Some Considerations On The Condition Of Social, Politıcal, And Economic Thinking In The Islamic World, Atilla Yayla

What I would like to do in this presentation is to share some ideas I have about current situation of social, political, and economic thought in Islamic countries with the audience. It must be stated at the outset that the presentation does not aim or claim to bring definite solutions to the problems that have been in discussion for decades even centruies. However, I hope  it will put a little bit of light on the methodological problems that appear while researchers deal with these issues, refer to several mistakes that distorted the way Muslims think about them, and suggest a few subjects to study on to make progress in meeting contemporary needs an demands.

We all know that the Islamic world as a whole is in a desperately bad position in many respects. To understand how bad the situation, we can compare the Islamic world today with the Islamic world towards the end of first millennium. The comparison shows that in the last centuries of the first millennium the Islamic world was much more advanced than any other part of the world, including Europe or what we call the West today, in science, medicine, economy, toleration, and peaceful co-existence(1).  The situation has been completely reversed in following ages. In our time the Islamic world is poor in both absolute and relative terms. Muslims do fail to enjoy basic human rights in many Islamic lands. They  usually suffer under oppressive regimes led by secular or religious dictators.

Why did it happen like this? There are several explanations. Some claim that Islam as a religion is not and can never be compatible with civilization.  It reject all the values that created civilization and has a natural tendency to create terrorism. Those who believe that Islamic teachings feed terrorism  easily reach to Islamaphobia and  see an actual or potential terrorist in every Muslim person. Interestingly there are subscribers to this approach also in the Islamic countries themselves. They have  attempted from time to time to colonize their own countries and peoples in the capacity of domestic colonizers. Islamists think that the reason for Islamic countries backwardness is Muslim peoples’ attempt to imitate the West as whole. In doing  so Muslims distanced themselves from superior Islamic values which caused them to fall behind the West.  What needs to be done is to reject all Western values and to turn to robust, untouched, holly essence of Islamic religion.  The Salafi movements or Islamic fundementalists have such an understanding. A milder version of this  approach proposes that Muslims should benefit from the science and technology of the West but at the same time to keep away from the western culture and morality or lack of morality.

If we live aside these biased and illinformed explanations, we can count several sociological, historical reasons why  the Islamic world lagged behind  the West. First comes the  Mongol occupation of the Islamic world and destruction of the administrative educational, scientific, and culturel structure(2). For sure  Mongols also caused a loss of self- confidence among Musims. Then comes the discovery of the new transportation routes which bypassed the Islamic lands to reach to the West and Far East. It caused further destruction in the commercial culture and activity. Obviously all these event have a share in the absolute and proportional backwardness of the Islamic world. However I, as classical liberal, tend to think that there is another factor as important as the previous ones. It is the inability of the thinking classes in the Islamic world to develop the ideas that laid down the foundations of free and prosperous society. To put it more clearly, there have been no counterparts of  Adam Smith, John Locke, J. S. Mill, and F. A Hayek in Muslim countries. We come across strong and profound authors on literature in the Islamic world but no thinker who have been able, even desired to produce, a theory of politics and economics. We have among others Ibn Haldun, Khayrettin Pasha (1822-1890),  Ottoman author Namık Kemal (1840-1888), and Egyptian theologian Ali Abderraziq (1888-1986) who all proclaimed some rudimentary ideas towards a full fledged theory(3). However, none of them, unfortunately, developed any sophisticated theory that can be compared with those that came into existence in the West. The Islamic political literature lacks very important concepts too. There is no counterpart of the terms limited state, constitutionalism,  universal human rights, and citizenship in major Islamic languages.  In Islamic political literature calls are made to sultans which invite them to be fair, just, and to respect human beings; but no definite principles and theories that are required to construct  an open, transparent, participatory political system exist. The same goes true for economics literature in the Islamic lands. The most obvious part of the Muslim economic thinking is the rejection of interest. But this is not unique to Muslims and does not mean much. First many philosophers like Aristotales in Ancient Greece were against interest. Chistianity also rejected it. Second, the rejection and damning of  interest does not help much in devising an economic theory. There is no systematic work in Islamic thought tradition on the consumer behaviour, firm patterns, capital formation, saving and investment, money, banking, micro and macro economic theory. I believe that the lack of ideas, or the failure to develop new ideas, concepts, and theories that successfully reply the needs of humanity in every field is among  the main causes of Islamic peoples’ backwardness. Liberals believe that ideas have consequences. If this is true, the poverty in ideas must also has consequences. The situation  of the Islamic world  can be seen  as a sample  and proof of what the lack of ideas might bring.

