Preparing and Evaluating Content on Islam and Muslims

Guidelines for Educators

Prepared by the Council on Islamic Education
Last updated: June 19, 2003

Teaching about world religions and the history of religious groups can be especially challenging, since faith is a sensitive issue. However, there are a number of things teachers can do to better equip themselves to address this important content area. First of all, educators committed to presenting accurate, balanced information to their students must ensure that instructional materials accord with academic perspectives on the topics covered. They should also be familiar with state curriculum requirements, state standards, and other pedagogical frameworks that describe how the topics may be addressed. When possible, teachers should conduct fresh research to learn about the current academic consensus on the subject, rather than just relying on encyclopedias or works that may be surpassed by the latest scholarship. This process will also help educators avoid polemical works that may veer away from academic approaches to the subject. Furthermore, to alleviate potential pitfalls when covering topics related to religion, authors should become familiar with the guidelines for teaching about religion promulgated by the First Amendment Center (

It is also very important for teachers to become increasingly conscious of their own intellectual or cultural presumptions and potential biases. Teachers should also think critically about journalistic treatments of subject matter, as these typically have their own conceptual or cultural commitments that may at times be at odds with scholarship, calling into question their authoritativeness.

Utilizing these general principles will enable teachers to lecture more effectively, design and author conceptually-sound lesson plans, critically evaluate and adapt materials from other sources, and use non-academic sources such as TV reports, magazine articles, and newspaper coverage with greater alertness.

The following guidelines are provided to help educators teach about Islam and Muslim history, and reflect the principles described above.

Content Issues Related to Islam and Muslims

Terminology & Spelling

  • The faith and its adherents
    The name of the faith is "Islam." Believers are called "Muslims." Believers should not be referred to as "Islamic people," or "Islamics." The spelling "Muslim" is a more accurate transliteration of the Arabic word than "Moslem."
  • Using "Islamic" or "Muslim" as an adjective
    "Islamic" should be used as an adjective only when referring to religious teachings and practices that are rooted in the basic sources of Islam (namely the Qur’an and the Sunnah, or example of Muhammad), not the cultural or social practices and expressions of Muslims. When there is an overlap of religious and cultural impulses evident in a particular practice, it is best not to describe it as "Muslim" rather than "Islamic." As a result, there are few instances when "Islamic" should be used.

    Proper Usage: Islamic teachings, Islamic etiquette, Islamic theology
    Improper Usage: Islamic populations, Islamic rulers, Islamic countries

    "Muslim" should be used as an adjective to describe the activities, ideas, and cultural products of believers in Islam. This term should be used in most cases, rather than "Islamic." 

    Proper Usage: Muslim art, Muslim literature, Muslim countries, Muslim groups
  • Alternatives to "Islamic world" or "Muslim world"
    Though these terms are common in everyday usage, they are conceptually problematic. There are no separate Muslim, Christian, or Hindu "worlds." Such terms homogenize extremely diverse peoples and viewpoints, and create artificial divisions that obscure global interactions, historically and in contemporary times. They also go against recognized
    geography standards that define the term "region" as a geographic area that people identify for its cultural, physical or economic characteristics; regions change over time as people’s definitions and activities change, and as the cultural characteristics of places change. 

    Proper Usage: Muslim lands, territories under Muslim rule, Muslim countries or Muslim-majoritarian countries, actual regions (Southwest Asia, North Africa,
    Southeast Asia, etc.), actual countries (Egypt, Pakistan, Indonesia, etc.)

  • Using the terms "God" and "Allah"
    The Arabic word "Allah" refers to the One God common to Muslims, Jews and Christians. Allah is simply Arabic for "the God" or "the Deity," and is not a separate god of Muslims. Though there are different theological doctrines in the three faith traditions (ex. Trinity, Unity, incarnation, etc.), all three have a monotheistic basis and have overlapping religious histories. Furthermore, Jews, Christians and Muslims who speak Arabic use the word "Allah" when referring to God, and Arabic translations of the Bible render the English word "God" as "Allah." Educators should introduce the Arabic word "Allah" but should use "God" in most instances.
  • "Makkah" and "Madinah" 
    The spellings "Makkah" and "Madinah" are preferred to "Mecca" and "Medina," because the former are better transliterations from the Arabic spellings. The former are also the official forms used by the modern state of Saudi Arabia, in which the two cities are located.

