The Meaning of the Taliban Within the Crisis of Islam

The Meaning of the Taliban Within the Crisis of Islam
(Mustafa Akyol, November 13, 2021)

Transcript available below

About the speaker

Mustafa Akyol is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, where he focuses on the intersection of public policy, Islam, and modernity. Since 2013, he has also been a frequent opinion writer for the New York Times, covering politics and religion in the Muslim world. He is the author several books, most recently “Reopening Muslim Minds: A Return to Reason, Freedom, and Tolerance” (2021), and “Why, As a Muslim, I Defend Liberty.” In July 2021, the Prospect Magazine of the UK listed him among “The world’s top 50 thinkers.”

In Reopening Muslim Minds, Akyol both diagnoses “the crisis of Islam” in the modern world, and offers a way forward. Diving deeply into Islamic theology, and also sharing lessons from his own life story, he reveals how Muslims lost the universalism that made them a great civilization in their earlier centuries. He especially demonstrates how values often associated with Western Enlightenment ― freedom, reason, tolerance, and an appreciation of science ― had Islamic counterparts, which sadly were cast aside in favor of more dogmatic views, often for political ends.

Elucidating complex ideas with engaging prose and storytelling, Reopening Muslim Minds borrows lost visions from medieval Muslim thinkers such as Ibn Rushd (aka Averroes), to offer a new Muslim worldview on a range of sensitive issues: human rights, equality for women, freedom of religion, or freedom from religion. While frankly acknowledging the problems in the world of Islam today, Akyol offers a clear and hopeful vision for its future.


Robert R. Reilly:


Hello, I am Robert Reilly, director of the Westminster Institute, and today we are delighted to welcome Mustafa Akyol, 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. Since 2013, he has also been a contributing opinion writer for The New York Times, covering politics and religion in the Muslim world. He is the author most recently of Reopening Muslim Minds: A Return to Reason, Freedom and Tolerance. He has also written the Islamic Jesus: How the King of the Jews became a Prophet of the Muslims and Islam Without Extremes: a Muslim Case for Liberty. This latter book has been published in Turkish, Malay, Indonesian, and unofficially in Urdu. It was subsequently banned in Malaysia in 2017 after Akyol’s short arrest by the country’s religion police merely because he delivered a public lecture defending religious freedom. The book’s banned Malay edition is now freely available on the CATO Institute website.

Before joining the CATO Institute in 2018, Akyol worked for more than a decade as an opinion writer columnist for two Turkish newspapers, Hurriyet Daily News and Star, until they were co-opted and transformed into pro-government propaganda outlets. His articles have appeared in a wide range of publications, including The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post and The Atlantic. He is also the author of six books originally written in Turkish, including Rethinking the Kurdish Question, and he is co-author of Ethical Capitalism. He has a bachelor’s degree in Political Science and a master’s degree in Ottoman History from the Boğaziçi University in Istanbul, Turkey. Today, he will be speaking to us about: The Meaning of the Taliban Within the Crisis of Islam. Welcome, Mustafa.

Mustafa Akyol:


Thank you so much, Robert, and for this very kind introduction as well. I should say that when I was arrested in Malaysia, we were having a series of conferences, and in one of those series of panels we actually discussed your book, The Closing of the Muslim Mind, so I want to come back to that, that is why I think we have similar interests there, but let’s begin as you kindly point out, and let me thank you and the Westminster Institute, of course, for hosting this conversation.

The meaning of the Taliban within the crisis of Islam: as the title suggests, I will say a few things about the Taliban, my thoughts about what happened in Afghanistan in the past few months, and what will happen in the near future. Then I will bring it to the broader discussion of Islam, human rights, freedom, and the place of, you know, the Islamic civilization in the modern world.

Recent Events in Afghanistan

It was August, you know, a few months ago that the Taliban took over Afghanistan again for the second time after the U.S. pull-out. I am among those who thought that, you know, this was somehow probably inevitable, although the pull-out could have been more orderly and maybe things could have been managed less badly, but it was I think inevitable and I think there is no point in U.S. occupying countries and trying to save them, ‘liberate them,’ quote-unquote. And I think that idea did not work in Iraq, that has not worked in Afghanistan, so there are things about the Western foreign policy we should talk about there.

But speaking of the Taliban and what it means, there is no doubt that Afghanistan will become a much less free place under the Taliban because its worldview is deeply oppressive. It is a rigid, fundamentalist interpretation of Islam, which will be concerning to people of the different gender, you know, women, minorities, especially the Shia minority, and also anybody who does not believe in the Taliban’s interpretation of Islam.

A Less Brutal Taliban

However, it is also [true that] (to be factually correct), I mean the Taliban seems a little bit less aggressive and brutal than they were in the ’90s because I think in the past 20 years they saw the world a bit more, I mean their engagement with Doha, within Qatar, with the broader Islamic scene brought them some recognition of the international reality. They understand that they need cooperation with other countries, they need some recognition.

