Islamic history in Virginia school books

First off, sorry to everyone who submitted comments this week for the delay in approvals and replies – I was in Germany for a conference, and in order to comply with the laws of budget airlines, I was traveling sans laptop.  In the meantime, I somehow got more comments in a week than this blog normally gets in a month.  Please don’t take this as a suggestion that you should stop commenting – really, it’s the only thing that makes me think I’m not just talking to myself.

Also in the meantime, the Virginia department of education has come under attack from the Virginia Tea Party for its recently purchased new history textbooks, which the Tea Party claims are biased in favour of Islam.  The textbooks were apparently purchased by the DoE after it became apparent that the old textbooks contained numerous factual inaccuracies – there’s a story about it here and here.

The Tea Party concerns are laid out here and here (they also have concerns over the new books’ portrayal of America and imperialism).  In part, their concerns are statistic, that the volume on ancient history devotes twenty-two pages to the history of Islam and only eight to the history of Christianity.  They also reject the argument that Islam forbade forced conversion or the killing of non-Muslims.  Those are concepts that I’ve talked about a lot on this blog, so I’m going to focus on the broader questions of treatment and page counts.

The portrayal of religion in history textbooks is always deeply problematic, as the books lie on the narrow line between simplification and misrepresentation, and, all too often, venture from one to the other.  In the sections on Christianity mentioned by the Tea Party, this tendency is obvious – like most basic history textbooks, Christianity starts out in the Middle East, but the history passes quickly to western Christianity, and appears to focus largely on the High Middle Ages and the Reformation.  That’s fine, as those were periods of history that made lasting impacts on the traditions of western and imperial countries, but it overlooks the history of eastern Christianity, and implies that Christianity is essential European, and not also Middle Eastern, African, Caucasian or Central Asian.

This issue plays into the problems with the portrayal of Islam, as well – by implying that Christianity is essentially European, the texts then reduce dramatically, or overlook entirely, the cultural, theological, intellectual and literary output of Christians living within the Islamic world, thus further implying that the Middle East, Africa and Central Asia were homogeneously Islamic.

In general, I’m not fond of simplification in history, but I’m particularly not fond of it when it comes to religious history.  But nor do I agree with the author of the Tea Party criticisms that “religious beliefs are best left for home or Churches, Synagogues, Temples and Mosques. Not Virginia classrooms.”  Actually, I would argue for just the opposite – I’m really in favour of the continued presence or even expansion of religious studies in schools, and not just because it would make jobs for me and my friends.  But to do so requires admitting that religious traditions are not simplistic, nor easily reduced to five word sentences.  It also requires admitting that there is a great deal of disagreement and that the realms of tradition are filled with contrary voices, which is a concept that we always seem strangely resistant towards teaching to children.  Portraying religions as homogeneous wholes that span massive sections of the globe just fuels the ‘clash of civilizations’ view of world history, in which groups of people are essentially divided and incapable of exchange.  We encourage teaching diversity when it comes to race, ethnicity and culture, but somehow we feel uncomfortable with teaching diversity of thought, and without that concept, teaching religion is impossible.

About askanislamicist

I'm an academic who specializes in early Islamic history and the history of religious interactions, who, in her free time, enjoys shouting into the internet.
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9 Responses to Islamic history in Virginia school books

  1. kingschwarz says:

    I read this post with particular interest since I have a long history of interaction with Muslim communities in Northern Virginia, including ADAMS (All Dulles Area Muslim Society), one of the largest masaajid in the United States and exemplar of civic engagement. Some of the language in the post – “the Virginia department of education has come under attack” and the Tea Party claims that textbooks are “biased in favour of Islam” – made me concerned that Northern Virginia’s prevailing culture of pluralism and interfaith comity has been eroding. Once I followed the links, though, I was reassured. This appears to be a very civil and reasonable debate, or better yet a conversation, about high-school religion texts and in particular one ancient history textbook. The chair of the local Tea Party, Nancy Schiffman, has made clear that there is no intention of attacking Islam, but rather of critiquing a piece of pedagogy. Mohammed Mehboob, President of the Muslim Association of Virginia, has responded very civilly that while he differs with the critique, in no way do Muslims do not feel attacked. Neither does the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE), nor should it. Schiffman has said that she understands that the Board of Education must focus on budgetary matters and has very limited time for curriculum. She is quite reasonably encouraging volunteers to review textbooks and make recommendations to the Board. VDOE seems to welcome the input and is in fact tightening its standards and adding companion guides and other resources to redress some of the lacunae in its textbooks.

