In 1900, 7 million Christians lived in countries that were majority Muslim; in 2020, 84 million Christians did.

Also in 1900, 9 million Muslims lived in countries that were majority Christian; in 2020, 154 million Muslims did.

Meanwhile, Christians and Muslims have grown from comprising a third of the world’s population in 1800 to more than half today and are projected to comprise two-thirds by 2100.

These statistics from the Center for the Study of Global Christianity (CSGC) at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary underscore the need for Christian and Muslim minorities to better flourish in each other’s contexts.

CSGC codirector Todd Johnson interviewed Turkish journalist Mustafa Akyol about his new book, Reopening Muslim Minds, and about how an honest examination of the best and worst of Islamic history offers lessons for improving religious freedom and pluralism today:

What was your main motivation for writing this book? Did current events give an urgency to the project?

I have been thinking about the state of affairs in the Muslim world for about almost three decades now. I call myself a “born-again” Muslim, [having rediscovered my faith] in my college years. In my late twenties, I became a public writer in Turkey, and I’ve traveled around the Muslim world. I’m a Muslim, proud of my faith, and I see the deep problems in the contemporary Muslim world.

I rely on the Islamic modernism tradition that began in the 19th century, but I wanted to explore these issues in accessible language. There’s a world out there that our traditional scholars couldn’t imagine, where Muslims are more free in their worship than they are in Muslim-majority countries. There is liberal democracy and a universal declaration of human rights. These didn’t exist back then, so how should we respond?

Can Muslims be Muslims and participate in the modern world without abandoning who we are?

Mustafa Akyol
Image: Illustration by Mallory Rentsch / Portrait by Murat Sariaslan

Mustafa Akyol

You differentiate, however, between Islamic enlightenment and Western enlightenment. What is their relationship?

Enlightenment involves understanding that there is wisdom, ethics, and humanity beyond your religious tradition. You’re a Muslim, but a Christian, Jew, atheist, or pagan can be a good person as well, on an equal basis. This sort of recognition, historically, helps humanity to move forward.

This was true of the early Islamic civilization, where Arabs were the forerunners, but Turks, Persians, and Christians joined in. Muslims didn’t shy away from learning and engaging with Christian theology and Greek philosophy, and for its time, their empires were a tolerant and open society with a cosmopolitan understanding of a human wisdom.

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But today there are pockets of illiberal, coercive, authoritarian interpretations of Islam. I was arrested in Malaysia for preaching religious freedom, so I’ve personally experienced that we have issues to figure out.

What happened over the centuries?

Early on there was no solidified Sunni orthodoxy but instead a diverse group of different traditions, including Shiite beliefs. A trend that cut across these engaged with Greek philosophy, known as the Mu’tazila. But over time this diversity narrowed, and the Asharite perspective came to dominate the Sunni world.

A key dispute was how to understand the origin of “good” and “bad.” We all accept that there are commandments that come from God, such as “Thou shall not kill.” But is God saying this because killing is bad in itself, objectively? Or does it become bad because God said so?

The Asharite school believed the latter. The sharia constitutes ethical values; it doesn’t indicate them. But as a consequence, if all ethical values come from the divine commandments, people who don’t have them are immoral by definition. Maybe you can learn physics or mathematics from Aristotle, but certainly not any ethical wisdom from a non-Muslim tradition.

The Mu’tazilites would say that if a person is dying of thirst in the desert, you give him some water from your moral intuition, your conscience. And from a conscience, all humanity can figure out morality. And then religion is necessary because we have temptations and need motivation to keep us on the right track. But as this perspective was sidelined, minds narrowed and outside wisdom was rejected.

Today this is reflected in hardcore Islamic circles. When you consider the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, almost all humanity signs up for it. But these Muslims will say, “What nonsense. Who cares what the infidels are saying?” They reject the moral progress of humanity. And it becomes the infidels who abolish slavery.

