Survey of Textbook and Curricular Content

This section provides a review of 2003/2004 Islamic religion textbooks for Egyptian pre-University education at different grade levels. Attention is given to issues of identity, relations with non-Muslims, freedom of religion and expression, as well as politics and governance. Textbooks and the content of curricula are one indicator of how education is infused with religious themes. While analyzing textbooks does not substitute for empirical studies of school culture, classroom pedagogy, or considerations of how the public discourse impacts curricula, textbooks themselves remain one valuable gauge of religion in curricula (Herrera, 2000).

All Islamic religion textbooks at all levels include chapters of scripture for memorization, recitation, and interpretation. Textbooks in the primary level introduce basic aspects of creed and focus on teaching ethical values through short stories and poems drawn from the religious tradition. The second year preparatory textbook mentions the following pedagogical goals: 1) creating a clear and simplified understanding of the concepts of the Deity, the universe, the human being, and life in Islam; 2) shaping a believer in Allah the only God, instilling the love of Allah and his Prophet in the students, who should follow the example of the Prophet in all words and deeds; 3) shaping an individual who finds pride in Islam, and perceives it as the source of distinction for himself and his society, and hence the student would reject to be dissolved within other societies; 4) shaping an individual who knows his role in life, and place in the universe, and 5) shaping an individual who has faith in the values of science, justice, freedom, consultation, and hard work, and who is able to transform these values into the real world; and 6) shaping an individual who rejects drug abuse and extremism, and everything that destabilizes the social fabric.

As elaborated below, it is Sunni Islam that is taught, without distinction between the different schools of thought or any mention of Shiism. In discussing politics, textbooks general stress values of human rights and consultation, stress the obligation of people to obey the ruler, and refrain from discussing mechanisms for political opposition. Textbooks extol jihad, defined as holly war during the time of the Prophet, but do little to explain the interpretation of jihad in modern times. In conveying ideas about government, democracy, equal citizenship, freedom of speech, and freedom of religion are all stressed. Despite the stress on consultation and majority rule, textbooks do not mention how citizens should respond to political opposition, but rather stress that citizens should not rebel against their rulers, even inept rulers. Textbooks stress the values of a civil state where all citizens have the same rights regardless of religion and origin. At the same time, there are several notable instances where Jews in particular are portrayed as bad citizens. Neither Christians nor any other religious group are mentioned. Textbooks condemn religious extremism, drug abuse, and call for protecting the environment, with the Nile River gaining special attention. Religious textbooks focus on Egypt as homeland (watan), and the stories from Quran are used to reinforce allegiance to Egypt as a homeland. In 2002/2003 textbooks there is almost no reference to Arabism or the Islamic Ummah. This is in contrast to the earlier period when Arab nationalism occupied central stage, and teaching Islam was directed toward strengthening the Arab identity (Aldeeb, 2000). Islamic textbooks sanction the consumption of literature, music, fine art, and sculpture as long as this consumption abides by Islamic principles.

The following are excerpts are drawn from textbooks from various levels:

On Religious Creed

“Religion in Islam is the divine way which organizes all aspects of the life: political, economic, social, cultural, artistic, literature, etc” (second year preparatory textbook, p. 21).

“We cannot perceive non-divine philosophies and beliefs as religions. Communism, for example, does not believe in God, believes that life is based on matter. It built a social system based on this belief. This system has collapsed” (second year preparatory textbook, p. 22).

“God has promised good believers to make the successors on earth, which means to give them the ability to lead humanity and victory over the followers of falsehood so that the religion of Allah will spread and justice will prevail instead of evil” (second year preparatory textbook, p. 24).

“People either live according to this way [of Islam], organize their lives, ethics, systems, and relations according to this way, thus being in line with the laws of the universe and the nature of existence, or they can live according to any other way created by humans. In the later case, they will be in contradiction with the laws of the universe and the nature of existence. The repercussions will be grave” (second year preparatory textbook, p. 25).

"If the human being’s belief is based on the oneness of God, and his life is based on the demands of this belief, this is considered liberation. That is because the humanity of the human being is not achieved until his consciousness, belief, and life are liberated from the control of other humans to control by Allah, the only God” (second year preparatory textbook, p. 28).

“Islam expands the concept of worship to include all the individual’s behaviors in life. Any good work that the individual does for the sake of Allah is an act of worship, and any bad thing that the individual leaves for the sake of Allah is an act of worship. Every good feeling toward others is an act of worship, and every bad feeling toward others that the individual gets rid of is an act of worship” (second year preparatory textbook, p. 30).

“For the first time in history, a religion [Islam] puts an obligation on its followers to learn, making it part of the religion and worship” (third year preparatory textbook, p. 29).

On Islam, Governance, Freedom of Speech, and Citizenship

“The history of humanity as a whole testifies that Islam and its Holy book, Quran, put the first international charter for human rights more than fourteen centuries ago, stressing the values of freedom and equality, without consideration to class, race, or gender.... Islam concedes that no individual can be forced to live his religion to adopt Islam” (third-year preparatory textbook, p. 36).

