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Reopening Muslim Minds pdf download

  • Book Title:
 Reopening Muslim Minds
  • Book Author:
Mustafa Akyol
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Reopening Muslim Minds: A Return to Reason, Freedom, and Tolerance by Mustafa Akyol


Book Contents

  • Introduction: A Night with the Religion Police
    • A Visit to the “Inquisition”
    • “No Compulsion”—and Its Limits
    • A Matter of Enlightenment
  • 1: A Self-Made Man: Hayy Ibn Yaqzan
    • An Individual Path to Wisdom
    • A Disappointment with the Religious
    • The “Inward Light” in the West
  • 2: Why Theology Matters
    • How It All Began
    • Are Tyrants Predestined by God?
    • A Theology of Justice, Freedom, and Reason
    • The Birth of Muslim Philosophy
    • The Fideist Counterattack
    • A Soldierlike Obedience
  • 3: Islam’s “Euthyphro Dilemma”
    • Divine Command and Human Reason
    • The Gap on Husn and Qubh
    • What Does the Qur’an Say?
    • Making Sense of Abraham’s Knife
    • The Ashʿarite Victory and Its Aftermath
  • 4: How We Lost Morality
    • A Case of Immoral Piety
    • Two Measures of Legitimacy
    • The Overinclusive World of Fatwas
    • The Shaky Grounds of Conscience
    • The Need for a Moral Revival
  • 5: How We Lost Universalism
    • Two Views of Human Nature
    • Lessons of Slavery and Abolition
    • Human Rights vs. Islamic Rights?
    • Three Strategies: Rejection, Apology, and Instrumentalism
  • 6: How the Sharia Stagnated
    • Inheritance, Women, and Justice
    • The Decline of R’ay
    • The Theory of Maqasid and Its Limits
    • Can Women Travel Now?
    • A Non-Ashʿarite Sharia
  • 7: How We Lost the Sciences
    • Is There Really “No Contagion”?
    • A World with No “Causes”
    • Meanwhile, in Christendom …
    • The Rise and Fall of Muslim Science
    • What Is Geometry Good For?
    • Reason, Causality, and Ottoman Reform
    • A Leap of Reason
  • 8: The Last Man Standing: Ibn Rushd
    • The Religious Case for Philosophy
    • The Incoherence of Ashʿarism
    • The Philosopher’s Sharia
    • A Reasonable View on Jihad
    • A Progressive Take on Women
    • A Precursor to Free Speech
    • A Tragic Loss
    • The Jewish Secret
  • 9: Why We Lost Reason, Really
    • “Cancel Culture” Back in the Day
    • The “Anarchy” of the Muʿtazila
    • “Political Science” of the Philosophers
    • Ibn Khaldun, States, and Taxes
    • The Ashʿari Leniency to Despotism
    • The Divine Rights of Muslim Kings
    • From Earthly Despots to Heavenly God
  • 10: Back to Mecca
    • A Contextual Scripture
    • Dealing with Arab Patriarchy
    • An Interactive Scripture
    • What Islam Initially Asked For
    • The Shift in Medina
    • The Statization of Islam
    • The Abrogation of Mecca
    • The Uses and Abuses of Fitna
  • 11: Freedom Matters I: Hisbah
    • How to Beat Slackers and Pour Wine
    • The Evolution of the Muhtasib
    • A Matter of “Right and Wrong”
    • The Costs of Imposed Religion
  • 12: Freedom Matters II: Apostasy
    • Two Suspicious Hadiths
    • The Uses of Killing Apostates
    • Accepting the Golden Rule
  • 13: Freedom Matters III: Blasphemy
    • How the Qur’an Counters Blasphemy
    • A “Dead Poets Society”?
    • No Compulsion in Religion—Seriously
  • 14: The Theology of Tolerance
    • The Wisdom in “Doubting” and “Postponing”
    • “Preachers, Not Judges”
    • The Myth of the “Saved Sect”
    • Non-Muslims in Muslim Eyes
    • Who the Kafir Really Is
    • The Rings of Nathan the Wise

A self-made man- Hayy ibn Yaqzan

From the Book: In 1671, Edward Pococke, the son and namesake of a famous Arabist at Oxford University, published a book titled Philosophus Autodidactus, or The Self-Taught Philosopher. This was the Latin translation of an Arabic-language manuscript that his father had encountered some forty years ago in Aleppo, where he worked as a chaplain to the Levant Company.

At first sight, the book read like an adventure novel, but it was also a philosophical treatise demonstrating the power of human reason.

What Pococke expected from his translation, that we don’t know. But we do know that the book turned out to be a hit. Scholars visiting Oxford soon began begging for copies on behalf of colleagues abroad who had heard of it.

The secretary to the British embassy in Paris, who introduced the book to scholars at the Sorbonne who “all read and approved it,” regretted that he ran out of copies to distribute. A Swiss colleague of Pococke’s asked for a copy for a French bishop who “impatiently expected it.” 1

No wonder several reprints and other translations followed. In 1672, a year after Pococke’s Latin translation, the book came out in Dutch.

 Two years later, an English translation by a Scottish theologian was published, only to be followed by another English translation by a Catholic vicar in 1686, and finally a third translation from the Arabic original in 1708 by Simon Ockley, a professor of Arabic at Cambridge University. In 1726, the book also was published in German.

Philosophus Autodidactus did so well because it fascinated its readers. These included, even much before Pococke’s translation, Giovanni Pico Della Mirandola, the critical philosopher of the Renaissance who wrote the famous Oration on the Dignity of Man.2

Later fans of the book included “natural philosophers,” or scientists, as they were called at the time, such as Robert Boyle. He is largely regarded today as the first modern chemist and Enlightenment thinkers such as Baruch Spinoza and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz.

Some scholars think that the book may have inspired John Locke, the father of political liberalism, for his notion of tabula rasa, which envisions a free and self-authored human mind.3 Some also suspect an influence on the author Daniel Defoe, who, in 1719, published what is commonly known as the first English novel: Robinson Crusoe.4

Robinson Crusoe and Philosophus Autodidactus seem evident because both books are about lone men living on uninhabited islands.

The latter was just more philosophical and written six centuries earlier. Its author had a nameless familiar to Western ears: Abu Bakr Muhammad ibn Abd al-Malik ibn Muhammad ibn Tufayl.


As he is shortly called, Ibn Tufayl (d. 1185/86) was an Arab Muslim polymath from Al-Andalus, the medieval Muslim kingdom in southern Spain. He penned treatizes on medicine, only one of which survived, and astronomy. He raised serious objections against the Ptolemaic system, which was the dominant model of his time.

However, none of his works has been as influential as the novel that would later make its way into Europe as Philosophus Autodidactus. The book’s original name, which was also the name of its hero, was Hayy ibn Yaqzan, or, literally, “Alive, The Son of the Awake.

Hayy’s story, which we will now briefly see, begins on a wondrous Indian island, which “enjoys the most equable and perfect temperature of all places on the Earth.” 5 It is full of beautiful plants and animals, but the first human who ever appeared on it, as a baby boy, is Hayy ibn Yaqzan. Regarding his origin, which the author left unclear, we are introduced to two alternative theories.

One is that men could come into life on this island “spontaneously without the help of father and mother.” The other theory is that a princess on a nearby island feared for the life of her baby and set him aloft—just like baby Moses—to reach a safe shore.

No matter how he appears on the island, the baby Hayy begins his life there all alone, only lucky to be suckled and adopted by a gazelle that we meet as “Mother the Roe.” As Hayy grows up, he begins to examine the natural world around him and to draw conclusions.

He initially envies the animals for all the defensive weapons that they have but that he lacks—horns, teeth, hoofs, spurs, and nails. But then he realizes he has other gifts. His hands can use tools or make shoes and dresses from the skins of dead animals. He also admits that he has the power to think, aim, and strategize.

When he is seven, his mother, Roe, the gazelle, gets fragile and finally dies. Devastated by grief, Hayy wants to do something to bring her to life, and, to that end, he wants to understand why she died. Finding no visible defect on her body, he decides to do an autopsy that had been a big taboo throughout the Middle Ages.

He uses a sharp stone to dissect the body and goes to the heart and examines its cavities. Although he can’t bring Roe back to life, he figures out how the heart and the blood system work. By analogy, he begins to map out his anatomy as well.

When the body of Roe begins to decay, Hayy also learns from the ravens how to bury it—evoking the Qur’anic story of Abel and Cain.6

As he grows up, Hayy gets wiser and wiser, going through seven-year-long phases of maturation. He discovers more and more about the natural world through his evolving capacity for reasoned inquiry.

He studies the limbs of animals and classifies them into kinds and species. He also begins to utilize the natural world by controlling fire, spinning wool, building a house and a pantry, domesticating birds to help him hunt, or taming wild horses and asses.

