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Islam in the Classroom: What the Textbooks Tell Us

Part Two of Five

/authors/id./author_detail.aspGilbert T. Sewall

May 13, 2008




Seventh-grade world history textbooks introduce Islam's origins, creeds, and core beliefs as a blend of history and scripture, weaving together revelation, legend, and fact. "Muslims believe that God had spoken to Muhammad through the angel," says the Holt book before going on to explain that "Muhammad reported new revelations about rules for Muslim government, society, and worship. God told Muhammad that Muslims should face Mecca when they pray." Teachers' Curriculum Institute's History Alive! features a passage set off in large print and italics, a Muslim prayer from the Qur'an:

Recite - in the name of thy Lord!

Who created man from blood coagulated.

Recite! Thy Lord is wondrous kind,

Who by the pen has taught mankind things they knew not.

In its narration of Islam's foundation story, the Prentice Hall volume concludes with a variant translation of the same extract, this time set off in heavy boldface type:

Seeking peace of mind, Muhammad retreated to a cave to think and reflect. One night in 610, according to Islamic beliefs, Muhammad had a vision and began to receive revelations. The angel Gabriel appeared before him and told him to spread God's word:

Proclaim in the name of your Lord who created!

Created man from a clot of blood.

Proclaim: Your Lord is the Most Generous,

Who teaches by the pen;

Teaches man what he knew not. (Qur'an 96:1-3)

To set the scene of the origins of Islam and the teachings of Muhammad, the McDougal Littell volume features a lavishly illustrated page. Its central organizing motif is an inspirational but fictionalized tale about a seventh-century Muslim family traveling on the first hajj (pilgrimage) to Mecca and the religious experience of two seventh-century children, Ayesha and Yazid. It states, "Nearly 100,000 have gathered for the journey." The very size of the pilgrimage is a gross exaggeration. "Ayesha and Yazid stand with their parents for hours, praying in the blistering sun. But that memory soon fades when the sister and brother learn that they will spend the evening camping under the stars." Ayesha and Yazid camping under the stars, under the watchful eye of the Prophet. The children later "agree with their parents that being near Muhammad was especially meaningful." The enthusiasm of this invented story contrasts with standard textbook diction, which rarely expresses much emotion.

TCI's lessons on Islam's foundations are more wordy, detailed, and complex, containing stilted language that seem scripted or borrowed from devotional, not historical, material. The chapter entitled "The Prophet Muhammad" begins with the story of Abraham and Hagar in the desert:

Makkah (Mecca) was an ancient place of worship. According to Arab and Muslim tradition, many centuries before Muhammad was born, it was here that God tested the faith of the prophet Abraham by commanding that he leave his wife Hagar and baby Ishmael in a desolate valley. As Abraham's wife desperately searched for water, a miracle happened. A spring bubbled up at her son's feet. The spring became known as Zamzam. Over time, people settled near it, and Abraham built a house of worship called the Ka'ba.

Such detail runs through entire chapters of History Alive! Seventeen pages after this passage, the book reminds students of this foundation story in an extensive section on the Five Pillars. It continues its storytelling in ornate, enthusiastic language:

The Fifth Pillar of Faith is hajj, the pilgrimage to the holy city of Makkah. . . . Upon arrival, Muslims announce their presence with these words: "Here I am, O God, at thy command!" They go to the great Mosque, which houses the Ka'ba. . . . Muslims believe that Abraham built the Ka'ba as a shrine to honor God. The pilgrims circle the Ka'ba seven times, which is a ritual mentioned in the Qur'an. Next, they run along a passage between two small hills, as did Hagar, Abraham's wife, when she searched for water for her baby Ishmael. As you may remember, Muslims believe that a spring called Zamzam miraculously appeared at Hagar's feet. The pilgrims drink from the Zamzam well.

In the Holt seventh-grade volume two pages highlight a long prayer from the Qur'an to Allah "the Merciful." The format is identical to that used on pages in the Holt sixth-grade volume that cover the Bible. This device typifies the ruling editorial principle of cultural equivalency: equal time for equal faiths, two pages each, using the same layout. One aspect of the scriptural quotations is strikingly different. The biblical passages are ethical teachings canonical in the Western tradition. The Qur'anic passage is poetic and devotional, more like the Lord's Prayer or Apostles Creed. It begins:

In the Name of Allah, the Compassionate, the Merciful

It is the Merciful who has taught the Qur'an.