“Islam concedes that no individual can be forced to live his religion to adopt Islam. Islam allowed freedom of thought and expression for the benefit of the community. The Prophet used to consult his friends and adopts their opinion when he sees it fit” (third year preparatory textbook, p. 36)

“Part of the freedom of thought is the freedom of the spoken and written words. Freedom of the Press is part of the freedom of the word. Nothing should restrict it other than law, fear of Allah, and the journalist’s conscious” (third year preparatory textbook, p. 39).

“The governing (hukm) system in Islam is based on the freedom of the individual, social cooperation, the right of the people to rule themselves through free discussions, and adopting the majority opinion” (third-year preparatory textbook, p. 46). “The principles of rule (hukm) in Islam are (third year preparatory textbook, p. 47-50):

  1. Consultation (shura), the meaning of consultation is that the ruler has to make use of others’ opinions. These others are the wise, the knowledgeable, the experts, and the people of opinion.... Muslims choose who they believe is best to rule, and give allegiance to that person. The ruler should attend to the needs of the people through consultation and taking their opinions as long as they are correct;
  2. Guaranteeing Human Rights… Islam gave the human being the right to life and security, and guaranteed all freedoms to him: the freedom of belief, freedom of opinion, and freedom of property and using his property. Islam has also guaranteed the freedom of work, education, and supporting the needy;
  3. Justice is the basis of ruler in Islam in all its aspects. People are equal in the religious obligations they have to satisfy in Islam. That is; Islam did not put a religious obligation on someone while exempting another from it. This is the same regarding political freedoms and rights. Citizens have equal opportunity to pursue government occupations; no one has an advantage over another in this regard. Social equality is guaranteed for all. There is no discrimination based religion, race, or color….”

The fourth year primary textbook mentions two verses in support of consultation as a method of government: “Those who hearken to their Lord, and establish regular Prayer; who conduct their affairs by mutual Consultation; who spend out of what We bestow on them for Sustenance” (chapter as-Shura verse 38) and “and consult them in affairs. Then, when thou hast taken a decision put thy trust in Allah, for Allah loves those who put their trust in Him” (Chapter al-Imran verse 159). The textbook does not discuss modern examples of consultation, but gives the example of the Prophet and his companions.

The third year preparatory textbook tells the story of Abu Thar Al-Ghaffari, a companion of Muhammad, who preached against the accumulation of wealth during the Caliphate of Othman. The textbook says: “Some people asked him [Abu Thar] to rebel against Othman. But he refused, because he did not want to make the Islamic states vulnerable to internal strife and wars, which will benefit no one except the enemies of Islam” (p.61).

Portrayal of Jews

The first reference to non-Muslims appears in the textbook of the third year of primary school. The textbook tells the story of Prophet Muhammad and the steps he took to create peace within the new community in Medina. The textbook notes that the Prophet did not start by fighting the Jews of Medina or by boycotting them. Instead, his priority was to create a strong bond among members of the community so as everyone could live in peace and stability. The textbook refers to the pact between that the Prophet created between the Muslims and the Jews, known as the Pact of Madina, highlighting the following points in the Pact: 1) That freedom of religion was guaranteed for all, 2) That the people of Madina, Muslims and Jews, are responsible for defending it against any aggression. The textbook says that when the Jews did not abide by the pact, the Prophet expelled them from Madina. There is no mention of violence during the expulsion.

The fourth year primary textbook tells of the story of Banu Al-Koynaka’ a tribe of Jews who lived in Medina and agreed to the pact with the Prophet but later recanted. The textbook goes on to elaborate how the Jews violated the authority of the state: “Jews are traitors. They did not respect the pacts that existed between them and the Muslims, and did not respect the rights of the neighbor.”

The fifth year primary tells a story of a father taking his children to a trip in Sinai. The father tells his son about how the Egyptians destroyed the Barlev wall, saying that “Allah gave us victory over the Jews” (p.11). The father mentions the example of how the Prophet expelled a Jewish tribe from Medina when they betrayed him in the fourth year hijra. When the son asked his father what can be learned from this story, the father replied: “we learn that Jews don not respect their pacts.” In the fifth year primary textbook the son asks his father why the enemies [referring to the Israeli occupation of Sinai] destroyed a village. The father replied: “This what the Jews do in every place that they evacuate, so that its people cannot make use of it” (p.15).