So even for propaganda purposes let’s say the beginning of their rule has been less brutal than directly as the ‘90s. For example, I mean they are saying ‘we will not force women to wear the burqa anymore.’ That is a full covering cloth, of course, but still a woman will be forced, of course, to cover with the headscarf, and even in the university in Kabul, you know, there are strict dress codes, which include even a face veil.

Abuses Against the Hazaras

Against the Shia Hazara community (Hazarites are the ethnic group in Afghanistan that is by and large Shia) – in the ’90s they were pretty brutal and now they are taking, you know, measures saying that no, no, we respect you, you know, we welcome them, and we are not going to oppress them. We will see how that goes.

There are also reports of some Taliban commanders maybe acting on their own, you know, acting brutally against Hazara or doing things like going to a wedding and killing people because they play music. So I think there is some effort on the side of the Taliban to be a bit more acceptable internationally compared to their extremely brutal rule in the ‘90s, and that in itself I think should not be pushed away, it should be welcomed, but we should not be daydreaming and not notice that this is an oppressive group that will create a very oppressive Afghanistan.

Afghanistan’s Best Case: Like Saudi Arabia

If Afghanistan is lucky, it will be something like Saudi Arabia, which is oppressive enough. I mean CATO Institute publishes a Human Freedom Index every year and, you know, Saudi Arabia is typically at the bottom of our Human Freedom Index. Sometimes countries with civil wars, like Syria, can be worse (or sometimes Venezuela) and, of course, you know there are competing people at the lower end of the spectrum, but Saudi Arabia is certainly very, very [close to] the bottom.

And the fact that they call themselves an Islamic Emirate is actually an implication that it will become something like Saudi Arabia in the sense that there will be a strict interpretation of Sunni jurisprudence, the interpretation of the Sharia as they understand it, and whatever they understand as the requirement of Islam, will be imposed by force. And I think that is the key issue in Islam today, whether the Sharia, God-given law as Muslims understand it, is something that has to be practiced by faith or is it something that has to be imposed by force?

And as an analogy, think of the Halakhah, for example. Orthodox Jews believe in the Halakhah, that is God-given law. You eat kosher, there are some dietary laws. You have Sabbath. I mean women might be wearing some kind of head-covering. Men might be wearing like kippahs or hats, but they will do it by faith so that it will be practiced if you are an Orthodox Jew. It will not be the basis of a state where that kind of observance is imposed in all society, whereas in Islam we have this historic amalgamation of Sharia and state, and of course, of power, and [the] Taliban is a movement that represents that.

Taliban is Preferable to ISIS

Now, [there is] one thing [where the] Taliban (despite all this) is relatively better than ISIS. ISIS is the darkest end of the spectrum. I mean I put the Islamists in a spectrum. There are Islamists who want to come to power [through a] political process like elections. There are the moderate Islamists and there are other Islamists who want to live an armed struggle, and Taliban is certainly there.

And then at the darkest end of the spectrum there is ISIS, and ISIS, the so-called Caliphate, has been so violent and brutal that it has actually been rejected by mainstream Muslims all around the world. Like ask even the most conservative Muslims, what do you think of ISIS? They will say ISIS is like Khawarij, the hated, first century anarchists, violent anarchists who killed every other Muslim. So ISIS was so extreme and so fanatic that it was by and large rejected. I mean some people, individuals, were inspired by it, that is why they went to fight in Syria on behalf of ISIS, but that was a very extreme phenomenon.

On the other hand, [the] Taliban seems to represent a bit more mainstream, a bit more moderate and therefore a bit more acceptable and prestigious interpretation of a political Sunni Islam. So that is why when I look around the web these days, I see people who hate ISIS as I do, you know, everybody hates ISIS, but they will [say] actually, [the] Taliban is good now, you know, Taliban is becoming a more acceptable model. But it is a problematic model, it is an oppressive model precisely because what it believes as the requirement of Islam becomes a law of the state, a law of the land that has to be coerced by power.


Now, it is also [important to understand the] terminology here. Let’s not forget that ISIS claimed itself as a caliphate, that is a supposedly the leadership of Muslims that all Muslims have to follow. Nobody recognized that the caliphate except themselves, but Taliban calls itself an emirate, which is a more moderate, more modest, let’s say, claim. Basically, they mean we want to rule Afghanistan, and I think they might back up from some of the policies that brought on them the very occupation of Afghanistan in 2001, which was, like, support for Al-Qaeda.

I think [over time they realized that supporting groups like Al-Qaeda brings the U.S. on to them, which [is] something they do not want, so we may see a relatively more moderate (yet still very oppressive) Taliban and that is bad news for Afghanistan, bad news for the people there, but these nuances I think should not be missed.

