Since then, I’ve had a chance to read the controversial chapter about Islam in the textbook “My World History and Geography: The Middle Ages to the Exploration of America” (Pearson Instructional Resources, 2015). The state-approved book is used in seventh grade in some Tennessee school systems, including White County. It has recently been challenged and vilified there by a group of parents and other “concerned citizens,” not all of whom are from White County or even from Tennessee. Some have characterized it as “fictitious, stupid and ridiculous.” Others call it “inaccurate and filled with pro-Islamic bias” in its portrayal of the second largest religion in the world.
My takeaway after reading the Islam chapter? I can’t figure out what all the fuss is about. What I found was a thorough—and, in my opinion, objective—treatment of Islam.
The chapter has four sections—Origins of Islam, Beliefs of Islam, Muslim Empires and Muslim Achievements. I’m guessing that those unhappy about the book are not complaining when it talks about Persian rugs, calligraphy or the invention of algebra. They probably don’t even object to the history lesson about Muhammad’s life.
What the naysayers, no doubt, object to is Section Two—Beliefs of Islam. Included here is information about the Quran (Islam’s holy book) and Sunnah (traditions of Islam), the fact that Muslims are monotheistic and believe in a soul and an afterlife, a definition of sharia law, and an overview of the Five Pillars of Islam (belief, prayer, charity, fasting, pilgrimage).
I read the section several times but I can’t find a thing in it to convince me that the textbook’s authors are presenting a subjective view of the Islamic faith. They mention Jews and Christians, first in a paragraph about Jerusalem (“a holy city to Jews, Christians and Muslims…which contains the Dome of the Rock where Muslims believe Muhammad ascended to heaven and the spot where Christians believe Jesus was crucified.”) The chapter goes on to say that “Muslims believe that Muhammad was God’s final prophet but that he wasn’t divine…Unlike Christians, Muslims believe Jesus was a human prophet, not both God and man.”
As far as I was able to discern, the chapter neither proselytizes for Islam nor condemns it.
I suspect that what those who object to the textbook are most disturbed about is that there’s no mention of radical Islam. No Taliban or al-Qaeda or Isis. No subjugation of women. No jihad. All of which are real and all of which are terrifying. Not only to those of us who are not Muslim, but to the vast majority of the 1.6 billion followers of Islam. These topics merit vast amounts of study, reflection and thoughtful discussion and response.
But I contend they do not belong in a textbook written for thirteen year olds.
The book at the heart of this controversy was designed as an introduction to the history of the world from about 500 A.D. to 1500 A.D. It was written for young people at the cusp of higher-level thinking and reasoning. Young people who have enough to worry about without fixating on burqas and bombings and beheadings. Those worries will come soon enough.
In the meantime, here’s hoping they can study “My World History and Geography” and come away with the not-so-radical idea that this planet we live on is a diverse and very, very fascinating place.
(November 15, 2015)