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You were detained in Malaysia over your use of the Qur’anic phrase la ikraha fiddin, which is often translated as “there is no compulsion in religion.” What is the brief history and use of this phrase? Is it a silver bullet that religious-freedom advocates should focus their rhetoric on? Or is there a reason it has not prevented widespread apostasy laws?

There are passages in the Qur’an like la ikraha fiddin, “there is no compulsion in religion.” It’s a very short statement, but it became a motto of liberal and tolerant Muslims.

But there are other passages. One verse says, “The truth is from your Lord. Let anyone who wants to believe it, believe it. Let anyone who wants to disbelieve it, disbelieve it.” Another says, “To me my religion, and to you your religion.”

However, the mainstream Sunni orthodoxy that I am respectfully criticizing in this book minimized [these passages’] influence, and sometimes even totally disregarded them.

How did that happen?

Through two things. First, the doctrine of abrogation. There are verses in the Qur’an about toleration, about noncoercion, about the prophet being just a preacher and not a compeller. But there are also verses about fighting the infidels “until they are subdued.”

There are two ways to understand this. My understanding is that Muslims first wanted the freedom to preach their faith in Mecca but were persecuted and had to flee. And after they fled, their properties were confiscated, so they had to fight. It was a war for survival. The scholars that I follow say the fighting was contextual. It was not the goal; it was an accident of history.

But our mainstream Sunni tradition didn’t understand it this way. They said fighting was the zenith, the epitome of the prophet’s life. It was an example, and after him the idea that you should fight to spread and establish Islam became the norm. The verses about war abrogate the ones that are about toleration and plurality.

This abrogation of doctrine is not a natural outcome of the Qur’an itself, however. It is just how early Muslims put things. In my view, it was an age of empires. They thought, “Now [that] we have the sword, let’s spread Islam as the Byzantine Christians are doing, and the Sassanids with their Zoroastrian faith.”

So I see the early Islamic caliphate, the empires of the Umayyads and the Abbasids, as Christians see the Byzantine Empire or the Holy Roman Empire today—a marriage of religion and power. It was historically understandable, but not an integral part of faith. And I would say that some of the interpretations at the time reflected imperial politics rather than the universal norms of Islam.

Many orthodox authorities, however, believe that those orthodox interpretations are still valid. When they write la ikraha fiddin, “no compulsion in religion,” they add parentheses to clarify this is only while entering Islam—because they believe in apostasy laws. Abrogation became one method to put down the peaceful and tolerant teachings in the Qur’an.

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The second way this happened was hadiths—the sayings attributed to the prophet Muhammad—and they are an integral part of Islam, its second source. But I’m skeptical of the authenticity of many hadiths considered authentic in the mainstream Sunni collections. Such skepticism is part of the 19th-century Islamic modernist tradition. But it has roots in the first centuries of Islam, because hadiths have always been a matter of dispute.

They were canonized two centuries after the prophet’s death, and everyone accepted that there were forgeries. Scholars like al-Bukhari and [his student] Muslim chose the right ones among hundreds of thousands, and I respect their effort. But we can question the authenticity again today, as I do especially with this particular hadith: “Whomever leaves his religion, kill him.” I don’t think the prophet said that. I think it’s a myth created later and projected back to him.

The point you’re making is that these types of laws have no place in the modern world?

Yes. You can have a modern secular state, say these laws are gone, and bring modern secular laws. Ataturk did that in Turkey. But if people still believe in the validity of those religious injunctions, they will want to implement them. This is the history of Islamism—the 20th-century reestablishing of sharia. The forms and shades are different, but they emerged in the Muslim world’s modern secular states such as Turkey, Iran, Egypt, and Pakistan.

In Iran, it came with full force—with revenge—giving us the Islamic Republic. In Pakistan, Islamists gradually made peace with the establishment and sought to establish their views through the Islamization of laws. In Turkey, the comeback is milder and more democratic but still troubling. Of course, these secular states were not very liberal, which is the other side of the problem in the Muslim world.