In a recent post at the CATO Institute I said that ISIS is like the Khmer Rouge of Islamists, which was, you know, if you remember the Cold War, Khmer Rouge was among all communists the most violent and the most fanatic and the bloodthirsty one. And the Taliban are like the Viet Cong so I mean Viet Cong was, compared to Khmer Rouge, actually relatively more moderate, but still it was a communist movement that, of course, oppressed a lot of people in Vietnam and led to a refugee crisis and all that.

The Bigger Crisis in Islam

Now, [the] Taliban is, as I said, one episode in the bigger crisis of Islam, and I am saying that as a Muslim myself, not someone who looks down upon Islam. It is my faith and I care for Islam, but, you know, religions go through crises and I think it is fair to say there was a crisis of Christianity in early 7th century Europe when Catholics and Protestants were engaged in, you know, [the] 30 Years War and a lot of bloodshed was spilled, [and] has taken place in Europe, people could be burned at the stake for being heretics or executed. But Christianity was able to get out of that crisis by reviving some of its ideas that were there in the very beginning, but also re-articulating them.

And I think it is not an accident [that] thinkers like John Locke emerged, arguing for a separation of state and religion, arguing for a non-coercive interpretation of Christianity, arguing for states that protect rights, natural rights, instead of states that uphold one orthodoxy against others, and those ideas I think took Christianity out of that particular crisis. k I believe we are at a John Locke moment in Islam if we are lucky. That means we are at a moment that we need to establish these ideas and ideas of toleration, and freedom, and limited government, and in the understanding of Islam as a non-coercive practice. Like, if you believe in Sharia, good, if you want to [wear] a head scarf, wear the head scarf. I will defend you against French secularists and, you know, the Chinese regime or anybody.

I mean I all my life I have defended the right of conservative Muslims to be conservative Muslims without having any limitation on their practices. However, that is not a law that has to be imposed on the society. Other women have the right to live as they deem fit. People who happen to be from different Islamic sects, people who happen to be atheists all have basic human rights, and that states should protect those rights.

Is Liberalism Possible?

Now, is this idea unacceptable to Muslims?

Well, Muslims are an incredibly diverse set of people, right? I mean there are almost 1.8 billion Muslims out there, and I think hundreds of millions of Muslims already think like this. I mean they are already living in states that are actually secular. There are Muslim-majority states like Bosnia Herzegovina or Albania which are pretty free, like as European liberal democracies, and most Muslims there are happy to be that way, to live that way. Most Muslims in Turkey, my country, are happy with a secular state that respects religious practices.

Turkey has political problems and a very bad political authoritarianism these days. We can speak about that, but you know that is a relatively different problem. In almost everywhere in the Muslim world there are Muslims who are interested in these liberal reformist ideas. However, if you look at the orthodoxy in the Sunni and Shiite jurisprudence, again, you will see a spectrum there, but there are certainly tensions between that orthodoxy and the ideas it has about equality before law, about apostasy, about blasphemy, about non-Muslims having the exact same rights with Muslims or heretical Muslims, you know, being free in their beliefs and in their propaganda, if you will. They certainly have very oppressive interpretations and understandings, and that is their right there.

Coercive Interpretations

So [the] Taliban will be yet another test case that this idea that I mean when we bring this conservative, orthodox interpretation of the Sharia and make it the law of the land, people who support the Taliban think that this will bring wonders, this will bring a pious society, this will bring justice and this will stop corruption, and this will bring peace and security. It will be a society that was under Caliph Umar or Harun al-Rasheed, this kind of golden age, which was supposedly run by Sharia as they understand it and it has to be revived today.

What is rather happening is that whenever we have this coercive interpretation of Islam becoming the law of the state, for example in Iran, we do not see a pious society, we see, first of all, religion itself becoming a cover of hypocrisy or corruption because once you have people in power saying we are there because God empowered us, our power is preordained by God, this gives them ample room and you have little checks and balances in those systems. And that is why it is not an accident that when Islamists stay in power (as we have seen in Sudan, as we have seen in Iran), they actually turn out to be quite corrupt, as corrupt as the secular predecessors they have been criticizing.

Political Islamism Fares Poorly

Secondly, the coerced understanding of Islam does not make people pious, it makes them hypocritical. It is not an accident that today Iran is the number one producer of ex-Muslims from Islam, people who lose their faith in the religion and become atheists or become Christians, precisely because they hate the regime and its oppressiveness, and their hatred to the regime ultimately turns against the religion itself. So this combination of religion and state does no good to either state itself or to religion, but some people insist in having this model and trying it again and again. And we will see yet another experiment in Afghanistan of political Islamism. And I think it will be bad, it will fair badly as it did in Iran, as it did in Sudan, as it actually is doing badly in my country, Turkey.

