Book Review: Reopening Muslim Minds

Let there be no compulsion in religion: Truth stands out clear from Error: whoever rejects evil and believes in Allah hath grasped the most trustworthy hand-hold, that never breaks. And Allah heareth and knoweth all things

Qur’an, 2:256 (Yusuf Ali translation)

The Book

If you read Walski’s preceding post you’ll know how he got here. To this state of being, to be on this continuous journey of discovering his spiritual self. The thing about journeys such as this is that one is bound to discover books and people that become homing beacons to learn even more.

One such person is Mustafa Akyol, author, journalist and thinker, whose recent book Reopening Muslim Minds (A Return To Reason, Freedom, and Tolerance) Walski had the distinct privilege and pleasure to read, earlier this year.

Book cover for Reopening Muslim Minds by Mustafa Akyol (2021, Macmillan Publishers)

Allow Walski to cut to the chase: this book is HIGHLY recommended reading, by both Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Particularly, an important read for all Malaysians, for the simple reason that Walski believes our nation is currently at a crossroad, with “Islam” being a major actor in national politics, potentially becoming the proverbial straw that breaks this nation.

So perhaps calling this a ‘book review’ may not be the most accurate way to describe this post. Truth be told, Walski wants you to read it; he ardently hopes you do.

But because Walski is the sort of person who doesn’t like forcing people to do things, it would only be fair that the rest of this post be about WHY he thinks this is an important book.

So with the recommendation bit out of the way, let’s proceed with the why.

What this book is about

It wouldn’t be possible to explain why this book is important without telling you what it is about. Well, it is about Islam. Specifically, it traces the developmental history of Islam, in a broad sense, from the time of its revelation in the 7th century CE, to present time.

The book comprises 14 chapters (plus an epilogue), covering a range of topics centered around the premise of how Islamic civilization developed, what were the factors that contributed to its zenith (i.e. the “golden age” many Muslims today romanticize and yearn for), and what led to its decline. And yes, make no mistake, the Islamic world at large today is in a general state of decline.

Speaking of the “golden age”, roughly between the 8th to 13th centuries CE, what the book uncovers about the intellectual, social and spiritual environment of that time, Walski suspects, will come as an eye-opener to most readers. Particularly for those raised on the belief that this “golden age” was the product of, among other things, coercive piety, rejection of anything “un-Islamic”, and diminishing the importance of human faculty and reason.

In fact, an important clue to the contents and tone of the book might be gleaned from a careful reading of the book’s title (and subtitle). It’s not ‘opening’ but Reopening, and not ‘a call to’ but A Return To. Meaning what? Well, for Walski, it means that once upon a time, Muslim minds were much more open, and that Freedom, Reason and Tolerance weren’t the despised attributes they have become today among many Muslims.

What lends great credence to the arguments and presentation by the author of the book is the level of research that has gone into it. In particular, when it comes to the source of historical information, and assertions of what Islam was like centuries ago. In fact, a good chunk of the 300-plus pages in the book is devoted to notes for each of the 14 (plus epilogue) chapters.

And before you scream, “Orientalist hogwash!“, the bulk of these carefully researched references are from “Muslim” and “Islamic” sources. So no, the book is not promoting an Orientalist view of what Islam should be, but a frank retelling of Islam’s history, of how the religion succeeded in creating an important civilization, and how from its zenith, declined.

For Malaysians, it may be somewhat ironic that the book opens with recounting the author’s unpleasant experience with our very own Religious Police during his visit to Malaysia in 2017 to participate in a series of talks organized by the Islamic Renaissance Front (IRF). Part of the “complaint” was the ‘unauthorized and unsanctioned’ reference to the very verse that opens this posting – that there shall be no compulsion in matters of faith. Another, more shockingly (well not really shocking), was the revelation that our religious authorities allegedly loathe commonalities among the Abrahamic faiths.

Incidentally, it was this very incident that initially acquainted Walski with Mustafa Akyol and his writings. Akyol’s run-in with our religious police would later lead to one of his other books, “Islam Without Extremes” to be banned in Malaysia. Last time Walski checked, the book (both the English and BM versions) is still on the Home Ministry’s “Thou Shall Not Read” database (go to this link, and look up page 168), even though the ban was eventually quashed by the Court of Appeal in February 2020.

But far be it for Akyol to hold a grudge against Malaysia at large.

This story is not meant to discredit Malaysia. It is a beautiful country for which I still have a heart, a country that I would encourage anyone to visit. I also feel lucky that I had this experience there—and not in countries with much harsher laws, such as Saudi Arabia or Iran. Malaysia is indeed more “moderate” when compared to such religious dictatorships, where liberal critics can go through much darker experiences.

from Chapter 1 in “Reopening The Muslim Mind” by Mustafa Akyol

The author knows well the score, and it is this very coercive nature of how Islam is administered (and not just in Malaysia) that the book argues against. Akyol believes – and Walski agrees – that religious coercion only leads to an insincere expression of faith, and ultimately, hypocrisy. It is this very lack of freedom, tolerance, and reason that has greatly contributed to the current-day Islamic world at large to be left behind.

Why this book is important

Reopening Muslim Minds” has been written so that it’s easy to read. Unlike many books that deal with Islam, and that are as well-referenced and researched, Akyol’s book is not dry academic reading. Far from it. His background as a journalist makes for a very engaging read. Adding to this ease is that all notes and references have been placed right at the end, avoiding the visual-fatigue causing clutter that often accompanies text with lots of references and footnotes. And as Walski mentioned, there are a lot of notes and references, useful for those who insist the text they read be rigorously researched and justified.

In other words, “Reopening Muslim Minds” is the most unacademic-like academical read Walski’s come across in a long while (if that makes sense).

And this is a very good thing. If for no other reason, because it is well within the latitude of those who need to read this most. Yes, academicians may (and should) read it, but the most important audience is the layperson – you, Walski, and most people within our circles, regardless of what faith they profess (or don’t at all).

It provides a lot of information about Islam and its developmental history that may not be common knowledge (at least for Walski). But more importantly the book provides objective information about historical Muslim figures – academics, theologians, thinkers, and the like – as well as events, which you may know or have heard of, but through vilified lenses. For example, the Mu’tazilites, the early Islamic rationalists today held in very low regard by Muslims. Equally as important, the long-shadowed effect of their losing out to the Ash’arites.

Another notable example that many many not be aware: the idea that human beings are born with an innate sense of right and wrong – that it’s not religious observance and rigor that shapes this attribute – is an idea that had existed many centuries ago in the Muslim world, and not some new-fangled liberal agenda created to lead Muslims astray.

In Walski’s view, what the book tries to instill is the sense that for Muslims to once again be an important and positive world influence, there needs to be a return to the very values that made Islamic civilization the light that eventually delivered Europe out of the Dark Ages.

These values aren’t the literalist, dogmatic, and unreasoned approach to life that has commonly become associated with Islam today, and those that Islamic conservatives insist are what made Islamic civilization great way back when. In fact, quite the opposite.

Walski fears that Malaysian Islamic conservatives will find this book disturbing, and ultimately, “dangerous”. Dangerous, that is, to their authority as self-imposed standard bearers of what Islam in Malaysia must necessarily be. And because these conservatives have a very strong say in governmental policy, there will eventually be a move to ban the book.

An Islam that is open, tolerant, and universal – one that Akyol certainly is a proponent of – is a big danger to the conservative religious authoritarians who seek to “frame” this nation in their own image and imagination, and only in their image and imagination.

If someone were to ask you about the state of Islam in Malaysia today, what would you have to say? Do you think – like the forces that be in our government and outside of it – that religious coercion is necessary in a country like Malaysia? Is freedom a detriment to faith? Will liberal attitudes and plurality bring disrepair to our society, as many religionists argue today?

Reopening Muslim Minds” addresses many of these questions, the very ones Malaysia today is facing when it comes to Islam and its role in nation building. Once upon a time we were looked upon as an exemplary beacon of balance between modernity and religiosity.

Honestly, Walski believes we no longer are. Despite what the conservative forces in society today try to convince you.

Mustafa Akyol is a senior fellow at the Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity, Cato Institute, in Washington, D.C. He is a frequent contributor to The New York Times, and has authored several books in addition to “Reopening Muslim Minds“, which was published this year. On Twitter, you’ll find him at @AkyolinEnglish (or @akyolMustafa, in Turkish)

The Journey Spiritual in a Dogmatic World

The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion

Albert Camus

Every human is born a free spirit, and it is the experience of life that shapes who we eventually become. And although we have “become“, possibilities and opportunities will always present themselves to enable us to redefine ourselves.

But only if we want to.

Just so you don’t read the rest of this post confused, allow Walski to elucidate why he’s writing this. Some weeks back, he completed reading an important book by author, journalist and thinker Mustafa Akyol, “Reopening Muslim Minds“. To say it’s an important book would be an understatement. Walski believes everyone – Muslims in particular – should read it. And for selfish reasons, Muslims in Malaysia especially.

(Disclaimer: Walski is a Malaysian, hence the slight selfishness)

One of the things he thought of doing was to write an unsolicited review on the book, and why Walski thinks it’s important, especially for Malaysia currently. But before that, he thought it only fitting that Walski share a little bit about his own spiritual journey, so that the review might have some foundational context as to where Walski comes from.

And so, with that out of the way, let’s begin our journey. Well, Walski’s journey…

Let’s start at the beginning. Or, as close to the beginning as practical.