He created man and taught him articulate speech.

The sun and the moon pursue their ordered course. The plants and

the trees bow down in adoration.

In Islam this prayer serves a purpose different from ethical teaching - veneration and adoration of the Prophet -a difference that textbooks leave unexamined and unstated.

Among the textbooks examined, the editorial caution that marks coverage of Christian and Jewish beliefs vanishes in presenting Islam's foundations. With material laden with angels, revelations, miracles, prayers, and sacred exclamations; the story of the Zamzam well; and the titles "Messenger of God" and "Prophet of Islam," the seventh-grade textbooks cross the line into something other than history, that is, scripture or myth.

Lavish textbook praise of Islam continues after the presentation of these foundation stories. Some textbooks provide glowing declarations of Muslim social conscience. The Holt volume, trying to summarize Islam's organizing principle, says: "People should help the poor." It adds: "Helping and caring for others is important in Islam." Muhammad "taught equality," says Teachers' Curriculum Institute's History Alive! "He told followers to share their wealth and to care for the less fortunate in society." The Holt seventh-grade volume says, "Fasting also reminds Muslims of people in the world who struggle to get enough food." TCI says, "Muhammad told his followers to make sure their guests never left a table hungry." The textbook continues, noting that Muhammad learned "about Arab traditions, such as being kind to strangers and helping orphans, widows, and other needy members of society." These effusive formulations stop just short of invention and raise questions about the sources of information.

The textbooks feature manifold contributions of Islam to the arts and science, expanding coverage to a degree that seems out of proportion to the relative slimness of the material that the same volumes dedicate to European achievements. TCI devotes thirteen text-heavy pages to textiles, calligraphy, design, books, city building, architecture, mathematics, medicine, polo, and chess, some of it spun like cotton candy:

Singing was an essential part of Muslim Spain's musical culture. Musicians and poets worked together to create songs about love, nature, and the glory of the empire. Vocalists performed the songs accompanied by such instruments as drums, flutes, and lutes. Although this music is lost today, it undoubtedly influenced later musical forms in Europe and North Africa.

Undoubtedly, the TCI volume declares. Yet the book acknowledges that the music is lost and the claims are speculative. Empty text dilates Islamic achievements.

The seventh-grade world history textbooks reviewed avoid all conflict and bloodshed in describing Islam's push out of Arabia and rapid conquest of most of the Mediterranean world. They fail to explain how Islam spread in the seventh and eighth centuries. Islam appears out of nowhere, spreads smoothly and by implication without conflict. Once it was common to state that Islam was spread by the sword. Now, textbooks imply, it moves peacefully with traders. Islam is "brought" to apparently willing populations. People adopt it freely. TCI says, "An Arab man named Muhammad introduced Islam to the people of the Arabian peninsula." The book continues, "Although the first Muslims lived in Arabia, Islam spread through the Middle East." But non-Arabs did not passively "become" Muslim. They were conquered. Islam did not just spread. The Arab-Islamic conquest ended many centuries of Greek culture and Christian worship in the eastern Mediterranean. Sudden Muslim control of Syria, Egypt, and Persia was followed by the Muslim conquest of western Africa, Spain, and the Indus Valley.

Textbooks are trying, perhaps, to correct a misconception. Historically, as a conqueror, Islam was no crueler than its many adversaries. The notion that Mohammedanism was a "religion of the sword" forced upon the masses by bloodthirsty fanatics is based on a false reading of history that was discredited fifty years ago and is a view rejected by contemporary specialists. Michel Gurfinkiel of the Jean-Jacques Rousseau Institute notes that the Islamic empire that swept beyond Arabia and quickly overran the mightiest powers of the day, Byzantium (Greece) and Persia, did so through alliances with religious rebels and internal political factions that did not share the beliefs of the regime. In Islam's history the slaughter of conquered infidels was discouraged. Sometimes the fate of the conquered was slavery. Sometimes it was limited tolerance by the Islamic regime. In Islam's early conquests Christians, Jews, and Zoroastrians were to be the tax base of the state. One reason that conquered non-Arabic people became Muslims was to avoid being taken as slaves or to have preferential rights under Muslim law. Conversion gradually became a problem for the state as its tax base declined. Yet the idea of Islamic belligerence has lingering currency, not without reason. Efraim Karsh of King's College London documents the long history of warring inclination and territorial ambition that makes Islam unique among the world's major faiths, and the Economist magazine wonders, "Why is Islam involved in quite so many modern wars of religion?" 