As I said, I mean Turkey has political problems and it is not explicitly Islamic as is in the Islamic Republic of Iran, but it is also not a secret that, you know, today, Turkey’s ruling party, led by President Erdogan, is using a lot of religious rhetoric to justify its [increasingly] authoritarian and corrupt rule. And it is not an accident that Turkey is also seeing a rise of seeing the rise of deism and a disenchantment with traditional religion because a lot of people are really fed up with this.

So the question really is will Islam give up coercive power in the 21st century? And I think it requires rethinking Islamic jurisprudence, it requires rethinking Sharia, it requires reopening some theological issues in Islam about the meaning of law. Is law something to be obeyed just for its own sake or does the law point to higher values and principles that all humans could understand through reason? So these are important theological issues and there are interesting theological discussions going on in the Muslim communities about these, but I think this is an interesting time. So I feel like I am a Christian, living in the 17th century, and I see a crisis ahead of me and I am trying, as a Muslim myself, trying to make a sense of it and produce some ideas that may help us get out of this crisis.


Reason Within Islam

Robert R. Reilly:

Well, thank you very much, Mustafa, for those opening remarks. Let’s go a little more deeply into the issues you were just mentioning toward the end of what you were saying. Your book on Reopening the Muslim Mind I think contains a brilliant explication of the theological disputes that took place in Islam fairly early on that defined things for the future in one of several ways, and you do this focusing on the status of reason within Islam, which is ultimately tied to a theology, a certain conception of who Allah is and how to understand, of course, his revelation in the Quran. Could you start and go a little more deeply into that as you set it forth?

Mustafa Akyol:

Thank you. Thank you for mentioning my book. There I have a chapter titled, Islam’s “Euthyphro Dilemma,” in which I tried to put this big division in early Islam about the meaning of law, that is the Sharia. I begin with a story, it is a personal story, like I was with my kids who are little four and six year-olds, two boys, and one morning I said do not take your brother’s toys, and he said why. And I could have said because I say so or I could have said because if it is unfair to your brother, if you do this, he will be hurt and he will be wronged, and you would not want the same thing to be done to yourself. So I would try to explain the rationale behind my commandment or I could say I am saying so as your father so just obey. So one would establish my command as the authority, the other one would establish the rationality behind my command as the real authority.

So I show this to say that in every religion – I think especially Abrahamic religion – the commandments of God that we believe, I mean the Ten Commandments, can be understood in two different ways. One is to say murder and theft are wrong, objectively so, they are wrong in themselves, and God is reminding us and educating us about these values with the Ten Commandments, but God could not say murder is right because simply he wishes so, and murder will become right. So God is confirming some objective values out there in the world or divine commandments are affirming some objective values. This is one way.

Divine Command Theory

The other one, the other way, which is called divine command theory, is that just God commands whatever he wills and his command itself establishes value, so there is nothing called natural law. I refer to a Greek idea, which became very, of course, powerful in Christianity, especially Catholicism. Now, in Islam these two perspectives appeared in the first two, three centuries, the view that the commandments of God indicate right and wrong, which is already out there.

It was defended by the Mu’tazila, the first theological school of Islam, but then this was countered by this the Hanbalis and the Ash’arites, which are the more crude and more sophisticated versions of the same divine command theory. They said no, things are right and wrong simply because God said so, so theft is wrong because God said do not steal. If God said steal, then it would be good, so there will be no value outside of the Sharia. To conceptualize it, the Mu’tazila said the Sharia indicates right and wrong, the Ash’arites said the Sharia constitutes what is right and wrong.

Now, if the Sharia constitutes what is right and wrong, there are two implications of this worldview. One is that non-Muslims cannot have any ethical value, right, because they do not have the Sharia, so what do they know? So Reason is not some universal – I mean, of course, they appreciate the logic, I mean some techniques of reason, but a reason that finds ethical value was categorically rejected. So why would you study Aristotle or his ethical theory because non-Muslims by definition do not have any ethical value. They cannot because the value only comes from the commandments of God, which are brought to you by the Sharia. So that was a rejection of universalism.

The second one, the second problem is that if you do not have any values outside of the religious text, then you are bound with literalism ultimately because you do not have anything else outside of the text to look back and say, maybe we have to reinterpret it. But why would you reinterpret it because you know what else would you have to reinterpret? So can you be outside of the text in some ethical way or not?

I have criticisms to Mu’tazila on certain issues. I am not a neo-Mu’tazila, as people would say, and on some issues I would agree with the Muriji’ites, for example, on the status of sinners, and so on and so forth. But anyway, on this main issue I think Mu’tazila was right in my view because I believe the Quran itself. I mean when the Quran itself says do justice, without defining what justice is, because it assumes that people have a sense of justice. There is a verse which says God has given people the badness in themselves but also their Taqwa, the goodness to get away from that badness. So that is their in human nature. So I think the Mu’tazilla view was more in line with the Quran and more in line with the human reality we are going through.

