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Reopening Muslim Minds:

A Return to Reason, Freedom, and Tolerance

A Review

C. Gourgey, Ph.D.

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

Mustafa Akyol addresses his statement to the Muslim community, but it would be a tragedy if only Muslims read it. His message is just as critical for American Christianity today as it is for Islam.

There are two important reasons why non-Muslims should read this book:

For these reasons alone we need to pay attention.


Akyol begins by describing an incident in Malaysia, where he was lecturing on religious tolerance. He soon found himself confronted by the religion police (yes, there was such a thing). They detained him and brought him before the “Sharia court.” After an interrogation lasting hours, they finally released him with a warning never to come back.

How did Islam become so intolerant? The rest of Akyol’s book explores this question. It was not always this way. The Qur’an is actually quite forward-looking, especially for its time. It advanced the rights of women. It counseled aggression only in the cause of self-defense. It showed tolerance towards non-Muslims, not reserving salvation for Muslims only. Unfortunately, because of conservative interpretations, the Qur’an does not always appear this way to outsiders, and can even seem like a document of hate. Akyol clarifies that such impressions are due to misinterpretation and distortion of the Qur’an’s meaning. But how did we get to this point?

Akyol forges a middle path between apologists, who deny the existence of any problems within Islam today, and Islamophobes, who cherry-pick problematic expressions of the religion and use them to create an entirely negative caricature of Islam. There are indeed problems within Islam, Akyol admits, and it is important to understand their development, so that we might overcome them.

To engage in such public self-criticism is an act of courage. One always runs the risk of one’s enemies using that self-criticism against the community (as Jews especially know very well, since the self-criticism of their prophets has often been used against them). Thus Akyol takes a great risk in conveying a message that not only Muslims, but all of us, need to hear.

Akyol’s explanation of how things got to be the way they are takes us through a detailed tour of Islamic history. The first great theological controversy within Islam centered on a question with which many traditions have struggled: do human beings have free will, or is everything predestined and under God’s control? The Umayyad dynasty, which took power after the first four or “rightly guided” caliphs, were staunch defenders of predestination, or “compulsionism.” They had a very pragmatic reason for it. They took power by force, and needed a way to legitimize their rule. Compulsionism allowed them to insist that their dominance was predestined by God and not to be questioned. A belief in free will would lead to questioning political authority, which could not be permitted. And so compulsionism was used repeatedly throughout history to provide a religious justification for political power. Despotic rule governed the course of theological development.

Contentious controversies over the place of free will, thought, and reason continued throughout the history of Islam. Two schools of thought emerged. The Mu‘tazila believed in human freedom of action, and that the Qur’an was not preexistent with God but created in time. They believed that not only revelation but human reason should be considered as independent sources of wisdom. Opposed to them were the Ash‘arites. They believed in an uncreated, preexistent Qur’an, and that God’s power is absolute and the sole determiner of what is good, with no role for human reasoning. While the Mu‘tazila believed in revelation and reason working together, for the Ash‘arites and other conservatives, revelation was everything.

Akyol calls the clash between these schools of thought Islam’s “Euthyphro dilemma.” The Euthyphro is a famous dialogue of Plato that grapples with the question: Is something good because God wills it, or does God will it because it is good? the Ash‘arites represented the first view, and the Mu‘tazila the second. For the Ash‘arites there are no objective moral values to which human reason can appeal. The only standard of acceptability is what God commands, whatever that may be, even if it seems unjust to human beings, for example, the condemnation of someone to hell for something beyond that person’s control. Thus for the Ash‘arites the question of theodicy - how can a good and powerful God permit evil in the world - has no meaning. If God permits it, it is not evil. The Mu‘tazila, on the other hand, recognized an independent standard of morality accessible to human reason and that God, whose nature is just, cannot violate.

The conflict between these two ways of thinking persisted throughout the history of Islam. The Ash‘arite way became dominant, largely because, as noted, it served the interests of political power. And that is pretty much the situation today.