Students receive a different message from textbooks, one that points in another direction. As in the McDougal Littell volume, they read, "There was much blending of cultures under Muslim rule. Over time, many peoples in Muslim-ruled territories converted to Islam. They were attracted by Islam's message of equality and hope for salvation." McDougal Littell's Teacher's Annotated Edition reiterates this theme, telling instructors to stress that "many conquered people became Muslims [because] they found Islam's message of equality and hope attractive." What, exactly, was this "message of equality" and hope that teachers are told to stress?

In explaining jihad, several textbooks make an effort to cleanse it of belligerence. Defining jihad is admittedly difficult, as definitions in circulation vary radically. The common assertion now is that translating jihad as "holy war" is entirely wrong and that old translations are incorrect. But in fact, authorities and scholarship of varying perspectives conceive jihad to be a sacred obligation to extend Islam's power - religious and territorial - by persuasion or force.

Jihad is "sacred" or "holy" struggle. Jihad is also a "just struggle" against the disbeliever. It is a religious struggle. A religion professor and college textbook author, Jamal J. Elias, says, "The concept of jihad covers all activities that either defend Islam or else further its cause." Jihad is constructed as a "holy war" in much Muslim scripture. Historically, jihad involves efforts to subjugate or convert, impose sharia, and take political and military control over non-Muslim territory. Today, in government circles, in the foreign policy establishment, in the international community, among newswriters and editorialists and academics, that is how the word jihad is used. It is how Middle Eastern terrorists and Al Qaeda use the term. When Saddam Hussein was executed in 2006, his final words were: "I am a militant and I have no fear for myself. I have spent my life in jihad and fighting aggression."

Islamic scripture is inconsistent toward infidels, but a harsh, punitive, and aggressive voice, not a charitable or kindly one, prevails. Sam Harris, author of The End of Faith, observes that punishment and humiliation are leitmotifs in Qur'anic scripture. Given radical Islam's mind-set, and observing the contemporary clash of the Sunni and Shia sects, Harris wonders why U.S. religious moderates and cultural leaders refuse to look critically at the element of violence inherent in the Islamic project. The idea that Islam is a peaceful religion merely hijacked by a few extremists, Harris and others warn, is a dangerous fantasy. "Fighting is prescribed for you" (2:216) and "Slay the infidel wherever you find them" (4:89) are only two of many suras that suggest a degree of intolerance and aggression. Yet the Islamic organizations that act as academic reviewers for textbook publishers assure editors that jihad is something entirely different. It is a struggle against evil impulses, they say, misunderstood by the rest of us and in no way bellicose. To characterize jihad as holy war, they insist, would be a grave textbook error, yet a 2007 Pentagon-based study shows almost conclusively that Islamic law sanctions violence and that the Islamist threat to world security has a doctrinal basis.

New definitions of jihad started to circulate in U.S. history textbooks and classrooms in the 1990s. The engine was a 1994 Council on Islamic Education "guide" for publishers that maintained jihad meant "‘to exert oneself' or ‘to strive.' Other meanings include ‘endeavor, strain, effort, diligence, struggle. . . .' It should not be understood to mean ‘holy war,' a common misrepresentation." Soon, jihad underwent a definitional overhaul. In this amazing cultural reorchestration, the pioneer was a Houghton Mifflin world history textbook, Across the Centuries, still firmly established in junior high schools. Across the Centuries said jihad is a struggle "to do one's best to resist temptation and overcome evil." Jihad was reimagined as an "inner struggle" and element of Muslim self-improvement. These changes reflected the intersection of multiculturalism, suddenly a trendy social studies construct, and Houghton Mifflin's commercial ambitions in social studies. Then and later, appearing from nowhere, the California-based Council on Islamic Education would become a fixture on the textbook scene.

