Book reviews

Mustafa Akyol’s Reopening Muslim Minds: A Return to Reason, Freedom, and Tolerance (St. Martin’s Essentials, 2021)

A lucid appeal to use reason, this book can be a tool for freeing Muslims from a despotic Islam.

While the author’s intent in writing this book was not to steer Muslims away from Islamic rules, my reading of this scholarly yet readable work concludes that Catholic evangelists have a magnificent opportunity to share the Faith with people who have suffered for 1,400 years under an aggressive and irrational system which purports to be a religion.

Akyol believes that intellectual reform is needed in Islam because it has “come to a dead end” (232) and because Islam “connotes aggression, intolerance, or patriarchy” (233).  It is not surprising, therefore, that the book discusses Islam in stunningly negative terms.

Islam has committed “intellectual suicide” over the past 1,000 years by rejecting rational thought from some of its major philosophers, including ibn Rushd and Averroes (xviii and 130).  Even though Averroes, like St. Thomas Aquinas in the Christian West, “argued that the findings of philosophy would not contradict the teaching of revelation” (112), al-Ghazali recommended death for philosophers (110).  Muslims are instructed to abide by rules established by Quranic jurisprudence, not, as in the Jewish and Christian West, by faith informed by reason (12).  The result, Akyol argues, is that, “in a long historical process, Islamic jurisprudence had become ‘a pile of rules,’ among which morality had ‘evaporated’” (46).

Moreover, Akyol’s discussion of Islam’s idea of “God” should leave rational people dumbfounded.  He asserts that Islam created a god who “was not really ‘lovable’” (34).  Muslims view God like a despotic ruler (152) because “God is always invisible and unreadable” (154).  These ideas are difficult for Westerners to understand since we know God as personal and worthy of our intellectual effort.

With such an impersonal and quixotic view of God, it is no wonder, then, that Akyol concludes that Islam “connotes aggression, intolerance, or patriarchy.”  I would replace “patriarchy”, an idea not elaborated as thoroughly beyond a few mentions of gender equality (13, 65, and 121), with “backwardness”, an idea which can be supported by numerous examples from the book.

Islamic militarism has been obvious for the past 1,400 years; one wonders if Islam’s billion or so “followers” would remain Muslim if they were freed from an Islam—which is deeply connected with the notion of adherence to the political state—if they were given the choice.  Akyol’s discussions of the “Compulsionists” vs. those who believed in free will (14) and Islam’s hold on forcing people to remain Muslim lest they be executed for apostasy ([195ff]) are particularly enlightening.

What I found most memorable are the numerous instances of Islam’s backwardness and intolerance, both of ideas and people who disagree with the Sharia-sanctioned edicts of those who wield power in the system.

Islam’s backwardness is remarkable and makes one appreciate living in the Western world, informed by Jewish and Christian values.  Unlike the West, where monasteries saved manuscripts from barbarian destroyers and where philosophical ideas are argued thoroughly, the rejection of philosophical debate is suggested by several accounts where manuscripts discussing the question of reason were neglected or, worse, destroyed; one manuscript lay dormant from the late fifteenth century to the 2010s (41).  Similarly, Islam’s backwardness is evident in that the printing press arrived in the Ottoman Muslim world three centuries after Gutenberg (102).  “’Political science’ would remain almost nonexistent in the Islamic world until the modern era”, Akyol claims, all because a political leader must be obeyed (145 and 152; internal quotes in original).  As a final example, while the West abolished it in the nineteenth century, Saudi Arabia and Yemen abolished slavery in 1962, and Mauritania abolished it in 1981; Islamic scholars, however, support slavery as consistent with the Quran (63-4). 

Islam’s intolerance through the centuries is common knowledge; what might not be common knowledge is that its intolerance continues in our century.  Unlike the West, where divergent views are tolerated, those who espouse views which conflict with the autocratic interpretation of Quranic suras can be executed for apostasy, as in the case of Mahmoud Mohammed Taha, a 75-year-old Muslim scholar, who was hanged in 1985 in Sudan for his ideas (179).  The case of Asia Bibi documents how free speech is impossible in Islam because “repeating blasphemy is also blasphemy” (204).  These instances particularly illustrate what Akyol calls Muslims’ “tolerance deficit” (212). 

Despite the numerous negatives which he summarizes about Islam’s irrationality, intolerance, and backwardness, Akyol hopes that Islam will adopt reason as a foundation principle.  I suggest, however, that the hope is not contained either in a trust that reason will succeed or in the author’s idea that Islam needs “a new genre of art and literature” (54).  Akyol hints at a better solution to the intellectual suicide of Islam when he reports that the hypocrisy of Islamic fundamentalists in Iran led to “many Iranians [who] left the religion, converting to Christianity or atheism” (193).

Leaving Islam is a good thing.  Doing so enables one to think freely and to see that Christianity is not the hostile force claimed by those who hold Islamic theological power.  Promoting the work of St. Thomas Aquinas may help since that thirteenth-century saint developed important ideas in Western Christianity which shaped the modern world.  For example, we in the West have internalized St. Thomas Aquinas’ conclusion that “behind God’s commandments there are objective moral values”, a conclusion which “led to the concept of ‘natural law’” (30-1), a concept which Akyol says is largely ignored in Islamic thinking.  Another idea familiar to Western readers, which is missing in Islam, is the importance of individual conscience; unlike the West, where countries have ancient Greek and Christian roots, “The truth is that, in mainstream classical Islam, there really was no well-defined concept of conscience” (52).

Finally, while Akyol anticipates “a brighter future” (230) for Islam, I argue it would be better for Muslims to abandon Islam and become Catholic Christians.  Doing so will modernize them not only intellectually with ideas which have been around for millennia, but also spiritually with God who is not merely a lawgiver (as in Islam), but just, personal, and loving.

Note: Since Amazon collaborates with cancel culture zealots and bans conservative and pro-life books, I recommend not buying this book on Amazon.  (Why give your hard-earned dollars to a company that censors books?)  Instead, buy this book directly from the publisher.

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