Islam is the religion of the future, according to Reuven Firestone, and it’s imperative that the Jewish community weed out its own Islamophobia — which shares much with anti-Semitism — to learn more about the “real” religion of the Muslim world.
Firestone, professor of medieval Judaism and Islam at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles and co-director of the Center for Muslim-Jewish Engagement, is offering a 12-day series of free lectures and workshops presented by the Peninsula Jewish Community Center’s annual scholar-in-residence program.
The 14 lectures, which will be presented at various venues on the Peninsula, address topics ranging from the relationship between anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, to “Jihad and the Jews,” to the compatibility of Islam and democracy. The lecture series opened Jan. 19 with a primer on the five pillars of Islam, and will run through Jan. 30.
“Islam is very much in the news,” said Rabbi Lavey Derby, director of Jewish life at the PJCC. “The headlines that the Muslim community are often saddled with are headlines about terrorist acts and violence — and this suggests that we need to know a lot more about Islam, that there’s a lot we aren’t being exposed to.
“This is an important moment in history for us, the Jewish community, to begin to really understand Islam in depth and build bridges with our Muslim neighbors.”
Over the course of the lecture series, Firestone plans to connect the ways in which Islamophobia and anti-Semitism have been embedded deeply into the language and culture of the West.
“The religion of Islam is not the cause of the problems going on in the Muslim world,” Firestone said in an email interview. “When we Jews suffered horribly in the high Middle Ages in the Christian world, we attributed much of that suffering to Christianity even though the causes of the problems were other than religious. There were very serious economic problems, climate problems, political problems, etc. I hope that coming to these lectures and learning about Islam (can help) Jews resist the cultural antipathy towards Islam.”
Firestone, a rabbi who is the PJCC’s seventh scholar-in-residence, focuses his study on the shared religious experiences of Jews and Muslims — rather than engaging in the political issues between Israelis and Palestinians, which he sees as more of a “national issue.”
According to Firestone, many people “often fail to understand that Islam is a complex religion with all the variety and complexity of Judaism — the most important mistake people make when looking at other religions is to compare the ‘best’ of our own tradition with the ‘worst’ of other traditions.”
The selection of Firestone as scholar-in-resident is part of the PJCC’s efforts to educate community members about Islam in hopes of better understanding the historical relationship between the two global religions.
The Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto recently invited the Islamic Network Group to teach a six-part class there on Islam, and the PJCC is planning to offer the same series in February.
“We’re working to create relationships with the Muslim communities and mosques — to create opportunities for the two communities together around prayer services and holiday celebrations, to socialize and get to know each other and to learn together,” Derby said. “To know Islam in their own venue, culture and self-understanding.
“I’m fascinated with the question of how we choose to remember our shared histories,” Derby said, “and the possibility for then understanding our future together.