Sunday, May 22, 2011

Malaysia secondary school's History textbook and the historical sources of two religions

Recently there has been discussion over the 'History' textbook used in Malaysia's secondary schools. Upon review, there are plain errors and omissions that are politically-motivated.

In response, the Centre for Policy Initiatives has started 'Kempen Sejarah Malaysia Sebenar' (‘Reclaiming our truly Malaysian history’ campaign) to engage with the current textbook and produce alternative reference. One of those who are involved in the campaign was Dr Ranjit Singh Malhi, who worked as an author of 'History' textbook until 1996.

Here are some highlights of their first meeting (with emphasis added):

"While the general public is now aware that a whopping five chapters (out of a total of 10 in Form Four) are devoted to Islam, few realise that the other religions are given short shrift with a passing mention of only three pages. According to Ranjit, the amount of text related to Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism, all added up, total a mere 832 words."
(Ranjit pointed out that 116 out of 284 pages or 41% of the current Form Four History textbook deal with Islamic history, while earlier textbook had only 39 out of 231 pages or 17% on Islamic history.)

"A joint report by the Centre of Malaysian Chinese Studies and Nanyang University Alumni Association found that the KBSM History syllabus has altogether 465 pages on the Malays (80%), 16 on Chinese and eight on Indians."

"Most tellingly, there are zero pages on the Orang Asli. How can the original inhabitants of the land ‘mysteriously’ disappear from what purports to be the authoritative history of Malaysia?"

In Ranjit's presentation, he pointed out this portion about Christianity from page 66 of the current 'Form 4' (parallels 'Sec 4' in Singapore) History textbook:

"Bagi penganut Kristian, agama ini dikatakan telah diasaskan oleh Jesus Christ yang berasal dari Jerusalem."

(Translation: "To the Christians, this religion is said to be founded by Jesus Christ from Jerusalem." This sentence can also be understood as "To the Christians, this religion is rumored to be founded by Jesus Christ from Jerusalem.")

I don't find anything wrong with this sentence IF the same is applied to other religions in the textbook, including Islam. Does the textbook state that "To the Muslims, this religion (i.e. Islam) is said (or rumored) to be founded by Prophet Muhammad from Mecca"?

I don't have the textbook so I can't tell.

Besides that, Ranjit also pointed out that there is no main teachings of Christianity is mentioned while the Qur'an is quoted on page 101 with other Islamic teachings and words--which are prohibited to be used by Christians (‘wahyu’, ‘nabi’ and ‘rasul’) under the various state enactments with regard to Non-Islamic Religions--are found in the textbook. The coverage of Christianity is reduced by 10% from previous textbook, while Islam is expanded by 24%.

Since this is a textbook on history, then it wouldn't betray any historical sense to say that both Christianity and Islam also mention Jesus Christ or Isa al-Masih (Islam's reference to Jesus).

It is also correct to say that the main difference from historical studies' point of view is that the preserved data about Jesus in both religions come from different times and places.

The Christian sources are dated to a period less than 30 years (Mark's account and Paul's letters) after his death, written in places geographically within Jesus' location.

The Islamic sources (Qur'an) that preserve data about Jesus is dated to more than 550 years after the time of Jesus, written in places geographically far from Jesus' location (more than 1200 kilometers apart; it's about the distance between Singapore and central Thailand).

Since the textbook is about history, and since both religions talk about Jesus, I think it is important to help students to understand the main difference between Christianity and Islam from a historical studies' point of view.

(A fragment from John's account of Jesus, dated to a period between 100 - 200 A. D., currently stored at John Rylands University Library)

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