I mean today, Muslims are sometimes surprised. They go and live in Sweden and they say, oh my god, these godless atheists can be moral people! How is that possible, right? I mean they park nicely and they are smiling, and they are never unjust. Well, that happens because there is something called natural, moral law. I mean I believe it still comes from God, but a person can be an atheist but still could be following the natural, moral law, although he might not be believing in God. So I think these two perspectives are important.

And ultimately what happened was the Mu’tazila view was condemned as a heretical view, and with the Mu’tazila also the philosophers who were not exactly the Mu’tazila but just like the Mu’tazila. They went a step further and heavily studied Greek philosophy, and Farabi, and Ibn Sina, and Ibn Rushd, especially, which I find most important because he tried to reconcile the Sharia with that philosophical perspective. And ultimately this was pushed away as heretical views, and Sunni Islam became established on Ash’arism and Hanbalism as the far-right edge, the Tea Party effect as some people call it. That was the extreme view, pushing the mainstream towards literalism and there was a Maturidi school, which is important actually.

The Maturidi school is the theological view that is connected to Hanafi jurisprudence, and that is the most flexible school in Sunni Islam. And Maturidis tried to take a middle position between the Mu’tazila and the Ash’arites, and on the big issue of this divine command theory, good and bad, whether people could know good and bad even if there was no revelation, the Maturidis actually stood closer to the Mu’tazila, although they had criticisms of the Mu’tazila, which is little known.

It is little known because the Maturidi school was not developed much, so Ash’arism actually dominated Sunni thought. And I think the problem with this divine command theory is that as the world changes, this turns into a crisis because ultimately you have a text, and if you refuse to have a universalistic ethical perspective, you are bound, you are dragged with the text to something that was taken centuries ago, right? And the disconnect between the text and the live reality creates incredible tension, and that leads to blind literalism, it leads to parochialism.

I will give you one example if you will let me to understand what I mean [when I say] blind liberalism. I mean you if you look into the fatwa websites, you know there are lots of online fatwa websites, and fatwa is not a bad thing necessarily. I mean there was Ayatollah Khomeini, [who] made it famous by giving it that fatwa to Salman Rushdie, but a fatwa means an opinion. It can be a good thing, it can be a bad opinion.

But if you look into the fatwa websites of conservative scholars in [the] Sunni world today, you can see discussions on whether a woman can travel alone or not, a Muslim can travel alone without a mahram, that is a male guardian. And some say yes, some say no. And some say, well, she can travel until 58 miles, right? For 58 miles she can travel alone, and more than that she cannot travel alone, there needs to be a male guardian. This was part of the basis of the Taliban’s brutal limitations on women in Afghanistan in the ’90s. I mean there were not a lot of women alone in the streets because she should have a male guardian, although it was a longer distance, but you know they even brought it to the city.

Now, where does this come from? This comes from a saying of Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, which says (it is in Sahih al-Bukhari), a woman, a Muslim woman, (he says a woman) should not travel alone without a Mahram, a male guardian, for a day, for a distance of a day. In another version it says a distance of three days, and medieval scholars calculated what is it three days, how long is the distance. They thought by camels so they decided it is 50 miles or 58 miles. They brought these things.

Now, if you do not have any value outside of the text, you say this is what the Prophet said and we will have to obey this, and that is how these male guardianship laws are protected in the Hanafi, among some Hanafis but especially Hanbalis that are dominant in Saudi Arabia. But another way of looking into this is to say, well, the Prophet said so because there were bandits in the desert in 7th century Arabia. A woman walking in the desert by herself would [fall] prey to these people, so the Prophet says something limited with that context, with this clear intention.

The intention is protection of women or protection of anybody from danger, right? And if you want protection of individuals today, maybe you should be less concerned about traveling alone in the desert, but I do not know, maybe putting on a seat belt in your car so you are driving safely. So do we understand the Sharia, the commandments of God, through an intention-focused understanding, putting them in their historical context?

There is a [legal doctrine] for that in classical Islam called maqasid, that is the intentions of the Sharia, but precisely because of the theological limitations I mentioned to you, it was not cultivated enough. It became fashionable in the past few decades. It is good I mean I think it is an important discussion we should have, but we should give up the idea that the commandments are values in themselves that are obeyed for their own sake. There [are] commandments [that exist] for their own sake, things like prayer or fasting in terms of worship or ibadah. There might be commandments that are valuable for their own sake, but other commandments should be understood in this lens.

