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An Introduction to Islam for Jews

Authored by Reuven Firestone Ph.D.

Publication Year: 2008

Muslim-Jewish relations in the United States, Israel, and Europe are tenuous. Jews and Muslims struggle to understand one another and know little about each other's traditions and beliefs. Firestone explains the remarkable similarities and profound differences between Judaism and Islam, the complex history of Jihad, the legal and religious positions of Jews in the world of Islam, how various expressions of Islam (Sunni, Shi`a, Sufi, Salafi, etc.) regard Jews, the range of Muslim views about Israel, and much more. He addresses these issues and others with candor and integrity, and he writes with language, symbols, and ideas that make sense to Jews. Exploring these subjects in today's vexed political climate is a delicate undertaking. Firestone draws on the research and writings of generations of Muslim, Jewish, and other scholars, as well as his own considerable expertise in this field. The book's tone is neither disparaging, apologetic, nor triumphal. Firestone provides many original sources in translation, as well as an appendix of additional key sources in context. Most importantly, this book is readable and reasoned, presenting to readers for the first time the complexity of Islam and its relationship toward Jews and Judaism.

Published by: Jewish Publication Society

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-xv

... is a complex religious civilization that remains largely unknown to Jews, despite the fact that the future of the Jewish people has become profoundly affected by developments in the Muslim world. For our own personal edification and understanding, therefore, for responsible decision-making within the Jewish community and for a world of greater understanding ...

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pp. xvi

... am indebted to my students and colleagues at Hebrew Union College and the University of Southern California for their stimulating and challenging engagement with me in courses, seminars, and conferences. I have had the privilege of being energized and forced to think carefully and creatively by their insightful comments and difficult questions. The Fulbright ...


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pp. 1-2

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CHAPTER 1. Why an Introduction to Islam Specifically for Jews?

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pp. 3-4

... Jews can, and should, read general introductions to Islam. But there are questions and issues that are unique to the history and practice of Jews and Judaism that these general books on Islam do not address. If we look closely at Judaism and Islam, we see many parallels in practice, theology, and religious outlook. We may also note commonalities in the language, ...

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CHAPTER 2. Arabs and Israelites

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pp. 5-9

... terms “Arab” and “Muslim” describe different aspects of identity. “Arab” refers to a geography, a language, and a culture. “Muslim” refers to a religious identity. And while this book is an introduction to the religion of Islam rather than the ethnicity of Arab culture, the two are closely associated because Islam emerged out of an Arabian geographical, cultural, and ...

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CHAPTER 3. Pre-Islamic Origins

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pp. 10-16

By the generation of Muhammad’s birth in about 570 CE, most of the Middle East had abandoned its local polytheistic religious systems and had taken on Judaism, Christianity, or Zoroastrianism, the state religion of the Persian Empire. Despite the penetration of these three religions into Arabia, the peninsula was never controlled by any foreign power. Arabia lay in a ...

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CHAPTER 4. The Emergence of Islam

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pp. 34-49

The first century of Islam was a busy time of expansion, conquest, and consolidation, when an obscure people burst forth from the Arabian desert and managed to subdue and control empires. It was a revolutionary time that would change human history forever, yet there are almost no contemporary sources that inform us of that critical period. Virtually all sources we have ...

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CHAPTER 5. Muhammad and the Jews of Medina

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pp. 33-42

... Muhammad arrived in Medina, it appears that he expected the Jews to welcome him and to accept his prophetic status. After all, the Jews were a monotheistic people who had their own prophets. They would know a prophet when they saw one. Muhammad was disappointed. The Jewish community of Medina refused to accept his prophethood and ...

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CHAPTER 6. The Death of the Prophet and the Expansion of the Community

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pp. 43-51

In 632, 10 years after the Hijra, Muhammad led the pilgrimage to Mecca during dhū al-hijja, the month of pilgrimage. This was the Greater Pilgrimage of the Hajj. It was the first and last time that he would lead the Hajj pilgrimage, and as such it is called the “Farewell Pilgrimage.” It became paradigmatic for all subsequent pilgrimage rituals and was a means of Islamizing ...

