Why Islamic History Is Overlooked?
It is truly mind boggling that in spite of enormous literature on Islamic history, a vast majority of Muslims – both young and old – are ignorant of the subject. While there are more than one and a half billion Muslims in the world, it may be no exaggeration to say that very few are interested to learn the truth about Islam or its history.
The importance of history cannot be overemphasized. History is like a long-term memory where nations’ voices are preserved. It may be safe to say that people without history are people without memory. So, why have our Islamic scholars failed to attract Muslims (especially the youth) to become interested in the study of Islamic history? Has this anything to do with their overemphasis on Islam’s rituals for gaining salvation in the Hereafter that the importance of its history looses its significance in their eyes?
Whatever may be the reason, the fact is that a vast majority of Muslims are probably ignorant or uninterested to find the truth about Islamic history. Sectarian beliefs and practices (and the internal divisions and bickering that go with it) have created various schools of thought. Books and articles on Islamic history (and even the translation and interpretation of the Qur’an) are consequently colored by the sectarian beliefs and thoughts of their authors. Scholars and leaders of competing schools of thought play with emotions of their followers in order to promote their version of history as Islamic history. Nonetheless, there have been notable exceptions among Islamic scholars who did strive to find the truth about Islamic history by challenging the status quo of their times.
How to Interpret Islamic History?
What is Islamic history? Is it synonymous with Muslim history? Have Muslims been practicing Islam – the Islam delivered and practiced by the Prophet (PBUH)? Or, have they deviated from it? What happened to the Muslim world after the end of the period of the rightly guided caliphs, the Khulaafaa al-raashidoon? Is everything done in the name of Islam by Muslim kings, rulers, or politicians part of Islamic history? Is there an objective standard by which one can measure what is Islamic and what is not?
The study of history is often presented in chronological terms describing the rise and the fall of empires; but is that all to history? What about the underlying root causes of the rise and fall of nations, Islamic or non-Islamic? Is there some aspect of history that transcends space and time? In other words, is there science of history?
For a Muslim, the study of history should be like watching the laws of Allah in action, the application of the theory given in the Quran and practically demonstrated by the Prophet (PBUH). The Quran demands that Muslims reflect upon history, not merely to know it but to learn from it. By studying history, Muslims can gain an understanding of how Allah’s laws work in the world of humankind. When empires fall and new ones arise, this is not merely random nor is Allah playing dice with our world. Neither does Allah preordain the fate of nations. Rather, it is the nations themselves that cause their own downfall by not living in harmony with the laws of society that Allah has set for all.
It is hard to blame some non-Muslim nations, who are merely going through a process of trial and error without the (Quranic) solutions manual. But what can we say of Muslims who have this solutions manual but are currently the most deprived people in the world? Blaming others or making excuses for their bad state is not going to stand in the court of Allah. What caused (and continue to cause) the downfall of Muslims?
The process is very straightforward. A piece of evidence must be rejected if it is not consistent with facts or if it is against the Qur’an. For example, it is a known fact that the Sahaaba (the companions of the Prophet (PBUH)) were the best of Muslims and adhered strictly to the Qur’an. Therefore, if a piece of evidence claims that some Sahaaba used to stockpile gold and amassed huge wealth, and the Qur’an demands of Muslims that they should give the wealth they do not need for themselves, then this “evidence” must be thrown out:
They ask thee how much they are to spend; Say: "What is beyond your needs." (2:219)
Or, if some evidence claims that the Sahaaba quarreled and bickered and physically fought (and killed) each other in the quest for power, it must be immediately thrown out because it vilifies the character of those people that the Qur’an claims were unquestionably pious and tender and full of mercy towards each other:
Muhammad is the apostle of Allah. and those who are with him are strong against Unbelievers, (but) compassionate amongst each other. Thou wilt see them bow and prostrate themselves (in prayer), seeking Grace from Allah and (His) Good Pleasure. On their faces are their marks, (being) the traces of their prostration. This is their similitude in the Taurat; and their similitude in the Gospel is: like a seed which sends forth its blade, then makes it strong; it then becomes thick, and it stands on its own stem, (filling) the sowers with wonder and delight. As a result, it fills the Unbelievers with rage at them. Allah has promised those among them who believe and do righteous deeds forgiveness, and a great Reward. (48:29)
However, this process of studying history is probably more emotionally challenging than mentally, because it requires the will to cast aside beliefs and folklore that fail the above criteria, no matter how old or dear they may be to us. Being very old and dear to our hearts does not change a false fact into a true one.
Searching for Authentic Records
It is known (and even non-Muslim historians acknowledge it) that Khalifa ‘Umar’s reign saw the largest expansion in the history of Islam. It is also universally acknowledged that the political and economic reforms that ‘Umar (R) instituted were based on justice and fairness while paying special attention to the lower rung of the society. People enjoyed basic human rights and freedoms during his period of rule, essentially unprecedented at that time. (If an old woman could question and criticize Khalifa ‘Umar in public without any fear of retribution, then there could be no doubt about the freedom of expression prevailing during his time.)
Further, during his time as Khalifa many treaties were signed and several social and welfare reforms were instituted. Operation of the department of the treasury (Bait-ul-mal) was legendary during his time. He also created many other government departments and offices (e.g., census bureau and welfare) to deal with the ever-growing numbers of people coming under the fold of Islam.
All these departments and offices were in Medina where records were kept. These were huge endeavors in record keeping and record maintenance. Written registers were maintained to efficiently run these offices, very much like the offices before the advent of computers.
What happened to those written records?
Obviously, those written documents were precious historical treasure containing Islamic history. Why are they missing from the Ummah especially since these documents would have been extremely valuable to future generations?
Were the records destroyed? If so, who could have destroyed them? Could it be that there were some who wanted to put the Islamic train on a different economic and political track and they felt they couldn’t do that in the presence of those documents? Would Muslim kings have been able rule in the name of Islam under the presence of those documents?
Let us keep in mind that no natural disaster such as flood, fire, or earthquake has ever struck Medina since the Prophet's (PBUH) time. So, no one can claim that these documents were destroyed by natural disaster. No one can also say that the enemies of Islam destroyed these documents since no non-Muslim ruler has ever conquered Medina. This city has always been under Muslim rule since the Prophet's time.
While the Qur’an exhorts Muslims to learn from history, they essentially have ignored this message. The Qur’an presents history of past nations as evidence of the efficacy and truth of its message and a warning to those who do not listen to the verdict of history:
Many were the Ways of Life that have passed away before you: travel through the earth, and see what was the end of those who rejected Truth. (3:137)
Say: "Travel through the earth and see what was the end of those who rejected Truth." (6:11) Do they not travel through the earth, and see what was the End of those before them (who did evil)? Allah brought utter destruction on them, and similar (fates await) those who reject Allah. (47:10)
There are two ways to learn from the history of past nations: 1) learning from archives and 2) learning from archaeological discoveries. History based on oral narrations in the absence of archives may not be as reliable, especially if that history is compiled under a period ruled by kings.
Dr. Mansoor Alam, is an electrical engineer by education. He is a professor at Department Electrical Engineering and Computer Science University of Toledo, Ohio. He is an active writer, not only in the field of electronic, telecommunication and computer science, he also wrote various articles about Islam and muslims. He is an active member of Toledo Muslim community.