FACT CHECK:   Did students at a middle school in Tennessee have to transcribe a portion of the Shahada?

Claim:   Students at a middle school in Tennessee had to transcribe a portion of the Shahada.”

  TRUE

Example:   [Collected via email, September 2015]

Students at a Tennessee public school are being instructed to write “Allah is the only god.” This after an entire unit on Christianity was skipped. That is NOT all right!

Origins:   On 3 September 2015, the web site Spring Hill Home Page reported that parents in the Maury County School District in Tennessee had complained about an assignment which required students to transcribe the Shahada.

The Shahada, one of the Five Pillars of Faith in Islam, states that “there is no god but god (and) Muhammad is the messenger of God.” Similar statements can be found in the religious texts of other monotheistic religions, such as Christianity and Judaism, and while the word “Allah” is often linked to an Islamic deity, it is an Arabic word for “god” and is not used exclusively by Islam.

Still, course work involving the Islamic faith is frequently associated with controversy:

The issue arose over new state-mandated standards on middle school social studies about early American history. The standards were developed two years ago and implemented in the 2014-2015 school year.

A Spring Hill Middle School parent complained after seeing a school project her daughter had created featuring the Shahada, or Five Pillars of Faith in Islam: prayer, almsgiving, fasting, pilgrimage and creed.

The creed pillar is known in Arabic as “Shahada,” and in transcribing it students were instructed to write, “Allah is the only God,” said parent Brandee Porterfield.

“These [papers] belong to my daughter in seventh grade at Spring Hill Middle. They have studied Islam for three weeks, but skipped the whole chapter on Christianity because it’s not in the state standards.”

While the original story reported by Spring Hill Home Page is accurate, many of the details were lost as the article was aggregated by various outlets. For instance, one persistent claim is that Spring Hill Middle School gave lessons about Islam for three weeks while neglecting all other religions including Christianity.

Dr. Jan Hanvey, Maury County Public Schools middle school supervisor, told the Columbia Daily Herald that while students spend about three weeks learning about the geography and culture of the middle east, they only spend about one day talking about Islam. Furthermore, Hanvey said that the Chritianity was not “skipped,” as some publications have suggested, rather that it was moved to a later date:

She said teachers do not spend three weeks specifically talking about Islam, but rather the geography, culture, economics and government surrounding the religion.

Islam is discussed for about one day of the three-week period, Hanvey said. By the end of the year, students will have studied Buddhism, Hinduism and other religions, she said.

“It’s part of history. If you don’t talk about it, then you are leaving out the ‘why,’” Hanvey said. “Children need to know the ‘why,’ and they need to be able to learn and know where to find the facts, instead of going by what they hear or what they see on the Internet.”

On 3 September 2015, Maury County Director of Schools Chris Marczak posted a message on Facebook explaining the current curriculum:

By now, many of you have heard what is taking place with concerns to the teaching section of middle school social studies. The standards that we have in place from the State of Tennessee are newer standards that were developed in 2013 and implemented last year, 2014-15 school year. In middle school, the standards have us address early American History, world history early civilizations to the Roman Empire, middle ages through exploration of the Americas, and colonization to reconstruction of the Americas. Our teachers work together to make sure that our students are learning what is expected through the Tennessee academic standards. For this last section on the Islamic World this past week, our educators had students complete an assignment that had an emphasis on Islamic Faith. The assignment covered some sensitive topics that are of importance to Islamic religion and caused some confusion around whether we are asking students to believe in or simply understand the religion. It is our job as a public school system to educate our students on world history in order to be ready to compete in a global society, not to endorse one religion over another or indoctrinate.

I encourage all Maury County parents to be their child’s first and main teacher. It is our job as parents of our own children to instill in them the beliefs of our individual households. It’s important that we establish a good working relationship with our children’s teachers and schools so that when there are questions or concerns, teachers and principals are the first line of asking. If we are truly going to Grow Maury County together, then we need to openly talk and discuss about what we want to emphasize in our county. I encourage you to talk with your children, talk with your teachers, and talk with your principals. We are here to help your children be prepared for Life.

This isn’t the first time that a course on Islam has been misrepresented as a government sanctioned indoctrination in the Islamic faith. A series of fear mongering articles have been penned since 2001 claiming that public schools were forcing Islam onto students. In January 2015, several web sites reported that a Boston Public School was forcing students to recite a prayer which would “officially convert them to Islam.”

While these stories typically involve a smidgen of truth (many public schools do teach world history and therefore touch on multiple religions), it is inaccurate to say that these lessons are being taught in an attempt to convert children to Islam:

Modern events have caused “fear” of Islam, Hanvey said. She compared it to the 1940s when people were afraid of Japanese culture and people during World War II.

“It’s hard to separate religion from history,” Hanvey said. “It’s teaching about religion. We are not trying to convert.”

Learning about the Five Pillars in a historical context does not convert students to Islam any more than learning about Martin Luther’s 95 Theses converts them to Protestant Christianity.

Last updated:   14 September 2015

Originally published:   14 September 2015