Study Guide on Middle East Misleads Students

Laminated study guides are no substitute for reading the texts assigned by college professors but they can provide students with an overview of the material they need to master.

This is not the case with the “Quick Study Guide” on Middle East History published by BarCharts, Inc. of Boca Raton, Florida in 2011. This study guide, prepared by Joseph Abraham Levi, Ph.D., offers a misleading and incomplete picture of the region’s history.

The most egregious problem is the manner in which it omits any discussion about the founding and spread of Christianity in the region prior to the rise of Islam in the 7th century CE. Students who rely on the guide would not know that the Middle East is the birthplace of Christianity, the world’s largest religion, and that the religion has been part of the region’s history for the past 2,000 years

The guide’s first reference to Christianity appears under the curious heading “Mesopotamia” suggesting that the religion was restricted to this locale, which today is dominated by modern-day Iraq. In fact, Christianity originated in the Near East, not Mesopotamia and was present throughout the Middle East.

The study guide’s next reference to Christianity appears in a section about Muhammad, the founder of Islam who, as a cameleer “had a chance to meet and talk to different religious groups, e.g.. Jewish heterodox Christian communities living in or passing by the Arabian Peninsula and the Mediterranean Sea basin area.” As a result of these interactions Muhammad “became attracted to the monotheistic nature of Judaism of Christianity.”

Here, Christianity is portrayed as mere source material for Muslim theology when in fact it is an important religion in its own right.

Jesus Not Mentioned

One comparison reveals just how distorted the study guide is: It provides extensive detail about Mohammad’s childhood, adolescence and his life as a prophet and conqueror but offers no reference to Jesus whatsoever.

There is no mention of Jesus’ place of birth (Bethlehem), where he spent his adolescence (Nazareth), where he preached (Galilee) and where he was crucified (Jerusalem). Nor is there any mention of the belief of his followers that he was the Messiah and that they testified to his resurrection after his death.

In addition to failing to provide any details about Jesus’ life, ministry and crucifixion and the beliefs of his followers who founded a religion in his name, the text provides no detail about Christianity’s rapid spread throughout the Middle East in the centuries after Christ’s death. Jesus, like Muhammad, is one of the most consequential figures of human history. Jesus, like Muhammad, came from the Middle East and yet he is not mentioned in the study guide devoted to the region’s history.

In addition to giving Christianity short shrift, the study guide provides few details about the Byzantine Empire that dominated much of the region for centuries.

Because of these omissions, students who rely on this study guide will fail to learn that the region was an important part of Christendom before it was overrun by Muslims beginning in the 7th century CE.

This is a problem. Prior to the rise of Christianity in Europe during the Middle Ages, Christianity’s center of gravity was the Near East and North Africa. Writing in The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity (Oxford University Press, 2002), historian Philip Jenkins reports:

During the first century or two of the Christian era, Syria, Egypt, and Mesopotamia became the Christian centers they would remain for many centuries. Christian art, literature, and music all originated in these lands, as did most of what would become the New Testament …. Of the five ancient patriarchates of the church, only one, Rome, clearly stood in the West. The others were at Constantinople, Antioch, Jerusalem, and Alexandria—three on the Asian continent, one in Africa. If one can imagine a Christian center of gravity by around 500, we should still be thinking of Syria rather than Italy. (The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity, page 17).

Islam did not enter into a vacuum in the region, but supplanted preexisting faiths and civilizations, typically with the use of violence, which brings us to another problem. Students who rely on this study guide will have a roseate view of relations between Muslims and non-Muslims in the region. In particular, the guide downplays the humiliation and oppression endured by non-Muslims under Muslim rule in the Middle East.

Instead of reporting the oppression these groups endured, the text gives a picture of Muslim tolerance toward non-Muslims. For example it describes interfaith relations in Spain under Muslim rule as being largely peaceful and that under the Abbasid Dynasty, “Muslim rulers did not interfere with the religious and secular customs of non-Muslims, provided they were not in contrast with the monotheistic faith.”