It is important to remember that rationalist thought in Islam never died out, and that “fideism,” the determination of truth by religious faith alone, does not define the entire religion. Nevertheless, Ash‘arism came to dominate the Sunni worldview, with a parallel development in Shiism prioritizing an “infallible imam” over human reason as the source of sure knowledge. Possibly the greatest luminary in Islamic philosophical history, Ibn Rushd, known in the West as Averroes, took his stand with the Mu‘tazila, but was overshadowed by the Ash‘arite theologian Al-Ghazali, who became more influential, more in line with the dominant strain of thought. Ibn Rushd warned that if we lost the use of reason we would end up believing in a despotic God whose ways make no rational sense. But a despotic God suited the purposes of despotic rulers.

Islamic culture paid a great price. The abdication of reason led to the stagnation of this once-great civilization, which failed to continue the standard of its former great achievements in science and philosophy. We hear of the “Islamic Golden Age” as an era long past, and wonder what happened to it. Akyol shows, through a very detailed and painstaking excursion through history, that the decision for faith over, against, and ultimately defeating reason led to this eclipse of Islamic culture from its former status in the vanguard of human achievement.

Conservatives have also exploited and perverted scripture for their own ends. Akyol mentions the practice of “abrogation,” in which Qur’anic verses of toleration are negated by other verses, taken out of context, that appear to contradict them. Context is a particularly important issue, and decontextualizing the Qur’an a common practice. Non-Muslims are repeatedly warned not to quote the Qur’an out of context, yet this is precisely what conservative Muslim preachers often do when they ignore the specific circumstances for which Qur’anic verses were revealed and apply to all non-Muslims everywhere verses that may refer to one particular historical event and only that event. For example, if Muhammad had a conflict with one group of Jews at one particular time, some have taken that to mean that all Jews at all times (for the Qur’an is timeless) are enemies of Islam and not to be trusted. (I once had a conversation with a Saudi who did not know of my Jewish background. He told me in a natural way, as if it should be obvious, that Jews are “the seed of evil.”) In such cases scripture becomes an idol, acquiring a false ultimacy in total disregard of the circumstances of its creation. Indeed, if the Qur’an itself is “uncreated,” then it can have no historical context, since it precedes history.


It cannot have been easy for Akyol to have laid bare for the public what he sees are the flaws in his own culture. Any non-Muslims who read his book with a sense of superiority, thinking it confirms everything bad they suspected about Islam, will be drawing exactly the wrong conclusion. First, it is a mistake to identify the whole of Islam with its most conservative expressions. As to the latter, Akyol mentions especially Wahhabism, the extreme conservative Islam that prevailed in Saudi Arabia (and most likely where my colleague got his anti-Semitism). Hopefully this book will make readers aware of the more liberal, rationalistic tradition within Islam, the one that made that culture great and contributed so much to the world.

As important as that is, there is an even deeper reason why a non-Muslim reader cannot afford to be complacent. Akyol’s words will more than likely describe much within the reader’s own culture. A reader who really understands Akyol will leave this book feeling not satisfaction but profound uneasiness.

Using his vast knowledge of history, Akyol uncovers a pattern of thinking that can lead to cultural dysfunction and stagnation, and even undermine the fabric of society. It involves the misuse of religion to gratify primitive human needs and desires. Chief among these is the need for security in a precarious world. This can lead one to take refuge in religious absolutism, stifling the troubling questions reason might ask with a false certainty that insists on taking scripture literally and delegating all judgment to external authorities that cannot be questioned. Add to this the universal human tendency towards tribalism, and the result is a volatile and toxic mix that impedes social development and fosters conflicts with other groups, even leading at times to violence.

