Rabbi gives Jews a proper introduction to Islam

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For Jews, the word “Islam” often conjures stories about terrorism and nations hostile to Israel. But with more than 1 billion adherents, can the religion be all that bad? Is it possible that one-seventh of the world’s population has gone spiritually astray?

To answer these questions, there are many books on the world’s newest monotheistic faith, even one in the Complete Idiot’s Guide series. Rabbi Reuven Firestone, a professor of medieval Judaism and Islam at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles, joins this crowded field with “An Introduction to Islam for Jews.”

Firestone suggests that before we condemn Islam, let’s try to understand it.

He certainly has the qualifications to write objectively about Islam. He received a Ph.D. in Arabic and Islamic studies from New York University. He has lived in Jerusalem’s Muslim Quarter and in Cairo. He wrote several books and articles about Islam, and even a guide to Judaism for Muslims that has been translated into Arabic. Firestone is so deeply committed to accurately and fairly portraying Islam that he prays for divine guidance.

He argues that we must not judge Islam by the words and deeds of an extremist minority. (Would most Jews want to be judged by the most extreme practitioners of Judaism?) Both Islam and Judaism have a wide range of positions and ideas. An understanding of either is impossible without viewing the whole picture — especially moderate interpretation.

The book is divided into three sections: the history of Islam, the Koran and interpretive texts, and modern Muslim practice. In each section, Firestone compares and contrasts Islam and Judaism as a way of demystifying the religion.

Islam began in the seventh century in Arabia, where polytheism predominated but the monotheism of Judaism and Christianity was making inroads. In this context, Muhammad received his revelation, the essence of which was that polytheism is immoral and monotheism is ethical, and that Jews and Christians have become unfaithful to their covenants with God.

It was like Muhammad saying, “The third time is the charm.” This sounds like Moses’ experience at Mount Sinai. In both cases, a revelation became the basis for religious laws and codes of behavior.

Muhammad’s ideas were not recorded until 100 years after his death. Sound familiar? All information about the patriarchs and Moses were also written long after the fact.

In the second part of the book, Firestone emphasizes the similarities of Islam and Judaism in law and interpretation. The Koran is a complex and difficult text because it lacks context. An interpretive tradition began early in Islam — about 100 years after Muhammad’s death — as a way to understand the text. Again, sound familiar? Is this not what the Midrash, the Mishnah, and the Talmud did?

The Koran and other Islamic texts are ancient and problematic to many 21st-century sensibilities. Interpretation in Islam reflects the complexity of human interaction between tradition and modernity, older customs and rituals, and changing social realities.

The result is multiple readings of Islam and its practice — and sometimes extreme and noisy ideological divisions. Again, sound familiar? The Bible, Mishnah and Talmud also are ancient texts from which Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative and Orthodox Jews have derived different views of Judaism based on the temper of the times.

In the final section of the book, Firestone compares Muslim rituals to Jewish ones. Muslims pray five times daily, but often combine several prayers to make the total three per day. Let’s say it all together: “Sound familiar?” It’s the same as Ma’ariv (evening), Shacharit (morning) and Minchah (afternoon) for the Jews. Islam has rules on animal slaughtering and forbidden foods. Sound like kashrut? Islam has marriage contracts. Sound like a ketubah?

Firestone emphasizes that Islam is full of nuances — a full discussion of some topics is beyond the book’s scope (just like any beginner’s book on Judaism). Yet he manages to communicate the gist of Islam to a Jewish audience, without ever being judgmental.

And just as Firestone prays for accuracy and fairness in “An Introduction to Islam for Jews,” it’s worth praying that Jews will appreciate Islam after reading this book.

“An Introduction to Islam for Jews” by Rabbi Reuven Firestone (314 pages, Jewish Publication Society, $18)