Historian Barbara Lefebvre continues her investigation of how Islam is taught in France:
There is much to say about the way that the wars between Christianity and Islam are depicted in the treatment of the Crusades. Most startling, in the Hatier textbook, one finds in the chapter titled “The violence of holy wars” that the authors discuss only the Spanish Reconquista and the Crusades, focusing on such crimes of the Crusades as the sack of Constantinople in 1204. Not a word about Jihad in this sub-chapter, even though this is the chapter on “Holy Wars.” Jihad is to be found, however, only in the chapter on Islam!
In this undertaking to show that Islam is open and tolerant, the theme of “peaceful co-existence” on the model of Andalusia has become routine. Despite the work of historians, and despite the Arabs themselves, describing the social and economic life of the dhimmis [Jews and Christians living in Dar al-Islam], pupils are presented not only with an “angelic” history, but one based on distortion. The school textbooks, without exception, insist on the warm welcome the conquered peoples supposedly offered to the Muslim conquerors, all on the basis of Arab sources alone, of debatable objectivity. How often, after all, does the victor depict himself unfavorably? A critical look at sources serves to avoid anachronisms! In the textbooks, it appears that in Arabia, after 632, everyone became Muslim, as if by magic, without any military pressure whatsoever. To claim that is to leave out the fact that the conquest resulted in a choice between conversion or death for the pagans and for certain Jewish tribes. Many converted in order to survive, and it was the same in all the areas around the Mediterranean conquered by the Arabs, from the Judaized Berbers and the Syriac Christians to the Zoroastrians, condemned to disappear. It is disconcerting to see the textbooks all rely uncritically on the same Muslim source, to offer an idyllic view of the relations between Muslims and non-Muslims. One finds texts by different medieval Arab authors that the pupils must simply accept. For example, this quotation from Al-Baladhuri dating from the ninth century is used in several textbooks and depicts Jews and Christians accepting the Muslim invasion of Syria as a blessing. “The inhabitants opened wide their doors [to the Muslims], came out with musicians and singers who began to play, and paid the Jizyah.”
The only question pupils are asked is: “How were the Muslims welcomed?” The pupil has to paraphrase the author, taking what he says as truth, a “truth” that will be applied more generally later on in the same lesson.
It’s as if one were to learn about the life of Charlemagne only from the Chronicle of Eginhard! Many other Arab texts are used that present the conquest of Jerusalem first by Omar, and then by Saladin, as a liberation from Byzantine oppressors or as an act of pacification. The textbooks pass over in silence that for the Christians, the main population in these lands during the High Middle Ages, the Islamic conquest meant the loss of sovereignty, and for the many Jewish communities it meant passing from one oppressor to another. So when one reads “in the territories dominated by the Arabs, the populations converted little by little to Islam” [Belin, Hatier], one has the feeling that nothing is done to enlighten the pupil as to the true conditions of this Islamisation, which, just like other conquests in the ancient or medieval worlds, meant depriving those conquered of their sovereignty, their property rights, and imposing on them both social and cultural submission. In Spain, for example, the Christians resisted, as at Toledo in 713, and the reprisals [by the Muslims] were ferocious, with mutilations and public crucifixions. The way in which the manuals evoke a supposed “coexistence” among the three religions, under Muslim domination, is, if not outright false, at best incomplete, for in speaking of “coexistence,” the conditions of that coexistence – submission by Christians and Jews – are not mentioned.
The pact of the dhimma [a contract of submission] that Mohammed imposed in 628 on the Jews of Khaybar subsequently served as a model for all Arab conquerors. It is this notion of the dhimmi that must be grasped if we want to comprehend how the collective representations of the non-Muslims were forged throughout the centuries in the Islamic world. It is the legal, social, and economic framework,based on a theological foundation, of a perfect society. It is a contract of protection that the Muslim conquerors offer to Jews and Christians. Muslim society is based on juridico-theological discrimination,with Muslim Arabs at the top of the social and political pyramid, then the Islamised Berbers, then the muwalladun, that is, the non-Arab converts to Islam, and lower down, but above the slaves, one finds the dhimmis, whose situation, according to one textbook’s simplification, is this: “They are free to practice their religion, in return for payment of a tax.”
