How European textbooks misrepresent the history of Islam and Muslims

By Jesse Brenner

This is taken from an interesting essay by Dr. Fauziya Al-Ashmawi of the Department of Arabic Language and Islamic Civilization in the University of Geneva, Switzerland for the Islamic Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (ISESCO).  Overall, an insightful analysis of the difficulty in establishing “objectivity” in pedagogy, and the many ways in which European textbooks misrepresent Islam and Muslims, especially in their historical treatment.  Some of his criticisms are perhaps overly dogmatic, such as the following:

[In some European textbooks] The Quran is presented as “the book in which Muhammad tells Muslims what God taught him” and not as the holy book of the Muslims containing the words of Almighty God.

The sort of “presentation” here that Dr. Al-Ashmawi uses as an example of European mispresentation of Islam via pedagogy, is in fact in line with certain notions of “secular” education, in which non-Muslims are being taught about Islam in a way that is attempting to respect Islam while simultaneously historicizing it.   One of course requires the full context of the textbook(s) being examined.   For example, if the textbook in question also refers to the Torah as “the book in which Moses tells Jews what God taught him and not as the holy book of the Jews containing the words of Almighty God,” we could argue that this establishes a level playing field among the various religions in terms of how they are taught. However if one holy book is presented as “holier” or more “authentic,” than clearly this would need to be addressed in the name of both fairness and accuracy.   The question I would have for Dr. Al-Ashmawi is whether we could agree on a compromise terminology, for example: “The Quran, which Muslims believe is holy and contains the words of Almighty God, contains the teachings that God revealed to his Prophet Muhammed.”

Of course, the central problem is the thorny issue of historicization of religion in general.  For many believers, even talking about the origins of religion can be offensive, because the notion of “origins” is in direct contradiction to the eternal, universal and infinite qualities associated with the “revealed” religions of Judaism, Islam and Christianity.  However, there is a growing movement of Muslim thinkers like Tariq Ramadan who argue that approaching Islam as “historical” is not only appropriate and respectful, but is in fact a critical task for Muslims that will allow ultimately lead to greater piety and strengthened belief.

Here are some more tidbits from his essay:

“What arouses one’s astonishment is the absence of any dates of significance to non-European countries. Thus the history of civilizations and peoples to the south of the Mediterranean is no more than a footnote to world history, which revolves around Europe. If this remark applies to European history books, it applies also to history textbooks from south of the Mediterranean. Their history revolves around the bygone glory of its civilization. This leads us to a definition of the general phenomenon which has been called ethnocentricity.”

“Perhaps the most striking example of the phenomenon of wilful disregard is the West’s refusal to give Arab Muslim philosophers credit for the European Renaissance in the fifteenth century.”

“We have remarked that before they explain the concepts and principles of Islam, most writers of school history books in countries north of the Mediterranean begin by talking about the swift and fearful spread of Islam, the swift conquests undertaken by the Prophet of Islam and his successors, and the way Arab warriors came in a specific and definite mould; that is to say that they were fierce raiders who inspired terror, who could not be defeated, and who constituted a continual and severe threat to their neighbours.  History textbooks in countries south of the Mediterranean, especially religious education books, present the culture and civilization of Christian Europe according to Islamic understandings of the Jews and the Christians as they are talked about in the Quran. In most of these books, we find concepts of Christianity, the concept of the Virgin Mary, the Christ and his miracles and his ascension into heaven, explained in terms of what is in the Quran. Sometimes Quranic verses are quoted in confirmation of the concepts mentioned.  In all history textbooks north and south of the Mediterranean, the Crusades constitute an important chapter. We have remarked that the writers of these books contrive by various means to give watered down versions in order to maintain the relations of good neighbourliness currently existing between the countries north and south of the Mediterranean. However, this does not diminish the fact that reading the school history books of the two sides gives us a feeling that the accounts are completely different and sometimes totally contradictory. There is a clear discrepancy between the crusades as they are presented by Muslims and the crusades as they are presented by Westerners, those destructive wars which spread terror and death in the Middle Ages.”

Read the full text here: