Welcome to Understanding Islam
The Understanding Islam course, which comprises forty-six parts, each made up of a 30-minute YouTube Video talk and an accompanying article, is available from this website for use freely throughout the world. It is divided into four series and can be accessed by clicking on the appropriate series button below or via the Courses Navigation above. The accompanying PDF articles have been compiled into four collections, each called by the name of the appropriate series, which can be downloaded by clicking here.
Introduction to the UI Course
The Understanding Islam Course is written by Dr Chris Hewer.
All programmes were originally produced and broadcast on Ahl ul-Bayt TV. To accompany each of the Understanding Islam episodes, Dr Chris Hewer has also written a series of supportive articles, which may be downloaded as pdf files, each article corresponds with one television programme although some additional material might be found in one medium but not in the other. These articles will, for example, contain Qur'an references that you can follow up in a copy of the Qur'an (many English translations are available on the internet as well as printed copies). Qur'an references are given in square brackets beginning Q. for Qur'an, then a chapter number followed by a colon, and then a verse number, e.g., [Q. 2:284-285]. The corresponding TV programmes can be found on this website across four pages, divided by Series. The course is intended to build in many parts into a first introduction for anyone who wants to understand Islam.
Who knows best what Islam is about? Muslims do; so, this course will aim to help people to understand Islam as Muslims believe it and live it. Which Muslims? Well, Islam is a diverse way of life that is understood differently in many details by different Muslim groups and individuals but there is a broad agreement on the solid central elements of Islam, which is what I shall try to explain. We may call this “mainstream Islam.” From time to time the diverse positions taken by different Muslims will be explored. The author is a Christian and thus I am bound by Christian ethical principles, a key one of which is to “do unto others what you would have them do unto you.” It would offend me if a Muslim were to teach a course about Christianity that was coloured by her Muslim understanding in such a way that I felt that my faith was being distorted; therefore, I will try diligently not to do that to Islam in this course. We could extend the principle, to “seek to understand others as you would like them to understand you.” That is the ethical principle that readers and viewers are invited to assume in working through this course.
A couple of other biblical principles come to mind. There is the Commandment given to Moses: “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour.” This rules out partial truths, half-truths and downright lies that have been part of the history of dealings with Islam and Muslims down through the centuries. We will seek to explore the whole truth about Islam even if that makes people feel uncomfortable at times. Similarly, when Moses encountered the divine presence at the burning bush, he was told to take off his shoes as the ground on which he stood was holy. We are about to step onto Muslim holy ground and therefore a degree of respect is in order.
The course has deliberately been called “Understanding Islam” with the emphasis on understanding. To understand a way of life requires more than just accumulating knowledge and understanding it in our heads. We may call this intellectual understanding. To understand a way of life though requires also that we should attempt to feel what it is like to follow that way. This “feeling knowledge” we could call “the knowledge of the heart” or intuitive knowledge. During this course we will attempt to understand Islam both with our heads and our hearts; to know and feel what it is from the perspective of a Muslim. We may call this “empathetic understanding.”
When we come to look at any religious tradition, especially one that has existed for many centuries, we are aware that there are ideals and realities. We need to understand both but, I would argue, we need first to understand the ideals so that we can appreciate how far short some of the realities fall. We cannot escape the realities and some of them over the centuries and today are unpleasant. Bad things have been done by people who proclaim themselves to be Muslims and sometimes it has been claimed by them that there is an “Islamic justification” for their actions. It is important to see the difference between ideals and realities but, even more important, to know when we compare Muslim ways of life with whatever we might think or do ourselves that we are comparing like with like. There is a temptation when studying another faith or way of life to compare “my wonderful ideals” with “your sordid realities” and we can see where that can lead us.
There is a fundamental difference between understanding something and agreeing with it. I can seek to understand the factors that might lead someone to become an alcoholic without agreeing that this is a good life-stance. I can understand how a parent at the end of their tether hits a child without agreeing that this is a good way of parenting. This course seeks to promote understanding but no-one is asked to agree with what Islam teaches or adopt a Muslim way of life. This is not a conversion exercise! We are free to understand and disagree. Islam teaches that God gave us intellect, reason and freedom to puzzle things out and decide for ourselves. God does not compel human beings to believe [Q. 2:256]. Critical questions and observations are allowed and from time to time these will be addressed in the course.
The course itself has a history that pre-dates the TV broadcasts. For four decades, I have been involved in studying Islam and teaching others about it. I have been blessed by being able to study with Muslim scholars of different schools, as well as with Christians who have given their lives to such work. Thousands of men and women have followed the Understanding Islam course, either in person or at a distance via the television, internet or in writing. The work of expanding my own knowledge and understanding continues, as does the honour of helping others to walk the path of Understanding Islam.