How Muslims Should Approach History

An ancient Arabic book on history (photo: iStock by Getty Images).

History is one of the most important fields, not only to be studied for academic purposes but also in life as a whole. Without history, people will neither be able to diagnose their present condition nor dictate their future course. Their efforts are destined to become a footnote in the dynamic civilization-making processes, for properly dealing with history, both as a concept and existential reality, is nothing but a mold in which civilizations are cast.

Ibn Khaldun (d. 1406) thus observed at the outset of his “Muqaddimah” that history is information about human social organization, which itself is identical to world civilization. It deals with a variety of conditions affecting the nature of civilization.

Inasmuch as Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him and his family) was the last messenger of Almighty God to mankind, who was sent as the ultimate guide and a mercy to all worlds, his task was twofold: to correct the critical phases of history, which had been fraught with myriads of inaccuracies and outright falsehoods, and to set the stage for the emergence of a new history paradigm rooted in truth and its universal outlook.

It follows that Muslims have been entrusted as much with the preservation of history as with history-making. Without exaggeration, it could be said that such signified Muslims’ raison d’etre. Standing at the forefront of inscribing the pages of history denotes that Muslims have been true to themselves and have lived up to the provisos of the heavenly task placed on them, whereas the opposite would stand for a testimony to otherwise. That is why it is often stated that in addition to the primary and secondary sources of history, Muslims possess an ultimate source of history in the form of the Holy Quran as well, and in addition to relying on a number of historical authorities Muslims are likewise blessed with the ultimate criterion of history and its knowledge in the shape of Prophet Muhammad.

Since the inception of Islamic civilization, this reality induced Muslims to be turned into trailblazing historians, and history to become one of the most important subjects in Islamic scholarship. Such names as al-Tabari (d. 923) and Ibn Khaldun - just to name two - developed into household names. Their contributions were ground-breaking, so much so that while the latter is generally regarded as the father of the science of history (historiography), the former was its precursor.

On a personal note - in passing - I was astonished to discover the intricacy and directness of al-Tabari’s discourse about the relativity (created-ness) of time as part of his methodological framework for the study of  universal history. Al-Tabari presented his “theorising” concerning the notion of time at the beginning of his magnum opus “History of Prophets and Kings”, saying, for example: “First, however, I shall begin with what for us comes properly and logically first, namely, the explanation of: What is time? How long is its total extent? Its first beginning and final end. Whether before God's creation of (time) there was anything else. Whether it will suffer annihilation and whether after its annihilation there will be something other than the face of the Highly praised, the Exalted Creator.  What was it that was before God's creation of time and what will be after its final annihilation? How did God's creation of it begin and how will its annihilation take place?”

These ideas were put forward for the sake of knowledge development as early as towards the end of the 9th and the beginning of the 10th centuries. In amazement one should wonder what could have happened if the avant-garde empirical theories of time produced centuries later by Isaac Newton (d. 1727) and Albert Einstein (d. 1955) were fused with the philosophical-cum-religious “theory” of time by al-Tabari and some other Muslim scholars. The sky would have been the limit. The state of the world, surely, would not have been the same.

In a nutshell, Muslims purified and preserved history. They developed and refined its methods as well as terminology, in the process markedly enriching its sources too. All this while persisting for centuries as history’s decisive protagonists.

The Aftermath of Islamic Civilization’s Decline

However, following the decline of Islamic civilization for which Muslims and nobody else is to be blamed - coupled with the impact of several external factors such as the emergence of the over-assertive Western civilization and its unholy colonization drive - Muslims’ productive association with history dramatically deteriorated. It virtually came to an end. Not only did Muslims, as a consequence, neglect the spheres of creating, together with safeguarding, history, but also did they start to abandon the Islamic history paradigm altogether.

So painful was the predicament that fighting for the mere religious and biological survivals was the mother of all struggles. Treating history as a source of inspiration and guidance was increasingly coming into view as a superfluity, whereas the matters of the future were appearing as though ever more far-flung and obscure. Those were established as sumptuous and controlled-by-others items. They seemed prohibitive for the existing state of the Muslim mind.

A painful corollary was the fact that under the circumstances many segments of the Muslim community or ummah gradually abandoned their  history and civilization, and started, in turn, to glorify the histories and civilizations of others. The trend at first was imposed, often by force, but later became a voluntary act.  Being somebody else - that is, following the ideological, plus cultural, preferences of the conquerors and puppet rulers - was becoming a sign of cultural refinement. It likewise in the end morphed into a benchmark of scholarly uprightness and sophistication. It became life’s Holy Grail. Other alternatives, especially such as were affiliated with Islam and its heritage, were deemed defunct. They were relegated to the level of anachronisms.

