In a very illuminating discussion held at St. Francis College a few months ago -- and, I'd argue, far superior in its participants and content than the more hyped Tariq Ramadan confab that occurred in Manhattan at roughly the same time -- my friend and co-writer Ibn Warraq explains how what's in the Koran needn't necessarily determine behavior in Islamic societies. A distinction has got to be drawn between scriptural literalism, theological interpretation of scripture, and actual sociological practice of Islam. Warraq's professional aim has long been to create an intellectual atmosphere conducive to critical scrutiny of the Koran in the same way that such an atmosphere has existed for centuries for critical scrutinies of the Jewish and Christian Bibles. He defers to Bernard Lewis' tripartite breakdown of the various "Islams":
QUESTIONER: You talk about the difference between Islam and Islamism. Mr. Smith, you said that you don’t want to deal with it. We have the Islamic Conference, which Ibn Warraq mentioned, and 56 nations are promoting the so-called Cairo Declaration of 1992, which is basically an Islamic replacement for the United Nations’ 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. So is the Islamic version of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights Islam or Islamism? What’s the difference?
IBN WARRAQ: I often think that this is a way of skirting the question. I prefer to bring in the nuances of history. I like to make a distinction that I actually owe to Bernard Lewis; oddly enough, Lewis, to my knowledge, has never made use of it. It’s a very useful distinction that he made between Islam One, Two, and Three. Islam One is what’s in the Koran, what the Prophet Mohammed did and enjoyed. Islam Two is the sharia and the theological construct that we call Islam, as developed by the theologians over the centuries. Islam Three is Islamic civilization, which is what Muslims actually did do as opposed to what they should have done, what actually happened in Islamic history. Often Islam Three—that is, Islamic civilization—was far more tolerant than what Islam One and Two demanded. For example, until very recently, Islamic society (Islam Three) was far more tolerant about homosexuality than the West was, whereas Islam One and Islam Two more firmly condemned it. There are several ambiguous passages in the Koran, but certainly Islam Two, the sharia, condemns homosexuality.
Islamic history has never been a relentless series of theocratic governments; it has varied from century to century, ruler to ruler. Sometimes it has been very intolerant, and sometimes it has been very tolerant. Just look at some of the poets who were given free rein—for example, al-Mahawi, an Iraqi who was certainly an agnostic and very probably an atheist, but he was very critical. He was left alone; no one bothered him, so this is witness to the period of tolerance. This is, for me, the best way to approach the situation. For example, some of the terrorists are taking literally what is in the Koran. There are all sorts of intolerant passages in the Koran about killing infidels and not taking Jews and Christians as friends. It’s undeniably there, and you can’t get away from it. Chapter four in the Koran: you can’t get away from the fact that it gives men the power to beat women. It’s no good pretending that somehow the real Islam is tolerant, the real Islam is feminist, and so on. There is a great deal of confusion because people do not want to tarnish with the same brush a billion believers. We don’t want to be too crude in our defamation. We don’t want to call all Muslims terrorists, so the best way is this distinction between Islam One, Two, Three.
And so the paradox of subscribing to this system of categorization is that a fundmental ignorance of the Islamic texts and traditions -- or, at the very least, an obliviousness to them -- is what is needed most for the encouragement of a "moderate" Islam. That puts Warraq's pathfinding scholarship in the awkward position of being both necessary but also potentially disruptive of encouraging this moderate strain, which is rooted in politics more than theology (the same way Haskalah, or the Jewish enlightenment, was an attempt to make European Jews assimilate into Gentile society). The intellectually honest recourse for a reader of the Koran who is against not taking Jews and Christians for friends and against wife-beating is to abandon the religion altogether. The politically correct recourse is to pretend those offending suras don't exist and to fashion one's own faith a la carte, which Muslims have done for centuries and will continue to do so long as literalists and purists hang about.