Circumstances varied across time and place, but the fact is, non-Muslims – including monotheistic Jews and Christians – were (and are) brutally oppressed under Muslim rule throughout the Middle East. Massacres and forced conversions into Islam are an undeniable aspect of the region’s history. Rodney Stark, a historian at Baylor University in Texas provides a valuable corrective in his book God’s Battalion’s: The Case for the Crusades (HarperCollins e-books), 2009). He writes:

A great deal of nonsense has been written about Muslim tolerance—that, in contrast to Christian brutality against Jews and heretics, Islam showed remarkable tolerance for conquered people, treated them with respect, and allow them to pursue their faiths without interference. This claim probably began with Voltaire, Gibbon and other eighteenth-century writers who used it to cast the Catholic Church in the worst possible light. The truth about life under Muslim rule is quite different.
It is true that the Qur’an forbids forced conversions. However, that recedes to an empty legalism given that many subject peoples were “free to choose” conversion as an alternative to death or enslavement. That was the usual choice presented to pagans, and often Jews and Christians were also faced with that option or with one only somewhat less extreme. In principle, as “People of the Book,” Jews and Christians were supposed to be tolerated and permitted to follow their faiths. But only under repressive conditions: death was (and remains) the fate of anyone who converted to either faith. Nor could any new churches or synagogues be built. Jews and Christians also were prohibited from praying or reading their scriptures aloud—not e ven in their homes or in churches or synagogues—lest Muslims actually hear them. And, as the remarkable historian of Islam Marshal G. S. Hodgson (1922-1968) pointed out, from very early times Muslim authorities often went to great lengths to humiliate and punish dhimmis—Jews and Christians who refused to convert to Islam. It was official policy that dhimmis should “feel inferior and…know ‘their place’…[imposing laws such as] that Christians and Jews should not ride horses, for instances, but at most mules, or even that they should wear certain marks of their religion on their costume when among Muslims.” In some places, non-Muslims were prohibited from wearing clothing similar to that of Muslims, nor could they be armed. (Stark in God’s Battalions: The Case for the Crusades, 2009, Kindle version.)

None of this information made it into the study guide, which includes a total of six pages of text.

Treatment of Recent History No Better

The study guide’s treatment of more recent history is no better. For example, the text makes no mention of the conflict between the Western powers and the rulers of the Ottoman Empire over the status of Christians under their control in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It also makes no reference to the massacres of Armenians, Greeks and Assyrian Christians that took place under Ottoman Rule in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

And stunningly, the text makes no reference to the slaughter of more than 1 million Armenians by the Young Turks during World War I. This is one of the great catastrophes of modern history and is regarded by many historians as a harbinger of the Holocaust that took place in Europe decades later. No summary of the region’s history can omit a reference to it. And yet this one does.

And in its description of Iranian politics, the text makes no reference to the hostility expressed toward Israel by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. It also omits any reference to the Iranian regime’s ongoing efforts to create a nuclear weapons program.

The guide fails to acknowledge the hostility toward Jews and Israel expressed by the leaders of Fatah, the PLO, Hamas and Hezbollah. The leaders of all these groups have expressed a desire to destroy Israel, a fact that the text omits altogether.

Distorted Chronology

Moreover, the study guide’s year-by-year chronology – which begins on the second to last page of text and takes up the entire last page of the text – omits some crucial facts of the region’s history. One egregious example is that it omits the Balfour Declaration issued by the British Government in 1917. It also fails to report the creation of the British Mandate in 1922 and makes no mention of the 1929 massacre of Jews in response to incitement perpetrated by the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem.

The chronology’s reference to the “Jordanian rule of East Jerusalem” lasting from between 1949 to 1967 is confusing, because Jordan not only controlled East Jerusalem, but all of the West Bank during this time. (And Egypt controlled the Gaza Strip at this time as well, a fact the chronology omits.)

Also, the chronology refers to Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000 without mentioning Israel’s 1982 invasion and the PLO’s terror attacks that preceded the invasion.

The chronology makes no reference to Ehud Barak’s peace offer at Camp David in 2000, nor does it mention Arafat’s refusal of this offer and of his failure to make a counter offer.

It also makes no reference to Arafat’s refusal to accept the Clinton Parameters a few months later.

These omissions are striking given that the chronology does include a reference to the Israeli refusal of U.S. President Barack Obama’s proposal that Israel withdraw to its pre-1967 “borders” with “mutually agreed swaps.” (Note: The “pre-1967 borders” are not in fact borders, but an armistice line agreed to in 1947.)

The chronology strikingly omits any reference to the Second Intifada that cost thousands of lives on both sides of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

In sum, students who rely on this study guide as a guide to the history of the Middle East are contributing to their own mis-education.

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