Religious Concepts

  • The "Five Pillars" & Islamic ethics
    The term "five pillars" is common to surveys of Islam and is often described as a "core set of principles." In fact, the five pillars are required acts of worship, not principles. These acts of worship provide a framework for demonstrating commitment to God and recognizing dependence upon God. It is important to cover the five pillars, but it is equally important to go beyond this basic list of worship acts to actually discuss principles and ethics in Islam. Honoring parents, keeping one’s word, honesty, fairness, seeking justice, responsibility toward family, kin and neighbors, chastity for men and women, and many other important, foundational principles are not expressed in the five pillars, nor are they discussed in most lessons or articles about Islam. This may give the mistaken impression that Islam does not include a system of ethics and moral standards, but is merely a religion of exotic practices.
  • Jihad
    This is an Arabic word which derives from the three-letter root j-h-d, which connotes "struggle," "striving," and "exertion." In the context of Islamic teachings, jihad refers to "striving for the sake of God." The word has rich implications and meaning, and has been employed in a variety of ways. In an everyday sense, jihad is understood by Muslims as each individual’s effort to follow the teachings of Islam, to live a good and ethical life, to better oneself in the face of challenge or adversity, and to resist temptation or harmful inclinations. Historically, the term was also employed in the context of military expeditions by early Muslims who sought to defend Muslim lands or extend Muslim political rule in various regions. At no time did jihad refer to an effort to convert non-Muslims to Islam, nor was jihad seen in purely military terms. Consequently, jihad cannot be translated as "holy war." It was and is an ethic of struggle with multiple applications, and contemporary Muslims have diverse opinions on how and when the term is relevant. Terrorism may not be considered a variant of jihad, as it involves indiscriminately harming civilians, and undermines the very basis of civil society. Terrorism (hirabah) is a punishable crime in Islamic teaching and law.

Historical Issues

  • Spread of Islam
    Many accounts of Islamic history describe the rapid expansion of Muslim territory and the spread of Islam among the populations in various regions over time as a single process. These are in fact two separate historical processes. Muslim armies defeated Byzantine and Sasanian forces in the seventh century, extending Muslim political rule over the regions of Egypt, Palestine, Syria, Iraq and parts of Iran. Subsequent military campaigns by the Umayyads and Abbasids in the eighth century extended Muslim rule into parts of North Africa, Spain, Turkey, Central Asia, eastern Iran, Afghanistan and the Indian subcontinent. The indigenous populations of these lands were not required to convert to Islam, but lived under Muslim rule. Over time, many adopted the Arabic language, and some converted to Islam, a process which was part and parcel of the growth and development of Muslim civilization and common culture. This spread of religion and culture was a slow social process that took several centuries, after which the majority of inhabitants in the regions could be said to be Muslim. Substantial numbers of Christians and Jews continued to thrive in these lands. Educators should be conscious of this distinction and reflect it in the language used in their teaching. Maps of "Muslim" territories should also distinguish between the extent of Muslim political rule and the demographics of the population; often, such maps confuse the two processes or are anachronistic.


  • "Golden Age" of Islam
    Muslim civilization during the reign of the Abbasid dynasty (750-1258 CE) is sometimes characterized as the "Golden Age" of Islam. This phrase is problematic because it confuses a religion¾ Islam¾ with a political and cultural entity. During the height of the Abbasid empire, Muslims, Jews and Christians of Arab and Persian background made substantial advances in medicine, science, technology, and other fields. They also produced rich and vibrant literature, poetry, music and architecture. The arrival of new groups such as the Turks and Mongols in Southwest Asia ("Middle East") contributed to the fragmentation of the empire and its eventual downfall. One large Muslim state was replaced by numerous smaller states, yet Islam as a faith endured and served as the basis for further transformations in society. Furthermore, the phrase "Golden Age" implies an ideal stage for Islamic practice, yet no religion can be constrained or defined by a particular historical period, and coverage of religion should not preempt future possibilities for the faith and its adherents. There may have been at least one "Golden Age" for Muslims, but not for Islam (or any other faith for that matter).
  • "Ahl al-Kitab" and "Ahl al-Dhimma"

These two terms are often used interchangeably, but have different connotations. "Ahl al-Kitab" is a Qur’anic designation meaning "People of the Book" and refers to Jews, Christians and other faith communities whom Muslims believe received divinely-revealed scriptures in history. Furthermore, the term establishes a spiritual kinship among the monotheistic faith traditions that hold Abraham as a patriarch. The term "Ahl al-Dhimma" or "Dhimmis" refers to communities of non-Muslims (Jewish, Christian or otherwise) who came under Muslim rule historically and accepted a "protected" status that allowed them to continue practicing their faith without hindrance. Dhimmis were required to pay a special tax called jizya to the state, and the state was a guarantor of their rights as a subordinate group within medieval Muslim society. Teachers should avoid retrojecting modern notions of citizenship and equality onto the past as a standard when studying this or other historical social arrangements in various civilizations.