Al-Ahram Weekly Online
6 - 12 December 2001
Issue No.563
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Current issue | Previous issue | Site map

Plain talk

By Mursi Saad El-Din

Mursi Saad El-Din Western interest in Islam is not simply the result of the 11 September events. In fact it is an interest that goes to the earliest days of Islam. Throughout its 1422 years, Islam has in one way or another confronted the West, and there are an endless number of books -- by Western writers -- about Islam: its principles, its contribution to European civilisation, and other aspects of the religion and culture. But one thing that has struck me as of special significance is the treatment of Islam, its history and culture in Western school textbooks.

I have just come across an interesting document which dates back to 1950 -- a report submitted to UNESCO in Brussels about this very subject. The report was prepared by H M Ammar and it makes interesting reading, revealing the long-established interest of this international organisation in creating understanding between Islam and the West.

The report is long and detailed but I shall endeavour to give its salient features here. Ammar argued that while some attention is given to Muslim civilisation in the Middle Ages textbooks used contained "misconceptions and historical inaccuracies." First there is an emphasis on the war-like qualities of Islam. For instance in a book entitled A Historical Political Geography of Europe Islam is presented as thriving "only when it conquers."

Another feature of the textbooks was the emphasis on differences between Muslims and Christians. The two religions are invariably compared and differences rather than similarities are underlined. The report mentions G B Firth's book History: Book III where the following conclusion is reached: "While Polonins and other missionaries taught Christianity in England, the Mohammedan army conquered Persia."

Islam's point of view, as opposed to that of Christianity, is often expressed in terms of a clash between East and West. This impression, claims the report, "is reinforced by the undue space allotted to the military aspects of the Crusades as the most prominent phase in the relations between East and West. The report argues that in contacts between different cultures military aspects should not be unjustifiably used as a means of arousing the emotions of children.

The textbooks also seem to confuse social customs and religious doctrines. The so- called "inferior" position of Muslim women is attributed solely to the teachings of Islam. This is historically inaccurate. Islam actually raised the status of women. The veiling of women as practised by some Muslim communities was a social custom taken over from the ancient Persians and Assyrians.

The report also criticises the textbooks for "omission of facts." Despite recognised Arab contributions to Western civilisation there is no reference in the textbooks of some of the basic ideals in which all Muslims take special pride, such as, for example, freedom and brotherhood, absence of race consciousness as an achievement of Muslim civilisation, the care of the poor, the support of the weak and religious tolerance.

Moving from Islam to the treatment of the Arab world in modern times, the report claims that the study of Arab countries in geography textbooks is neglected, except in so far as they are politically and economically connected with the West. Their societies are presented as static and unchanging.

This report was submitted within a project initiated by UNESCO for the study of textbooks in member countries. The programme, according to H M Ammar, should have a sympathetic understanding of the potent force of nationalism in the Arab world. It must be made clear, the report adds, that any project for the promotion of international understanding "does not in any way hamper the growth of national sentiments and cultural traditions."

The report comes up with several suggestions. "It is highly desirable that a responsible in the Arab world should undertake the task of writing a comprehensive study in English and French of Muslim history." This particular suggestion, which should have been taken seriously back in 1950, is something that at present the Arab League could well undertake.

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