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Books: Should American Kids Be Reading Houghton Mifflin's Textbook on the History of Islam and the West?

Note: Houghton Mifflin has released a response to this article. Click here to read it.

Could it be that an important textbook is proselytizing American 12-year-olds to convert to Islam?

The book in question is Across the Centuries (Houghton Mifflin, 2nd edition, 1999), a 558-page history that covers the millennium and a half between the fall of Rome and the French Revolution. In the multicultural spirit, about half of its eight sections are devoted to the West, and the other four deal with Islam, Africa, Asian empires, and pre-Columbian America.

Across the Centuries is a handsome artifact, well written, packed with original graphics, and generally achieving the publisher's goal that"students learn best when they are fascinated by what they are learning."

At the same time, there is much in it one can argue with, such as its idiosyncratic coverage of subjects (sub-Saharan Africa gets four times more space than India?). But the really serious problem concerns the covert propagation of Islam, which takes four forms:

  • Apologetics: Everything Islamic is praised; every problem is swept under the rug.

    Students learn about Islam's"great cultural flowering," but nothing about the later centuries of statis and decline. They read repeatedly about the Muslims' broadmindedness (they"were extremely tolerant of those they conquered") but not a word about their violence (such as the massacres carried out by Muhammad's troops against the Jews of Banu Qurayza).

  • Distortion: Jihad, which means"sacred war," turns into a struggle mainly"to do one's best to resist temptation and overcome evil." Islam gives women" clear rights" not available in some other societies, such as the right to an education? This ignores the self-evident fact that Muslim women enjoy fewer rights than perhaps any other in the world. ("Across the Centuries" implicitly acknowledges this reality by blaming"oppressive local traditions" for their circumstances.)

  • Identification as Muslims: Homework assignments repeatedly involve mock-Muslim exercises."Form small groups of students to build a miniature mosque." Or:"You leave your home in Alexandria for the pilgrimage to Mecca.. . . write a letter describing your route, the landscapes and peoples you see as you travel and any incidents that happen along the way. Describe what you see in Mecca."

    And then there is this shocker:"Assume you are a Muslim soldier on your way to conquer Syria in the year A.D. 635. Write three journal entries that reveal your thoughts about Islam, fighting in battle, or life in the desert."

  • Piety: The textbook endorses key articles of Islamic faith. It informs students as a historical fact that Ramadan is holy"because in this month Muhammad received his first message from Allah." It asserts that"the very first word the angel Gabriel spoke to Muhammad was 'Recite.'" It explains that Arabic lettering"was used to write down God's words as they had been given to Muhammad." And it declares that the architecture of a mosque in Spain allows Muslims"to feel Allah's invisible presence."

    Similarly, the founder of Islam is called"the prophet Muhammad," implying acceptance of his mission. (School textbooks scrupulously avoid the term Jesus Christ in favor of Jesus of Nazareth.)

Learning about Islam is a wonderful thing; I personally have spent more than thirty years studying this rich subject. But students, especially in public schools, should approach Islam in a critical fashion - learning the bad as well as the good, the archaic as well as the modern. They should approach it from the outside, not as believers, precisely as they do with every other religion.

Some parents have woken up to the textbook's problems. Jennifer Schroeder of San Luis Obispo, Calif., publicly protested its"distinct bias toward Islam." But when she tried to remove her son Eric from the classroom using this book, the school refused her permission and she filed suit in protest a few weeks ago (with help from the Pacific Justice Institute).

Across the Centuries involves a larger issue as well - the privileging of Islam in the United States. Is Islam to be treated like every other religion or does it enjoy a special status? The stakes go well beyond 7th-grade textbooks.

The next edition of Across the Centuries should give a hint of what's in store. Readers may wish to send their opinions to Houghton Mifflin's editorial director for school social studies, Abigail Jungreis.

This piece originally appeared in the New York Post.


On February 11, the New York Post published an editorial by Daniel Pipes about Houghton Mifflin's"Across the Centuries" social studies textbook. Although Mr. Pipes may have more than thirty years studying Islam, it is important to understand that his critique of"Across the Centuries" is not based upon reading the text, nor with the understanding of standards to which the book was written. It is very distressing that during a time in which cultural understanding is paramount, that Mr. Pipes would write such a politically and emotionally charged article based on misinformation.

Assumptions and accusations are made in Mr. Pipes' editorial about omissions or interpretations of the text. Most of the accusations are based on his own bias and his choice to cite passages out-of-context. Mr. Pipes did not contact Houghton Mifflin to obtain correct information about"Across the Centuries." Houghton Mifflin has always taken a neutral, fact-based approach to writing all of its educational publications, striving for a fair account of history. Furthermore, a multi-cultural and multi-faith panel of scholars reviewed and approved"Across the Centuries" before publication.

"Across the Centuries" is part of a two-book series developed for the state of California. State standards required that the Grade 6 text,"A Message of Ancient Days," teach"the dawn of the major Western and non-Western ancient civilizations" including the origins of Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Christianity. The Grade 7 text was to teach"the social, cultural, and technological changes that occurred in Europe, Africa, and Asia in the years 500-1789 AD."

