islamic liberalism when it doesn't say much.

The only Probable reason for making Akyol their "mahaguru" or point of reference the reason is because he promotes the term "liberalism". Just like how liberals argue "rukun negara supports liberalism". It is a very shallow propaganda. The word liberal there is used in the preamble to connote openness. Not importation of an ideology. Otherwise it runs contrary to the more important principles of rukun negara. "Kepercayaan kepada Tuhan" and "Kehuluran Perlembagaan". Our rukun negara is built on faith in god and our constitution is a compromise often contrary to many liberal precepts. It's thus very superficial. I'm quite baffled really and this is the only explanation I can think of.

Author: Lukman Sheriff