In an Egyptian TV interview, Dr. Fawzia Al-Ashmawi,a lecturer on Arabic language and literature at the University of Geneva, said that there was a need to reform the school curricula in Arab countries in order to teach peaceful coexistence with non-Muslim minorities and make them compatible with the norms of today's society. The Egyptian-born Dr. Al-Ashmawi, who has worked as an expert consultant for UNESCO, said that the curricula were militaristic in nature even though there is no longer any need to glorify the Islamic conquests, and that stories from the life of the Prophet Muhammad should be examined from other perspectives. She was speaking on Sada Al-Balad TV on August 4, 2016.
Following are excerpts
Fawzia Al-Ashmawi: What is the goal of any curriculum? The goal is to produce students who can live in peace with one another in any society. Let me tell you something very important: No Arab country has a population that is 100% Muslim. Even Saudi Arabia, with the holy places, Mecca and Al-Medina - if it has a 99% majority of Muslims, that means 1% adhere to other religions. So the curricula must prepare the student to live in this society, which has a Muslim majority and a non-Muslim minority. We must coexist peacefully with the other.
To this day, the educational curricula have produced imams who say inconceivable things. It is important not merely to improve the curricula, but to hold courses for imams and guides who graduated [from Al-Azhar], because they are the reason for the spread of ideas that lead to violence, transgressions, and deviation from the tolerance and moderation of Islam.
Our noble Al-Azhar is a beacon of moderate Islam, and it is imperative that its curricula and textbooks... Not just the curricula... Al-Azhar gives its students a list of recommended books, which they are expected to read. With all due respect to these books, they were written hundreds, if not thousands, of years ago. Who wrote them? Human beings, like you and me. Did they have the modern tools or means that we have today? How did they write? They worked to the light of a candle or a gas or oil burner. Was their health comparable to our health today? Was their nutrition conducive to a healthy mind in a healthy body? We have to take all these factors into consideration.
We have abundant tools and means that enable us to conduct research and studies that were not possible in the days of our early jurisprudents, who wrote the foundational texts. We have to take into account the customs prevalent in the society in which we live. The prevalent customs and the jurisprudence must develop in accordance with the era, the place, and the times.
Let me say something about the choice of subjects studied in the curricula, and about the perspective from which these stories are taught. The life of the Prophet Muhammad is composed of many different scenes, which we have been passing down through the generations for 14 centuries. The difference lies in the perspective from which we examine these scenes in the life of the Prophet Muhammad.
Let me give you an example. When we were young, we were taught - and this is still in the curricula - that the Prophet Muhammad visited a Jewish woman, who invited him to eat. She prepared a shoulder of mutton, because that's what he liked, and she put poison in that meat. That is the story. It appears in all the curricula.
From what perspective is this story presented? It is taught to show that the Jewish woman wanted to poison the Prophet Muhammad. From this we learn that she was a cruel woman, that the Jews hate Islam and wanted to kill the Prophet Muhammad, and that the poison he tasted before spitting it out entered his body, and he died from it six years later. That is what we are taught. I'm saying that we should look at this story from another angle. The story shows us, first of all, that the Prophet Muhammad would visit the homes of Jews, would have dealings with them, and would eat with them.
Interviewer: He would eat their food, and even married from among them...
Fawzia Al-Ashmawi: That's right. That is the lesson I draw from this story. There is another story that is often told. The story is that before the Prophet Muhammad died, he mortgaged his armor to a Jewish man. Why is this story taught? In order to tell us that the Prophet Muhammad had nothing, and that he died poor - so much so that he had to mortgage his armor.
But what lesson do I draw from that story? That Jews were living in Al-Medina until the death of the Prophet Muhammad, and that the Prophet had economic and financial dealings with them, and must have trusted them to borrow money from them. I am not defending the Jews. What I'm saying is that the Prophet Muhammad had dealings with other [non-Muslim] people, just like he had dealings with the Muslims living in Al-Medina. This is the basis for peaceful coexistence.
In the days of the Prophet Muhammad and of Omar Ibn Al-Khattab, women were teachers, knew how to read and write and to calculate.
Interviewer: But instead, we talk about the woman who ate the liver...
Fawzia Al-Ashmawi: Why do we need these ugly, barbaric examples of women? What does the student gain from learning that Hind ate the liver of Hamza, and got her slave to kill him?
The curricula are "military" in nature, in that they focus on the raids of the Prophet Muhammad, on the Islamic conquests, on the glorious battles, and the victories. What purpose did these raids serve? In Islamic teachings, there is such a thing as "the purposes of the shari'a." We are all familiar with this notion. What is our purpose when we include the stories of the Prophet's raids in the curricula and inflate them? What was the goal of the Prophet Muhammad's raids? It was to do away with pre-Islamic ignorance and polytheism in the Arabian Peninsula. Haven't we eliminated polytheism and pre-Islamic ignorance in the Arabian Peninsula by now? in the Arabian Peninsula by now? Okay, we can mention the Prophet's raids but there is no need to inflate these stories.
What was the goal of the Islamic conquests? It was to increase the number of Muslims and expand Islam. Today, Islam has spread all over the world. There are one and a half billion of us. In the days of the Prophet Muhammad, the days of the caliphs and the conquests, how many Muslims were there? There were no more than two or three million. Today, we number a thousand and a half million. What more do we want? What's more, the countries with the largest Muslim populations - Indonesia, Singapore, and India, with its population of ten million Muslims [sic]... Were these countries conquered by the sword, in the Islamic conquests?
Interviewer: No, through trade.
Fawzia Al-Ashmawi: Right. Through trade and peaceful preaching.