And we should take this one step further I think and ask why did Prophet Muhammad establish a state? Why did he have to fight wars? One way of looking at it at it is to say, well, he did this because this is the divine blueprint he followed, and so on, so forth, whereas my answer is well he did these things because he had to proclaim Islam and he was not allowed to proclaim it in Mecca, so he had to flee to Medina, and he had to defend [and] establish a state, which was a requirement of the times, but in the modern world where you have religious freedom already, you do not need that Islamic state, you just need a classical, liberal state that will give you religious freedom, that is all you need as a Muslim.

Robert R. Reilly:

So Mustafa, if we can keep our focus on the status of reason here for a minute because it seems to be the defining issue and you make it the defining issue in your book. A quote I use in mine is from one of the Mu’tazila thinkers, Abd al-Jabbar, whose works were discovered in a mosque in Yemen in the 1950s, and gives us the clearest idea of what was taught by them. I am just going to read a quick statement from him. “It is obligatory for you to carry out what accords with reason,” obligatory to carry out what accords with reason.

Now, I can give you the exact quotes from Augustine, from Aquinas, that say this exact same thing. And Abd al-Jabbar also makes the statement – and here he is speaking of the compatibility of the Quran with reason, quote, “The right does not contradict the right but agrees with it and confirms it,” unquote. And as you know, in Mu’tazilite thinking [when] you begin, your first duty is to reason. How do you even know there is a God? By examining the world, creation, you come to the conclusion that it is not its own cause, there must be the supreme cause.

There is this transcendent god. Well, what is he like? Has he spoken to man? Well, there are multiple claims to revelation. Let’s examine them. How do we know which one is true? And again the Mu’tazilites say through your reason, you use your reason to examine them. And when you are looking within the text, if you find something that is incompatible with reason, just as in the Bible it will speak of God’s throne and so forth, so within the Quran it does. It speaks of the throne of Allah, his feet and so forth, and the Mu’tazila will say, well, we know that God is pure spirit so he cannot have feet there is no throne, so obviously our reason lets us know this is not meant to be taken literally, analogically. He is speaking to people in Arabia at a certain time in a certain place in a certain language in a way so they can understand what is being said, but He also gives us our reason to know that this is not meant literally. And the opposing school that you mentioned, the Ash’arites, the Ash’ari said no, no, you do not conclude one way or the other, it says what it says and you accept it exactly in those terms, literally.

Mustafa Akyol:

Yeah, especially the Hanbalites and Ash’arites. I mean you are right, first of all, to remind [us] that we know [the] Mu’tazila school and its ideas today more thanks to the discovery in [the] early 20th century (sort of mid-20th century) in Yemen because they had survived more in Yemen than in the other places once they were seen as heretics. Other than that we know Mu’tazila thoughts by some of their critics. I mean the Ash’arites says this is what they are saying, but this is said against them. So that was one source that we knew about the Mu’tazila. But with the discovery of Qadi Abd al-Jabbar, which is the greatest Mu’tazila scholar from the 10th, 11th century, we learned now more.

And you are right, the Mu’tazila brought the idea of majaz, that is allegorical interpretation of these anthropomorphic terms used for God in the Quran. That was the first dispute and Ibn Hanbal, you know famously the biggest enemy of the Mu’tazila (and by the way he was jailed and I am against that), so there was being kind of authoritarianism back in reverse among both sides. So Ibn Hanbal said I mean we believe in these things bilal kayfa, without asking how, and you know if God has a hand, God has a hand so we do not discuss this. But [for] Mu’tazila this cannot be possible, so we have to allegorically interpret this thing.

I should say that some of the Mu’tazila ideas were later silently accepted by later and more sophisticated Ash’arites, so it was not always Ibn Hanbal’s very strict literalism in the beginning on this issue, on this issue in particular, you know, how do you interpret God’s attributes? But on the key issue of ethics, whether without the Sharia there are values that can be knowable by reason, Ash’arism stood this ground. For example, Imam Ghazali, who was way more sophisticated than the early Ash’aris on many things, and I think we should accept that, but if you read his Mustasfa, the greatest school of jurisprudence on Usul Al Fiqh, that is the methodology of jurisprudence, he takes so many interesting terms. He is very sophisticated in many ways, but he insists on the husn al-khulg issue, which is good and bad, that without the Sharia, good and bad cannot be known.

So that has become the staple and I think today there are some people in the Sunni jurisprudence who are saying, well, this was too much, we insisted so much for that. I mean there is an interesting Maturidi theology, especially in Turkey and there are international Maturidi conferences because people understand that the Ash’arite theology was just too rigid on these issues and brought Muslims to it. So it is not just Mu’tazila versus Asharite, and it is not a black and white, it is more gray and there were even some late Hanbalites, actually, that liked Mu’tazila ideas, but then they were condemned for heresy by other Hanbalites. So there is a very complicated history there, but you are right, I mean there is a theological insistence on divine command theory, which explains some of the problems that we have in the Muslim world today.