On National Identity

The first-year primary textbook tells the story of “Ashab Al-Feel” (the People of the Elephant). This is the story of Abraha, the King of Habasha, who wanted to destroy the Ka’ba (the Meccan pilgrimage site of all Muslims) in the same year the Prophet was born. He led an army that had a number of elephants, which were formidable instruments of war during that time period. But this army was destroyed by birds sent by God to throw stones from hell on the army. The first year primary book says that the people of Mecca love their country, and prayed to Allah to protect it from the enemy. The book goes on to say that the people of Mecca were happy that God saved their homeland (watan) from the aggressors. The story concludes with a poem: “And you, Muslim student, have to love your homeland (watan) / And defend it if it is attacked by any aggressor/ Because you live in it and eat from its food / And drink from the water of its blessed Nile.” There is a section in the first-year primary textbook on the Nile, calling on students to preserve the water of the Nile and keep it clean. This focus on the Nile reflects awareness of environmental problems but also promotes Egyptian national identity. For example, a verse in a morning poem in the first year primary textbooks says: “Oh God, spread the blessing over Egypt, and preserve the happy Nile.”

The third year primary textbook uses a character called “Hajj Ramadan” to give examples to students. The example of Hajj Ramadan regularly exhibits a sense of Egyptian national pride with religious undertones.

Objective #16 in the religious textbooks of the fourth year primary is that the student recognizes that religion supports belonging to the homeland (watan). The textbook mentions that, among the lessons of the campaign of Badr, [when Muhammad and his followers fought the non-Muslims of Mecca], as an example of how Muslims should sacrifice money and self for Allah and homeland (watan).

The fifth year primary textbook says that: “Hajj Ramada greatly loves Egypt, and is proud of his country’s history and great civilization.... God willed it that Egypt would protect Islam, with the Jihad of its people who are the best soldiers on earth.” Hajj Ramadan uses scriptural passages about the story of Moses and the Pharaoh to convey the high religious status of Egypt.

The fifth-year primary textbook mentions the example of Hajj Ramadan, who “loves his family and neighbors, and his homeland (watan) Egypt.” The notion of a civil state is also developed through the example of Hajj Ramadan. Hajj Ramadan donates land to build a school and a hospital. The teachers and doctors used to visit him. He advised them to “fear Allah, love his Prophet, love the people, and do good things to them without discrimination based on race, religion, or color, as all Egyptians are brothers in their love to Allah and their homeland.”

On Arts and Cultural Life

According to the third-year preparatory textbook, culture in Islam is: “the fields of knowledge that tell about the personality of the Muslim, based on the belief in monotheism, implementing Islamic Sari’a, and adopting good ethics” (p. 55). The Quran is listed as the primary source of Islamic culture, followed by the Sunna of the Prophet, and the Islamic heritage as “everything that the Muslims have inherited from their ancestors, sciences, knowledge, ideas, and opinions in all aspects of life” (p. 56). The characteristics of culture in Islam are that: “It is based on spirituality through faith in Allah… “It preserves human rights, giving way to those who believe in the truth, and do good things....” and “It brings up the individual on freedom of thought, independence of personality, respect of the mind, and calls for research and contemplation in God’s creation through a scientific perspective….” (p. 57).

“Literature is a form of art and includes poetry and artistic writing such as stories, plays, articles, etc. What kinds of literature does Islam condone? Literature that Islam condones is the literature which calls for reforming the human community and moving toward perfection….” Is literature, with its different forms, haram (religiously forbidden) or halal (religiously accepted)? Literature, poems and artistic writing, are allowed, as long as the writing calls for virtue, and achieves entertainment and benefit to the individual and society” (third year preparatory textbook, p. 57).

The third-year preparatory textbook describes music as “an international language” and permits singing, including at a wedding, “if it says good and beautiful words that do not harm morality” ( p. 58). On the arts of drawing, painting, and sculpting the textbook asserts that: “Islamic civilization is full of a number of arts, which were shown in architecture and furniture…” (p. 59). The textbook forbids owning statues for the purpose of worshiping or sanctifying them (p. 60).

On Jihad as Military Campaign

“Among the fighters and corruptors [of society] are those groups of youth and others, who claim to be Islamists and guard Islam, but they fall under the influence of people who are corruptors and full of psychological complexes against the state and society. These people indulge them with teachings that they claim are Islamic, but they are not Islamic. They convince them that the society, even their family, is infidel and non-Muslims, that the state is infidel, and that the scholars are scholars of the state, even those who oppose the state. They gave them the legitimacy to steal and kill anyone who opposes their opinion. They taught them that they are the only Muslims, and that they have the right to call for the right and reject the wrong through the power of knives, chucks, daggers, guns, artillery, bombs, etc.” (first year preparatory textbook, p. 67).

Jihad in the sense of holy war is discussed in the third year preparatory textbook using examples of campaigns of the Prophet Muhammad to derive general principles of Jihad. For example, the textbook highlights the sadness felt by an individual who is unable to participate in a military campaign.

The story of Al-Khansaa (the Mother of the Martyrs) appears in the fifth year primary religion textbook. Al-Khansaa receives news that her four sons were killed in Al-Qadysseyya and she is assured that she will meet them in the hereafter.

Next: Public Debates and Attempts at Curricular Reform