Like A Muslim
especially in public schools, should approach Islam in a
critical fashion - learning the bad as well as the good, the
archaic as well as the modern. They should approach it from
the outside, not as believers, precisely as they do with every
it be that an important textbook is proselytizing American
12-year-olds to convert to Islam?
The book in question is "Across the Centuries" (Houghton
Mifflin, 2nd edition, 1999), a 558-page history that covers the
millennium and a half between the fall of Rome and the French
Revolution. In the multicultural spirit, about half of its eight
sections are devoted to the West, and the other four deal with
Islam, Africa, Asian empires, and pre-Columbian America.
"Across the Centuries" is a handsome artifact, well
written, packed with original graphics, and generally achieving the
publisher's goal that "students learn best when they are
fascinated by what they are learning."
At the same time, there is much in it one can argue with, such as
its idiosyncratic coverage of subjects (sub-Saharan Africa gets four
times more space than India?). But the really serious problem
concerns the covert propagation of Islam, which takes four forms:
Everything Islamic is praised; every problem is swept under the rug.
Students learn about Islam's "great cultural flowering,"
but nothing about the later centuries of statis and decline. They
read repeatedly about the Muslims' broadmindedness (they "were
extremely tolerant of those they conquered") but not a word
about their violence (such as the massacres carried out by
Muhammad's troops against the Jews of Banu Qurayza).
Jihad, which means "sacred war," turns into a struggle
mainly "to do one's best to resist temptation and overcome
evil." Islam gives women "clear rights" not available
in some other societies, such as the right to an education? This
ignores the self-evident fact that Muslim women enjoy fewer rights
than perhaps any other in the world. ("Across the
Centuries" implicitly acknowledges this reality by blaming
"oppressive local traditions" for their circumstances.)
* Identification as Muslims:
Homework assignments repeatedly involve mock-Muslim exercises.
"Form small groups of students to build a miniature
mosque." Or: "You leave your home in Alexandria for the
pilgrimage to Mecca. . . . write a letter describing your route, the
landscapes and peoples you see as you travel and any incidents that
happen along the way. Describe what you see in Mecca."
And then there is this shocker: "Assume you are a Muslim
soldier on your way to conquer Syria in the year A.D. 635. Write
three journal entries that reveal your thoughts about Islam,
fighting in battle, or life in the desert."
The textbook endorses key articles of Islamic faith. It informs
students as a historical fact that Ramadan is holy
"because in this month Muhammad received his first message from
Allah." It asserts that "the very first word the angel
Gabriel spoke to Muhammad was 'Recite.' " It explains that
Arabic lettering "was used to write down God's words as they
had been given to Muhammad." And it declares that the
architecture of a mosque in Spain allows Muslims "to feel
Allah's invisible presence."
Similarly, the founder of Islam is called "the prophet
Muhammad," implying acceptance of his mission. (School
textbooks scrupulously avoid the term Jesus Christ in favor of Jesus
Learning about Islam is a wonderful thing; I personally have spent
more than thirty years studying this rich subject. But students,
especially in public schools, should approach Islam in a critical
fashion - learning the bad as well as the good, the archaic as well
as the modern. They should approach it from the outside, not as
believers, precisely as they do with every other religion.
Some parents have woken up to the textbook's problems. Jennifer
Schroeder of San Luis Obispo, Calif., publicly protested its
"distinct bias toward Islam." But when she tried to remove
her son Eric from the classroom using this book, the school refused
her permission and she filed suit in protest a few weeks ago (with
help from the Pacific Justice Institute).
"Across the Centuries" involves a larger issue as well -
the privileging of Islam in the United States. Is Islam to be
treated like every other religion or does it enjoy a special status?
The stakes go well beyond 7th-grade textbooks.
The next edition of
"Across the Centuries" should give a hint of what's in
store. Readers may wish to send their opinions to Houghton Mifflin's
editorial director for school social studies, Abigail Jungreis