Rabbi Reuven Firestone, professor of Medieval Judaism and Islam at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles and senior fellow at the University of Southern Californias Center for Religion and Civic Culture is an active proponent of interfaith dialogue. He is also co-director of the Center for Muslim-Jewish Engagement, a joint project of HUC-JIR, USC, and the Omar Ibn Al-Khattab Foundation (www.usc.edu/cmje).
Ordained in 1982 from HUC-JIR, he received his Ph.D. in Near Eastern Language and Literature from New York University six years later. Before joining the HUC-JIR faculty in 1993, he taught at Boston University and was Yad Hanadiv Research Fellow at the Hebrew University in 1992. In 2000 he was awarded a fellowship for independent research from the National Endowment for the Humanities, and was chosen to be a fellow of the Institute for Advanced Jewish Studies at the University of Pennsylvania in 2002. He received a Center for Arabic Study Abroad (CASA) III research fellowship during the spring 2006 semester for study at the American University of Cairo, funded by the Fulbright Binational Committee in Egypt and the U.S. Department of Education.
His more than seventy scholarly articles and books on early Islam and its relationship with Jews and Judaism, scriptural interpretation of the Bible and Qur'an, and the concept of holy war include Journeys in Holy Lands: The Evolution of the Abraham-Ishmael Legends in Islamic Exegesis (SUNY Press, 1990), The Origin of Holy War in Islam (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999) Jews, Christians, Muslims in Dialogue: A Practical Handbook, with Leonard Swidler and Khalid Duran (White Cloud Press, 2007), and Who Are the Real Chosen People? The Meaning of Chosenness in Judaism, Christianity and Islam (Skylight Paths, 2008). Before writing An Introduction to Islam for Jews, he published a similar work for Muslims titled, The Children of Abraham: An Introduction to Judaism for Muslims (KTAV, 2001).
An Introduction to Islam for Jews is divided into three parts. The first is A Survey of Islamic History, which includes introductory chapters on Why an Introduction to Islam Specifically for Jews? and Arabs and Israelites. Remaining chapters trace the evolution of Islam from its pre-Islamic origins to the Decline of the Muslim World to Islam in modern times. Part Two addresses theological themes (God, the Quran) and Islamic law (Pillars of Faith and the Workings of Sharia). The final section on The Umma: Islam in Practice, includes chapters on Sufism, Mosque and Clergy, Jihad, Muslim life-cycle, and personal observance. The book concludes with a helpful glossary and bibliography.
This work is both scholarly and accessible, focuses on the Islam as it is lived by Muslims across the globe. His study of a religion that is too often viewed through a lens of suspicion and negativity is balanced, nuanced, comprehensive, and sympathetic. While the book is aimed at Jews, it could well serve general readers too.
Questions and Topics for Discussion
From his opening remarks, Firestone emphasizes the commonalities and differences between Judaism and Islam. Before you begin reading, reflect (alone or with others) on these similarities and differences. Consider, too, what are the sources of your knowledge and experience of Islam?
Firestone suggests, Judaism and Islam may be more similar to each other than either is to Christianity. (p. 3) Before and after reading An Introduction to Islam for Jews, consider whether or not you agree with this statement.
Assess your knowledge of Muslim practice and theology. What questions do you bring to this investigation? What areas of Islam are of particular interest to you?
The story of Abraham, as depicted in Torah and in the Quran, provides a useful and concrete point of entry for comparing and contrasting the two sacred books. Read the verses pertaining to Abraham, including the Akeidah (the binding of Isaac). Compare and contrast the narrative structure, chronology, characterization, storyline, and tone.
The conflict between Muhammad and the Jews of Medina, the topic of Chapter 5, continues to be a controversial issue in Jewish-Muslim relations. Review the historical context of this encounter and discuss how the two religious groups might move beyond this tension while honoring each others monotheistic traditions.
Firestone lays out the problems and tensions present in the relationship among the Quran and the two prior monotheistic scriptures: the Torah and the New Testament. However, he cautions readers against using these tensions as fodder for contemporary arguments. Jewish and Christian scholars tend to assume that the Quran represents a significant borrowing of data and style from preexisting literatures. Muslim scholars are inclined to view the differences as errors and attrition among the older scriptures that have been associated with the copying and passing down of ancient texts.[ ]It is not really necessary to bridge the divide Both secular and religious scholars would do well to remain modest in response to the tremendous depth and complexity of relationship. (p. 113) How do you understand these differences and their role in Jewish-Islamic relations?
How do the Quran and the Torah express each religions understanding of divine revelation? How are they similar? Different?
