Bridging the Great Divide

Published July 24, 2017 by Justine Ball

This year I undertook the online course Bridging the Great Divide: the Jewish-Muslim Encounter at the Woolf Institute and the 14-week course really changed my thinking and knowledge of the two great religions of Islam and Judaism.

I work as a Primary Religious Education Adviser in Hampshire. My role involves training Primary teachers across the region on all aspects of Religious Education so that they can be as effective as possible when talking to children (aged 4-11) about religion. As Primary teachers are expected to teach all areas of the curriculum, the vast majority are not specialists in Religion and most will admit that they have received very little input on their teacher training programmes about religion. Therefore, my role is extremely important in helping teachers know what they need to teach and giving them the skills and information to do so.

I came across the online course at Christmas and read the outline of the modules in detail. I realised that this course would give me a comprehensive overview of the history, theology, contemporary issues and interfaith dialogue that would be very useful to share with my teachers. I began the course in January 2017 and finished in April 2017.

What was the course like to study?

The course lasted 14 weeks and covered a different topic each week, which built up to give a very coherent picture of both religions in the past and today. Each week there was a podcast to watch which began the topic and then a variety of in depth readings to work through. These ranged from research articles, book chapters, blogs and newspaper articles. At the end of the week, students had to post their comments on an on line forum on a given set of questions. These often generated some debate and this grew as the participants began to know each other and to ask more specific questions. The students came from all over the world and this was a fantastic opportunity to share ideas, experiences, local events and different perspectives with others from the most varied of backgrounds. This factor is a real strength of the course. Usually, studying involves being with people from the same country or local area and therefore students can share some of the same experiences and beliefs. This is not the case when you study on a course that is world-wide – our backgrounds were extremely different as were our reasons for studying on the course. Added to the fact that we would be talking about sensitive and potentially very difficult topics such as Israel, Zionism and Islamophobia, you can see that students could disagree widely on such areas. We did disagree, but we did it using research and the reading we had done to underpin our arguments, which made the debate more useful and non-personal. The forum made me see issues from other perspectives in a way that is not possible when you study locally. It gave us all a neutral space to begin our dialogue.

The subjects we studied ranged from Biblical and Qur'anic scholarship, Israel, Palestine, Dialogue and the Other, Judaism and Islam in America, the history of Muslim Jewish encounters and constructive dialogue. I found the theological and historical topics easier than the political topics, as I have a degree in Theology, but the wide diversity of topics meant that everyone had stronger or weaker areas throughout the course.

As well as the weekly readings, students had to write two essays and a book review to complete the course. The book review came first and I chose the Bernard Lewis book "The Jews of Islam", which provided a really comprehensive overview of the experiences and history of Jews across the world in Islamic countries. I learned about the Dhimmi laws offering a certain protection to Jews, which is something I had no knowledge of at all before this course. For the essays, I chose the Biblical and Qur'anic interpretations of Moses and The Convivencia in Andalusia. Both of these really stretched me to write. I had no knowledge of the Convivencia period and therefore had to do a lot of background reading to write the essay and I also had no knowledge about Qur'anic interpretation. I thoroughly enjoyed the readings for these and it changed my perspective on life in the past for Jews and Muslims. I followed this up recently with a visit to Toledo to see the Mosque and the Synagogue from long ago and to reflect on an age where both could live side by side without conflict.

Would I recommend the course?

I would recommend this course to anyone without hesitation. The areas I studied and the readings used stay with me now and I often reflect on them. I use as much of the information as possible with teachers, so that they are aware of the diversity within both religions and appreciate the heritage and great strengths of both. The course is very time consuming, as you need to study the readings every week and of course allow a lot more time when the course work is due. Therefore, you will need to commit time for the course every week for the 14 weeks. I usually spent about 3-4 hours reading on an average week, with much more time put in when the course work was due. I would recommend planning ahead and putting aside a morning a week at least, with the facility of afternoons for course work reading and then some days for writing the assignments. Planning ahead means that you do not need to do this for days on end, but in smaller chunks so that it is much more manageable. I felt the standard was at Masters level, which reflected the depth of reflection needed for such a complex study. The time spent on the course was worth it – it has given me much more knowledge and expertise and an appetite for more – a Masters might be coming next!

Ball_Justine_Picby Justine Ball

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