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History Corrupted

The worst textbook ever when it comes to teaching about Islam.

Aug 9, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 44 • By STEPHEN SCHWARTZ
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“The influence of Arabia became far more powerful with the rise of Islam,” we learn. “From its central location in Arabia, Islam spread rapidly throughout the Middle East, North Africa, and parts of Europe. Great cities like Cordoba in Spain, Cairo in Egypt, and Baghdad in present-day Iraq became important centers of the Islamic world.” The impression is left that the global Islamic community was directed from Arabia, when in reality the Muslim lands, soon after the death of Muhammad, divided into competing domains. Neither Cordoba nor Cairo nor Baghdad in its period of greatest power and influence was ever politically subordinate to Arabia. The chapter summary repeats the aggrandizement of Arabia in world history, stating, “Arabia and nearby lands are at the crossroads of Asia, Africa, and Europe.” But Arabia did not have close relations with Europe until the 20th century and the growth of energy income.

More remarkable than the singling out of the Arabian Peninsula for this exceptional treatment is the similar honor accorded one individual: The Prophet Muhammad is the only person whose life and influence merit a full chapter in this book. Indeed, Muhammad is the only individual so much as named in a chapter title. History Alive! The Medieval World and Beyond offers no age of Justinian or Charlemagne, Dante or Shakespeare, Columbus or Elizabeth, Luther or Newton or Locke. More to the point, perhaps, it contains no chapter—no paragraph even—on the life of Jesus, although the founder of Christianity is at least as consequential a figure in world history as the founder of Islam—far more so for American civilization—and his life falls within the scope of the introductory chapter on the legacy of Rome. For that matter, even so elementary a point of information as that Jesus’ birth is the hinge event dividing the Western calendar is not taught in this book—though pupils do learn, in the course of their weeklong study of the life of the prophet, that “the year of Muhammad’s hijrah [flight from Mecca to Medina] later became the first year in the Muslim calendar.”

A few times in the chapter on Muhammad, the qualifying phrase “according to Islamic teachings” prefaces an assertion; for the most part, however, the biography of the prophet is presented as history. The student is never informed that for Muslims the portrayal of Muhammad is a component of faith rather than contemporaneously attested fact. Again the contrast with the treatment of Christianity is sharp: The sole sentence on the life of Jesus reads, “Christians are followers of Jesus, who, according to Christian Scripture, was put to death on a Roman cross in the first century c.e.” What’s more, even the delineation of Muhammad’s life is selective. The text mentions Muhammad’s first wife, Khadijah, for instance, but leaves out the 10 or so other wives he married after her death—even his favorite, Aisha—as well as his concubines. 

The discussion of the extension of Islamic power during and after Muhammad’s life is among the parts of the textbook most open to criticism for its often euphemistic wording. While “armies” and “conquests” are mentioned, the section skips over battles led by Muhammad himself, which are a major element of Islam’s foundational narrative. There is one reference to a Muslim raid on a caravan, but this hint of military activities by the early Muslims is followed by the benign comment, “Muhammad convinced other tribes to join the Muslim community.” 

The last section of the chapter discusses in generally reassuring terms Muhammad’s successors and the building of the Muslim empire. 

When some tribes tried to break away, Abu Bakr used military campaigns to reunite the community. Under his leadership, Muslims completed the unification of Arabia. Then they began to carry the teachings of Islam beyond the Arabian Peninsula. After Abu Bakr died in 634 c.e., Caliph Umar expanded the Muslim empire. In addition to spreading the faith of Islam, conquest allowed Muslims to gain new lands, resources, and goods.

The acceptance of Ali as the fourth successor to Muhammad is mentioned, along with the war launched against him by the Umayyads, adherents of Caliph Uthman, and Ali’s assassination. Even so, the split in Islam between the Sunnis (who submitted to the rule of the Umayyads) and the Shias (who supported Ali’s descendants) is dealt with sketchily, though this division within Islam is relevant to such important present-day phenomena as the radical Islamist regime in Iran and sectarian conflict in Iraq.

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