By Paul Williams
So the long anticipated debate finally arrived.
The evening began inauspiciously. We were promised the use of the spacious and air-conditioned Khalili Lecture Theatre but due to a booking error by the Student’s Union another group took possession of our room and our speakers and the audience were subsequently packed like sardines into a much smaller room at the School of African and Oriental Studies (SOAS). Before the debate had even started the temperature in the room was in the 30s centigrade. University staff told me that the windows could not be opened. There were not enough chairs. Many people had to sit on the floor. Arriving attendees were filling up the corridor outside – many left in disgust at the lack of space.
Things did not improve when the Isoc President made his opening remarks: he mispronounced both speakers names; he did not realise that Mustafa Akyol (author of ‘Islam without Extremes: A Muslim case for Liberty’) had just published a book despite the fact that his publisher had mounted a highly visible display of the books on a table three feet from where he was standing! I will draw a discreet veil over the Isoc president’s attempt at ‘moderating’ the debate, as further recounting of his embarrassingly poor performance will serve no beneficial purpose. Suffice it to say that this event was not organised by MDI.
The debate was entitled: Islam and Reformation: What is the way forward?
The poster asked us to consider: Can Islamic civilisation be revived? What are the solutions for the problems in the Muslim world? Does Islam need reformation? Should Muslims borrow from Western Political systems? What is the way forward?
The speakers were:
Abdullah al Andalusi, who is a ‘Muslim revivalist thinker and International MDI speaker’. His blog can be read here.
Mustafa Akyol is a Turkish political commentator and author. He is currently a regular columnist for Hurriyet Daily News, Turkey’s foremost English-language daily. He also appears regularly on Turkish TV, on political discussion shows. See his full biography on his blog here.
I will not attempt a detailed examination of each sides presentation or decide who ultimately was ‘right’. The film of the debate will be out on this blog within the next two weeks, inshallah, and I will let viewers make up their own minds about the subject.
I will just offer here a few of my own impressions of the evening.
Overall the debate was conducted in a spirit of mutual respect and good will. It was essentially an inter-Muslim occasion where the speakers and the Muslim audience discussed the nature of Islam, its political role, if any, and the controversial question of an Islamic state.
Mustafa Akyol presented first. He is clearly an impressive and charismatic speaker. I found myself in agreement with much of what he said. For example, he referred to the famous Saudi ban on female drivers. Akyol had discussed the fatwa banning women drivers at the highest scholarly level in Saudi Arabia and was informed that the ban finds its raison d’être in an Hadith stipulating that women must not travel around unaccompanied by a man. But Akyol sensibly asked how a woman driving a SUV from Medina to Mecca could be vulnerable as women undoubtedly were 1,400 years ago.
He questioned the commonly understood belief that Islam mandates the execution of people who change their religion, arguing that this is unacceptable in today’s world where human rights and individual liberty are prized. Akyol justified his stance with references to the sirah of the prophet Muhammad (pbuh) who on several occasions, when confronted by the apostasy of a few of his companions did not order their execution. He located the rationale of the classical understanding of ‘apostasy‘ in the historical and political context of medieval Islam’s concern with rebellion and treason against the Islamic state. Abdullah later on broadly agreed with this interpretation (if I understood him correctly).
But curiously towards the end of his presentation, Akyol (it seemed to me), revealed the true nature of his beliefs when he clearly rejected any concept of an Islamic state and advocated instead “secular democracy” based on “liberalism” and “individual freedom”. Divine law would find no place in his concept of society because it could only be totalitarian and repressive in his view.
Abdullah’s presentation was, as Akyol subsequently remarked, highly erudite and articulate. Initially though I felt that Abdullah was attacking a ‘straw man’ of Mustafa’s Akyol’s position, in his nevertheless brilliant deconstruction of Western liberal political thought (an ideology Akyol never claimed he subscribed to uncritically). But Abdullah quickly became focused on Akyol’s rejection of an Islamic state, skillfully citing authentic hadith, pertinent ayat from the Quran, and examples from Islamic history.
Throughout the rebuttals and counter rebuttals the protagonists contrasting positions became ever clearer.
For Abdullah, the task at hand is for the Ummah to reacquaint itself with its founding ideas and vision: of a society based on Divine Law providing real justice for all and a defence of the weak and the poor. I for one found his argument compelling and consistent with the Qur’an, sunnah and the classical Islamic tradition.
Akyol is concerned to ‘modernise’ Islam, to claim for Islam the western liberal democratic system as the foundation for his vision of what he calls ‘Liberal Islam’, as outlined in his new book. Yes, he does believe that Islamic “values” should play a part in the political process but the State and all it’s laws should be resolutely secular.
I am pleased to record that nobody actually passed out as a result of the stifling heat in the room. This was no thanks to some of the staff at the university who seemed unconcerned with the suffering of it’s 200 or so guests last night.
This is the first time that MDI has debated the questions of reformation and Islam – dealing with the compatibility (or lack of it) between the Islamic conception of state and the concept of state within secularism and liberalism. Abdullah al Andalusi is clearly a man of many intellectual talents and combined with his irenic and respectful approach to those with whom he disagrees, he represents a refreshing contrast to the aggressive and stale polemics of much Islamic discourse. He is a rising star in the ummah and I pray that Allah will continue to bless his dawah.