A Guide for the Perplexed Parent—Countering Public School Indoctrination on Islam (Updated)

As parents, we have a moral obligation to our children and our Western heritage to combat the corrosive indoctrination on Islam that currently passes for “Islamic education” in public school curricula. That effort must begin by providing our children ready home access to objective, unapologetic Western scholarship on Islam, such as the Shorter Encyclopedia of Islam.



The Texas Board of Education issued a press release, Friday 9/24/10, which included a self-described “most debated item on the board’s Friday agenda”—a non-binding resolution that barely passed by a 7-6 vote, with two members absent. The resolution concludes with the statement that the board,

…will look to reject future prejudicial social studies submissions that continue to offend Texas law with respect to treatment of the world’s major religious groups by significant inequalities of coverage spacewise and/or by demonizing or lionizing one or more of them over others.

Additional media reports of the resolution adopted Friday maintained it cited “…politically-correct whitewashes of Islamic culture and stigmas on Christian civilization…” in current textbooks, while warning that, “…more such discriminatory treatment of religion may occur as Middle Easterners buy into the US public school textbook oligopoly.”

But defenders of the textbooks in question, such as the Rev. Bobbi Kaye Jones, superintendent of the Austin District of the United Methodist Church, representing the Texas Freedom Network, an interfaith group of religious leaders, insisted,

Realistic information takes a back seat to religious intolerance [in Texas], and education suffers a blow. 

And Imam Islam Mossaad of the North Austin Muslim Community Center, affirming the “objectivity” of the textbooks in question,  stated,

Our children’s textbooks must treat all religions accurately and fairly.

Gilbert Sewall, although critical of the reasoning in the Texas School Board resolution, was favorably inclined toward its intent. Sewall is founder of the American Textbook Council, a nonprofit that reviews history and social studies textbooks utilized in U.S. schools. His organization issued a comprehensive, evidenced-based 2008 report entitled,  “Islam in the Classroom—What the Textbooks Tell Us”.

This 2008 report observed, prominently, that the deficiencies in Islam-related lessons were uniquely disturbing, with history textbooks presenting, “ an incomplete and confected view of Islam that misrepresents its foundations and challenges to international security.” Among textbooks copyrighted before 2001, “deficiencies” regarding Islam, “ persist and in some cases have grown worse.” Sewall also maintained that publishers and editors in lieu of making corrections or adjusting contested facts,

…defend misinformation and content evasions against the record. Biases persist. Silences are profound and intentional. Particular fault rests with the publishing corporations, boards of directors, and executives who decide what editorial policies their companies will pursue. Publishers have learned of contested facts and have had the time to correct imbalances. But instead of making changes, they have sustained errors or, in deliberate acts of self-censorship, have removed controversial material.”

And Sewall concluded the 2008 report with this appropriate, but as yet unaddressed warning:

Islamic activists use multiculturalism and ready-made American political movements, especially those on campus, to advance and justify the makeover of Islam-related textbook content.

Responding to the current Texas Board of Education resolution controversy, Sewall opined,

My complaint is the misinformation and selected information that attend chapters on Islam. The resolution is correct that textbooks routinely doctor the meaning of jihad (or fail to cover it) and that Muslim intolerance/military aggression, (is) soft-pedaled or excised.

And Sewall reiterated his 2008 concerns about the corrosive impact of cultural relativism, which he argued undermines the ability to defend ourselves against jihadism. The publishing industry, he stated,  …

…[R]esists ugly facts about Islam…From what they read in history textbooks, students and teachers are not likely to grasp why the United States and its allies consider militant Islam an enemy.

The raging textbook controversy in Texas, because of the Lone Star State’s purchasing power, will ultimately affect textbooks distributed across the country. But regardless of which side prevails, and the content of such textbooks, revised or not, I suggest a modest proposal to help resolve this dilemma for concerned parents. As a small investment in our children’s (and their parents’) objective education about Islam, purchase your household a copy of the Shorter Encyclopedia of Islam (used from $30.00; new at $140.00 to $143.20).

Originally published in 1953, and edited by the eminent scholars of Islam, H.A. R. Gibb and J.H. Kramers, this single volume includes all the articles contained in the first edition and supplement of the nine-volume classic Brill Encyclopedia of Islam, pertaining, in particular, to the religion and law of Islam. The Shorter Encyclopedia of Islam remains an unequalled—and unbowdlerized—reference work.  

