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Islam in the Classroom: What the Textbooks Tell Us

Part Three of Five

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

May 14, 2008




After jihad, in some textbooks, comes Islamic law, shariah, which textbooks spell in a variety of ways. In their definitions, some textbooks lapse into intentional vagueness. The Holt seventh-grade volume says Islamic law "makes no distinction between religious beliefs and daily life." This is absolutely correct, but the textbook does not explain what this statement means. Shariah is a "law" very different from the one that Americans understand. Separation of church and state is an alien concept to most Muslims. The struggle against the infidel (jihad) is rooted in theological law (shariah). "Shari'ah sets rewards for good behavior and punishments for crimes," the Holt book says. What are "good behavior" and "crimes"? The volume does not explain, for example, that apostasy is officially a capital crime. Renunciation of Islam may be regarded as treason, not an act of conscience or personal choice. Nor does it explain, for example, that Saudi Arabia and Iran today exact the death penalty for homosexuality. It does not point out that freedom of religion is forbidden in nations throughout the Muslim world.

"The primary source of Islamic law is the Qur'an. Rules and precepts that are clearly stated in the Qur'an are not open to debate and must be accepted at face value," Jamal J. Elias says. "The system of Islamic law, or Shari'a, attempts to regulate all aspects of human life." Bernard Lewis concurs in several passages:

  • In an Islamic state, there is in principle no law other than the shar'ia, the Holy Law of Islam.

  • There is, for example, no distinction between canon law and civil law, between the law of the church and the law of the state, crucial in Christian history. There is only a single law, the shari'a, accepted by Muslims as of divine origin and regulating all aspects of human life: civil, commercial, criminal, constitutional, as well as matters more specifically concerned with religion in the limited, Christian sense of that word.

  • The principal function of the Islamic state and society was to maintain and enforce these rules.

  • . . . the idea that any group of persons, any kind of activities, or any part of human life is in any sense outside the scope of religious law and jurisdiction is alien to Muslim thought.

Any number of important study points thus cry for attention. Islamic law does not have much capacity or desire to promote freedom of religion. It is not "tolerant" by nature. The idea of Islamic coexistence with other systems of belief is at odds with foundational beliefs as prescribed in the Qur'an (a revelation) and the Hadiths (commentary on Muhammad). Sharia sanctions violence against nonbelievers. Deviations from any Qur'anic declaration may be risky. They may be judged as violations of the faith and subject to worldly punishment. Students learn none of this. What do they read instead? The Prentice Hall seventh-grade volume states:

Muhammad taught that there was no difference between everyday life and religious life. Living a proper life meant following God's laws as revealed in the Qur'an and the Sunnah. These laws are collected in the Islamic law known as the Sharia. Sharia is an Arabic word meaning "the way that leads to God."

The Sharia was based on the Qur'an and Sunnah. But those sources could not cover every situation that might come up. When in doubt, Muslims turned to religious scholars. Their judgments also made up part of the Sharia.

Muhammad himself saw the need for such judgments. In an account from the Hadith, or written record of the Sunnah, Muhammad asked a governor by what law he would rule. The governor answered:

"‘by the law of the Qur'an.' ‘But if you do not find any direction therein,' asked the Prophet. ‘Then I will act according to the Sunnah of the Prophet,' was the reply. ‘But if you do not find direction in the Sunnah,' he was asked again. ‘Then I will exercise my judgment and act on that,' came the reply. The Prophet raised his hands and said: ‘Praise be to Allah.'"

What does Prentice Hall mean when it says, "Muhammad taught that there was no difference between everyday life and religious life?" Doesn't a tale from the Hadith, which is sacred commentary on Muhammad's revelation, scripture that ends with the declaration "Praise be to Allah," carry a decidedly devotional finish? What is the Sunnah? Have Islamic content providers prompted the editors here? Do the tone and diction suggest an element of scripting? History Alive! contains detailed, arcane information on Islamic schools of jurisprudence and legal viewpoints that for thirteen-year-olds is conspicuously age-inappropriate. Of shariah and Islamic law, the volume says:

Shari'ah covers Muslims' duties toward God. It guides them in their personal behavior and relationships with others. Shari'ah promotes obedience to the Qur'an and respect for others. . . . Islamic law helped Muslims live by the rules of the Qur'an. By the 19th century, however, many Muslim regions had come under European rule. Western codes of law soon replaced the Shari'ah except in matters of family law. Today, most Muslim countries apply only some parts of Islamic law. But Shari'ah continues to develop in response to modern ways of life and its challenges.