On the role of Muhammads leadership and prophecy, Firestone addresses an underlying tension: Since the very beginning of Muhammads prophethood, Islam has carried within it a tension between the inclination among many to adore him to the point of worship and the strict insistence of the religious establishment on a simple and austere form of monotheism in which only God may be the object of adoration (pp. 44-45). How does the role of Muhammad as leader and prophet compare with what you know of Judaisms approach to its leaders and prophets? What accounts for the differences?
What is your understanding of Islams attitude toward Jews and upon what is your understanding based? In Chapter 18 Firestone addresses the question from the perspective of the Quran and offers an explanation of its ambivalent position. At its essence, he writes, is the clash between the ideal of a fellow monotheistic people and the reality of a community that refused to accept Muhammad (p. 152). Does Firestones explanation further your understanding of Islams complex attitudes toward the Jews? Why or why not?
Firestone discusses specific issues in Islam relating to women, such as their role within the family, prayer, and community as well as their legal rights. For more on this subject see, Nine Parts of Desire: The Hidden World of Islamic Women by Geraldine Brooks; Rethinking Muslim Women and the Veil: Challenging Historical & Modern Stereotypes by Katherine Bullock, The Muslim Next Door: The Qur'an, the Media, and That Veil Thing by Sumbul Ali-Karamaliand and Women and Gender in Islam: Historical Roots of a Modern Debate by Leila Ahmed.
Firestone addresses the misconception among Westerners of jihad as a term meaning warring or fighting (p. 176), and offers an explanation of the varieties of jihad (jihad of the tongue, the hand, the heart, and the sword). He cautions readers about the complexities of the term and warns the Jewish community not to jump to quick conclusions about the meanings of jihad in making policy decisions that have an impact on Jewish-Muslim relations (p. 183). Do you agree with this analysis? Do you believe that there is something more inherently violent about Islam than Judaism or Christianity?
Firestones study of Islam addresses the influence of history, politics, economics, and culture on the development of Islam as a religion and way of life. Discuss how reading the chapters in Part One: A Survey of Islamic History have informed your understanding of Islam. What are the implications of a general lack of familiarity in the West with this historical context of Islam? How might the Jewish community address educational gaps for both adults and children in the area of Islam?
What questions about Islam remain for you? What aspects of Islam might you want to study further? The topics of Islamic diversity around the world and the Muslim life in North America are but two of many that go beyond the scope of this book that offer rich areas of study and comparison.
What similarities and differences have you discovered between Judaism and Islam? Did anything surprise you? Interfaith study and dialogue often brings about not only an increased understanding of other religions, but also of ones own. Has reading An Introduction to Islam for Jews deepened or expanded your understanding of Judaism? If so, consider alone or discuss with others how and why this is so.
Throughout An Introduction to Islam for Jews, Firestone emphasizes the complexity of Islam and warns against reducing it to the simplistic notions that have prevailed in Western society, especially since 9/11. Has Firestone succeeded in conveying to you this complexity? Do you better understand the source of this complexity?
Rabbi Eric Yoffie, introducing the URJs Jewish-Muslim dialogue initiative, wrote: In our increasingly interconnected and interdependent world, we can ill afford to segregate ourselves within our mosques and synagogues. Rather, we must educate ourselves and each other, thus taking a necessary first step toward global understanding and religious harmony. Do you agree?
The American Muslim organization that is participating alongside the URJ in this interfaith dialogue is the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), headed by Dr. Ingrid Mattson. Visit ISNAs website to learn more about this organization, whose mission statement begins with the following statement: The Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) is an independent, open and transparent membership organization that strives to be an exemplary and unifying Islamic organization in North America by contributing to the betterment of the Muslim community and society at large. ISNA is committed to freedom, to eradicating prejudice, and to creating a society where Muslims can live peacefully and prosper alongside other Americans from all walks of life and diverse traditions and faith. What similarities and differences does ISNA bear to the URJ within their respective faith communities?
The radio program Speaking of Faith carried an extensive interview by host Krista Tippett with Dr. Ingrid Mattson on a show entitled A New Voice for Islam. Visit the website, where you can listen to the interview, read transcripts, and access a variety of essays by Dr. Mattson on topics relating to women in Islam and other points touched on in the interview.
Has reading An Introduction to Islam for Jews created in you an interest in meeting and speaking with Muslims? Might your congregation participate in the URJ dialogue initiative? What would it take to begin this engagement? Are there Muslims and Islamic organizations in your vicinity? If not, how might you further your own or your congregations desire for engagement with Islam?