    The post characterizes part of Schiffman’s critique as “statistic” concerns – i.e. that the ancient history textbook “devotes twenty-two pages to the history of Islam and only eight to the history of Christianity.” That is not quite accurate. It is eight pages on Judaism and six on Christianity. The post seems to imply that this is a dispute about the place of Islam v. Christianity in secondary education. Not so. Schiffman wants more multifaith curricular balance and advocates exposing students to the “many, many religions in the world” that are “worth looking at and studying.” She mentions in particular Hinduism and Buddhism. Schiffman may be ahead of VDOE’s curve here, but she is quite right. Given the rise of East and South Asia, cultural competence in these areas should be expected of high-school graduates. As an aside, I am puzzled about the inclusion of Islam as a prominent topic in an ancient history text. Although “ancient history” is a rather loose descriptor and various end points are adduced, almost none of them go much past the advent of Islam in the 7th century. I have to wonder about the scholarship behind this text (apparently VDOE does too). Its companion resources, unfortunately, seem a bit shaky as well. The Home Study Guide asks “Who was Muhammad’s wife?” – seemingly unaware that he had between eleven and thirteen and that at least two, Khadijah and Aisha, if not more, are very significant figures. More disturbing, the Guide puts a question about the Islamic view of the prophets antecedent to Muhammad and seems to invite the answer that “they got the message wrong.” This is an oversimplification verging on if not lapsing into a potentially incendiary misrepresentation.

    So where do I come out on all this? I think Schiffman and her Tea Party colleagues, Mehboob and his Muslim constituents, and VDOE and the Board of Education seem to be engaging in a model civic and civil discourse that may well improve the quality and range of the religion curriculum in Virginia’s secondary schools. Teaching about religions is far too important to be left to the academics, who are so often in error – especially the ink-stained wretches who crank out textbooks like so many sawdust-filled sausages. Textbooks and their companion guides are of limited utility in conveying the real substance and flavor of religious traditions and communities. When I taught religion, I always eschewed textbooks in favor of primary sources, religious arts, and time spent at sacred sites and with practitioners and communities. Admittedly this was at university rather than high school, but I believe this approach would work in secondary education as well. Allowing for appropriate time and resources, of course, and we should demand that these be allocated. After all, we do not countenance shoddy and faulty teaching of the sciences – or at least we should not – so let us be just as exacting and committed to teaching about religions.

  2. kingschwarz says:

    I should add that the links to which I refer above and on which I base my comment are those to the Lake Ridge – Occoquan Patch, an online Northern Virginia newsletter. The post also contains links to the blog Virginia Right! which recently ran a three-part series of posts about VDOE, focusing on its review of learning standards. So far as I can determine Virginia Right! is not connected to the Tea Party nor to Nancy Schiffman, Its blurb at BlogGlue describes it simply as a “conservative political blog.” The minibio for Tom White, the blogger responsible for the three-part series, says this about him: “Tom is a US Navy Veteran, owns an Insurance Agency and is currently an IT Manager for a Virginia Distributor. He has been published in American Thinker, currently writes for the Richmond Examiner as well as Virginia Right! Blog. Tom lives in Hanover County, Va and is involved in politics at every level.”

    Hanover County is not part of Northern Virginia, and I gather that neither Tom White nor Virginia Right! are real participants in the civic conversation there on teaching about religion. Rather, they have an axe to grind with VDOE in particular and the education establishment in general about what they call “Selective Secularism…the train of thought that all religion must be purged from any public document except Islam.” Tom White does stipulate that his target is educators, not Muslims: “we all know that there are Muslims that are good and decent people. Americans. And generalized hatred of any religion for the actions of a few is simply wrong. And to be clear, the villain here is not Islam or Muslims. The villain is the Virginia Department of Education and the misguided thinking that has gone into the creation of the Virginia Standards of Learning.”

    As I read through Mr. White’s posts, I was tickled pink to find that one of his bugbears is not so much the Islamization but rather the Anglicanization of the learning standards. Full disclosure: I am a card-carrying member of the Anglican Communion (on one side of the card are the 39 Articles and on the other a recipe for Pink Gin and instructions for the use of salad forks, fish knives and finger bowls), Mr. White objects to the insertion of the Church of England into textbooks and remarks “Perhaps an example of why religion needs to be purged from government?” Once upon a time we would have hied him off the Court of Star Chamber to answer for his impertinence, but nowadays we just refuse to share our Pink Gins with him. He goes on to complain that the new learning standards mandate changing the language from “Reform” churches to “Dissenters.” Climbing down off my Anglican high horse, I have to agree with Mr. White here and wonder about this piece of educational idiocy, What next – will VDOE demote their status from “church” to “chapel”? Ecumenism could be set back several centuries!

  3. Thanks for the comments – I absolutely agree that educational materials are too important not to discuss and debate their content, and I’m happy to hear that such debates are going on, and that teaching of religions is not simply being cut out of the curriculum. But at the same time, I think part of the discussion needs to be an acceptance, and preferably an integration into the material itself, of the idea that scholarship is an ongoing process and that whatever is presented in the text is not ‘the answer’ for all times. At least in my (albeit limited) experience teaching kids, they’ve had no problems accepting the idea that what they’re being taught is just what we know so far, and certainly it would help combat the cognitive dissonance experienced by students when they reach higher education when they discover that much of what they’re been taught is still debated, refined or just vastly oversimplified. Indeed, as you point out, this may just signal that textbooks are not terribly useful, and that there needs to be a wider curriculum.

