On Thursday, 3 March 2011, Dr Shiraz Thobani, Research Associate at the Institute of Ismaili Studies, gave a lecture at AKU-ISMC entitled “Pedagogy, Memory and Alterity: Conceptions of the Muslim World in European Textbooks.” The talk built on his work with European academic institutions seeking to develop educational programmes which approach Islam from humanistic, civilisational and cultural perspectives.
Dr Thobani focused in particular on the representations of Islam in European textbooks. He noted that textbooks dealing with subjects such as history and religious education could serve as transformative sources for adolescents in their search for identity and belonging. In the absence of other sources, these texts may tend to become the sole reference points for their readers concerning particular topics, and therefore be treated as definitive.
Given the desire and need to educate the youth to live in pluralist societies, it is important that the role of textbooks and school curricula be better understood in shaping students’ perceptions of Islam. This is particularly crucial given the heated nature of debates around multiculturalism -- debates which have often centred on Muslim issues in European education (eg, concerning the wearing of the hijab in schools).
Dr Thobani began by examining the treatment of Islam and Muslim cultures in textbooks in Germany and Italy. He referred to research studies which reveal that Muslims are consistently presented as the “other” and that textbooks fail to present the historical and cultural depth of Muslim civilisations.
He then addressed textbooks from Britain, arguing that the Muslim world is usually presented through the frame of medieval history. The transformations experienced by Muslim societies in the modern period is, by contrast, relatively ignored, with the consequence that a perception of Muslims is unwittingly instilled which is linked closely to medievalism and which gives the misleading notion of a civilisation fixated in the pre-modern past.
In spatial terms, the world of the Near East is emphasised above other Muslim societies and in particular, there is a tendency to see “Europe” and “the Muslim World” as monolithic blocks rather than revealing the more nuanced reality. Moreover, educators do not always exploit the educational possibilities offered by such rich and fruitful areas for teaching such as Muslim Spain or the cultural interactions between European and Muslim civilisations that resulted from the Crusades.
Dr Thobani argued that British textbooks look at the Muslim world through a peripheral vision rather than with a direct gaze, with the result that Muslim civilisations in history are too often seen as less consequential than European civilisations and are not portrayed in their historical and cultural depth.
Dr Thobani also looked at some recent innovative approaches to teaching Muslim civilisations in schools which challenge the tendency to see Muslims as defined and characterised purely by an essentialised Islam, seeking instead to help schools develop a broader intercultural vocabulary and encourage cultural exchange. He also drew attention to the adoption of the International Baccalaureate in the Aga Khan Academies in Africa and Asia, where ethics and pluralism are stressed and where topics on Muslim civilisations are taught alongside other world civilisations.
This talk was given as part of the Professional Programmes Unit’s public lecture series.
Coordinator, Planning & Academic Development
Institute for the Study of Muslim Civilisations