Robert R. Reilly:

But let’s also, Mustafa, touch upon what again you explicate so beautifully in your book, and that this divine command theory also impinges upon the notion of causality.

Mustafa Akyol:


Robert R. Reilly:

And that the Ash’arites to be consistent in their thinking had to deny cause and effect in the natural world, that everything that happened was because of the first and only cause and that is Allah, and therefore man was simply instrumental, and that, of course, created huge problems with any notion of free will. So the denial of causality – and you yourself point out that this was a blow to the further development of sciences within the Muslim world, which were flourishing under the influence of the pro-Mu’tazilate caliphs, particularly the brilliance of the court of Caliph al-Mamun in Baghdad and the House of Wisdom, bayt al hikma, and so forth, and that this denial of causality and cause and effect of the natural world eroded those foundations, and led to a backwardness in Arab culture because the Ash’arism became so embedded in that culture.

Mustafa Akyol:


Robert R. Reilly:

Is that fair?

Mustafa Akyol:

That is fair and I should just say that a chapter of my book is exactly on this issue and I can imagine some people listening to us and they are saying, oh my god, they are pushing the old Orientalist thesis which has been debunked by a lot of scholars, and so on, so forth because this idea that the denial of causality by Ash’ari theology, which is articulated by Imam al-Ghazali again in his majestic books, has led to the decline of sciences. So this theory was there and then there has been a century-long almost rejection of this theory. It is known as the Ghazali decline thesis/theory, but now, actually, the tide is turning a little bit again, saying that there was some truth in this original accusation although it missed some of the nuances of Ghazali.

Here is what I can say: Ash’ari theology as you say denied two things. One is that commandments of God are based on ethical values that are outside of the Sharia, it is just volunteerism. So that is the term, that is a theological term. God is acting on his will, and his will is not bound by anything. The Mu’tazila said God is bound by principles, too, God cannot do injustice. And the Ash’arites said God can do whatever he wants and whatever he does is what we call justice, whereas Mu’tazila said no, we know what justice is and we would expect from God to do justice.

And one thing traditional Muslims sometimes see this as disrespect to God, quite the contrary, Mu’tazila was actually emphasizing a respectable God. I mean let’s not forget that the Mu’tazila were also on the frontiers of Islam. They were trying to propagate Islam. They were the missionaries of Islam to Christians and the Zoroastrians, to other faith traditions. So they were trying to say our religion is reasonable, our God is principled, so they were trying to show the beauties of Islam to the world. That is why they were emphasizing the principles of God.

The guys in Medina back there I mean the Ahl al-Hadith movement, which ultimately became Ash’arism, and Hanbalism, of course, they were like interested in just preserving the greatness of God and nothing else, and God does whatever he does, so God even can do unjust things. On the issue of causality, again, Ash’arites saw causality as something that limits the omnipotence of God. If there are secondary causes, so there are things that God does not necessarily intervene in every second and he accepts that causality, Mu’tazila said yes, and the philosophers certainly said yes. And yes it is not an accident that the House of Wisdom in Baghdad was founded by the Abbasid caliphs, the early Abbasid caliphs, who were sympathetic to the Mu’tazila and the philosophers, and there was a thriving of signs.

And the Ash’arite denial of causality I do agree and believe that in the long run stagnated Islamic sciences. I mean it did not stop Muslims from calculating celestial movements because you needed that for prayer so some science continued, pragmatic science continued, but switching to modern science and [the] Newtonian revolution that did not come, and I think there is something to do with the theological shift there.

And two scholars have written about this. One is Abdul Hakim al-Sabra, who passed away, who was a great scholar of the Islamic medieval sciences. He is the one who translated Ibn al-Haytham’s big work on optics into English. So he is a Muslim, he is coming from Egypt, he was an Egyptian American scholar, and he said that the philosophers had this appetite to discover everything in the natural world but the denial of causality ultimately decreased in the appetite for discovering the workings of nature, which you find in, of course, [the] Newtonian revolution and the early modern scientific revolution. And also Dimitri Guthas, who has been a great expert on Islam and the Hellenistic connection. Dimitri Guthas is a professor at Yale, [he is one of the] world’s foremost experts on the connection between Greek heritage and Islam, and he for many years rejected this decline thesis. But he has a very interesting article, which shocked a lot of people, written in 2017 and I quote that in my book. And he says there was some truth to the original criticism that the Ash’arite theology led to the decline.