The last sentence is ambiguous, and, as in many other textbooks, such vapid phrases as "continues to develop in response to modern ways of life and its challenges" substitute for insight and information. Some passages are meaningless. The chapter summary concludes: "Shari'ah, or Islamic law, helps Muslims live by the teachings of the Qur'an. It includes practices of daily life as well as the duty to respect others." As in the case of jihad, the Glencoe and the McDougal Littell seventh-grade volumes do not mention shariah, omitting the topic in acts of deliberate self-censorship, fearing Islamist pressure, more eager to avoid controversy than to complete the narrative or teach students.

History textbooks highlight the theme of Islamic tolerance, celebrating what the Prentice Hall volume ludicrously calls a "multicultural society." Once non-Arabs have been conquered, students learn, those societies and civilizations with non-Islamic systems of belief live in a wonderland of interreligious cooperation. TCI describes how "a unique culture flourished in cities like Cordoba and Toledo, where Muslims, Jews, and Christians lived together in peace." In the McDougal Littell volume, lesson titles include the "Magic of Baghdad," "The Glory of Cordoba," "A Golden Age in the East," "The Legacy of the Muslim Golden Age," and "A Golden Age for Jews."

The accompanying Teacher's Annotated Edition includes a catechistic set of questions and answers that it labels an "Essential Question":

Q: How did the caliphs who expanded the Muslim Empire treat those they conquered?

A: They treated them with tolerance.


Q: Why were the caliphs tolerant of the people they conquered?

A: Because the Qur'an did not allow Muslims to force people to convert to Islam.

At a time when intolerance marks Islamic cultures worldwide and multiculturalism is a ruling idea in U.S. schools, these "wonderland-of-tolerance" tropes constitute a major content distortion. To present Islam's past exclusively through the lens of "tolerance" and "equality," indeed, as a unique triumph of interreligious harmony, is seriously misleading. The McDougal Littell volume broadly states: "Muslim law requires that Muslim leaders offer religious toleration." When the Prentice Hall volume proclaims medieval Spain to be a "multicultural society," it illustrates the promiscuous application of the multicultural label by and in school curriculums.

While seventh-grade textbooks describe Islam in glowing language, they portray Christianity in harsh light. Students encounter a startling contrast. Islam is featured as a model of interfaith tolerance; Christians wage wars of aggression and kill Jews. Islam provides models of harmony and civilization. Anti-Semitism, the Inquisition, and wars of religion bespot the Christian record. Textbooks do not lament the West's loss of control of three sides of the Mediterranean and Islam's subsequent European incursions for nearly a thousand years. Charles Martel is no longer a legend. The Reconquest and the Siege of Vienna are no longer landmark events. In some cases textbook carelessness with European history - matched by enthusiasm for non-Western history - is staggering. To illustrate medieval domestic life in Europe, for example, TCI's History Alive! chooses a seventeenth-century Italian baroque painting by Saraceni, one that illustrates an obscure moral allegory of a legendary fifth-century B.C. Roman king. Compounding the offense, the textbook labels the painting a Caravaggio.

The Crusades, students learn from TCI, were "a terrible ordeal for many Muslims. An unknown number of Muslims lost their lives in battles and massacres. Crusaders also destroyed Muslim property." TCI is correct to say the Crusades "began as a response to the threat posed by the Seljuks." But then the book contradicts itself. It describes the Crusades as "religious wars launched against Muslims by European Christians." When the Seljuks or other Muslim groups attack Christian peoples, kill them, and take their lands, the process is referred to as "building" an empire. Christian attempts to restore those lands are labeled as "violent attacks" or "massacres." A passage about the Second Crusade characterizes Christians as "invaders" - something they would have denied - while the Seljuks are simply "migrating" into Christian territories.