Consider the Shorter Encyclopedia of Islam entry on jihad (spelled “djihad”)—arguably the most important single subject today’s students must grasp about Islam. The concise discussion of jihad was written by Duncan B. MacDonald (1863-1933), a very sympathetic scholar of Islam, renowned for his seminal analyses on the development of Muslim theology and jurisprudence. Here are MacDonald’s key observations about the nature and conduct of jihad, which he defines with doctrinal and historical accuracy, as “holy war”:

[H]oly war. The spread of Islam by arms is a religious duty upon Muslims in general…This position was reached gradually but quickly. In the Meccan Suras [chapters] of the Koran patience under attack is taught; no other attitude was possible. But at Medina the right to repel attack appears, and gradually it became a prescribed duty to fight against and subdue the hostile Meccans. Whether Muhammad himself recognized that his position implied steady and unprovoked war against the unbelieving world until it was subdued to Islam may be in doubt. Traditions [especially the hadith, the canonical collections of Muhammad’s words and deeds recorded by his most pious Muslim companions] are explicit on the point; but the Koranic passages speak always of the unbelievers who are to be subdued as dangerous or faithless. Still, the story of his writing to the powers around him shows that such a universal position was implicit in his mind, and it certainly developed after his death, when the Muslim armies advanced out of Arabia. It is now a fard ala l-kifaya, a duty in general on all male, free, adult Muslims, sane in mind and body and having means enough to reach the Muslim army, yet not a duty necessarily incumbent on every individual but sufficiently performed when done by a certain number. So it must continue to be done until the whole world is under the rule of Islam…

The people against whom the jihad is directed must first be invited to embrace Islam. On refusal they have another choice. They may submit to Muslim rule, become dhimmis and pay jizya and kharadj [specific taxes imposed on the vanquished non-Muslims—the former, in lieu of being slain] or fight. In the first case, their lives, families and property are assured to them, but they have a definitely inferior status, with no technical citizenship, and a standing only as protected wards. If they fight, they and their families may be enslaved and all their property seized as booty, four-fifths of which goes to the conquering army. If they embrace Islam…they become part of the Muslim community with all its rights and duties. Apostates must be put to death. But if a Muslim country is invaded by unbelievers, the Imam [Muslim sovereign] may issue a general summons calling all Muslims there to arms, and as the danger grows so may the width of the summons until the whole Muslim world is involved. A Muslim who dies fighting in the Path of Allah (fi sabil Allah) is a martyr (shahid) and is assured of Paradise and of peculiar privileges there [a genteel reference to the willing virgins awaiting jihad martyrs]. Such a death was in the early generations, regarded as the peculiar crown of a pious life. It is still, on occasions, a strong incitement….

MacDonald concludes his Shorter Encyclopedia of Islam entry on jihad—published in the mid-1930s—with this warning, relevant then, and now:

Even yet, however, any war between Muslims and non-Muslims must be a jihad with its incitements and rewards…[T]he Muslim masses still follow the unanimous voice of the canon lawyers [Muslim clerics]. Islam must be completely made over before the doctrine of jihad can be eliminated.

Two obituaries (published in the New York Times, and Yale News) from 2003 for Yale Professor Franz Rosenthal—the Sterling Professor Emeritus of Arabic—highlighted his escape from Nazi totalitarianism. Rosenthal’s work included lucid, timeless analyses of Islamic “martyrdom” vs. suicide, and the antithetical Islamic and Western conceptions of “freedom.” Franz Rosenthal also wrote an obituary for the Austrian-born US scholar Gustave E. Von Grunebaum (1909-1972) which included these observations about von Gruenbaum’s seminal contributions, and uncompromising standards: 

If von Grunebaum was able in addition to produce an amazingly large and significant number of books and articles, to which all these and many other activities ranked second in importance in his estimation as well as ours, it was because everything he did arose from the same source – his personal conviction as to the intellectual obligation resting upon the Western student of Islam. He was convinced that it was his duty to interpret Islam from the point of view of the Westerner deeply steeped in his own civilization at its best, that there was indeed no other way of making the study of Islam meaningful for non-Muslims, professional scholars and educated non-specialists alike, than by scrutinizing it from the outside and measuring it by the most demanding and universally valid standards devised in the West for assessing intellectual and moral worth.

The anti-intellectual, cultural relativist attitude toward Islam which is now predominant in our primary and secondary school systems was already well-characterized by another esteemed 20th century scholar of Islam, Maxime Rodinson. Writing in 1974, Rodinson noted,

…The anti-colonial left…often goes so far as to sanctify Islam and the contemporary ideologies of the Muslim world… Understanding has given away to apologetics pure and simple.

As parents, we have a moral obligation to our children and our Western heritage to combat the corrosive indoctrination on Islam that currently passes for “Islamic education” in public school curricula. That effort must begin by providing our children ready home access to objective, unapologetic Western scholarship on Islam, such as the Shorter Encyclopedia of Islam.

UPDATE: There is a “fourth edition” of the “Shorter Encyclopedia of Islam” available as the “Concise Encyclopedia of Islam”, and priced $94.50, new at amazon.com

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