Now, here a lot of people focus so much on Imam al-Ghazali, like whether Imam al-Ghazali was the most sophisticated of all Asharites. So you can read him and you can say, well, actually, he is coming close to a causality position here, so some people think actually he was believing in causality. Other people say no, no, no, so endless debates about al-Ghazali, but let’s leave al-Ghazali and respect him, but there was a decline and you know who wrote about this? Hamza Yusuf, the great scholar of Islam in America and one of the greatest Western scholars of Islam. I mean I would recommend people to read his article about Medina and Athena and how they diverge from each other, and he absolves Ghazali from the responsibility he says was not Ghazali’s fault.

Again, that is a big discussion there are Ghazali experts, I will leave it to them. But he said that philosophy died in the Sunni world, and that had a consequence because if you do not have this worldview of causality and Aristotelian understanding of things, it will have an impact, and in my book I show an example of that in a very interesting thing.

On the issue of contagion, which is very timely, you know, we are living in the pandemic era, there was a movement to deny that contagious diseases exist at all in classical Islam. It comes from a hadith because there is a hadith which says there is no contagion, although there is another hadith which actually seems to say that there is a contagion, but the idea that there cannot be contagious diseases because God creates disease separately in every human being, that was a dogmatic position.

During the Black Death there were interesting discussions about that and I showed them in my book. And Ibn Khatib, who was a philosopher and a follower of Ibn Rushd’s line, the rationalist line, said there is contagion and if you read a hadith saying that there is not, but if you see factual truths that there is, you should go back and reinterpret the written Hadiths based on the facts. So that was one view. The other view was insisting on textualism, blind textualism, and yeah it had an impact I think on the Islamic civilization.

Robert R. Reilly:

I simply recall, and you mentioned in your book again, that early Islam was assimilationist. Its first philosopher was al-Kindi, who made very eloquently the very point you do, in saying that learn everything you can from those around you if it is good, and the standard of good, once again, is reason. You know there is this story at least that Caliph al-Mamun had a dream in which Aristotle came to him.

Mustafa Akyol

Yeah, yeah, yeah he saw Aristotle in his dream, yeah.

Robert R. Reilly:

And he asked Aristotle, what is what is the good? And Aristotle answered him, it is what is reasonably good, it is what is rational, and al-Mamun embraced this as, of course, and as did the Mu’tazila, as you have laid out so beautifully.

We have to turn to one of the most contentious issues within Islam, and once again in your book you do not flinch from this issue. I have to say that your treatment of everything in this book is honest, thorough, and you do not look away from difficult problems. You stare right in their face and say this is a problem and here are the approaches through which one might overcome them. Now, this is a very dangerous problem and it touches upon the status of the Quran itself. And as you know the Mu’tazila said the Quran was created, it was divine revelation directly from Allah, but it was at a certain time at a certain place in a certain culture in a certain language and it requires interpretation according to the circumstances in which it was given.

And you give many examples in the book of your interpretation of both hadith and of various verses of the Quran where you historicize it. You give the time, the circumstances, the way it was meant to this specific person or this specific group, and this indeed was the approach of the Mu’tazila, but the Ash’ari insisted no, the Quran was not created, it has coexisted co-eternally with Allah in heaven. As it is on earth today, it is the same thing in Arabic, and therefore that the range of interpretation possible all of a sudden collapses into the kind of literalism that you were talking about earlier. And a number of Muslims have said for Islam to get out of its current dilemma in the modern world, we have to go back and reopen questions that seem to be closed back there in the 8th and 9th centuries, and one of them is the question on the createdness of the Quran.

As you well know, because you mentioned him several times in your book, Nasr Abu Zaid in Egypt was a wonderful scholar and thinker whose autobiography I read and some of whose articles I have read, who explicates the Quran, the Quranic passages, according to principles and in ways that are very familiar to a Christian or a Jew. They are standard in a way, and that his suggestion that they be examined in this way in light of the fact that the Quran created for him those problems with which led to his fleeing from Egypt because his wife was going to be forced to divorce him because a court said he was an apostate. So this is a dangerous thing.

Mustafa Akyol:

Yeah, very much so, yeah.

Robert R. Reilly:

And yet it is it is something you say has to be reopened and has to be considered.

Mustafa Akyol:


Robert R. Reilly:

Could you go into that a bit?

Mustafa Akyol:

Sure, thanks for bringing that up. I mean, indeed, the status of or the nature of the Quran is probably the first actual issue or maybe the ultimate issue to discuss within the Muslim theology and Muslim community today.

One thing; this discussion [of] whether the Quran is created or uncreated some people think was sparked by Christian Christological debates on whether the Christ is co-eternal with God or Christ is, you know, created so because actually we know that John of Damascus asked Muslims, “According to your scripture is Christ created or not?” And you know, Muslims started to discuss this, you know, what do we say about this? So there are interesting Christian precedents for Islamic theological debates, [which is] normal because Christians were there for six centuries, and they were discussing these things, and they study Greek theology as well, not European Christians at the time, but Eastern Christians knew a lot of Greek theology from which Muslims learned, actually.

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