Thanks to all his observations and experiments, he acquires “the highest degree of knowledge in this kind which the most learned naturalists ever attained to.” In the words of an early twentieth-century French Orientalist, “This part of the novel forms an exciting and ingeniously arranged encyclopaedia.” 7

Then, at the age of twenty-eight, Hayy begins to focus on physics. He observes how water becomes vapour, discovering the transition from one form to another, recognizing that every transformation and motion must have a cause.

Then he gets to the physics of the heavenly bodies. “He considered the motion of the moon and the planets from West to East,” we read, “till at last, he understood a great part of astronomy.”

After all this, Hayy, who is now well in his middle ages, begins to ponder philosophy. What is the origin of this fantastic natural world?

he asks himself and entertains the two grand theories that they bitterly opposed at the time: that the universe was either created ex nihilo or that it existed since eternity. “Concerning this matter, he had very many and great doubts,” we read, “so that neither of these two opinions did prevail over the other.”

Not being a dogmatic person who would jump to conclusions without evidence, Hayy doesn’t end up with a verdict. “He continued for several years, arguing pro and con about this matter,” Ibn Tufayl tells us, as “a great many arguments offered themselves on both sides so that neither of these two opinions in his judgment over-balanced the other.” So, on the question of the origin of the universe, Hayy remains sceptical, keeping a position of well-thought uncertainty that you would not see very often in the middle ages—and, well, not today, either.

Hayy does not end up sceptical on the question of God, though. He reasons that both of the cosmologies he considers point to the existence of a deity. If God created the universe ex nihilo, it certainly must have had a Creator.

And even if it always existed, it still had to have a Prime Mover—a concept advanced by none other than Aristotle. So, eventually, Hayy gets convinced that there is a “necessarily self-existent, highest and all-powerful Being,” which he discovers not through any revelation, prophet, or tradition, but merely his reason. He becomes a “knower,” in other words, more than a “believer.” 8

Finally, Hayy develops a sense of ethics, too. Since there are no humans on the island, this comes out as care for the environment.

He strives to attain the Creator’s compassion for living beings by adopting an ascetic vegetarian diet and even caring for the well-being of plants. When he eats fruits, he always preserves their seeds. He also chooses “that sort of which there was the greatest plenty, so as not totally to destroy any species.” Such were the ethical rules, we read, “which he prescribed to himself.” 9


When Hayy reaches the age of forty-nine, we come to an unexpected twist in the story: a surprise guest from another island.

This other island is not too far from Hayy’s secret paradise. But unlike the latter, it is full of human beings who have a religion of their own—a “Sect,” as Ibn Tufayl calls it. We are introduced to two men from this island—Salaman, the very prince of the place, and Asal, his good friend. The two men are fond of each other, but they are different.

Asal is inclined to philosophy, “to do a deeper search into the inside of things,” as he also thinks that the scripture of his people’s Sect has hidden meanings that require interpretation. Salaman, in contrast, is a more simple man.

He follows the scripture faithfully, keeping “close to the literal sense,” never troubling himself with different interpretations, and “refraining from such free examination and speculation of things.”

As his preference for solitary contemplation over the chatter of society grows, Asal finally decides to change his world. He hires a ship to take him to the uninhabited island of whose beauty he has heard before—the very island of Hayy. Soon after Asal lands ashore, the two men run into each other and both get very surprised. Hayy is all the more surprised because he has never seen a human before.

The two men become friends. Asal teaches Hayy human language. When he learns his friend’s whole story, including the contemplations through which he discovered God, Asal is amazed, for he sees that “the teaching of reason and tradition did exactly agree together.”

Asal then tells Hayy his own story and the story of the people on his island. He speaks about “the Sect,” or religion his people believe in, whose teachings and practices all make sense to Hayy, who gets eager to see all those curious human beings. While Asal worries that this may not be the best idea, he can’t turn down his friend. Luckily, a wayward ship hits the island right at that moment, giving the two men a chance to go to Asal’s homeland.

Asal introduces Hayy to the people when they arrive at the city, telling his incredible story and praising his deep wisdom. Hayy sees that these ordinary people are pretty observant and keep “the performance of the external rites” of religion, but this does not stop them from “indulging in the eating” or other things he would consider immoral or unwise. So he begins to share his philosophical insights with the island’s people, only to find them too crude to understand.

“He continued reasoning with them mildly night and day and teaching them the truth, both in private and public,” we read, “which increased their hatred towards him and made them avoid his company.” The islanders were not bad people, Ibn Tufayl explains, but still,

Through the defect of their nature, they did not pursue it by the right path, nor ask for it at the right door, nor take it properly; but sought its knowledge after the ordinary way, like the rest of the world.