Is this starting to sound familiar? The same process Akyol describes as having operated to Islam’s detriment is active today in North American Evangelical Christianity. Its roots go way back in history. We can see the corrupting influence of fusing religion with political power already in the establishment of Christianity as the religion of the Roman Empire. For many years following, the papacy used religion to consolidate that power. We see a similar development today in the Christian Nationalism movement within the United States: conservative religious forces defining religious “freedom” as the ability to control the behavior and beliefs of others, and the election of leaders who will enforce that agenda.

What we also see in much contemporary Evangelicalism is the denial of science, the same tendency Akyol identified as having thwarted the continuation of scientific progress in Islamic society. This manifests in a number of areas, including opposition to the teaching of the theory of evolution, the denial of human-made climate change, and the refusal to accept vaccination against COVID, opting instead for unproven and even extremely dangerous alternatives.

Not only the individual but society suffers from all of this. Vaccinations are a case in point. Widespread resistance to vaccination has led to needless deaths, especially of nursing home residents, a delay in the end of the pandemic and thus of the economic recovery, and the incubation and propagation of new and more aggressive forms of the virus. Since this kind of religious thinking denies any role for human reason, trying to reason with it is futile. Attempts to mandate vaccinations, even for healthcare workers in contact with very vulnerable and compromised human beings, are frequently met with protests against the violation of the “freedom” of the unvaccinated, and especially “religious freedom.” Many are even claiming “religious exemption” from vaccination, whatever that might mean.

We also see rigid interpretations of scripture, even to the point of fostering an exclusionism contrary to what Jesus taught. Salvation is for Christians only. Only “born again” Christians are “right with God.” This inevitably leads to viewing non-Christians, and most especially Muslims and Jews, as inferior, not favored by God, and so not entitled to equal treatment. In a misapplication of Jesus’s so-called “Great Commission” (Matthew 28:19), the word “evangelize” has come to mean the right to impose one’s religious views on others, whether through prayer in schools, Sunday blue laws, restricting not only abortion but birth control, the right to discriminate against groups of people you don't wish to serve, teaching creationism but not the history of racial discrimination in this country, privileging if not actually establishing the Christian faith, encouraging proselytization, and in general dissolving the barrier between church and state.

In the election of Donald Trump we saw Evangelical Christianity reaching for political power, and Trump using that religion to shore up his own power. This is exactly parallel to the developments Akyol described, and we can expect consequences just as detrimental. One such consequence is the fragmentation of society. Both Obama’s and Biden’s calls for bipartisanship and cooperation in mutually beneficial tasks were met with derision and rejection. During Trump, public gatherings became occasions for incitement. Trump demonized all those not part of his movement, even encouraging his followers to beat up dissenters. Not a single objection was heard from Trump’s religious followers. Like the Ash‘ari God whose actions are good by definition and so can never be questioned, everything Trump did was right and above accountability, no matter how corrupt or mendacious.

On the day I am writing this, the Supreme Court has decided to let stand a Texas law that provides a $10,000 bounty for any private citizen who sues anyone helping a woman seeking an abortion, including a friend who drives her to the clinic or even gives her the address of a clinic in another state. People may have different views on abortion. That is not the point. This law encourages citizens to become the abortion police, to spy on each other and turn against each other in the hope of financial reward. Texas Right to Life has already set up an anonymous tip line. God help any woman who has a miscarriage and her neighbor wonders why she is no longer pregnant. This law has prevailed by virtue of the three Trump-appointed justices. Already it is being held up as a model for similar legislation to be passed in conservative states, and which may not be limited to abortion. This legal sanction of vigilantism, especially against those who do not share one’s religious views, is an ominous sign for the future of American society and democracy. It is religion gone demonic.

This is what happens when a society dispenses with reason and turns to absolutism. This pattern has played out in many political regimes that have allied themselves with religion. In the United States we have so far been protected from this by our tradition of separation between church and state. That tradition is now eroding. Both our democracy and the cohesiveness of our society are in danger. This is why Akyol’s book is so timely, and mandatory reading not just for Muslims but for anyone living in a society where religion has become a strong political force.

September 2021