Especially since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Western scholars and pundits have wrestled with the question of whether violence and intolerance of other viewpoints are somehow endemic to Islam; and, if this is not the case, can liberal forces within the Muslim world act to temper its more extremist elements?
Put another way: Is the so-called clash of civilizations inevitable or can the West in general, and Jews in particular, find a way to co-exist with Islam?
Put author Reuven Firestone's name in the optimist's column.
The ordained rabbi is also a professor of medieval Judaism and Islam at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles. A 2002 fellow at the Center for Advanced Judaic Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, he is also the author of a new book, put out by the Jewish Publication Society, called An Introduction to Islam for Jews.
"I do not believe that religion is the cause of the world's problems, but I do believe it can be part of the solution," Firestone has stated in the book's introduction. "Jews, as never before, have a pressing need to understand the history, theology, and practice of Muslims and Islam."
The book concentrates on aspects of Islamic religion and history that are of particular interest to Jews: One chapter examines the relationship between Mohammad and the Jews of Medina, something that might not be covered in as much detail in an introduction to Islam aimed at the general reader, he noted.
Speaking to a packed auditorium at Gratz College on Oct. 30, Firestone largely eschewed present-day concerns and, instead, discussed the Koran's treatment of Jews and Judaism, acknowledging that Islam's holiest book -- considered the direct word of God by Muslims -- contains some less-than-flattering references to its fellow religion, including accusations that the Jews of Medina distorted their own religious teachings in order to justify rejecting Mohammad. On the other hand, the Koran also focuses heavily on the notion of Jews as fellow believers who "shall not fear nor grieve."
Firestone added that the text, in general, takes a far harsher view of Arabian polytheists -- followers of an ancient indigenous tradition that focused on multiple desert gods -- who, at that time, constituted the dominant religious group in Mecca.
Harsh Criticism All Around
Firestone argued that the founding texts of upstart religions often contain harsh criticism for more-established faiths, whose leaders often seek to suppress or discredit nascent religious movements. For instance, he said that several biblical books contain passages exhorting the ancient Israelites to destroy the Canaanite tribes as part of their conquest of the Promised Land.
"There are no Canaanites around today to call Jews to task for the nastiness in the Hebrew Bible," said Firestone.
He also said that the Koran "is more open to other religious systems than either the Hebrew Bible or the New Testament. There is some openness in all three, there is some condemnation of all three -- that's the phenomenon of religion."
After his presentation, Firestone took questions from a largely sympathetic audience. However, he was asked to address the rise of Islamic fundamentalism and the religious sanction of violence.
He asserted that radical religious sects have emerged throughout the history of Judaism and Christianity, insisting that the phenomenon is hardly confined to Islam.
"Religion is being used by people who feel that they are not getting a fair shake," said Firestone. "When better resources are available to people ... then we will alleviate some of the stresses that are encouraging radicals."