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Muslim Propaganda at the University of Chicago

The Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago is Indiana Jones’ museum.  At least, it is the museum that Indiana Jones would have shipped the Holy Grail and the Ark of the Covenant home to, if only he had been a real person.

Not that even the Holy Grail would top the actual collections of the museum by much.  Chicago had lots of  archaeologists shipping stuff home.  Visitors can see the sixteen foot tall human-headed, winged, guardian bull from the palace of Sargon II,  the astonishing giant head of a bull made of polished black that guarded the entrance to the Hundred-Column Hall at Persepolis, and an almost equally remarkable bit of Islamic propaganda - written by the museum staff and posted in the section on ancient Megiddo - in which history is rewritten and Mohammed actually travels to Jerusalem.*

The Muslim propaganda wall plaque is headed:

Land of the Bible
600 B.C. to the Present
Three Major Religions Grew in the Southern Levant

Right in the headline, the curator misstates history to satisfy a political agenda.  Judaism and Christianity “grew” in the southern Levant  (defined by the museum as  roughly the territory of modern Israel, Jordan, and the Palestinian territories.)  Islam did not.  It “grew” in the Hijaz (Mecca and Medina,)  nor did the scholars who defined the religion after the death of the Prophet live in the Levant.

The plaque continues:

Long after the Canaanites and the Israelites, the Southern Levant has continued to play an important role in the religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

The golden days of Israel and Judah ended at the hands of the Babylonians with the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 586 B.C. and subsequent mass exile of the Israelites.  Although many returned to the Southern Levant under the rule of the Persians (529-332BC), they would not soon regain their autonomy.

But Israelite religion continued to develop.  At the turn of the first millennium AD, several religious sects broke away in response to Roman rule and the local political climate.  One of these lines led, ultimately, to the tradition of modern Jewish religion.

Did the curator slip that bit of anti-Jewish sovereignty propaganda under your radar?

The Israelites fail to “regain their autonomy” but continue to “develop” as a “religion.”   This is a standard line of argumentation according to which the Jews cease to be a political community and transition to being a religious community with, consequently, no entitlement to sovereignty. 

Written out of history by the Oriental Institute is not only all evidence that the proto-Jewish community in Judea under the Persians at times enjoyed a limited degree of political autonomy, but the entire history and existence of the Hasmonean and Herodian kingdoms.  Since one of the strongest arguments that can be made by a national liberation movement is that the group claiming a right to sovereignty has a history of sovereignty, eliminating ancient Jewish kingdoms from the historical narrative reduces the historically based claim to legitimacy of the modern Jewish state, with real political implications.

Having skipped right over two centuries of Jewish political sovereignty in favor of an anti-Zionist story line that has the Jews abandoning political life after the Babylonian exile in favor of developing exclusively as a religion, we come to the advent of Christianity. 

Jesus was born into this context, and was hailed by his followers as the Messiah, Son of God.

Fair enough.   Scholarly and objective.  But when we come to Mohammed, scholarly objectivity disappears.

Six centuries later, the Prophet Mohammed would visit Jerusalem where he would experience his Night Flight and Ascension to heaven. 

Only the pious believe that the visit and night flight are actual, historical events. Mohammed’s visit and Night Flight is a religious myth or dream, not an actual event.  The Prophet never actually visited Jerusalem.  The Quran speaks not of a visit to Jerusalem, but of a visit to the “farthest mosque.”   Scholarly dispute over the event centers around the question of how early the Quranic reference to “the “farthest mosque”  came to be interpreted as a reference to Jerusalem. 

But note the wording of the plaque.  Even a museum visitor who does not believe in night flights and ascensions to heaven, will read -- and quite likely accept as fact -- the notion that Mohammed’s visit to Jerusalem was an actual, historical event.   After all, this is the faculty of the University of Chicago saying that he did.

The assertion that Muhammad actually visited Jerusalem is a political statement which has the effect of making the groundless assertion in the headline -- that Islam grew in the Levant -- appear to be true.  If Mohammed did travel to Jerusalem, if he actually set foot on the Temple Mount, Jerusalem becomes one of the places where the religion of Islam “grew.”   Because one of the arguments made by national liberation movements is that formative events in the history of the group claiming sovereignty took place on the land they are claiming, if we accept that the Prophet visited Jerusalem, the Muslim claim to Jerusalem is strengthened, with real political implications.

The problem with substituting political propaganda for history is that it alters our perceptions of the world, and our perceptions affect the actions we take.  Schoolchildren throughout the Muslim world are taught history exactly as it appears on the wall of the Megiddo room in the Oriental Institute.  Jesus was a man, not the messiah as his followers believe.  The Jews are a religious group, not an historic Levantine nation, (and therefore have no claim to sovereignty.)  Mohammed visited Jerusalem, (which makes it Muslim land).

Maybe we need to send Harrison Ford to the University of  Chicago in his Indiana Jones hat,  to teach the faculty of the Oriental Institute  the difference between evidence-based scholarship and political propaganda.

*The Megiddo section of the recently renovated museum is otherwise excellent.   The altars and the two proto-Aeolic column capitals, the style used in Israelite royal buildings, are of particular relevance to the historical development of ancient Israel.  Although the Institute is still expanding its online gallery, an image of a similar column found at the City of David in Jerusalem can be seen here