The Corner

Is Moderate Islam Possible?

Raymond Ibrahim’s recent piece for CBN, “Why ‘Moderate Islam’ is an Oxymoron,” has prompted questions because it contradicts my views and yet (because he is a fellow at the Middle East Forum) it appears on MEForum.org and was sent to the MEF mailing list.

In reply, some comments on the content of his article and the propriety of its appearing with Middle East Forum sponsorship.

On content: Ibrahim and I agree that a moderate Islam does not presently exist but disagree whether it might potentially exist. In the words of an article I published last year, “a reformed Islam can emerge” if Muslims

emulate their fellow monotheists and adapt their religion with regard to slavery and interest, the treatment of women, the right to leave Islam, legal procedure, and much else. When a reformed, modern Islam emerges it will no longer endorse unequal female rights, the dhimmi status, jihad, or suicide terrorism, nor will it require the death penalty for adultery, breaches of family honor, blasphemy, and apostasy.

Ibrahim judges such changes impossible. He points, for example, to the Koran 9:29, where God commands Muslims to “Fight those among the People of the Book [Jews and Christians] . . . until they pay the jizya [tribute] with willing submission and feel themselves subdued.” To this, he responds: “How can one interpret this verse to mean anything other than what it plainly says? Wherein lies the ambiguity, the room for interpretation? . . . surely the commands of Koran 9:29 are completely straightforward?”

Well, yes and no. Religious thinkers are in the business of constantly adapting their faith to current realities and Muslims can do so by deeming Koran 9:29 out of date, abrogate it, or render it metaphorical. Contra Ibrahim, clarity does not exclude shifts in interpretation.

For example, Leviticus 20:13 states that “If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death.” Yet, these days, important branches of Judaism and Christianity accept male homosexual activity. If such precise words can be reversed, why not those of Koran 9:29?

Nothing human is fixed; even a scripture believed to be written by God must be interpreted. Islam exists in history and changes over time.

On propriety: Clearly, an organization like the Middle East Forum stands for specific views. But it also must include a range of opinion or become boring and sterile. The challenge is to find a happy medium.

Actually, this is not so difficult: Require agreement on basic goals but debate methods.

In this case, Ibrahim and I agree on the need to stand up for liberal values and combat Islamism; we disagree on how to do so, including the possibility of Islam’s reform. (He believes in moderate Muslims but not in moderate Islam.) Such debate is healthy for we specialists and appeals to readers. Expect to see more of it from the Forum. 

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