The treatment of the Crusades by History Alive! is riddled with major and minor errors, according to the historian Thomas F. Madden. The pope "promised entry to heaven to all who joined the fight." Not so. The Crusaders wore red crosses, the book says. No, only Templars did. Richard spent the majority of his reign on crusade. Again, incorrect. Muslims "like Europeans, began to adopt a standing army," the book states. There was no such thing in the Middle Ages. Standing armies were a product of the seventeenth century. In 1099 Jerusalem was captured; it did not surrender. "The victorious crusaders massacred Muslims and Jews throughout the city. The survivors were sold into slavery," the book proclaims. In the eleventh century enslavement was a Muslim custom, not a Christian one. The Children's Crusade was not a march of "tens of thousands of peasant children," as TCI claims, nor a crusade. It was made up of adults, mostly poor. The story about Marseilles merchants' selling these people into slavery is a story, a tale. No historian accepts its historicity.  

TCI's suggestion that the European economy developed liquid capital, banking, and taxation on account of the Crusades is ridiculous, Madden continues. It is equally absurd, he points out, to suggest that monarchs grew in power because nobles were frequently away on crusade. The narrative is biased. For example, Saladin is praised for not killing his prisoners in Jerusalem in 1187. What is left out is that Saladin had planned to massacre the entire city, but the defenders threatened to destroy the Muslim holy sites unless he agreed to allow the city to peacefully surrender to him.

The McDougal Littell textbook goes one step further than TCI in its revisionism. It contains a section titled "Defending Muslim Spain," forgetting that Muslims encroached upon Christian territory, and not the other way around. "Christians are trounced and portrayed as murderers of the Muslim and Jewish people," one parent complained of History Alive, objecting to bias. The Jews are "victimized, persecuted and murdered by the Christians. All the while, Islam builds great and grand new empires, has many great and wonderful achievements in architecture, education, science, geography, mathematics, medicine, literature, art and music, and ultimately rules benevolently over the Jewish and Christian people."

In recasting the Crusades seventh-grade textbooks highlight Christian oppression of the Jews. Textbooks give the impression of unadulterated and unrelenting, centuries-long Christian anti-Semitism, and they put the subject into the center of the Middle Ages. This is not an area of history with settled claims and agreement among historians. Equally authoritative references exist to which historians and others point for verification. But a number of textbook passages, reviewers found, were exaggerated and disproportionate - and, in places, inaccurate. "Mobs of peasants turned on Jews who would not instantly convert to Christianity. Thousands of Jews killed themselves and their families in order to escape the Crusaders' knives," says the Glencoe text, for example, combining sharp language with disputed fact. The McDougal Littell volume claims that "Jews who faced persecution in Christian lands flocked to al-Andalus to enjoy this freedom." No, in fact, Jews who migrated (not "flocked") to Andalusia did so to escape persecution in Muslim lands. Seventh-grade textbooks also focus on anti-Semitism in lessons on medieval trade and commerce. From the unrelieved picture, a student or teacher would never know that few Jews lived in medieval Europe, that Christians and European Jews could interact in mutual interest and even amity, especially in trade and banking, or that Jews were not doomed to virulent Christian hatred.

History Alive! declares in bold strokes: "The violence unleashed by the Crusades caused great suffering for the Jews. Crusaders in the Holy Land slaughtered Jews as well as Muslims. Other Jews became slaves." But when, precisely, did this general slaughtering and enslaving occur? The short of it is that this didn't really happen, or relies entirely on slender, often contested sources. This passage, entitled "Impact on Jews as a Group," continues:

During the First Crusade, European Jews suffered a series of violent persecutions. As Crusaders crossed northern France and Germany, some of them murdered whole communities of Jews. They destroyed synagogues and holy books. They looted homes and businesses. Some Crusaders tortured Jews to make them accept Christianity.

Anti-Semitism, or prejudice against Jews, spread among non-crusaders as well. Religious prejudice combined with envy of Jews who had become prosperous bankers and traders. Riots and massacres broke out in a number of cities in Europe.