Thus, a generation or two later, most Muslims, despite laying claims to modernization and progress grounded in erudition, became separated from and ignorant about their history and the ideals of their civilizational mandate. It is indeed heart-breaking to realise that, in general terms, most Muslims have never read the Qur’an from cover to cover to understand and try to live according to it, and that, in particular, the Muslim students of history do not even perceive the Qur’an as the ultimate source of history, never mind to treat it as such in their studies or research. As it is disturbing that most Muslims have never read a complete biography of Prophet Muhammad with the aim of understanding it and trying to live according to such a divinely prescribed pattern, and that, more specifically, Muslim history students and scholars do not see any importance whatsoever in doing so as far as the science of history is concerned. The same attitude unfortunately applies to the rest of the philosophical and scientific aspects of Islamic history.

If a person, therefore, is entitled to ask what type of followers of Islam and Prophet Muhammad the Muslims of today are, one can also ask what type of historians Muslim students and academics are, and which history - or histories - they as a matter of fact espouse. Which Islam do they follow, given that the Qur’an and the Prophet’s exemplary model are what true Islam is all about?

As harsh as it may sound, the most that the modernization and progress, which have been served in the name of Western civilization, have brought to the Muslim world - and the Muslim mind - was de-culturalization of society and de-sacralization of beliefs as well as values. The problem of the history science is an excellent case in point. The ostensible benefits procured thereby were anything but an assured quality. They were no more than a poisoned chalice.

Those Muslims, at the same time, keep priding themselves on being well versed in the intellectual and also ideological foundations of Western history and civilization, having been educated in Western or westernized establishments at home or abroad, and having extensively read the works of Western civilization’s icons, be they from the field of history or any other relevant field. However, little do those Muslims know that there would be no Western civilization as its legacy is known today were it not for the global centuries-old dominant presence of Islamic civilization and for the ground-breaking contributions of its giants, and that the Western, yet the whole world’s, historiography would be significantly impoverished if the contributions of Muslims and Muslim historians were to be set aside.

All things considered, both Western civilization and Western historiography pale in comparison with their Islamic counterparts in matters of their respective legacies’ impact and goodness. Nevertheless, this in no way implies the harboring of a grudge against someone or something. Rather, it implies calling for honesty, for putting things into perspective, and for giving credit where credit is due, in that such constitutes the essence of intellectual - and civilizational by and large - integrity.

This historical ignorance gradually incapacitated Muslims, causing them to confuse their compass. Some of the biggest issues are thus constantly misconstrued and mishandled, never mind solved, like the Palestinian issue, the issue of Muslim minorities worldwide, the modernity-versus-tradition dialectics, Sunni-Shi’ah relations, and various calls for pan-Islamism, restoring caliphate, shari’ah, jihad, etc. These are all current and future-oriented issues, but owing to the verity that Muslims are poorly versed in (their) history, where the roots of all issues are, no solutions seem to be forthcoming. Detached from their history - and themselves - Muslims remain suspended between East and West, and between heaven and earth. They are neither here nor there. They simply do not have what it takes to face the challenges head-on and on their terms. Doubtless, the keys to all answers lie in the neglected chapters of history.

Towards a New Approach

At any rate, there are signs on the horizon that a Muslim renaissance is in the offing. This is because all other civilizational alternatives, apart from being inadequate and fragmentary, quickly proved unsustainable. Their being based on and nourished by the diverse forms of falsehood did not permit them to be different. In its function as the graveyard of defective civilizations and empires, history beckons over.  The genuine longevity of a civilization can be predicated solely on the presence and adoption of the truth. Civilization and the lack of truth are incompatible. And that is where the prospect of reviving Islamic civilization, as the only civilization of the truth, comes in.

Accordingly, Islamic civilization never died, nor became outdated or obsolete. It was forced into hiatus by the incompetence of its custodians: Muslims. It will remain there until the conditions are rendered conducive for its resurgence by the reawakening of Muslims. Positively, just as the truth abides - as a fundamental ontological law - the civilization of the truth abides too. As per the formula of the Qur’anic message, the condition of a civilization will not change (a result and part of God’s changing of a nation’s overall condition) unless people change what is in themselves (their inner selves) (Quran: ar-Ra’d:11).

Central to this expected trend reversal should be the way Muslims approach and study history. Instead of being Western civilization-centric, those studies should focus on Muslims and their own civilizational trajectory. They are to be remodeled as Muslim-centric. Moreover, instead of being purely outward-looking, and rarely yet still partially inward-looking, those studies should be inward-looking first and foremost, dealing primarily with the affairs of Muslims. Only based on the outcomes resulting therefrom should those studies turn to the outside world beyond the concerns of the Muslim consciousness.

The findings of studying Muslim concerns are then expected to form a foundation upon which the studying of “others” and of the Muslim perpetual interactions with them, will be based. That is to say, if heretofore the Muslim historical education played second fiddle to the interests and concerns of the Western world, it now should be the case of placing Muslim interests ahead of anything and anybody else. The process should be reversed: the epistemological direction should originate from Muslims and move towards others, in preference to the prospect of that direction originating from others and moving towards Muslims. It is high time indeed that purely Islamic and Muslim matters be placed on the pedestal of history.