Walski grew up in a middle class family, both parents in the civil service, as were his granddads on both sides of the maternal/paternal divide. He was born in the mid-60s, and grew up during a time Malay/Muslims weren’t so obsessed with performative piety as they are today. A lot less uptight, too, about… well, just about everything, really.

Sure, Islam was observed in the family then. 5-times a day prayers, fasting in Ramadhan, etc. But apart from that, by and large Islam wasn’t something every damned thing revolved around like it is in Malaysia today. Yes, the state did have some level of control, but by and large it was a personal belief matter. And in the 70s and early 80s, no one talked about religious rehabilitation.

Fast-forward to 1990, when Walski returned to Malaysia after spending 8 years abroad, doing his tertiary education and briefly working after that. By then, Malaysia was already in the early stages of metamorphosis, religion starting its creep into the public sphere. Later in that decade the now infamous Lina Joy case made it clear that government departments were bound by what religious authorities dictate. Religion – specifically Islam – was no longer something between an individual and God, but between an individual and state dictates. And what the state dictates shall be what “Islam” is in Malaysia.

So if the state dictates a particular school of thought is the only permissible school of thought, then that’s that. Personal conscience? Doesn’t exist in Malaysia; at least not among anyone unfortunate enough to be born into a Muslim family, or decided to embrace the religion.

What changed Walski, looking back, was probably the Black Metal police raid that happened on New Year’s eve 2006 in KL, and before that, another in December 2005 (in Seremban). These two police raids, it would appear, were the direct result of moral outrage caused by religious councils about the evils of Black Metal, which later morphed into fantastical articles in Mastika (yes, that literary giant), and which eventually drove PDRM to act. Later in 2006 the National Fatwa Council made it “officially” haram.

Ok, first off, Walski is not a big fan of Death Metal. And the real point is not this specific genre being banned, but how the opinion of religious bodies (a fatwa, by definition, is an opinion) could drive enforcement apparatus of the state to act. Which leads to another question: do religious authorities have the power to shape legislation, and the actual people responsible to create legislation (Parliament and the respective State houses) have no choice but to comply?

Sadly, as we have slowly discovered since then, the answer is yes. Whether or not this power of sway is based on actual laws or not is irrelevant – what they say, goes. Or else, the legion of Islamic NGOs creep out of the woodworks to shout loudly. And this government, which has historically relied on the Muslim vote to remain in power, kneejerks into action. The question of legality doesn’t even arise – the religionists speak, and therefore MUST BE OBEYED.

Also interesting was this popular notion going around during the Lina Joy trial – she had abandoned Islam (and did it publicly), therefore must be eliminated. Killed. Wait, what? Isn’t Islam a religion of compassion and peace? Or, at least, that’s what Walski had been brought up to believe.

And then there was also this thing about certain words that are exclusive to Muslims in Malaysia, and no one else may use them. Huh? How and when did Islam become so exclusivist?

There are other things that popped up in addition to these two, but suffice it to say Walski had to find out more. And thus, in 2006 his spiritual journey began. The year he turned 42. Which, coincidentally, is also the ultimate answer; the answer to life, the universe, and everything.

But just like in Douglas Adams’ series of HItchhiker books, the quest became to seek what questions to ask. And the questions were many.

And it was also at this point that Walski (finally) took the trouble to read the Quran. Not merely recite it while not knowing what it says, but really read it. And understand it (or try, at least). Back in 2006 there wasn’t the abundance of tafseer (or “translation”, loosely translated) to be found on the Internet like there is today. But there were enough resources, that said.

And what Walski found out was actually in the Quran? Eye-opening and enlightening, to say the least. More importantly, a lot of what today constitutes Islamic practice and belief is not in the Quran at all. Like, for instance, that apostates and blasphemers may no longer live. Sure, there’s damnation and all, but no worldly punishment. Similarly, the punishment of stoning to death – nowhere in the Quran.

Also eye-opening was the much-repeated appeal for us to use our intellect and reason. And not at all like what most religionists today demand, that we must accept their truth as the only truth, and most of all, never question.

So what happened to Islam between the time the Quran was revealed, as the seal of revelaion and God’s final word to mankind, and the present day? In a nutshell, a lot. Put it this way: if the very basis of this nation being secular in nature can be altered, challenged and re-interpreted 60-some years after 1957, what more a faith that’s been around for over 1,400 years?

Which brings us to back to Mustafa Akyol’s book, “Reopening Muslim Minds“. Its subtitle, by the way: A Return to Reason, Freedom and Tolerance. Not ‘opening’ but Reopening. Not ‘Towards’ but A Return to. Think about the title and their implications.

And when Walski gets around to writing the review, we’ll discuss this more.

So that’s the journey Walski embarked on in 2006, and which continues till this day. A journey of asking questions, and seeking answers. It’s a journey that will continue until his last breath, in all likelihood. There have been more questions than answers, but that’s okay.

Such is the nature of spiritual journeys, it would seem.