If my observation is correct, then it raises another question: Why did it happen so ? An answer to the question very oftenly put forward by various writers is the closing of ıjtihad, producing new ideas(4). There appears a wide spread consensus among Muslim and non-Muslim scholars that so called ijtihad door was closed centruies ago and because of this Muslims could not develop new ideas or make interpretations of basic Islamic principles to meet new ways and  needs. This approach supports my argument. But it is partly true. By the failure in developing new ideas I do not mean to only reinterpret Islamic principles stated in Qur’an and other sources of Islam. I refer to a much broader framework. In other words, the basic problem in the Islamic political, social, and economic thinking is not only to open the door of  ijtihad. And  we can not be sure that the opening of the door to ijtihad will and can solve this problem. Because, something more than ending of  ijtihad happened to the Muslim mind. If it is appropriate to say, Muslim mind has become a closed mind. It moved from being an open mind to being a closed mind. The difference between the two minds is of almost importance.  The closed mind completely rejects the outside world and other ideas in favour of inside world and inner ideas(5).  Thus it is synonymous  with dogmatism. It produces intolerance, exclusion. In the Islamic world the birth of closed mind has been helped, interestingly but not strangely, by both the feeling of inferiority in economic and military power and the sense of superiority in culture and morality.

In contrast to ın the first millennium, the Islamic world turned into inside in the second half of the second millennium and developed a rejectionary- reactionary attitude especially against the west. In the first millennium the Ancient Greek philosophy that faced the danger of completely disappearing from the world was saved by the Muslims and Europe discovered it through translations from Arabic. There is more than this. Many Europeans like Albertus Magnus, Roger Bacon, Thomas Aquinas, William of Ockham developed their intellectual skills in Arabic- Islamic universities ın Cordoba, Sevilla, Granada, Valencia and Toledo(6). Then there was self-confidence in the ıslamic lands; Muslims saw the whole accumulation of human knowledge as their own.  Towards the mid of the second millenium this great self-confidence and inner peace started leaving its place to the sense of helplessness and vulnerability against the West. It brought both turning-closing inside and excluding the rest, especially the West. And to justify the new, unprecedendent attitudes such a consolation appeared: “ The West might be more advanced in science, technology, and much stronger in economic and  military structure; but it is undoing itself in culture and moral. The West has collapsed or it is about to collapse. We are superior to Christians due to our values, beliefs, and social culture”

Under these circumstances the social and political thought in Islamic lands lost its original trajectory. Surrounded by a discouraging thought environment and surrennded to closed mindedness the men of ideas and thought started repeating previously produced thoughts within a fascit circle, instead of trying to develop new and progressive ideas. Those who read Islam’s history know that Islam had been born as a revolutionary religion. It rejected  inequalities and privilidges that used to come by birth. It criticized women’s being  second class in social affairs. It brought important rights for the female and even saved the life of many new born females(7).  Islam in the beginning opened a war against political oppression for religious reasons and cured some social diseases. It declared that human beings could not be slaves to other human beings, that everybody was equal in being human. It recognized and protected private property and promoted free trade.  Islam was the only religion espoused by a merchant and Muslim community  appeared a s commercial society(8).

All those had been indicating a certain direction to Muslims. As history had not ended Muslims would be expected to walk in the indicated trajectory. In other words Muslims should have made teleological reading of the sources and early history of Islam and should have carried its message much further. Unfortunately, this is not what happened. Islamic thought first stopped progressing in the direction it originally had and then rolled back. The result is in front of our eyes.

What are the more concreate mistakes of thought and how Muslims can get rid of them?

1.      Muslim thinkers tend to treat Muslims and non-Muslims, specifically Christian westerners, as if they are different species This is non-sense. We are human beings before being Muslim or non-Muslim, white or black, male or female. We have common needs and share many features of life. This means that there might be things Muslims can and should learn from the expreinces and thought  of non-Muslims. Otherwise, closed- mindedness reigns.

2.      The basic sources of Islam and the time of prophet Muhammed must be  made subject to teleological interpretations. Muslims should progress in the  original direction the Qur’an and prophet Muhammed indicated. They should not behave as if history has ended, and instead of making static repetitions they must adopt dynamic interpretation methods, and addres contemporary problems.

3.      There is no doubt that Muslims have to read, understand, and follow Qur’an and Sunnah. However, it does not suffice to realize the full and true nature of human World. Allah is the creator of the whole world and all human beings. If there are rules embedded into the nature of individual and social life they must have been created by Allah. Therefore Muslims must try to discover and express them. In other words, if Qur’an is the small book of Allah, the nature and whole human world is the big book of Allah. It is a duty for Muslims to read both books.

