The Power of History
Posted: 14 Rabi ul thani 1434, 24 February 2013
For many of us, history is simply a series of events, facts, names, and information that belongs to the past. In other words, everything in history originates in the past, and it dies there. It can do no more than provide interesting information, satisfy idle curiosities, or at best help document and archive the various tales of humankind.
Unfortunately, this is a very limited understanding of history. It would be like getting married just to cross it out on your list of goals for life instead of marrying out of the desire to produce a family or any kind of real change in your present life. It’d be like buying food just to stock it up in your kitchen instead of actually consuming and benefiting from it. In reality, the most powerful and nutritious use of history is to go ahead and take that bite, to make it part of you and your present.
Interestingly, all of us already take bites out of history in varying degrees. For example, when we say we believe in the Prophets and in following their examples, we take a big bite out of the past, and we make it a part of us. We do not let the stories rot away as interesting information, but we give them the very real power to illumine and shape our life in the present.
The complications, however, arise in the ways we allow it to affect us in the present. For example: sometimes people think that only western societies have given science its “true” right. This makes them loftier than other civilizations, including Muslim civilizations, because science is supposed to be a noble and necessary pursuit that all humans should aspire towards. For many of us, this is a serious concern that affects how we act and what we believe. The way most Muslims these days would react is to show how science used to flourish centuries ago in Muslim civilizations. By doing this, they would be reassuring themselves that nothing is wrong with Islam, and that Muslims certainly do have the potential to go ahead and develop new scientific innovations. Others may try to point out (with some truth) that modern science isn’t all that angelic and that it is directly responsible for many of the problems in today’s world. Thus, Muslims need not feel that they are missing out.
Although both of these approaches utilize history, they would still be very limited in responding to and in capitalizing on the criticism. And this is one of the key problems we have in dealing with the past.
What would be a more useful way of responding to the criticism that modern science doesn’t mesh well with Muslims and Muslim civilizations?
Well, we could begin by attempting to contextualize the critique itself. Since when did modern science become a standard by which to judge a religion and its contributions to mankind? This is a historical question, trying to draw attention to the historical emergence of this critique itself. Indeed, this “standard” has not existed forever. The Qur’an doesn’t tell us that we need to believe because belief will lead to scientific development and technological innovation. Rather, it calls itself “The Furqan”, which means “The Criterion”: the ultimate arbiter of truth and falsehood – a position that is falsely claimed by modern science, and accepted even by many who assert belief in the Qur’anic claim as well.
When we ask “since when,” we effectively have a completely different perspective of the question itself. That’s when we can see that this emphasis on modern science that is implicit in the question is a very modern development indeed– it simply revolves around a newfound belief in science that is particular to a European modernity. It is not timeless or transcending, even if it may appear to be so to us now (people a few centuries ago didn’t grapple with this question as the ultimate life mystery). Ultimately, it’s connected to a certain worldview that was brought about by its particular circumstances and forces.
After showing how recent and particular the critique itself is, we could further use history to address another concern implicit in the original critique: is a life lived according to the dictates of modern science even the best way to live life? Now, relax: this isn’t to doubt the usefulness of modern science. This is just to ask whether modern science is the most important thing in the world that humanity has always been striving for.
The answer isn’t exactly an emphatic yes when we turn to history. In fact, modern science begins to look surprisingly insignificant in the larger scheme of history. Billions of human beings lived without modern science before the modern age. Obviously, each life differs, but you could argue that the people historically did not see themselves as suffering from a lack of modern science. They lived complete lives. Of course, it’s hard to miss something you never knew existed – however, that in of itself shows that despite popular conceptions today, modern science isn’t the absolutely necessary and ultimate goal that humankind has always been striving and aching for since the descent of Adam alayhis salam onto this earth.
In the previous flawed attempts to answer the original critique (that Muslims were great scientists too!), we can also come across a delicate distortion of history. Even if Muslims had been developing science for centuries, their science could not have been exactly classified as modern: their practice was fused with a spiritual and religious understanding of the world, of man’s position as the vicegerent of God on earth. They didn’t share in the later European conceptions of nature as a raw force to be conquered and endlessly exploited to serve man’s needs. Besides, Muslim scientists historically didn’t occupy the same position in society as their modern counterparts do today. They weren’t connected to the giant networks of multinational corporations, drug companies, insurance agencies, marketing departments, political lobbying groups, banks and finance companies, public education, and so on.
Thus, by looking back at history in a proper manner, we can learn many things. We learn how recent and modern the critique is, and how it is not a fundamental mystery of life. We also learn about the plurality of ways of living, of how modern science isn’t absolutely a fair way of judging the quality of life in the world, throughout history. And finally, it also points us to the plurality of ways of doing what we call science – through history, for example, we can learn how Muslims themselves approached their own version of scientific enterprises, of how these were intrinsically connected to their deeply God-conscious worldview.
This is the power of history – by raising powerful historical questions like “since when,” about our most dearly held views and taken for granted “facts”, our perceptions of the world and our ideals can be turned completely upside down. It is thus inextricably intertwined with our beliefs regarding ourselves, our faith, and other ideas, whether we perceive it or not. It is our non-contemporaneous present. That is why, at the end of the day, venturing in history requires an immense amount of soul-searching, immense reevaluations of the ideas we may currently worship. It forces us to view the latest man-made fads that may be touted as the “best ideas or accomplishments in the world” as they actually are. It broadens our horizons and reveals the limitations of our delusions of success and ownership. It shows, ultimately, that God truly is the Greatest Being and Force.
We can benefit deeply from nurturing a deep and proper relationship with the past.Through history, we can begin to discover the world, and our souls, for ourselves.
Originally posted at SalaamCal.com