Another textbook relies on a text of Al-Tabari from the 9th century to note the pact of dhimmi, but without defining it or explaining its discriminatory aspect, which prevailed throughout Muslim lands until its abolition in 1856. Those who were dhimmis lived in a state of perpetual uncertainty, subject to a Caliph’s whims or to those of a Sultan sterner than his predecessor, who might exaggeratedly raise the capitation tax on non-Muslims, the Jizyah, in order to pressure more of them to convert, or to ransom their co-religionists, as the Jews and some Christians of Hebron in the 19th century. If the Jizyah was a graduated tax, it was also demanded of widows, of orphans, and even of the deceased. If many Jews and Christians managed to avoid conversion by paying the Jizyah, historians have shown that through the centuries, there were also many who decided to convert so as to be better integrated and to avoid being pariahs, inferior both socially and legally. Could one talk quite so easily about “peaceful coexistence” if the textbooks told the truth about the treatment of dhimmis, as for example the humiliating requirement that they wear identifying marks on their clothes, a practice which the Church copied in the 13th century when it required Jews to wear similar marks? Also forbidden to dhimmis were collective prayers said aloud, the building of churches or synagogues taller than mosques (when the building of such structures was not forbidden outright). Dhimmis could not ride horses or carry arms. In court, the testimony of a dhimmi was worth less than that of a Muslim, and different sanctions were imposed according to the religion of the guilty party. These rules, fixed by the Islamic law, or Sharia, were applied everywhere in the Islamic world, with more or less rigor depending on the rulers. To sum up the dhimmi condition as the “protection of religious minorities” upon payment of a tax is either a semi-truth, or a semi-lie, depending on your preference.
For years now, in the certainly praiseworthy aim of showing that there is more to Islam than its present-day politico-religious obscurantism would suggest, we hear constantly repeated as an obvious truth that the West benefited from the Muslim presence in Andalusia, that without Arab scholars we would have forgotten our Greek heritage. I note that the myth of Andalusia has spread far and wide, now applied to all the lands under Arab or Muslim domination. The West is supposedly in debt to medieval Arab science – that’s what emerges from these textbooks unanimously describing Islamic civilization as “brilliant.” Obviously, this isn’t a matter of calling into question the reality of a civilizational crossroads under Islam in the Middle Ages, which did transmit knowledge, but to question the simplistic way in which facts are presented and used to construct certain commonplaces that flatten out our study of history, a matter of academic consensus.
The discourse about the golden age of medieval Arab civilization, flattering and a little naïve, serves to sift the facts and to favor the image that is judged most beneficial for today’s needs, that of an “enlightened Islam.” But this ideological project ill serves both scientific thought as well as the intellectuals (Muslim) who are fighting in their own countries for the emergence of a objective and rational discourse about the Muslim past. But we see the history of medieval Arab science being rewritten for our (French) pupils, not to put it on the same plane as other civilizations, but above them, and thereby giving credit to Islam, even though religion has no place in this matter. Would one attribute the Copernican Revolution to Christianity? Einstein’s theory of relativity to Judaism?
In one of the textbooks [Hachette], an Arab chronicler of the 11th century, Said Al-Andalusi, is cited, without any critical distance supplied to the pupil, who will thus learn that before the arrival of the Arabs, “this country knew nothing of science and those who lived here knew no one who was noted for his love of knowledge.”
Then comes a passage on the contribution of the Arabs to the sciences both ancient and modern, through the translation of Greek texts. This apologetic reading is further supported by an assignment for the pupil: “Show how the presence of Muslims in Andalusia promoted the development of science and philosophy in the West,” and by the lesson that repeats that “the texts of ancient authors were rediscovered in the West thanks to their Arabic translations.” Passed over in silence is an important fact: many of these translators were users of Arabic, but were neither Arabs, nor Muslims.
