The Convenient Omissions From Islamic History

This is an insightful and intelligently argued article sent to us by Miss Mahnoor Khan. She makes a very pertinent point that the present Muslim mindset and for that matter to some extent even extremism, are outcomes of the way Islamic history is being taught.

By Mahnoor Khan

Do you really know Islamic history? From school to universities, Pakistanis are taught Islamic history through multiple subjects, it is part of syllabi of Islamiat, Pakistan Studies, some Urdu texts, and of course actual History course also. In my opinion history is an important subject and should definitely be part of the curriculum. If taught well, history can be a wonderful and enjoyable subject, as it opens the bygone worlds to us, and provide links to our own roots as human beings.

The problem is that over here history is taught as a badly written propaganda. I am not sure how other countries teach history to their school children, but in Pakistan it is repetitive and sanitized to level of being boring. Emphasis is on learning names, and dates; plus extra focus is on battles won by different rulers so that warriors are glorified excessively. Most importantly the constant underlying theme is that Muslims of the past were bastions of piety and goodwill. Moreover it is often implied that every Muslim dynasty fell when it parted ways from being good Muslims, and became under influence of British, French, and Hindus etc whoever were the local or colonial powers.

We have been learning this for years, and may continue to do so for another hundred years. It would have been all right to keep doing that, if it was just a feel good mechanism for masses of today who face a much bleaker outlook than Muslims who lived for example in Abbasside times. But that nostalgia for lost status has converted into a dangerous desire to bring back those times again through all means possible.

In an extreme form this desire gets manifested in Taliban rule. In the general public the desire is the undercurrent in the conspiracy theories e.g. “if only Hindu and Jews stop meddling in our affairs, we can achieve the past glory back”, and in socio-political positioning “ if we become more religious, particularly by bringing orthodox to power, we will be in that old golden age” etc. Essentially it prevents rational analysis of modern-day problems and seeking new solutions.

So how should we teach Islamic history to our youth? My answer- Be honest. Honesty is tricky though. You can be dishonest without being untruthful; just omit the uncomfortable truths without committing an actual lie. The narrative presently in vogue, ignore the fact that the real reason why Muslim empires were dominant in the past ages was due to better governance of the state affairs compared to their counterparts in the Christian world, not because of some kind of superior Islamic conduct of the rulers. Their fortunes declined when governance deteriorated, and that process happened in full view of every one and not as part of some grand conspiracy.

Moreover we have to tell our youth that rise and fall of these empires had worldly causes and was not due to changes in the rulers’ religiosity. Let’s consider the example of emergence of British rule in sub-continent. Our textbooks normally play out a scenario that British conspired with various non-Muslim maharajas to undermine the Mughal emperors which ultimately resulted in the downfall of Bahadur Shah Zafar. The way everything is written, it appears that Mughal emperors were victims of a grand conspiracy in which every other force in the subcontinent was out to get them; sounds quite familiar in present day also. One can discover with more detailed reading of our history, that main reason British were able to make such gains simply due to inept rule of the Mughal rulers over a period of at least a hundred years.

Translation; if you have poor leaders for a large number of years, be prepared to be taken over by another power. Did British conspire against the Mughals? Of course what else can you expect, but it was no secret, while East India Company was solidifying its position in Bengal in the eighteenth century, our emperors were busy in enjoying women and shikaar expeditions.

William Dalrymple books “The White Mughals” and “The Last Mughal” are excellent reading for a Pakistani. In one chapter of White Mughals he described the daily routine of the Nizam of Hyderabad in early 1800s; the day was spent mostly on trivial pursuits, and hardly any time was spent on governing. This was the time when British Residency had actually become the de facto center of power in Hyderabad. The Last Mughal is the sad tale of Bahadur Shah Zafar, and how helpless the Mughal king had become over the years.

This fate could have been prevented, not in Zafar’s time because it was too late by then, but over a period of a century.

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Categories: Asia, Pakistan

1 reply

  1. The Last Mughal also talks about an East India company transforming itself from hard working business focused leaders to more new generation evangelists who lacked understanding of the ground realities and did not respect locals where due. I have visited Delhi multiple times, but Darlymple’s Delhi attracts me. It was a great city with a great civilization. No disagreement about Mughal rulers becomes less of governance and more of ritual – that happens in all monarchies.

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