Or, "Islam and this guy with a blog."
I've been working on this post for weeks, so bear with me.
I'm still studying the religion, and have only come to a score of "conclusions," all of which are works in progress. To my shame, I only started seriously studying it after the liberated Afghan "moderates" started baying for the head of our Christian brother, Abdul Rahman. "What in the--? Looks like I have some learning to do."
I've picked up a lot of books, come chirpily positive, and some grimly negative.
My thoughts, in no particular order after the first:
1. I still have a lot to learn. I lack the cultural background which provides valuable interpretive keys to the reading. The Koran is as alien to the West as the Bible is central to it. Which is not to say that the whole subject is a closed book that can never be understood, but rather means that I'd best reality-check myself periodically.
2. Reading the Koran has been accurately described as listening in on a conversation in which one of the parties does almost all the talking. There is little narrative or storytelling, though that does pop up in the text from time to time.
3. To echo Pope Benedict on the "Islam as Peace" claim: Islam has peaceful elements, and others, not so.
4. If you are at all curious about Islam, here's my Koran recommendation: the Yusuf Ali translation. Note that there are two, the most easily available version being from the Amana Corporation, a Sunni outfit. Ali was a Shi'ite (and a fascinating man of culture, to boot), and it is instructive to note the way the Amana translation "Sunnifies" the commentary. Note also that the Ali translation has been subject to thoughtful criticism. As always, 'ware the Saudis.
5. Related to #4: avoid the Ahmadiyya Korans, unless you are studying the Ahmadis. Not because they aren't lovely folks (they are), but because the pacifistic Ahmadis are considered heretics (and, yes, partially because of their pacifism, it must be said).
6. While the Koran is obviously central to Islam, the less-well-known ahadith (the so-called sayings and deeds of Muhammad) are absolutely essential to an understanding of the religion. Muslims have a term for "Sola Quranica" believers, and that term is "heretic."
For example, the Koran does not say how many times a day a Muslim should pray. The ahadith fill that "gap."
7. Affordable collections of the ahadith are very hard to find (Amazon having a surprisingly limited selection) and you are better off looking at eBay.
8. The most authoritative collections are by Sahih al-Bukhari and Sahih Muslim. Fortunately, you can find copies of these translated into English that don't involve budget busting--usually with the qualifier "Summarized" in the title. This means that it contains the most indisputable of the ahadith. Again, see eBay for collections.
9. Tragically, much of the ugly side of the religion is contained in the ahadith, especially the touting of aggressive, violent jihad. There are also some interesting details about the life and activities of Muhammad.
10. Here's your life of Muhammad, based on the earliest Muslim sources, via Oxford University Press.
11. Islam is a very law-oriented religion, meaning that jurisprudence is also essential to understanding it. The four schools of Sunni jurisprudence [madh'hab] agree on about 75% of the issues, and the Shafi'i manual, The Reliance of the Traveller, is readily available to English speakers on Amazon. Shi'ite schools don't differ appreciably from Sunni on most hot-button issues.
12. Jurisprudential manuals can be grim reading, too. E.g., apostasy is a death penalty crime in classical Islam. Period. The last execution for apostasy in the Ottoman Empire occurred in 1843, and this only stopped following severe European pressure to reform.
13. Anyone who says Islam hasn't offered invaluable contributions to the cultural patrimony of man is an idjit. Islamic art and architecture is stunning, and I strongly recommend the Turkish Iznik ceramic/tile tradition for your consideration (no, I *don't* own any, but it is undeniably beautiful). When you're tired of the gory headlines, look at the art. An entire civilization should not be judged by the worst behavior of its worst members.
14. Contrary to popular belief, Islam does have a sense of humor and wonder: the Arabian Nights. The ABC movie adaptation actually does a nice job of capturing the spirit of the work.
15. Read works by contemporary apologists for Islam with a critical eye, noting especially what is not being said. A frequently recurring argument: "The Quran does not say [hideous practice is fine]." Quite true. Critical follow-up, almost never asked: "do the ahadith/Islamic legal schools have anything to say about this practice?"
That's where the rubber hits the road. 'Ware the Saudis here again, especially if they are funding the scholarship in question. Oh, and avoid Karen Armstrong like a scorching dose of the clap.
16. The Persian apocalyptic messianists who run Iran and Hezbollah aside, I rather like the Shias. Shrines, pilgrimages, artistic depictions of martyrs, and other things which seem vaguely familiar.
17. PC sweet nothings will not help Islam solve its problems. In fact, it gives an excuse not to confront them. Non-Muslims will not help Islam solve its problems. Only Muslims will be able to do that. Don't let the good guys be bayonetted by those who are obsessive about trying to be nice to the noisy.
18. Then again, don't get upset with law enforcement when they don't spout the talking points you would prefer. Don't make your enemy bigger than he is, either in your imagination or by adding to his numbers by your own ineptitude.
19. A corollary to #16: there are interesting debates and discussions going on in the Islamic world. But only the grievance mongers get air time. Lazy religion journalists with well worn rolodexes are a pox upon the kingdom. In the Catholic world, we call this the McBrien Effect.
20. Beware using the taqiyya angle in evaluating statements by Muslims. Remember, the accusation is borderline unfalsifiable. Critical thinking will get you places suspicion of intrinsic falsehood won't.
21. Yusuf Muslim deserves the benefit of the doubt. Self-appointed spokesmen (coughcough *CAIR* coughcough) deserve your skepticism.
22. The powers that be need to be reminded--noisily--that there is no Islam Exception to the Establishment Clause.
23. Tu quoque is the Godwin's Law of discussions about Islam. He who says "But Christians do (or did) X (centuries ago)" has conceded the argument.
24. "Oh, Islam is just where we were X centuries ago, it needs time to get better" is an argument that makes everyone just a little bit dumber for having heard it. It also neatly contradicts the "Islam was so much more advanced in West during the Middle Ages" argument usually spouted by the same parrots. (1) We don't have centuries, and (2) no, it wasn't, at least to the extent alleged by the touters.
25. How much of a threat are the aggressive forms of Islam? I keep going back and forth on this one. Depends on (1) where and (2) what you mean by "threat."
To America, jihadi Islam and its fellow travellers are not an existential, nation-destroying threat. Which is not to say that it isn't dangerous. I think it's a near certainty we're going to take a catastrophic terrorist hit that makes 9/11 look like a candygram. But, no, we're not going to be looking at a caliphate in DC.
In fact, I think there is a distinct danger in overstating the Islamic threat done by otherwise sensible folks. I think our own excesses and problems are a much bigger danger in the medium term. Whatever else you can say about Islam, the local imam isn't trying to sell you a padded bra for your seven year old. I don't have to police my TV for something offensive by the nearby mosque. Obviously, certain forms of Islam have more than their share of...males with, er, issues, especially those educated by the Wahhabi franchise. To paraphrase Douglas Adams, I would gladly forbid my daughters to marry one.
If the contest is between bin Laden's Burqa Kingdom and Paris Hilton's ThongWorld, I hope they both lose. Badly. But ThongWorld is a lot more of a threat to republican virtue and long term national vitality.