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CHAPTER 7. The Conquests

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pp. 52-59

... to the Islamic point of view, the warriors who engaged in the military expeditions known as the Islamic Conquest were committed Muslims. Historical sources identify them as ethnic Arabs commanded by people who followed the leadership of Muhammad and his deputy successors, the caliphs. But written documentation of the conquest is incomplete. The Qur’an, the authoritative revelation upon which the emerging ...

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CHAPTER 8. The Caliphal Dynasties

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pp. 60-69

... history of the great caliphates, the dynastic rule of the great empires, takes our journey outward from the emergence of Islam in the Arabian core region to its development under the influence of many cultures and civilizations. These chapters of Islamic history become increasingly complex as they span large geographic areas and long periods of time. The many developments cannot be treated adequately here, ...

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CHAPTER 9. The Decline of the Muslim World

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pp. 70-76

... Muslim world was never conquered by a non-Muslim empire. The Mongols sacked Baghdad, but soon became Muslims themselves. Turks became a dominant power, as did Persians, but they were Turkish and Persian Muslims. Territories were gained and then lost to non-Muslim powers, especially along the borders such as in Spain, parts of Eastern Europe, and the Balkans. However, there was never a complete collapse of the Muslim ...


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pp. 77-78

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pp. 79-84

The first two words of the creed could be the answer to virtually any question. Who and what are we referencing when we ask about anything in the cosmos? The answer is, “It is God.” The unity of God is absolute in Islam. God is the source of the world and all within it. God is the absolute foundation. All is God, and all is One. God is the only permanent being or essence ...

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CHAPTER 11: The Five Doctrines or “Pillars of Faith ”

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pp. 85-91

The core out of which everything is derived in Islam is the unity of God. God has no partners (Q.6:163). God is not born, nor does God give birth (Q.112:3). This core of Islamic faith is formalized in the first and core section of the “witness” of faith, the shahāda: “There is no god but God.”1 The full creed is: “There is no god but God, and Muhammad is prophet of God.” According ...

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CHAPTER 12: The Evolution of Formal Theology

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pp. 92-99

... developed a grand theological tradition that was deeply influenced by Greek philosophy and Christian theology, and which in turn profoundly influenced Jewish and later Christian thinking. The motivation for working out complex theological systems emerged from differences between various human perceptions of the meaning of God and His role in ...

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CHAPTER 13: The Qur’an

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pp. 100-113

... Muslims, the Qur’an is the literal and inimitable word of God. The voice of the Qur’an is that of God, not Muhammad, who was only a prophet and messenger of God and whose major role was only to convey the divine word of God to the people. Muhammad’s recitations of the Qur’an in the public square were therefore nothing less than the precise and literal ...

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CHAPTER 14: The Interpretive Tradition

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pp. 114-123

Qur’an proclaims repeatedly that it is clear and understandable: “These are the verses of the Book and a comprehensible recitation” (Q.15:1); “This is clear Arabic language” (Q.16:103); “ . . . this is a reminder and a clear recitation” (Q.36:69).1 But anyone who reads the Qur’an, including native Arabic speakers, knows that it is an extremely complex and difficult ...

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CHAPTER 15: The Prophetic Record

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pp. 124-133

While Muhammad was alive, he was the obvious authority to whom his followers would turn for guidance and interpretation of the revelations that he recited. He was the Prophet, and his authority was paramount. The Qur’an commands the people to refer disputes to Muhammad, who is placed almost on a par with God in a verse treating mediation and adjudication: ...

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CHAPTER 16: Islamic Law

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pp. 134-141

... like Judaism, is far more than a faith system. It is a religious civilization that encompasses all aspects of life. And Islamic law, like Jewish law, is a complex system that has emerged to treat norms of individual and communal behavior. Cultural conventions and behavioral expectations were of course normative in Arabian society even before the emergence of Islam, but these ...

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CHAPTER 17: The Workings of the Sharī`a

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pp. 142-146

... portrays itself as universal and egalitarian. According to all Muslims, God is the judge of all humanity and the source of the Sharī`a. Because God is, by definition, good, then the products of divine creation are also good. The Sharī`a is therefore considered by Muslims to be an absolutely ethical system, and as such is considered a system of ethics as well as ...


