Nearly every day, the papers bring fresh news of Sunni and Shi'ite sectarian violence erupting throughout Iraq. While these events are frequent, Westerners -- especially Americans -- find that explanations are scarce, for one simple reason: Few outside the region know much about Islam and its history.
To answer some of the myriad questions about the ongoing conflict, the University of Pennsylvania's Center for Advanced Judaic Studies scheduled a lecture, titled "What Jews Should Know About Islam," held last week at Adath Israel in Merion Station. The response was considerable.
Extra chairs lined the aisles as the curious came to listen to the analysis offered by Dr. Robert Morrison, who provided a primer on the history and tenets of the faith, as well as an explanation of the many similarities, and key differences, between Judaism and Islam.
Morrison is now the Martin Gruss Fellow at the Judaic Studies Center here, and an assistant professor of religion at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Wash. He grew up in a Reform home, and earned his Ph.D. at Columbia University in Middle East and Asian languages and cultures.
"Islam is the fastest growing religious tradition in the world," said Morrison, as it touts 1 billion followers. Approximately 85 percent are Sunnis, while the remainder are mostly Shi'ite, a division that arose after a contentious debate on who should be the successor of Mohammad.
At the time of the schism, Sunni Muslims followed the caliph Abu Bakr, who was chosen by the consensus of the community after Mohammad's death, while Shi'ite Muslims followed Ali, the charismatic cousin of Mohammad and the first male convert to Islam, noted the scholar.
He then clarified a key point that isn't often made in the media: An Islamist and a Muslim are not the same. "An Islamist is someone who advocates Islam as a political solution," he said.
From the political Islamists to the Sufi mystics, Islam means different things to different Muslims, he noted. "Any Muslim is allowed to undertake [his] own legal reasoning," he said. "Islamic law -- despite its fearsome reputation -- is not set in stone." Reason and consensus are vital tools in the interpretation of Islamic law, he added.
He explained that Islam is like Judaism in that a member of the clergy is not necessary to facilitate a religious experience. "It's not about theological hairsplitting," said Morrison. "It's about having a relationship to God."
A critical difference is that the holy book of Islam, the Koran, is God's speech, said Morrison, without the intermediary that often appears in other holy books of various religions. The Koran is considered a miracle, he said, because it is the exact speech of Allah, transcribed by Mohammad. "It's seen as the perfection of religion."
Members of the audience asked about the escalating conflict in Iraq, and why it's occurring. Morrison pointed to the vestiges of distrust left over from Saddam Hussein's rule, and that certain Iraqis are willfully ignoring the past and succumbing to violence.
The long history of Islam, he noted, has been marked by an "incredible rationalist tradition," with scientific advances being made throughout the millennia in mathematics, astronomy and medicine, all of which have been overshadowed by the fury of sectarian strife.
"When you encounter Islamists," said Morrison, "they tend to neglect what happened between Mohammad and now."