Hayy finally realizes that these people are hopeless, as “disputing with them” only “made them the more obstinate.” He also decides that the right guide for them is not their reason but their Sect.

The ruler, Salaman, should continue keeping them “within the bounds of the law, and the performance of the external rites,” as it is better for them to “follow the examples of their pious ancestors and forsake novelties.”

At the end of this disappointing exposure to a religious society, Hayy and Asal decide to leave it in this state of mediocrity and return to Hayy’s world. “Thus they continued serving God on this island,” Ibn Tufayl writes in closing, “till they died.”


Hayy ibn Yaqzan, as a tale, was a good read, but that is not why it was necessary. Like some other influential works of literature, such as Utopia by Thomas More or Animal Farm by George Orwell, it was a philosophical novel. It is widely recognized as the very first philosophical novel ever written.

Its purpose was to elucidate an idea—that through reason and inquiry, man can both explore and utilize nature while also figuring out the big questions about existence and ethics. The book was also a tribute to the individual—the rational individual—showing that they can find the truth, in the words of a modern-day translator of the book, “unaided—but also unimpeded—by society, language, or tradition.” 10

To some modern readers, these may not sound like spectacular ideas, which is precise because they are modern readers. We are living within modernity and are often taking its philosophical presuppositions as given. When Ibn Tufayl wrote his story, however, these precepts were quite unusual, if not revolutionary.

Their impact would be revolutionary, too. To get a sense of this, let’s take a closer look at Hayy’s path to the Anglo-Saxon world. The first English translation of the book, three years after Pococke’s Latin text, was penned by a Scottish Christian named George Keith.

In his foreword to what he entitled as An Account of the Oriental Philosophy, Keith praised Ibn Tufayl, who, despite being an infidel, “hath been a good man, and far beyond many who have the name of Christians.”

A few years later, in 1678, Keith’s friend and student Robert Barclay, in his book An Apology for the True Christian Divinity, also praised the story of “Hai Ebn Yokdan … a book translated out of the Arabick.” 12

Neither Keith’s nor Barclay’s admiration for the book was accidental. They were missionaries of a new Protestant sect called the Religious Society of Friends—or, as they became more commonly known, the Quakers.13

A key element in the Quaker creed was, as it still is, the emphasis on the “inward light,” which “teaches us the difference between right and wrong, truth and falseness, good and evil.” 14 Every human being had this inner light, Quakers believed, regardless of Sect, religion, or race. Therefore, every human being was equally valuable—an idea whose roots went back to the “Christian humanists” of the Renaissance.

For some other Christians at the time, who believed that light shines only within their church, this universalism was not appealing. When they saw the reference to Hayy ibn Yaqzan in Barclay’s Apology, they happily spotted the origin of the heresy. “Certain adversaries of Quakerism,” notes a contemporary Quaker source, “declared that Barclay drew his doctrine of the Universal and Saving Light from this work, a charge which one would think carried its reputation with it.” 15

That is why they removed Barclay’s reference to “Hai Ebn Yokdan” from the later editions of the Apology. The “inward light” theology would continue without references to foreign sources.

The theology did continue, though, quite successfully, making the Quakers the champions of what we today call human rights.

William Penn, a Quaker leader, founded in 1681 the Province of Pennsylvania, which proclaimed religious freedom to all its residents, laying a prototype for the American Bill of Rights.

In the next century, Quakers spearheaded the first antislavery organizations on both sides of the Atlantic. Under the leadership of one of their prominent friends, Benjamin Franklin, they became the first to petition the United States Congress to abolish slavery.

Quakers also played a crucial role in establishing women’s rights, with their rigorous defence of girls’ education and women’s right to vote. More recently, they have also been instrumental in setting up human rights organizations such as Amnesty International.

In contrast, we Muslims abolished slavery only thanks to Western governments’ encouragement, even pressure—as we shall see in a later chapter. We still have a hard time accepting religious freedom—as the Malaysian religion police kindly reminded me. Some of us still frown upon the idea of equal rights for women. While our conservative scholars condemn “human rights-ism,” our authoritarian leaders who persecute their dissidents despise organizations like Amnesty International for interfering with our supposedly excellent “domestic affairs.”

One wonders why. Why did the ideas articulate in Hayy ibn Yaqzan help trigger an intellectual revolution in Europe, whereas they remained feeble in the Muslim world?

To find an answer, we have to look deeper into Ibn Tufayl, the world of medieval Islam. We have to see what this Muslim philosopher was trying to do with his novel and the odds he was struggling with. We have to see, more precisely, the stormy sea of theology on which he was trying to steer a battered ship of philosophy.

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