Christian Religion in Arab School Books

A Mere Precursor of Islam

Authors Wolfram Reiss and Rainer Bartsch analysed the portrayal of Christianity in Arab school books. They came to the conclusion that the term 'religious tolerance' plays an important role but that the extent and the focus of this tolerance varies hugely. By Götz Nordbruch

Arab teacher conducts his lesson in an elementary school; (photo: AP)
In many Egyptian schoolbooks, the messages of Moses and Jesus as nothing more than early calls to the Islamic faith

​​The Palestinian Ministry of Education offers a unique service: all school books that are used in Palestinian schools can be downloaded from its website (www.pcdc.edu.ps) in PDF format. This is the Ministry's response to recent searing criticism of the content of Palestinian curricula.

Curricula and school books are at the heart of political debates in Europe. This is no less true of the Near and Middle East. They offer an insight into the prevailing perceptions and interpretations of conflicts within society as well as regional and international conflicts.

This is made evident by a recently published study on the "Portrayal of Christianity in school books in predominantly Islamic countries". The Universities of Rostock and Erlangen-Nuremberg, both Germany, conducted a joint study into the way the Egyptian, Palestinian, Iranian, and Turkish national curricula deal with Christianity and its history.

School books as the key to dialogue

The preface to the study says that a close examination of school books is a possible "key to international pedagogical and interreligious dialogue."

But despite their many commonalities, the countries investigated differ not least in terms of the predominant ideologies that shape state and society. There are also differences in terms of the history of their relations to local Christianity and, above all, to Christian Europe.

These differences become clear in the results of the study. While Wolfram Reiss, priest and doctor in religious studies, focuses on the school books of Egypt and Palestine in the first volume of the study, Patrick Bartsch, Turkologist and scholar of Islam, examines the school books of Turkey and Iran in the second volume.

Despite numerous references to the role of native Christian minorities, which exist in all four countries, the significance of these population groups is only emphasised in Palestinian school books.

In the struggle for the Palestinian nation, the role of the Christian minority is described as being more than just historic; it is very relevant to the current situation. In the form of numerous illustrations both from the past and, above all, from modern life, the school books symbolically show Muslims alongside Christians and mosques alongside churches.

The status of Christian minorities

These illustrations really stand out, especially when compared with the portrayal of Christian minorities in Egyptian school books. With the exception of a few isolated passages that hint at the involvement of Egyptian Christians in the Egyptian struggle for independence, the history of Egyptian Christians appears in these books to belong to the past.

In this case, the information given is meant as evidence of Islamic tolerance towards other religions. These commentaries about Christianity are, however, no less significant as regards an alleged overhistorical conflict with the Jews, which is hinted at in several Egyptian school books.

However, positive references to Christian history are made in these portrayals at the expense of the Jews. It is suggested that Muslim-Christian unity is necessary on the basis of Jewish hostility alone.

The term 'religious tolerance' plays an important role in Egyptian, Palestinian, and Turkish school books. As the basis for an interreligious exchange, emphasising the tolerance of one's own religion when presenting one's own religion is now par for the course.

Christianity as an early call to the Islamic faith

However, the extent and the focus of this tolerance varies hugely - a fact that is reflected in the school books. While Palestinian civics school books teach tolerance in the spirit of equality and, therefore, an acceptance of differences, Egyptian school books prefer to give an Islamic interpretation of Christian history.

First of all, they only accept what Islamic sources describe as Christian. This means that Christianity and Judaism appear only as precursors of Islam; the messages of Moses and Jesus as nothing more than early calls to the Islamic faith.

Although such portrayals are often used as proof of a special respect for monotheistic religions, in reality, they actually call such recognition into question.

The assumption "that Christianity and Judaism were originally identical to Islam and that all of their prophets propagated the same message" could, says Reiss, "lead to real existing representatives of these religions, who see this situation completely differently, being seen as falsifiers of the true teachings, the realisation of which each religion claims for itself.[...] The consequence is derecognition instead of recognition, disinheritance instead of the forging of ties."

Mission and universal claim to salvation

Even without an explicit missionary task, which is in some cases propagated in conjunction with the means of jihad in Iranian schoolbooks, such a perspective calls the position of Christians - and Jews - into question.

The study expressly points out that this perspective, which has not only shaped the relationship between Islam and Christianity and Judaism, but has also for a long time shaped the relationship between Christianity and Judaism, also constitutes a basic theological problem. This becomes clear when one considers that this perspective is ultimately rooted in the universal claim to salvation.

According to Bartsch, "this is a feature of every religion. Nevertheless, a fundamental prerequisite of the co-existence of religions is that one takes people of other beliefs and their self-images seriously and allows them to bear witness to their religions and to practice them without hindrance."

In view of the obvious differences in the portrayals of Christianity in the four countries that form the subject of this study, the potential for changes becomes evident.

New Palestinian school books in particular confirm that it is possible to take the Christian perspective into account, even though taking the Jewish perspective into account is still inconceivable.

The ideological premises, which determine the relationship between Islam and Christianity in Iran in particular, but also to a not insignificant degree in Egypt too, make the limitations of any possible changes clear.

In other words, to alter the school books according to the numerous suggestions that are made in the study would require no less than a change in the way the state sees itself.

Götz Nordbruch

© Qantara.de 2006

Translation from German: Aingeal Flanagan

Wolfram Reiss, Die Darstellung des Christentums in Schulbüchern islamisch geprägter Länder. Teil 1: Ägypten und Palästina [The portrayal of Christianity in school books in predominantly Islamic countries. Part 1: Egypt and Palestine] (Pädagogische Beiträge zur Kulturbegegnung, Band 21) EB-Verlag, Hamburg, 2005, 529 pages, German.

Rainer Bartsch, Die Darstellung des Christentums in Schulbüchern islamisch geprägter Länder. Teil 2: Türkei und Iran [The portrayal of Christianity in school books in predominantly Islamic countries. Part 2: Turkey and Iran] (Pädagogische Beiträge zur Kulturbegegnung, Band 22) EB-Verlag, Hamburg, 2005, 555 pages, German.

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