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An Introduction to Islam for Jews Paperback – May 19, 2008
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From Publishers Weekly
Firestone provides a balanced introduction to Islam that will be helpful for all beginners, but particularly for the Jewish readers for whom it is intended. The first part offers a survey of Islamic history, with special emphasis on the interactions of Jews and Muslims throughout (and an entire chapter devoted to the violent relations in seventh-century Medina). Firestone extends a real effort to be fair to both sides; in his discussion of Muhammad's massacre of between 600 and 900 Jewish men, for instance, he reminds readers that the Jews had committed treason and points to examples in the Hebrew Bible where Israelites engaged in similar tactics. Part two digs into the foundations of Islamic law and belief, discussing the Qur'an, the prophetic tradition, key doctrines and sharia law. The final, and perhaps most interesting, part explores Islam in practice. Firestone undertakes an in-depth discussion of the Five Pillars of Islam, finding much common ground: like Muslims, Jews have an ancient tradition of praying at set times; early Muslims, like Jews, fasted on the 10th day of a particular month. (Aug.) ""
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Indeed, Firestone makes it clear that distrust between Judaism and Islam goes both ways and has a long history. While it is true that Firestone does paint things sympathetically, he does not deny the particular tension between Jews and Muslims. Indeed, he points out that while Jewish and Islamic theology and approaches to religious law are actually more similar than either Jewish and Christian or Christian and Muslim relations, Islamic tradition has been more forgiving of Christians as people of the book than Jews, and has made less claims on its tradition beyond the Qu'rans particular reading of stories that also appear in the gospels, albiet in a profoundly different light in creedal Christian readings.
Firestone points out a lot of both the cultural and linguistic relationship to the Judaism in the Qu'ran and in Arabic culture at large. The clear relationship of Hebrew and Arabic as semitic languages, the mutual readings of the common tradition, and the overlapping and often competing cultural mileau is brought into focus. Historical development of Islam is discussed in some detail as are competing traditions of Shari'ia. The tensions of the "Jewish Golden Age" in Islamic Spain are brought out clearly as are the occasional backlashes against Jews in the pre-modern Muslim world. Firestone does mention that these were not as brutal or repressive as in Christian Europe nor were massacres of Jews as common as in pre-reformation Christian world or the early 20th century.
Firestone does shy away from discussing the tensions post-Zionism too directly, and this is small flaw in the book. The reversal of Muslim fortunes under modernity is discussed as is colonialism, but the establishment of Israel out of the British mandate is glossed over in a few sentences, and the profound distrust this creates on both sides of the divide is played down.
That caveat is an important one as is some of the historical tensions described within the Firestone's treatment. It strives to me honest and yet respectful of believers in all three of the largest "Abrahamic" faiths, and while I think it works, that is still going to be alienating to some.
I highly recommend this text to people who want to better understand the historical connections between Jews and Muslims, and learn about interesting tidbits about each of the religions.
While one may differ with the judgments of the author here and there, he is unfailingly balanced and at least references all major contrary opinions. One cannot do everything in roughly 250 pages [plus a glossary of Arabic terms, a bibliography for further reading, a table of biblical and koranic references and a good index], but this volume covers more territory better and more clearly than any other comparable volume.
The author is a scholar of the best sort and should be congratulated on his achievement.