So you made it through high school and maybe college and managed to learn a little bit of everything along the way. Then one night you sit down to watch the evening news and find yourself listening to a report about Islamic terrorists, followed by another one highlighting the holy month of Ramadan as it is celebrated in a major American city.
The next morning you read an article in the newspaper about an Islamic state that has passed a law prohibiting women from driving. On the way to work you turn on your car radio and listen to an in-depth National Public Radio story about a Muslim immigrant father “stealing” his child away from his estranged American wife and her heart wrenching struggle to rescue her baby. You may reflect for a moment on what a diverse world we live in.
However, you may become influenced by the slant of the reporting to view Islam as some monstrous religion with demonic values incomprehensible to civilized people. If you are a thinking individual, however, who likes to form opinions for yourself after looking at all the evidence, perhaps, in times of quiet contemplation, the realization hits you: I really don’t know much about Islam. What does it teach? Is it as bad and dangerous as it is portrayed in the media? Why do so many people seem to be following it? What should I know about Islamic customs given that my new coworker may be a Muslim and I saw a girl with a scarf on her head at my child’s school? Heck, what is Allah and who is this Allah they always talk about? Is He the same god as ours?
Raising these questions enables you to confront the power of stereotypes and how they can damage relationships between people of diverse backgrounds. You also may realize, when you reconsider what you know about Islam, that your educational career has a gaping hole in it.
In the same way that 30 years ago you were learning about the merits and drawbacks of Communism, today’s schools and universities are scrambling to fill the knowledge void regarding the relevance of Islam and the Muslim world. In previous decades, the religion of Islam and the Muslim culture were hardly given more than a cursory treatment in history classes, even though the Muslim impact on world civilization was at least as great as that of European or Chinese culture.
European and American educators have literally cut out a large chunk of human history and thrown it into a vague limbo. To follow the flow of history as presented in typical high school textbooks, both modern and yesteryear’s, is to go from the ancient world to the Greeks, Romans, and finally into the Enlightenment, the Reformation, and the world since Colonialism, with few detours at all.
This omission of the world of Islam can best be explained by a cultural bias driven by fear and tinged with a little arrogance. Why should Islam matter? After all, the West conquered the Muslim world and broke it up into many tiny states, each powerless and dependent. With the Muslim world no longer a threat to the West, the West could focus on other more important things. And it is a well-known fact that the victor often writes the history books according to his own version of events.
The attitude that the study of Islam has evoked in the Western world seems to have been little more than:
“Oh, Mohammed made it all up, and a bunch of his fanatics chased people around with swords for a while until the enlightened West took control of the Muslim world and civilized it.”
Western writers, often called Orientalists, have expressed this simplistic and narrow view in their studies throughout most of the last 400 years. Only recently have modern scholars taken a fresh look at Islam and Muslim civilization and gained a new appreciation for its values, legitimacy, and contributions to the rise of the modern world.