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October 9, 2015 | 26th Tishrei 5776

Introduction to Short Course on Islam

This course is a brief (emphasis on "brief") introduction to the basic concepts and philosophies of Islam. It is an exciting moment when Reform Jews all over North America choose to study about a faith and people that are so closely intertwined with our own, yet are most commonly perceived as a foe. There is also an inherent danger in such a course, for a little knowledge does not take the place of deep understanding of the issues and challenges confronting Islam in the modern world; much the same can be said for an understanding of Jewish concepts and life. The reality is far more complex than five sessions can explain.

The forces that have shaped Islam from its inception in the 7th century CE to the modern period are many. Islam exists in many forms throughout the world, on every populated continent. The ways it is practiced and has responded to the modern period reflect the multiple realities in which it developed. Just as Jewish life and development have been deeply influenced by the places it has taken root, the same is true of Islam.


Absent from these sessions is an examination of Muslim history. My own learning has led me to understand that the Muslim world's encounter with colonizing Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries was difficult, at best. The Muslim world was plunged into modernity without the time to develop its own responses to the modern period. Based in Europe, much of the Jewish world was privilege to have that opportunity, and throughout more than a century developed responses that enable Judaism to thrive in the modern world. Hence, notions of democracy and life in a secular culture were slowly integrated into the Jewish mindset. The complexities of the encounters between Islam and the modern world and the resulting conflicts that we see today are so great that it is not advised to draw too many conclusions as to what the Muslims "really" think or desire from Western culture.


This course attempts to capture the major concepts of Islam as reflected in both the Arab and non-Arab world. It is important to note that the words "Arab" and "Muslim" are not synonymous -- there exist many Arabs who are not Muslim and many Muslims who are not Arab. Hence, the struggles of the State of Israel with the Arab world do not always connote a struggle with Islam. In many places in the world where Islam is practiced (including in North America), liberal religious and political views go hand in hand with Islam.


A note on structure: Each lesson begins with a statement of the big ideas and questions for inquiry to be addressed in that particular session. The overlap in the big ideas for the lessons is purposeful. Big ideas are those ideas which are multi-faceted and deep enough to need "uncoverage" over several sessions (if not several courses!). The "Questions to be addressed" section includes those questions which naturally emerge from the big ideas for the session. For example:

Big idea: At the core of Islam is the notion of tawhid or Oneness of the universe and among all living creatures.

Questions to be addressed: What is tawhid? And How does tawhid guide and influence the practice and perspectives of Muslims?

The introduction to each lesson then states the specific knowledge areas that will be addressed in the lesson, which will, hopefully, elucidate the big ideas and uncover answers to the questions to be addressed. You may also wish to pass out a piece of paper or hang up on the wall a listing of which big ideas will be addressed during that meeting.

At the beginning of the course, participants are asked to write down questions they have about Islam. At the beginning of each session, you might want to note which of these original questions will be addressed in the session. At the end of the series, a few questions may remain unanswered, but participants can begin to do some reading on their own. It is fine to send them to the Web for answers, but be sure to caution about the reliability of sources. In using the Web, participants should at all times be aware of the stance of the Web site they are visiting.

Below is the outline for the course followed by a short bibliography for future reading (including Web sites and books). Again, the list is not exhaustive but offers some insights provided by those writers on whom I relied and who were recommended to me by Muslims and Jews alike.

Lesley Litman
Boston, MA
December 2007/Kislev 5768


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