Islam is the second largest religion, yet for many of us, myself included, it remains a mystery.  I grew up in Israel and have been a history fan since childhood. I studied Jewish and World history: early Mesopotamia, the Egyptians, the Greeks, the Romans, Medieval Europe, World War I & II, etc. But I didn’t learn much about the history of Islam.

Israel – surrounded by an Islamic world
When you grow up in the Middle East it is hard to avoid Islam. After all, Israel is surrounded by Muslim countries. I picked up over the years bits of information from newspapers, radio and TV shows. Arabs (i.e. Muslims) have tried to destroy Israel a few times (some of which I personally experienced),  so most of what I “learned” about Islam was not entirely positive.
When I moved to the United States, Islam became almost “non-existent” for me. In California the presence of Islam was hardly felt. But then came the events of 9/11 and all of a sudden Islam took center stage. It was no longer an obscure religion observed “somewhere in the Middle East”, but something that impacted the life of every American. A public debate started whether Islam is “evil by design”, or are there just a few “renegade Muslims” that happened to congregate in Afghanistan under the banner of Al Qaeda.
The last decade in the Middle East added to the confusion. The war in Iraq illustrated that Shiite and Sunni Muslims may hate each other even more than they hate foreigners. The Islamic Republic of Iran and its pursuit of nuclear arms raised the specter of an Islamic Armageddon. And the “Arab Spring” has been rapidly evolving into an “Islamic Winter”.
Given the relevance of Islam to life here in Israel, I decided to register to a ‘History of Islam’ class at the Open University. I was fortunate to have an engaging teacher (an Israeli-Arab) who brought much of the history to life and linked it to current events.  The class sessions sparked many discussions and I found the topics fascinating and the opinions expressed by the teacher and other students enlightening.
It is hard to squeeze 1400 years of complex history into a single semester. Yet the class helped me gain appreciation for a religion and a culture that is so important in today’s world. It was a true eye-opener, and provided me with an opportunity to learn so much more about our Muslim neighbors/enemies/partners.
No, not everything about Islam is good and pure, but the belief that Islam is “inherently evil” isn’t true either. It is a complex, multi-faceted religion/culture/philosophy/history that has positive sides as well as negative ones. If we truly strive to achieve peace in the Middle East we must better understand it. Many of today’s events are deeply rooted in the history of Islam: the Shiite-Sunni rivalry, the clash with Western civilization, the scars left by European colonialism, just to name a few.  And as the saying goes: “Those that fail to learn from history, are doomed to repeat it.”
Incidentally, I happened to attend a captivating lecture by a gentleman named Eli Avidar. He has a wealth of experience in dealing with our Arab neighbors and recently published a book called “The Chasm ((התהום”. The book describes some of the gaps between the Israeli/Western thinking and the Arab/Muslim one. These gaps significantly impact any attempts to solve the Israeli-Arab conflict, and without acknowledging them and working through them it is hard to imagine how progress can be made. Many of the views expressed by Mr. Avidar resonated with me, especially in light of my newly gained insights about Islam.
One class does not make me an expert about Islam. Yet I feel it was a quantum leap from where I stood before. I believe that every Israeli should go through a similar class sometime during school. We need to know much more about our next door neighbors, whether we view them as potential partners, or as lifelong enemies. I hope that knowledge and understanding will get us both closer to the former rather than the latter.