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"Reopening Muslim Minds:" A Case for Islamic Modernity

The Islamic Civilization and Societies Program of Boston College welcomed Turkish scholar and author Mustafa Akyol on Wednesday, March 16th to discuss his nuanced perspective regarding Islamic liberalism. 

Akyol, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, has a unique focus on the intersectionality of Islam, modernity, and public policy. Celebrated by many publications such as The New York Times, The Economist, and The Los Angeles Times, Akyol was named one of “the world’s top 50 thinkers” in July 2021 by the Prospect magazine of the UK. 

In his book Reopening Muslim Minds, Akyol details “the crises of Islam” in contemporary society. He explains his belief that Muslims have lost universalism, an attribute he argues made them a great civilization throughout history. 

In his exploration of Islamic theology, Akyol examines the loss of values associated with the “Western Enlightenment” such as freedom, tolerance, science, and reason. He argues that these principles once had Islamic parallels that have since been replaced with more dogmatic views, often as a consequence of politics. 

In his discussion with BC students and faculty, Akyol began by describing the complexity of Islamic tradition. While Sharia Law has empirical roots in the Islamic Empire, he maintains that certain translations of the Qur’an have become more illiberal over time. These translations, which he describes as imperial jurisprudence, have evolved into “religious policing.” 

Akyol furthers that many Islamic translations are still holding onto their medieval roots, establishing his core message in the notion that “religion is not something that you can police.” 

In formulating a path forward, Akyol draws upon prominent Islamic thinkers such as Ibn Rushd, known in the West as Averroes, in his assertion that Islam necessitates another enlightenment in order to join modernity. Averroes, Akyol states, described law as either written and unwritten. Averroes asserted that written laws were insufficient to determine the good and bad in the conduct of the human individual. 

Akyol further develops this argument by advocating that written and unwritten Islamic laws be examined in conjunction to determine proper conduct for Muslims. 

Throughout the conversation, Akyol returns to a universal principle with roots in the Qur’an he believes can act as a path forward for Islam, that “there shall be no compulsion in religion.” 

Akyol offers a novel Muslim perspective on important contemporary issues facing Islam today such as gender equality, freedom of religion, and freedom of speech. He argues that, in order to move forward, it is necessary to re-examine Sharia and dismantle “the theological roadblock” that dismisses questioning. This, he argues, is the path forward. 

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