    Also, I would have thought it was much more civil to employ the Court of Star Chambre than to deny a man a Pink Gin – I do say, there’s no cause to be mean!

    • kingschwarz says:

      Seems to me that the conversation underway in Northern Virginia as well as the standards review being conducted by VDOE with public input are premised on the idea “that scholarship is an ongoing process.” Still, errors are errors. Muhammad did not take only one wife. Muslims do not believe in some unqualified way that the biblical prophets “got the message wrong.” No reasonable person would contemporarily refer to the Reformed “Dissenters.” Students should not have to matriculate to post-secondary education to have these errors reversed.

      I shall accede to your call for hospitable treatment of Tom White. If ever I meet the man, I promise to offer him a Pink Gin. Even though I doubt he can tell a fish knife from a switchblade or a finger bowl from a petri dish.

  4. ataralas says:

    I think this also hits at the difference between what history as an academic discipline is (what people did and why they did it, to grossly oversimplify) and history as a primary/secondary school subject, which in the US is often tangentially related to the first definition of history, but also contains a large amount of patriotism-building (America is awesome and here’s how the past tells us so!).

    Additionally, it makes me angry that the people against this textbook fail to take into account that we live in a Christian-centric country. There is so much more ambient information about Christianity (or, at least Western European/US Christianity) than there is about any other religion. My world history class, at least, spent a lot more explict time on Islam and Buddhism* and Taoism and Hinduism and so forth, because of this.

    *I wonder how many pages this textbook devotes to that. And if its greater than 6, why isn’t this dude pissing and moaning about that. Also, one of my favorite facts from that class? Buddhist assassins.

    • Buddhist assassins are still my favourite piece of historical evidence that all religions have some tradition of violence. And they were just awesome.

      I think the ambient information about Christianity is part of it, but also I suspect many Americans would not be terribly comfortable with Christianity being taught as an academic subject in schools. I’d guess there’s not much more than a few pages you can safely write about Christianity without offending someone, whereas talking about foreign cultures always feels safe.

      • kingschwarz says:

        You would have to look pretty hard to find evidences of a tradition of violence within Jainism. (If we go back to the 4th and 2nd centuries BCE, we encounter respectively the warrior kings Chandragupta Maurya and Kharavela, but is is not clear whether during their reigns they actually were Jains or rather royal patrons of Jainism.) Not so hard with Buddhism. I am unfamiliar with the Buddhist assassins (would love a source!) though I am aware of the Tibetan monk who was a legendary regicide in the 8th century. Tibet historically was a turbulent place, and the Panchen and Dalai Lamas involved themselves politically and militarily in the affairs of neighboring China, Nepal and Mongolia and occasionally dispatched armies across their borders. The Buddhist kingdoms of classical India were enthusiastic participants in dynastic warfare, and of course Zen Buddhism was the predominant religion of feudal Japan’s warrior class, the samurai.

        Buddhism can be linked to violence contemporarily as well as historically. The Sinhalese Buddhist majority in Sri Lanka has engaged in a civil war with genocidal dimensions against the Tamil Hindu minority. 2009 saw the bombardment of “safe zones,” resulting in the deaths of thousands of Tamil civilians and prompting international messages of concern, including one from U.S. Secretary of State Clinton. This must be laid directly at the feet of the army, but previous riots and civil disturbances are reported to have been incited by Buddhist monks. I do not intend to single out Buddhism, which has made enormous contributions to philosophy and the contemplative arts and often been a force for peace and nonviolence. As you say, all religions (possibly excepting Jainism and a few others) have a history of violence. I submit that this has little do to with their theologies or philosophies – otherwise Christianity would be the most peaceable of faiths – and much to do with their involvement in power and politics.

    • kingschwarz says:

      Why do you think “the people against this textbook fail to take into account that we live in a Christian-centric country”? If you go to the first set of links in the post or read my first comment, you will see that one of Nancy Schiffman’s core objections is that the textbook in question does not cover non-Abrahamic religions, and she specifically mentions Buddhism and Hinduism. Is Mrs. Schiffman the “dude pissing and moaning” to whom you refer? Or is it Tom White, the blogger at Virginia Right? While Mr. White does not seem particularly concerned about the exclusion of world religions from the ancient history text, he does object to the deletion of material about the Maya peoples. A fair criticism. Or is “the dude” Charles Pyle, the spokesperson for the Virginia Department of Education, whose learning standards process has uncovered factual errors in several textbooks and put the ancient history text under review? Is your position that the public and education departments should accept without critique or any review process whatever the textbook publishers decide to sell to our school systems?

  5. lafletcher says:

    Actually, I would argue for just the opposite – I’m really in favour of the continued presence or even expansion of religious studies in schools, and not just because it would make jobs for me and my friends.

    I completely agree. I think that separation of Church and State is one of our most important American values (although I recognize the complete hypocrisy and irony of to what extent we have practiced what we preach over the years – hi, the South), but at the same time teaching about different religions in schools and fostering awareness, understanding and compassion for peoples of other faiths from a young age would, I believe, improve American society and help reduce the amount of bigotry that goes on in this country.

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