4.      Some writers claim that Muslims should go back to  origins of Qur’an and clear it from traditions and history. It is mission impossible. Qur’an does not speak itself. It is made to speak by Muslims and each Muslim  understands it within his or her conditions and capacity. There is no other way. If one succeds once to make a general interpretation of Qur’an completely free from traditions and history, one’s interpretation itself becomes in time tradition and history. So it is inhuman to claim that Qur’an  must be cleared from previous traditions and interpretations. What is needed in the Islamic world is not tradition and history-free interpretation but freedom that allows Muslims to make different and competing interpretations.

5.      In the Islamic social and political thinking there needs a concept of natural law. It can be discovered or devised  by studying the big book of Allah. In the western liberal tradition natural law concept, both in its religious and secular forms, played a very effective role to overcome dogmatism and  fanaticism.

6.      The general concept of human rights also must be defended in the Islamic world. The concept refers to human beings as subjects who have basic, inalienable, indispensible rights  regardsless of sex, ethnicity, and religion. Human rights theory has done a lot to  tarnish religious or secular fanaticism in the West. The same might happen in the Islamic lands. In order to launch  a general theory of human rights, Muslims must again read the big book of Allah. Instead of devising a general theory of human rights, some attempted to build a a conception of “ıslamic human rights”. It might help Muslims in embracing human rights, but can not constitute a general framework within which every way of thought and belief can find a place for itself and feels comfortable. Every religious foundation of human rights, Christian or Muslim, is bound to be secterian and discriminationary. Because of this we need a universal conceptualization of human rights in the Islamic culture.

7. Muslim thought also needs a general concept of individual. In fact Islam in its first decades empowered individualism against tribalism. Qur’an defined man as “God’s viceroy on the earth”. Before Islam tribes and tribalism reigned. The penal system recognized the tribe, not the individual, as subject. Qur’an changed this understanding(9). Unfortunately collectivism captured in following decades  the Islamic thinking. If so called Islamic human rights say that only Nuslims can have human rights, it can not be a universal human rights theory and  a general theory of constitutional government can not be constructed out of this concept.

8. Muslims have mostly failed to understand the real nature and implications of freedom. Many of them subscribe to a kind of positive freedom: Inner freedom. In this approach it is believed that one is free if one obeys Allah’s orders regarding what to do and what not to do. This conceptualization implies that only Muslims can enjoy freedom. In other words, being Muslim comes first and freedom comes only with Muslimness. This is wrong. This kind of positive freedom takes freedom as something that is linked with the relations between individual and God. Freedom has nothing to do with relations between individual and God; it is concerned with relations between individuals; it is a social product. Being human being is a general human condition while being Muslim or Christian or atheist refers to a specific human condition. People can not be free by believing or not believing in a religion and practising its requirements. They can adopt a religion if they have freedom. In Islamic culture those who are unfree can not be considered to be responsible for their deeds. One who is not free can not be a real Muslim. However, free persons do not have to choose Islam as their religious belief. That means that in any given country everybody must have the right to enjoy freedom if Muslims will be really free.

I can clarify more what freedom means and how it relates to a believer’s relation with Allah. In Islam taking alcohol is a sin, something human beings have the capacity to commit but forbidden by Allah. In other words the is a holy ban on alcohol consumption. Some Muslims think that Muslims become free by obeying the God. This interpretation is right in the sense that one who behaves like that becomes alcohol-free. However being alcohol free is not equal to being free. If it were then someone who does not believe in Muslim God would also be free if she/he does not approach  to alcohol. The problem in this strange situation results from confusing the legitimate field offreedom-related discussions with religious ones. If one is free, one has the right to take or not take alcohol. If one is forced by somebody else (but not by God) to take or not to take alcohol, one is not free. Thus freedom comes first. And individuals have the right to make choice if they ara free. In case of alcohol consumption, both one who take alcohol and one who do not take alcohol can be free.

9. A big problem in Islamic lands is the obsession with the so called Islamic state. Many Muslims demand Islamic state instead of limited, constitutional government. In this understanding Muslims can have freedom only if they live under Islamic states. This approach harms not only the freedom of non-Muslims but also of Muslims. What is required to be free Muslim and to lead an Islamic life is not an Islamic state, but a limited and constitutional government. Muslims can not be able to enjoy freedom while other human beings are unfree(10). 

10. Muslims should get rid of the sense of inferiority and superiority against the West. History is not limited to a few centruies; it is a long, incessant happening. There is no guarantee that today’s superior will not be tomorrow’s inferior. Things might change. Besides what we call today as basic human rights and values are not the product of any single culture or religion, they are common product of all humanity. It is wrong to attach them to any specific culture or religion, be it West, Christanity or Islam. Freedom of belief and expression, the right to private property, the right for equal equal recognition belong to all human beings.