This means, to illustrate, that the rise, continuity, and decline of Islamic civilization, the rise of the West, the age of colonization, modernization, World War I, World War II, and the Cold War, ought to be studied from uniquely Muslim perspectives. As part of doing so, the roles of the rest of the world will naturally come to the fore and will be treated against the backdrop of analyzing Muslim affairs. The Muslim civilizational presence was always a global spectacle. To bring it to the forefront of history and its vast scientific pursuits will be nothing new. The earlier referred to Muslim historians were developing the science of history and historiography exactly along those lines. They were at once Muslim and universal historians, and their historiographies likewise, but their being Muslims and their works Islamic took precedence over everything else.

The current situation is such that while Muslims stood at the core of many of the above-mentioned geopolitical developments, they by no means were equal partners in relation to generating the official adjudications and the historicity of events. More often than not, Muslims were hard done by, in full conformity with the maxims that “the victor writes history” and that - allegedly uttered by Napoleon (d. 1821) - “history is a set of lies (a community has) agreed upon.” Thus distorted history is served to Muslims and their intellectual wants, in their capacity as a civilizational vanquished force.

As a systematic mode of indoctrination, Muslims are generally depicted in history books as losers, villains, and serious impediments to modernity and progress. Their inconsequential history merely calls for an inferior present and a downbeat future. They should settle for second best. Colonization is portrayed as a boon and Muslims as beneficiaries. Western civilization, standing on the shoulders of some of its ancient predecessors like the Greeks and Romans, is an ultimate blessing for the world (the end of history) which must be conveyed to the rest. Muslims nonetheless needed to be proselytized - i.e. enlightened - the most, hence the idea of “mission to civilize” was created. Whereas the World Wars, though being global occurrences, are depicted in such a way that Muslims are either featured unfairly or are not featured at all. When delving into the subject of those wars based on mainstream narratives, an inquisitive Muslim is bound to ask where Muslims were at that point in time and whether they were there at all.

These injustices can be rectified only if Muslims take history and their civilizational destiny into their own hands. They have to do so for the sake of championing the truth, consistent with their earthly mission, and for the sake of  historical self-defense. It is unacceptable that a great many Muslims know more about the history of the West than about their own, that they extol Western heroes more than their own, and that they feel more inclined to Western civilization than to the civilization of Islam.

Without this step on board, the other Muslim renaissance steps are destined either to fail or be seriously hindered. Regardless of how much some things may seem politically incorrect but the future Muslim generations must be taught the pressing realities both of history and the present. That is their right and we, the current generation, owe it to them. Undeniably, the truth sometimes hurts, but then, falsehoods and deceits hurt yet more.

Some of the realities that need to be urgently addressed are as follows: Islamic civilization is permanent and did not fall in the sense of the fates of other dead civilizations, but rather experienced a break in continuity and vitality and waits for the right people (right Muslim generations) and the right circumstances for its rebirth; Western civilization is an alien entity  and should be seen as an imposed trial whose few positives can be embraced but numerous negatives should be either resolutely rejected and replaced or if possible Islamised; colonization was an evil phenomenon during which endless unspeakable crimes against Muslims were committed; modernization, in the main, spelled alienation and westernization; the originally innocent and constructive orb of science has mutated into the monster of scientism that threatens the very idea of existence; the World Wars affected Muslims in more ways than one, mostly in unfavourable  terms, so the new Muslims-centric and inward-looking approaches to the historical education should embark on efforts to reveal the totality of the distorted and forgotten historical truths. The epistemological order ought to be restored sooner rather than later.

I am not sure how seemly is to say this but according to a quote in the movie “Spirit: Stallion of Cimarron”, “they say that the history of the West was written from the saddle of a horse, but it's never been told from the heart of one.” Correspondingly, in a roundabout way, the history of Muslims cannot be based on the narratives of their colonizers, adversaries, and those who could not and did not want to understand them. That would be wrong both academically and morally. Instead, Muslim history needs the clear mind and pure heart of Muslims themselves. The roles of others, though being welcome and appreciated, can only be supplementary.

Finally, as another personal thing, whenever in the past I read or heard about World War I, it seemed to me too distant and unrelated, yet exotic, an episode in human history. However, it was only recently that I found out that my great-grandfather, Muho Spahic, while actively participating in the war on the side of the Austro-Hungarian Empire (as one of the Central Powers) was taken a prisoner of war and had to spend six years in captivity in Russia (as one of Allied Powers). My great-grandmother thought that she had become a widow and her first-born, my grandfather Sulejman Spahic, an orphan. Hence, all of a sudden World War I became more real, more consequential, and even more intimate to me than ever before. Without realizing it, the lives of many of my family members have been affected by it.

In the same vein, Muslims should work on renewing their approaches to history, so that they could find their true selves in it and could decipher their true cultural and civilizational identities hidden in history’s multi-tiered but largely deformed universe. Certainly, history is of those realms where ignorance is not bliss.

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