The California Board of Education determined which topics were covered, and in which grade they are covered. Therefore, due to the chronology of history, and the standards determined by the State of California, Islam was not covered during the same school year as other religions, such as Judaism, Christianity, which are covered during the sixth grade school year.

The state also mandated which specific topics were to be taught during each unit. Houghton Mifflin was provided with an outline of topic areas to be covered and had to provide the detailed information about each historical event. As directed by the state of California, these books were to be written with"Historical Empathy." Thus, the textbooks do not focus on accounts of violence, cruelty or hatred on the part of any religion. In accordance with California state standards,"Across the Centuries" focuses on how the beliefs of certain cultures help shape their motivation and their effect on history.

However, contrary to Mr. Pipes' argument, the text does in fact mention instances of Muslim religious intolerance (chapter 4, page 81), just as it cites early missionary work and imperialism, as well as the Crusades and intolerance by the Christians.

Readers should also keep in mind that"Across the Centuries" covers material only up to 1789. Therefore, some of the issues regarding Muslim women's rights as compared to women's rights in other cultures are quite accurate. Again, because this text examines a certain period of time, ending in 1789, human rights issues of modern Muslim, Jewish, and Christian peoples are not included in the text. Information about modern history is covered in Houghton Mifflin's other textbooks, namely"Modern World History: Patterns in Interaction," which covers present day issues, and includes a special supplement about September 11th, one of the first to be offered by any textbook publisher.

In this post-September 11 environment, no American needs to be reminded of the significance of religion domestically and in the global community. Part of understanding complex cultural issues requires religious empathy. Throughout the two-part series of textbooks, students are asked to complete writing exercises from the perspective of various historical figures. Mr. Pipes' accusations about solely pro-Muslim creative writing assignments in"Across the Centuries" are based on misinformation. Throughout the two texts, students are asked to write from the perspective of Athenians, Spartans, Greeks, Jews, Christians, and Muslims, among others. These lessons ask students to take a look at history through the eyes of those who shaped it. Through activities such as these, students gain an understanding of how and why people acted as they did, and begin to think critically about how they might have acted similarly or differently. Nowhere in either textbook are students asked to engage in"mock-religious" activities, wear religious or cultural clothing, nor are they encouraged to exercise the beliefs of any particular religious group. They are simply asked to understand what people of each culture believed.

Mr. Pipes tells readers that Houghton Mifflin establishes events according to Islamic faith as fact. The writers of these textbooks were very careful to qualify their statements about religious"events" with statements like"Muhammad is believed by his followers to have had a vision from Gabriel";"Muhammad's followers believe that in another vision";"The God he believed in." (chapter 3, page 58). Each of these accounts of the Islamic faith are qualified as fact only according to the believers of the Islamic religion. Mr. Pipes omitted those citations. It should also be noted that the same qualifiers are used when describing other religions' historical events. Accounts of the life of Jesus are explained as"according to the New Testament" (Chapter 10, page 318 of"A Message of Ancient Days") and accounts of Jewish faith are explained as"according to the Bible" (Chapter 10, page 309 of"A Message of Ancient Days").

Regarding Mr. Pipes' accusations of implied acceptance of Muhammad's mission, the textbooks refer to several historical figures in the Jewish, Christian and Muslim faiths as prophets. The term prophet was not used as an endorsement for any one religion but as a term to describe religious figures.

Houghton Mifflin takes great care in editing its books to accurately portray history from all angles. A panel comprised of scholars from every major cultural and religious group, who are members of the religious or cultural group they represent, review each book and screen for any bias or unfair representation of their group, or any other group."Across the Centuries" and"A Message of Ancient Days" have both received approval from, among others, Christian, Jewish, and Muslim scholars alike, confirming that each religion is portrayed as its believers see it, not just as outsides may perceive it.

One of the recommendations of this panel was to clarify the meaning of the word"jihad." Often misunderstood, this word means"to struggle or to do ones best to resist temptation and overcome evil." The book also states"the Qur'an and Sunna allow for self-defense and participation in military conflict, but restrict it to the right to defend against aggression and persecution." This definition was suggested by Islamic, Judaic and Christian scholars, among others, as the correct representation of the word"jihad." Many Americans have come to see the word"jihad" as some Islamic fundamentalists use it, as a right or a mission to kill and destroy. However, the vast majority of Muslims do not share this view, and assert that a"jihad" is not necessarily an act of violence. It is the role of educators to dispel misconceptions and prejudices about religion and culture.

Lastly, Mr. Pipes asserts that religion, or at least Islam, should be approached"from the outside" and not as believers. In public schools, religion and culture should certainly not be learned as believers. However, learning about it must be based on information from believers. Houghton Mifflin's goal is truth in education. Our efforts in"Across the Centuries" and all of our textbooks are to eliminate misconceptions and ignorance, and help our children develop the critical thinking skills and the cultural understanding to build a peaceful future.

Collin Earnst
Director, Media Relations
Houghton Mifflin Company
phone: 617-351-5113