KATHMANDU: The Nepal government on Monday banned a school textbook after growing outcry by Muslims over an "objectionable" illustration depicting Prophet Mohammed as a woman-like figure and containing "erroneous interpretations" of Islam.
This is the first time in Nepal, which has enjoyed religious harmony despite being a Hindu kingdom till 2006, that the government has banned a book after protests by Muslims.
The education ministry issued a statement asking schools not to teach from the controversial textbook – "A modern approach to social studies" – brought out by New Nepal Publication. It said that the book was not authorised by the department that supervises all school textbooks and added that it should not be taught in schools.
All school books authorised by the government respected religious and cultural sentiments, it said.
The first objections were raised by Muslim Association of Nepal that called a press conference in the capital last week to object to the controversial book as well as two others.
Mr Mohammad Nizamuddin, the senior vice-president of the association, said that the books gave wrong information about Prophet Mohammed, erroneously describing him as the "founder of Islam".
"We Muslims believe Allah created the universe and that the Islam religion existed since creation," Mr Nizamuddin said. "Because many people did not know this and other things about Islam, Prophet Mohammed came as the messenger of Allah to explain things to people."
The now banned book, meant to be taught in class 8, also carried an illustration of Prophet Mohammed looking like a woman.
Islam forbids idolatrous depictions and there is no authentic historical record to establish what Prophet Muhammad looked like.
Two other books have also come under fire for similar transgressions.
These are ‘Nepal Social Studies’ published by Athrai Publications and ‘Asia’s Social Studies’ by Asia Publications.
Mr Nizamuddin said that ‘Nepal Social Studies’ has also been banned and Muslim organisations would continue with their vigil for corrective measures against the third book as well.
Mr Nizamuddin said the government had also announced it would form a committee to supervise textbooks and prevent such errors in future.
"We are asking the government that religious issues should be written only after every care has been taken to ensure that the information is correct," he said.
"Given Nepal’s current political instability, such errors can lead to sectarian violence. Therefore, the government should have a panel of scholars well-versed in religious issues who should first vet the proposed books and then give their approval."
In the last census, conducted almost 10 years ago, Muslims were said to comprise over four percent of the population.
In 2006, Nepal’s Parliament declared the country secular. It has led to a spurt in Islam and Christianity and Mr Nizamuddin estimated that now there are over 2 million Muslims in Nepal comprising 8-11 per cent of the population.