The revolts against dictators in the Muslim Arabic lands raised hopes that in Islamic countries peoples can have full freedom under limited and constitutional government. Whether or not these hopes will come true remains to be seen. In this context some commentators are making comparisons between Turkey and North-African arabic countries by saying that Turkey succeeded transforming itself from a single party regime into a sort of limited democracy much earlier due to M. Kemal Atatürk’s reforms. It is true that Turkey preferred democracy to dictatorship several decades ago. It happened in 1950 and came with almost no violence. However this was not due to single party dicatatorship’s applications and reforms. Rather it happened despite them. Tu put it differently, the Turkish spring in 1950 was a rejection of many political arrangements that belonged to the single party governance era. What changed in Turkey in 1950s? In order to understand how big the change was we must look at the Turkish regime’s characteristics before 1950 revolution. Between 1925 and 1950 Turkey had a single party system which did not allow other and opposing political parties and free elections. Therefore there was no political competition. The government elected itself with no real participation of the public. Turkey lacked freedom of religion and expression, rule of law, independent and impartial judiciary. There was no effective protection for private property. There was, still is, the unquestionable personality cult of the supreme political leader. Turkey became subject to one of the wildest cultural revolution attempts in the World history. People’s alphabet was changed without seeking a general consent of the citizens. The state intervened into the dress codes in the society. Kurdish language was forbidden. Different ethnic identity groups were forced to consider themselsve as Turk. Even some traditional forms of Turkish music were banned for some time. As would be expected, under the single party dictatorship Turkey could not make any economic progress. The society suffered for decades under extreme poverty. Governing political elites took economy under total control to curb possible opposition to its totalitarian project that aimed to recreate individuals and to remold society. 

With all these, Turkish political regime before 1950 resembled the regimes the Arabs wish to escape nowadays. Turkish people ousted the dictatorship through ballot boxes and started establishing democracy. If there are any lessons Muslims in the Arab spring should learn from the Turkish experiment, they can be detected by observing the differences between pre and post 1950 Turkey.

The crucial problem all peoples face in constructing an ideal political system has been the following: What should such a system depend on? Many people are eager to reply by saying that every good system has to depend on the eternal truth-haqiqat. People wish to live under the kingdom of haqiqat, but differ among themselves on what it is. Some find the haqiqat in religion, some in ethnicity, some in science, and some in ideology. Wherever haqiqat lies, any and every system that relies on a single haqiqat will be inevitably oppressive. Because there are different haqiqats for different peoples, even for different individuals. To make a single haqiqat reign over others by force brings oppression, war, bloodshed. Therefore, what needs to be done is not to try to build up political systems that depends on this or that haqiqat, but to create a system within which the individuals and groups who subscribe to different haqiqats can live together in peace and relative harmony. Such a system has to depend, what we must call, on framework-values which do not impose any specific haqiqat upon inhabitants in the country. Those values make us understand that in order to be respected by others we have to respect others. This inevitably requires to apply to classical liberal values. In the words of Roskin and Coyle, in the Islamic World nationalism, socialism, and tribalism have all been tried. The only way not tried yet is free-market liberalism. I think it is time for Muslims to discover liberal values and to look for support for them in Allah’s small and big books.

Istanbul Network for Liberty


1.Hans Koechler, “Muslim-Christian Ties in Europe: Past, present, and Future”,

2.Michael G. Roskin & James J. Coyle, Politics of the Middle East: Cultures and Conflicts (second edition), New Jersey: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2008, p. 35.

3. Ali Abdurreaziq challenged the conviction that the religious and political leadership could unite in one person as proven by the experiment of prophet Muhammad. See Abd al-Raziq, “Message Not Government Religion Not State”, in Liberal Islam, edited by Charles Kurzman, translated by Joseph massad, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998, p. 33-34. See also Abdou Fialali-Ansary, “the Sources of Enlightened Muslim Thought”, in Islam and Democracy in the Middle East, ed. By Larry Diamond, Marc F. Plattner and Daniel Brumberg, Baltimore: the Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002, p. 245.

4. Radwan A. Masmoudi, “The Silenced Majority”, in Islam and Democracy in the Middle East, p. 259.

5. Milton Rokeach, The Open and Closed Mind, New york: Basic Books, 1960, p. 4-5.

6. Koechler, op. cit.

7. Mustafa Akyol, Islam Without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty, New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 2011, p. 48-49.

8. Guy Sorman, “Is Islam Compatible with Islam?”, City Journal, Summer 2011.

9. Akyol, op. cit., p. 48-49.

10. Hasan Yücel Başdemir, “İslam ve Özgürlük: Negatifçi ve Pozitifçi Yaklaşımlar” (“Islam and Liberty: Positive and Negative Approaches”) (unpublished presentation in the meeting of “Religious Freedom, Plurality, Sunnah Tradition and Islam” on 30-31 January 2010, Ankara, Turkey).

11. Roskin & Coyle, op. cit., p. 298.

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