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pp. 147-148

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CHAPTER 18: The Umma and the Caliphate

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pp. 166-173

... is the term that is most frequently used to describe the entire community of Muslims throughout the world. In the Qur’an, all of humankind was once part of a single umma (Q.2:213) to which God graciously sent prophets and scriptures. After the division of humankind into peoples or nations, umma is the reference for the individual ethnic or religious communities ...

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CHAPTER 19: The Five Pillars of Islam

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pp. 157-175

... Five Pillars of Islam represent an outline or r

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CHAPTER 20: A Sixth Pillar? Jihād

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pp. 176-183

... not an official pillar of Islam, some religious authorities have included jihād as virtually a sixth pillar. When they do this, they typically understand the overall meaning of the term rather than the one specific meaning that resonates so problematically with Westerners. First of all, it must be clarified that jihad does not mean fighting or warring. The root ...

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CHAPTER 21: The Range of Practice among Muslims

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pp. 184-190

... scholarly discussion of Christianity, it is becoming increasingly common to speak of “Christianities,” since there is so much variety among Christian practices, theologies, ritual, and behaviors. In Judaism, as well, there is a great spread of practices, rituals, and ideologies or theologies among Jewish communities throughout the world. Yet despite the many differences between ...

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CHAPTER 22: Sufism

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pp. 191-198

... mysticism organizes its practices and doctrines around seeking out a form of unity with God, and Sufism is the name applied to its many different schools and expressions. The term is derived from the Arabic word to describe a person who is engaged in the mystic path: sufī. There is some uncertainty about the root meaning of the word, but ...

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CHAPTER 23: The Shī`a

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pp. 216-218

Shī`a Islam emerged out of major differences among the followers of Muhammad over who should lead the community. The majority sided with the system that developed into the caliphate. These became known as Sunni Muslims. A significant minority, however, believed that the direct descendants of Muhammad were the best source of knowledge about the Qur’an and Muslim practice. Some believe that a special spiritual essence—some ...

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CHAPTER 24: Mosque and Clergy

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pp. 202-204

As noted above, any clean prayer space where Muslims prostrate themselves as part of the worship ritual is a mosque, a “place of prostration.” It should be empty of paintings, pictures, and images, but it need not be dedicated only to the act of Muslim prayer. The Friday mosque ( jāmi`) is a multipurpose communal building as well as prayer space. Important community announcements are made there, ...

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CHAPTER 25: The Calendar

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pp. 205-209

... not only mark time and seasons, they also convey messages that extend beyond what one usually associates with the marking of the years. Take “year one” of a calendar, for example. The event that marks the point from which one counts time often conveys a message about authority and power. In the current Western Gregorian Calendar, the counting of years begins from ...

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CHAPTER 26: The Muslim Life-Cycle

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pp. 210--224

... throughout the world practice a number of rites and ceremonies that recognize the stages of life. These rituals developed from the native cultures upon which Islam took root as well as formal religious requirements of Islam, so they differ quite markedly from one area to the next. In fact, many life-cycle rituals that are recognized popularly as Islamic ...

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CHAPTER 27: Personal Observance

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pp. 225-234

Islam observes a system of permitted and forbidden foods that has a number of parallels with Judaism, but as we noted previously, Judaism is stricter with regard to its dietary laws than Islam. This is duly noted in the Qur’an, which criticizes what it considers to be the overly restrictive attitudes of Jews toward permitted foods. As always, the anonymous qur’anic voice is ...

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pp. 235-239

... of the pleasures of writing this book has been the challenge of researching and thinking about the myriad ways in which Islam and Judaism exemplify fascinating parallels while simultaneously maintaining distinct and profound differences. Jews and Muslims have a tendency to misread each other, sometimes precisely because of the subtle similarities ...

End notes

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pp. 240-252

APPENDIX: Islam and Judaism: Some Related Religious Terminology

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pp. 253


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pp. 254-268


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pp. 269-272

Scriptural Index: Verses from the Qur’an and the Bible

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pp. 273-281

Subject Index

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pp. 282-298

E-ISBN-13: 9780827610491
Print-ISBN-13: 9780827608641

Publication Year: 2008