Saudi Academy Revises Islamic History Books

Matthew Barakat, AP, March 12, 2009

An Islamic school in northern Virginia with close ties to the Saudi government has revised its religious textbooks in an effort to end years of criticism that the school fosters hatred and intolerance.

While the Islamic Saudi Academy deleted some of the most contentious passages from the texts, copies provided to The Associated Press show that enough sensitive material remains to fuel critics who claim the books show intolerance toward those who do not follow strict interpretations of Islam.

The academy, which teaches nearly 900 students in grades K-12 at its campus just outside the Capital Beltway, developed new Islamic studies textbooks for all grades after a 2008 congressional report called portions of the previous editions troubling. The school provided the AP copies of the new textbooks, which revise language on hot-button issues such as requiring women to cover their heads and how Muslims should relate to people of other religions.

School officials say the books are part of the school’s effort to promote universal values of tolerance and kindness and modernize some of the lessons.

{snip}

Last year, the school’s then-director, Abdalla al-Shabnan, was convicted of failing to report a suspected case of child sex abuse.

Last year also was when the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom released a report saying the school’s textbooks contained several troubling passages, including one saying it is permissible for Muslims to kill adulterers and converts from Islam and another saying “the Jews conspired against Islam and its people.”

The new books don’t contain those passages. {snip}

While the academy’s books borrow extensively from those used in the Saudi system, they also revise and delete certain words and passages. For instance, the books used in Saudi Arabia say that women must cover their face and body to conform with Islam’s tenets. The ISA textbooks, though, only talk about covering the body. Words like “kaffir,” which is often translated as “infidel,” have been replaced with more neutral words like “non-Muslim.”

Some sensitive sections survived the revisions, though. One of the few references to Christians and Jews, or “People of the Book,” disparages scholars in those faiths for rejecting the truth of Islam.

{snip}

Alghofaili [Abdulrahman Alghofaili, the school’s director] said the changes were meant to better translate lessons from an ancient text for a modern audience, and weren’t made to appease outside critics.

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Al-Ahmed, whose group monitors politics and education in the Gulf, said the revised texts now being used at ISA make some small improvements in tone. But he said it’s clear from the books that the core ideology behind them–a puritanical strain of Islam known as Wahhabism that is dominant within Saudi Arabia–remains intact.

“It shows they have no intention of real reform,” al-Ahmed said.

Al-Ahmed cited other passages that, while not offensive, reflect what he sees as a medieval mentality despite the academy’s efforts to modernize. One chapter deals extensively with sorcery, for instance, while another warns Muslims to be careful in accepting party and wedding invitations from non-Muslims.

{snip}

[Editor’s Note: Additional AR News stories on the Islamic Saudi Academy can be read here and here.]

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