The Miseducation of The West: How Schools and the Media Distort Our...

The Miseducation of The West: How Schools and the Media Distort Our Understanding of the Islamic World


The editors of this anthology have produced a book that seeks to re-educate and repair the damage done to Americans (read: western audience) by continuous myths and distortions pertaining to Islam as perpetuated by the media and institutionalised by schools and colleges. While this in itself is a mammoth task, I believe that it succeeds to achieve this by the inclusion of essays that capture the sense of intellectual dishonesty and historical fantasy that have plagued the arena of the study and understanding of Islam.

While it is safe to say that many Americans are oblivious to the “invisible” side-effects of its foreign policy, the book succinctly explains and outline these as “unintended consequences of policies that [are] kept secret from the American people,” otherwise known as “blowback.” However, rather than being a compilation of essays that catalogue the disastrous effects of US foreign policy, this book’s scope is broader. For example, the book explores how Muslim women have continued to fall victim to both Western stereotypes and Muslim radicals, how Arabs are portrayed in the media and one essay pays particular attention to how Islam is portrayed in school textbooks. Kincheloe notes in his introduction that we are living in a “post-modern Orientalism” period in which the current mis-education of Islam has emerged from a “long history of distorted Western knowledge production about Islam.” Indeed, as many of the authors demonstrate, most of the prejudices carried today against Islam are nothing more than the inherited assumptions and skewed understandings of the Orientalist scholars who thrived during the colonial age. Justifying the Colonial project, these Orientalists viewed the “other” as inferior and civilisationally at a lower ebb than the colonising masters. Thus, by viewing the “other” as barbaric and primitive, colonisation was seen as bring “civilisation to inferior people’s.” In discussing this re-emerging theme of colonialism and its impact upon the modern Muslim world today, the essay by Yusuf J. Progler is poignant. Yusuf discusses the consequence of modern schooling techniques that were first employed by the French in Egypt, the reason why it was introduced and the way that it facilitated colonial rule. Napoleon saw traditional Islamic schooling as a major threat to his colonial project and initiated the abolition of the whole ijaza[1] system. His actions paved the way for traditional Islamic education to be replaced by a modern schooling based upon Western philosophy.

While most of the book examines the way Western distorted assumptions about Islam (read: Orientalism) are utilised, this essay urges one to think of the consequences of this disruption in the Muslim psyche itself. While there are other strong factors to be taken into consideration,[2] without any doubt in my mind, the dismantling of the traditional Islamic system of education that had existed and thrived up to Napoleon’s entrance into Egypt has resulted in “blow-back.” We are seeing the consequences of these actions taken at the turn of the eighteenth century, being played out on technology that is being used in the twenty-first century.

Kincheloe makes the point that non-Muslims should take care from where knowledge concerning Islam is taken from. This is also a message for Muslims: Imam al-Zuhri (d.124) warned people that, “This knowledge is religion, so look well to whom you are taking your religion from,” while ‘Abd Allah Ibn al-Mubarak (d.181 AH) said, “according to me, the isnad is from the din. If it were not for the isnad, whoever wished could have said whatever he wished.” While there are many well argued explanations as to why 9/11 occurred vis-à-vis foreign policy,[1] nonetheless, the justification for it as perceived by those Muslims who planned, executed and supported it, could not have come from Muslims who had been trained in or had an understanding of, this classical educational model, one that these early Muslims (salaf) articulated, developed and lived by. While we are told in a hadith that one of the signs of the end of time is that knowledge will be taken from a saghir (little one), its explanation by the hadith master, Ibn ‘Abd al-Barr is striking.[2] We are told that this hadith means that

the chain [of those who transmit knowledge] would be broken towards the end of time [in that] people who had not taken their knowledge from the previous generation will begin to transmit knowledge and that knowledge will be their own opinion and not transmitted knowledge.[3]

Of course, the importance of having an isnad is belittled and its significance is ignored by those who are self-taught. Taking their “knowledge” primarily from books, they neither have an ijaza or any isnad linking them back to any credible authorities and so, they do not emphasize its importance. The consequences have been that authoritative Islamic rulings have been substituted for authoritarian opinions of those who possess little or no traditional Islamic education. The results that follow have shown to be disastrous.

I would hope to find this book listed on an undergraduates reading list in an Islam and the Modern World course. While advance readers in this area would have read most of the source material of these essays, nonetheless, the book provides an excellent introduction and overview of a number of crucial topics that require attention if Muslims and non-Muslims want to make sense of the post 9/11 world that we live in and the disorder that accompanies it.

The Miseducation of The West- How Schools and the Media Distort Our Understanding of the Islamic World

Joe L Kincheloe and Shirley R. Steinberg (Eds) The Miseducation of The West: How Schools and the Media Distort Our Understanding of the Islamic World, (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2004) 181pp

[1] The ijaza was given to an individual who had reached a degree of mastery over a particular discipline or text, which he was then authorized to teach to others. It carried with it authority, since it was only given by masters who themselves had received it from their teachers and so on until this chain reached back to first generation of Muslims (al-Salaf) and to the Prophet himself.

[2] In this regard, see Akbar Ahmed, Islam Under Siege: Living Dangerously in a Post-honor World (Polity Press, 2003)

[3] It is no surprise that the Pentagon’s Defense Science Board in 1998 concluded that, “A strong correlation exists between US involvement in international situations and an increase in terrorist attacks against the United States.”

[4] Ibn `Abd al-Barr was a major hadith master of the Maliki School. He died 463 AH

[5] As related by Ibn ‘Abd al-Barr in his Kitab jami’ bayan al-‘ilm wa fadlihi wa ma Yanbaghi fi Riwayatihi wa Hamlihi (“The Comprehensive Exposition of Knowledge and its Excellence and What Needs to be done in its Transmission and Dissemination”)