Jews such as Maimonides, Ibn Tibbon and Yossef Kimhi, and especially Christians, mainly Syriac, were the translators of these texts from classical antiquity that then made their way to the West. One knows from different sources that caliphs such as Mahdi or al-Rashid ordered Syriac Christians to translate ancient texts, such as, for example, those of Aristotle. The Arab historian Ibn Khaldun recalled that the Caliph Al-Mansour in the 8th century asked the Byzantine emperor to send him treatises on mathematics and physics by Greek authors. Avicenna, Al-Farabi, Sohravardi were all Persians, inheritors of pre-Islamic lore from this (Persian) civilization in contact with both Asia and the Middle East. We know that most of the Arab knowledge about algebra came directly from Greek, Indian, and Babylonian sources. As to medicine, the textbooks all try to teach students that Arab doctors were more modern (than non-Arabs), but here again there is no mention that many of these “Arab” doctors were neither Muslims nor Arabs. For example the famous doctor Ibn Ishaq of the 9th century, who translated Galen, Plato, and Aristotle, first into Syriac and then into Arabic, and whose discoveries in ophthalmology were so important, was a Nestorian Christian. Ibn Masawayh, who in the 9th century translated and edited many scientific tracts into Arabic, was a Christian. As for knowledge of astronomy among the Arabs, it comes directly from Greek, Chaldean, and Babylonian sources. The textbook by Hatier is an exception, in that it admits that a great number of scientific works by Arabs, and transmitted to the West, were based on Chinese sources.
Arab philosophy is never discussed without mention of Averroes, a native of Spain, and a symbol of the intellectual openness of Islam in its golden age. But carefully left out is mention of how the jurist Al-Ghazali, the contemporary of Averroes, refuted the latter’s rational vision, which led to Averroes’s banishment for heresy, and his books being burned. It is because of translations of his works into medieval Latin that Averroes’s thought survives, and for Muslims to rediscover him and make him, at present, a symbol of their intellectual openness! In another manual [Hatier] there is an edifying extract from the writer Amin Maalouf: “in every branch of learning the Western Christians followed the Arabs, in Syria, as in Spain and Sicily,” and there follows a list of subjects first sown by Arab learning. And the pupil learns nothing of what the Westerners provided by way of learning to the Arabs and will wrongly conclude “No doubt there is nothing,” and the title of this lesson, “Cultural Exchanges,” makes no sense, because apparently the civilizational benefits are one way only, from the Arabs to the West. The textbooks salute the real talent of those who transmitted knowledge from the learned of the Islamic world, and who were able to develop established fields further, or to make use of the translations of ancient authors, but one expects a work intended for the schools will be more exact: to transmit the knowledge of conquered peoples is not the same as being either the author, or the inventor, of such knowledge.
Aside from the textbook published by Belin, that contains a brief except from Al-Yacoubi that mentions in passing the “black slaves” attached to the service of the Caliph Al-Mansour, (though without drawing attention to this matter in any of its related exercises), none of them treats of the Arab slave trade. As the historian Marc Ferro noted as long ago as 1992, “while the crimes committed by Europeans occupy whole pages [in the school books], people’s hands begin to tremble even at the mere mention of the crimes committed by the Arabs.” It should be pointed out that the story of the African slave trade would change considerably the image of medieval Islam that the official curriculum and the textbooks wish to impose on students. The Arab trade in African slaves began in 652 with the treaty that Ibn Said forced on the Sudanese of Darfur, until the 20th century, and it is difficult to find any trace of Arab Muslim abolitionists, whereas Europeans did fight against their contemporary slavers for the abolition of this inhumane trafficking in humans. The Arab slave trade, according to eminent historians, involved at least 17 million people. Some were African girls used as domestic and sex slaves, a practice authorized in the Qur’an [33:52, 5:43, 4:2, 23:1, 33:02, 5:29].
One aspect of the Arab slave trade that is rarely remembered is that it involved castration. Seven out of 10 captives were castrated so as to serve as eunuchs, but most of them died from the effects of the operation. This vast enterprise of castration explains in part how little was the demographic trace these Africans left in the Muslim societies, while millions of slaves in the Atlantic slave trade did have descendants all over the New World. One would have hoped that this subject would be treated later on in the curriculum, but no, there is nothing about it. The whole history of sub-Saharan African slavery over the centuries thus becomes reduced to the Atlantic slave trade. Here again, one sees that history as taught in our schools is very different from the claim made that it aims to create an enlightened citizenry, and to develop the critical spirit of students through the analysis of the historical sources, rather than to impose on them the reigning orthodoxy.