WESTMINSTER — Watching the coverage of the Persian Gulf war last winter, Ira Zepp realized how little Americans knew about Islam.
"The popular gossip about Islam is just so negative," said Zepp, a religious philosophyprofessor at Western Maryland College. "There was just so much misinformation during the gulf war."
His decision to enlighten the public about the religion through aseries of columns has become "A Muslim Primer: A Beginner's Guide toIslam," which will be published in late January or early February.
"I had seen an article he'd written . . . on the subject and approached him about turning it into a book," said John McHale, publisher of Wakefield Editions, a subsidiary of Christian Classics in Westminster that published another Zepp book, "The New Religious Image of Urban America," in 1986.
"We all found out in the gulf war that a lot of people didn't know about Islam, so this is a book for clergypeopleto find out all about the world of Mohammed (the founder of Islam),"McHale said. "It's an unknown factor that's a very large element in our world society."
However, Zepp and McHale said they hope the book, which will sell for $12.95, will be used by laypeople interested in religion in general as well as a tool to help people better understand Islam.
"I hope the general public that's looking for information on this particular subject will use it," McHale said. "It's written in a very popular, clear and understandable style."
Zepp began researching the book in February and started writing in May. The finished version was presented to the publisher in October.
"I've written it from within, using almost all Islamic theologians, historians and philosophers, as if I were standing in Islamic shoes," he said. "I'm not sure it's successful in every way since it's hard to write that way as an outsider, but I wanted to give Islam its very best side.
"That's the way I'd like Christianity to be treated if someone wrote a book like this on it."
Zepp said his background in comparative religions led him to compare the best aspects of Islam with the best points of other religions.
"In comparative studies, you compareideals with ideals or practice with practice, not the best with the worst," he said. "Otherwise, you get into preaching or debating."
Nearly 200 pages long, thepaperback is divided into four sections with two appendixes and a glossary. Readers are introduced to the basic tenets of Islam, the essential elements of belief and practice and some ideas on how to better interact with Muslims.
For example, whendiscussing religious beliefs, people should be open to the possibility of changing their opinions, Zepp said.
Also, those interested in other cultures should attempt to define how they see themselves andlook for that definition in the others' perceptions.
"I'd like tosee myself in my partner's understanding rather than trying to define him or her," Zepp said.
Although as a religion teacher Zepp knewabout Islam, writing this book was a learning experience for him.
"If you want to learn something, you teach it," he said.
In addition, learning about other religions helps people appreciate the cultural diversity of their own, Zepp said.
"If you never travel, you think your mother is the only cook," he said. "You don't find out the treasures of Christianity until you compare it with other cultures and find out how rich it really is."
He pointed to students in the 1960s who became intrigued by mysticism and Eastern religions. When they returned to their native Christian or Jewish traditions, they discovered a lot of mystical traditions in those religions as well.
Zepp's resources for the book included a three-week seminar last summerat the Hartford Theological Center in Connecticut.
"I took a course on the theological significance of the Koran (the Muslim sacred book) and another on Islamic rumor and reality," he said. "They were taught by Muslims, which is important, rather than being taught by others who have to do it second-hand at best."