Change was soon evident as well among high school textbooks. From 2001 on, Connections to Today, Prentice Hall's market-dominant high school world history then and now, and several spin-off versions customized for California and other states, listed Shabbir Mansuri and Susan Douglass of the Council on Islamic Education as academic reviewers. The textbook says: "Some Muslims look on jihad, or effort in God's service, as another duty. Jihad has often been mistakenly translated simply as ‘holy war.' In fact, it may include acts of charity or an inner struggle to achieve spiritual peace, as well as any battle in defense of Islam." As early as 2002 another high-profile textbook, Patterns of Interaction, a high school world history textbook published by Houghton Mifflin under the McDougal Littell imprint, did not mention jihad. Houghton Mifflin's multigrade series then dropped jihad from textbooks; by 2005 Houghton Mifflin had apparently removed jihad from its entire series of social studies textbooks. The advisory role of the Council on Islamic Education in making these editorial decisions remains unclear.

But this was only the beginning. Among the history textbooks adopted by California in 2005, some definitions of jihad are more extreme and less valid. History Alive, the TCI textbook that Lodi and Scottsdale parents so objected to, provides the most detailed - and misleading - definition of jihad among seventh-grade textbooks reviewed:

The word jihad means "to strive." Jihad represents the human struggle to overcome difficulties and do things that are pleasing to God. Muslims strive to respond positively to personal difficulties as well as worldly challenges. For instance, they might work to become better people, reform society, or correct injustice.

Then, in the next paragraph, which differentiates the "lesser" and "greater" jihad, the textbook tangles the subject and also seems slightly deceptive:

Jihad has always been an important Islamic concept. One hadith, or account of Muhammad, tells about the prophet's return from a battle. He declared that he and his men had carried out the "lesser jihad," the external struggle against oppression. The "greater jihad," he said, was the fight against evil within oneself. Examples of the greater jihad include working hard for a goal, giving up a bad habit, getting an education, or obeying your parents when you may not want to.

Continuing the definition, TCI lapses into florid prose that invites questions about textual sources and scripting:

Another hadith says that Muslims should fulfill jihad with the heart, tongue, and hand. Muslims use the heart in their struggle to resist evil. The tongue may convince others to take up worthy causes, such as funding medical research. Hands may perform good works and correct wrongs.

Then it continues:

Sometimes, however, jihad becomes a physical struggle. The Qur'an tells Muslims to fight to protect themselves from those who would do them harm or to right a terrible wrong.

TCI leaves "those who would do them harm" and "right a terrible wrong" to the reader's imagination. The textbook's chapter summary reads: "Muslims also have the duty of jihad, or striving to overcome challenges as they strive to please God." Since TCI describes jihad as being "the struggle against oppression," students who hear of repeated Islamic calls to jihad against Christians and Jews that include the destruction of the United States and Israel must wonder who and what is at fault.

Other seventh-grade textbook definitions of jihad are ambivalent. The Holt volume defines jihad most accurately among the textbooks reviewed as "to make an effort, or to struggle. Jihad refers to the inner struggle people go through in their effort to obey God and behave according to Islamic ways. Jihad can also mean the struggle to defend the Muslim community, or, historically, to convert people to Islam. The word has also been translated as holy war." The Prentice Hall volume offers a more acceptable and informative passage despite the unadorned declaration of Islamic tolerance:

The successful spread of Islam and Muslim rule was based on several factors. One was the decline of the Byzantine and Persian empires. Years of warfare had left these empires weak and vulnerable.

A second factor in the Muslims' success was the skill of Arab armies. They were expert in the use of soldiers on horseback. They struck quickly and with deadly force in harsh desert environments.

A third factor was the energy and religious zeal of Arab warriors. They fought under the banner of jihad or "holy struggle." In Arabic, jihad refers to striving hard in God's cause. Sometimes it means a person's internal struggle to live by Muslim principles. But it can also mean waging war to spread the Islamic faith.

Another factor helping the Arabs was their tolerance for other religions.

A final factor in the Muslim's success was the rapid appeal of Islam itself. Islam offered followers a direct path to God and salvation.

The Holt and Prentice Hall definitions of jihad may be imperfect, yet they provide essential definitions that the Glencoe and McDougal Littell seventh-grade volumes do not. These two latter volumes fail to acknowledge jihad. The material has simply been deleted. This deliberate omission required editorial self-censorship at McGraw-Hill, and at Houghton Mifflin, where editors had previously whitewashed the definition of jihad in Across the Centuries.

Part Three will continue the focus on Islam's Foundations and Past.

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