The point of the Crusades was not to massacre Jews but to confront Islam, which had conquered Christian lands. The TCI volume, History Alive!, says Madden in his review, leaves the impression that killing Jews was a regular part of crusading. It was not. The killing of Jews was forbidden by church law, and those who engaged in it were considered criminals. The Crusades were a response to jihad and the loss of Christian territory. The history of the Jews and anti-Semitism is peripheral to the Crusades. There is no doubt that the position of the Jews in Europe deteriorated sharply from the twelfth century. Massacres occurred, and anti-Semitism was in certain times and locations intense. But that is a different story, and the result is textbook distortion.

While Christian belligerence is magnified, Islamic inequality, subjugation, and enslavement get the airbrush. Required to cover the status of women in the Islamic world, history textbooks find themselves in a muddle. In a failed effort to cover two troubling subjects - Islamic slavery and the subjugation of women - very quickly and as one, the Holt seventh-grade volume lapses into incoherence:

Before Muhammad's time many Arabs owned slaves. Although slavery didn't disappear among Muslims, the Qur'an encourages Muslims to free slaves. Also, women in Arabia had few rights. The Qur'an describes rights of women, including rights to own property, earn money, and get an education. However, many Muslim women have fewer rights than men.

The seventh-grade Prentice Hall volume introduces a section entitled "Men and Women" with two paragraphs and a long set-off quotation in bold, not from a document or highly authoritative source but from an extract from an otherwise unknown 1990 guide published by the defunct Middle East Editorial Associates and written by someone named John Sabini:

The Qur'an and the Sharia laid out clear roles for men and women. Men were expected to support their families and to represent them in the world. Women generally stayed at home, although some women rose to important positions. In general, however, women had fewer rights than men and occupied an inferior position. For example, a woman's share of an inheritance was only half that of a man's.

Nevertheless, in many ways Islam improved conditions for women. Before the development of Islam, Arabic women had virtually no rights. Under the Sharia, women and men had religious equality.

"As Muhammad once said: "All people are equal as the teeth of a comb. There is no claim of merit of an Arab over a non-Arab, or of a white over a black, or of a male over a female. Only God-fearing people will merit a preference with God." -John Sabini, Islam, A Primer

Who Sabini is, what he is trying to convey, and the relationship of the Sabini material to the text immediately preceding it remain entirely unclear. Prentice Hall then features a sidebar that runs for two-thirds of a page in high color with 111 words of text on (as the book spells it) hijab, the Islamic veiling of women - material expressly designed to link past and present:

PAST: The teachings of Muhammad state that women's garments should not attract attention. The female Muslim custom of hijab - wearing garments that cover the head and body - was followed only by upper-class women during the first few hundred years of Islam. In the Middle Ages hijab became more common.

PRESENT: Hijab today ranges from colorful scarves to black robes. Some women wear hijab, and some do not. Many wear hijab to follow Muslim tradition. Others think it allows them to be judged for themselves and not their bodies. In certain countries, the government requires women to wear hijab. Why do you think only upper-class women wore hijab in the early centuries of Islam?

This exercise is a total instructional failure. It contains vast misinformation in a few words. It makes no sense. There is no subject, no connection between past and present. It is vague. It does not begin to examine the emotional or psychological dimensions of the veil or, for that matter, why the veil is of abiding interest in the West. How can any student or teacher deduce an answer to the concluding study question?

At the high school level textbooks deal directly with the status of women in the contemporary Islamic world. Starting with a misleading headline, "Women's Options Vary," Prentice Hall's The Modern World states:

Conditions for women vary greatly from country to country in the modern Middle East. Women in most countries have won equality before the law. Some women have entered professions such as law and medicine. In Turkey, Syria, and Egypt, many urban women gave up the tradition of hejab, or wearing the traditional Muslim headscarves and loose-fitting, ankle-length garments meant to conceal.

On the other hand, religiously conservative Saudi Arabia and Iran require women to wear hejab. In Saudi Arabia, women are not allowed to drive. In many Islamic countries, girls are less likely to attend school than boys. This is because of a traditional belief that girls do not need an education for their expected role as wives and mothers. Muslim women have begun to challenge this belief.

