“Understanding Islam” is a very welcome new initiative from the Coexist Foundation.
So much discussion of religion is a mere battery of assertion, unhindered by any proper grounding in theology. This ignorance is typical not only of committed atheists, but of an enormous number of people of faith, too, whose practices and beliefs often owe more to habit than to their sacred texts or the dissertations of their scholars.
So, as Muslims prepare to celebrate Eid ul-Fitr, the end of Ramadan, I'm pleased to write about an initiative by the Coexist Foundation that may help to remedy this unfortunate situation, which is at least one of the causes for the dogmatism and hatred that flourish around matters of belief and unbelief.
The foundation, set up in 2006 and run by James Kidner, a former diplomat and deputy private secretary to Prince Charles, is in the process of building three interactive online courses to explain Judaism, Christianity and Islam. They should be a magnificent resource for anyone wishing to learn about these faiths but bewildered by where to start -- perhaps slightly daunted by the prospect of beginning by reading the whole of the Torah, Bible and Quran.
The first course, "Understanding Islam", is already up and running (and available, for a fee, at understandingfaiths.net). It is divided into 15 units, each of which concentrates on a particular area. So "A Long Line of Prophets", for instance, explains that the Quran lists 25, 21 of whom are also in the Bible, and that every people in the world was sent at least one (even if today we have no idea who they were or what their message was). Muhammad's was the final revelation, not the only one; but the one that perfects and corrects those given to Jesus (the "Injil") and to Moses and the Jews (the "Taurat").
Each unit is narrated by Chris Hewer, currently fellow in Christian-Muslim relations at St Ethelburga's Centre for Reconciliation and Peace in the City of London, who wrote the course with four Muslim advisers from across the major traditions in Islam.
The units are subdivided into pages of roughly one or two minutes' length, during which the listener can pause to note the very useful Quranic references scrolling down the right-hand side of the screen or the information provided in the elegant, minimal graphics. From time to time, the narrative is broken up by a video commentary from one of the four Muslim scholars. At the end, or halfway through the longer units, the reader is invited to take a test to ensure it is all sinking in.
There is a wealth of fact and explanation here, from the history of and reasons for the split between Sunnis and Shias (how many western policymakers appreciated the significance to the latter of the Iraqi city of Karbala before the invasion, one wonders), to the origins of "Gibraltar" -- the name of that bastion of Blighty's being a corruption of "Jabal al-Tariq" ("the mountain of Tariq"), after the Muslim general who led the conquest of Spain in 711.
But it also manages to shed light on aspects of Islam that may seem matters of alien ritual to outsiders, such as the Hajj or the Sufi practices that aim for an altered state of consciousness. Much that strikes some as harsh and unyielding is presented in context and with justification, taking care to stress that sharia -- "the path laid out for all" -- is more about the rewards of a forgiving God and the benefits of developing taqwa ("God consciousness") than about the amputations to which Islam's enemies constantly reduce it.
It is true that this course does not answer some of the hard questions, and it paints a pretty conservative picture of the rules governing family life and dress codes. Are women really not supposed to go out alone with any man who is not a "mahram", a family member too closely related for marriage? Can men be expected to prize piety above all else when choosing a wife -- GSOP instead of GSOH, never mind (let's be realistic) physical attraction?
Unaddressed, too, is the thorny, but critical, question of how Islamic law can be accommodated with pluralism in states that are constitutionally defined as secular -- whether Muslims are a majority there or a minority.
But such a course (it lasts seven hours on a straight-through viewing, though the approach I would recommend, with note and test-taking, would require considerably more time) cannot deal with every query and criticism. Its aim is to promote understanding of Islam, not least by pointing out the connections between the Abrahamic faiths. The cousin of the Prophet's wife Khadija, for instance, was a Christian, as were those who came from Najran to pray at his mosque in Medina; and the constitution of that city, declared in 622, gave equal status to Muslims and Jews.
There will be those who criticise the course for its positive view of Islam, but it will be invaluable for police officers, doctors, teachers -- anyone working in the community, in fact -- as well as for those serious students of religion and international affairs who want a detailed and thought-provoking introduction to this faith tradition. Its range and detail are remarkable, as are its technical features and feel.
Given that the course may also be used by troops going into combat in the Middle East, I, for one, am very glad that it seeks to emphasise what we have in common rather than what divides us. That way, one is rather more likely to jaw-jaw than to war-war.