The important thing is to dissociate and disentangle Islam from the state—to separate church and state, as the Americans like to call it. But this works if it’s a state like the American government or Norway. But a separation under [Syria’s] Bashar al-Assad is not ideal. We need liberal states to protect religious freedom and bring justice to all.

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The Islamic world failed here as well. Our secularity has not been very inspiring.

In 1800, 33 percent of the world was either Christian or Muslim. Their share is 57 percent today and very likely to reach two-thirds by 2100. What do you see as hopeful signs in the relationship between Christians and Muslims?

We have had some terrible episodes, right? ISIS killed and tortured everyone who didn’t agree with it—Christians and fellow Muslims as well. But I believe that the past two decades of terrorism, violence, and attacks on churches and mosques of heretical sects has resulted in a growing yearning for freedom and toleration. It’s like 17th-century Europe after the Thirty Years’ War, when people said there must be a better way. I wrote this book to support that sentiment and offer one way of looking to the future.

Muslim minorities in the West are becoming a visible and important part of the Islamic world. I welcome this, because if we succeed to have peaceful, integrated Muslim minorities in the West—which we broadly have—it will show Muslims in other parts of the world that they don’t need an Islamic state to be good Muslims. They just need a decent state—a liberal, democratic state. Bosnia is a good example, as a secular state for 130 years. But it is also important for American, British, and European Muslims to establish themselves and remain who they are but also become visible believers in the idea of human rights and equal justice for all.

But there are two problems. One is the nativist far right in Western societies that can derail this process through Islamophobia, terrorist attacks, and hate crimes. The other is the double standard I see in some conservative Muslim thinkers in the West who say, “We like liberal democracy because we’re a minority here, but we’re not going to preach it at home because we believe in Muslim supremacy.” I’m paraphrasing, but this is real, and I’m criticizing that also and pushing those conversations.

In the Muslim mind, Christianity has long been associated with colonial Europe. But the Christian minorities suffering in Iraq, Syria, Pakistan, and Malaysia need to be better recognized. Christianity is not an extension of colonial Western powers, and missionaries are not a fifth column of a coming colonial army. Will South Koreans occupy Turkey? Christianity is a sister Abrahamic faith with legitimate, equal rights—the rights we deserve in the West. Christians in the East should have them too.

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One of our professors opened an eye hospital in Kabul, Afghanistan, back in the 1960s. There was a church and Christian community there for a long time, but the government said we’re going to shut this down because it doesn’t belong here. The Christians then submitted a document with a picture of the large mosque in London to compare it with this tiny little church in Kabul. They razed it [anyway].

People’s rights don’t depend on what’s happening in other parts of the world, but Muslims need to understand the Golden Rule. What if Christians executed their apostates to Islam? Muslims would be enraged. Then we shouldn’t do it to them. They argue that our religion is the true religion. But if I impose it, the other guy will say and do the exact same thing. That gives you crusades and jihads for centuries.

To live together, we need to accept a neutral, secular political order built upon liberalism, human rights, and the separation of church and state. In my book, I address the theological, jurisprudential, and epistemological dimensions of this within Islam.

Reason, freedom, and tolerance once flourished in Baghdad, Cordoba, and other parts of the Muslim world. Could it happen again?

There are many such episodes. Jews migrated from Spain to the Ottoman Empire because the Inquisition forced them to convert to Catholicism or be heavily persecuted. But Muslims should also realize that though the Islamic toleration of non-Muslims was quite enlightened for its age, it was hierarchical tolerance.

Muslims were the ruling class, while Christians and Jews were tolerated as quasi-legitimate, flawed religious traditions. They didn’t have the same rights. And then consider the Armenians, who lived under hierarchical toleration for six centuries. Though it was more a representation of nationalism, they were wiped out in the Armenian genocide [1915–17].

The Islamic world fell behind its medieval standards, whereas the Western world went forward with an egalitarian system of coexistence as the legal norm. But I remind Muslims that in 1876, the liberal constitution of the Ottoman Empire tried to establish equal citizenship for Muslims and Jews. There have been efforts, and that’s how we have to go forward.