Yes and no, mainly no, as retrograde cultural forces in Turkey, Egypt, Iran, and Pakistan have in recent years discredited any embrace of Western ideas and social practices. What does "challenge this belief" mean? How and to what degree? Textbooks are not telling the truth if they fuzz the widespread gender-based subjugation that marks Islamic societies. What does it mean to be forbidden by law to drive a car on account of sex? Women in some Muslim countries who do not conform to strict social norms of gender separation and housebound seclusion may be shunned, oppressed, or punished, sometimes with quasi-legal sanction.

Instead of calling attention to these conditions and conventions, textbooks blur the subject and as a result make no sense. Glencoe's Modern Times says that "in the 19th and 20th centuries, Muslim scholars began debating women's roles. Many argued that Muslims needed to rethink outdated interpretations that narrowed the lives of women. In nations like Turkey and Iran, these debates led to an expansion of women's rights and freedoms." The text concludes: "There has been a shift toward more traditional roles for women. This trend is especially noticeable in Iran," a gross understatement that typifies textbook language designed to circumvent harsh truths. Textbooks fail to register any objections to conditions of segregation, isolation, or enforced gender-based inferiority in the Muslim world that may have its roots in religion. 

Social studies textbooks do not raise the issue of homosexuality in the Muslim world. As a matter of civil liberties, freedom, and due process, the subject is illustrative, contrasting Islamic culture with one aspect of Western modernity. Most high school students are not so sheltered that the subject needs to remain off-limits. The gruesome video-recorded 2005 execution of two Iranian teenagers, Mahmoud Asgari and Ayaz Marhoni, put to death for homosexual acts, is widely available on the Web and might chill the heart of every U.S. progressive, educator or not. Classroom silence about this kind of punishment, cruelty, and intolerance involves an element of cowardice. "One of the most disgraceful developments of our time is that many Western authors and intellectuals who pride themselves on being liberals have effectively aligned themselves with an outrageously illiberal movement," the cultural critic Bruce Bawer has asserted.

Textbooks mention Islamic slavery only obliquely, as with the janissary soldiers, or not at all. Enslaved Africans and Slavs were transported to Muslim lands from the eighth century on. Slaves were accumulated through conquest, tribute, and sale. In contrast to slavery in the Western Hemisphere, Islamic slavery did not have a racial dimension and slaves could and did achieve a variety of social stations, some of them of considerable power. Muslim enslavement went on from the Balkans to Africa and Central Asia, and the estimated fourteen million slaves taken captive by Muslim rulers all over the world was a larger population than the eleven million Africans exported to the New World before 1850.

In the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, in the late nineteenth century, an estimated twenty-five thousand slaves were traded annually. Vestiges of Islamic slavery persist worldwide. Despite the Qur'anic virtue of manumission, Islam "accepted slavery," says the Columbia History of the World. "This institution left its mark on Islamic society more than in the West - economically, through the profitable slave trade, socially, through the institution of concubinage and the harem, and politically, as individual slaves gained power as favorites, bodyguards, and rulers." Islamic scripture and doctrine do not condemn slavery or subjection.

If slavery looms large in Islam's history, textbooks should highlight it as they do slavery in the Western Hemisphere after 1500. World history textbooks describe in agonizing detail the export of slaves from Africa to North America, the Caribbean, and Brazil, and the history of slavery in the New World; slavery in the far-flung Islamic world on several continents over the course of a millennium gets the airbrush. This glaring imbalance reflects a prevailing editorial mind-set that is often more sensitive to "cultural differences" than to accurate but disturbing perspectives that might elicit the protests of Islamist activists and watchdogs.

# # Contributing Editor Gilbert T. Sewall is Director of the American Textbook Council, a former history instructor at Phillips Academy and an education editor at Newsweek. The American Textbook Council is an independent New York-based research organization established in 1989. The Council reviews history textbooks and other educational materials. It is dedicated to improving the social studies curriculum and civic education in the nation's elementary and high schools.

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