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, ands 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. There were critical concessions granted to East India Company by these rulers, particularly the permission to keep its own troops to protect its establishment, and management of ports which strengthened the Company. It never occurred to Mughals to consider promoting any Trading Company from Indian side at all. Those were the days when mastering the ocean was key to success, but a huge empire like that of Mughals never bothered to develop shipping. Science was alien, and hardly any notable attempt was made to learn about the world outside of the subcontinent. The main failure was in gauging the changing times and inability to adapt.

We appear to keep repeating our mistakes. On the religious angle, at least Mughal emperors were honest enough not to project themselves as overzealous Muslims, with exception of Aurangzeb. But some of the other Muslim empires were comfortably hypocritical. The biggest hypocrisy was to call these Caliphates when they were lineage based empires. The sultan/Caliph palaces were hotbed of extreme conspiracies and manoeuvres, and murders and summary executions were blatantly common. It was in these Caliphates, that even fratricide was practiced with tacit agreement of the clergy. The ruler ascending to the throne would get his brothers and nephews murdered, and not just those who actually challenged him, but everybody.

Ottoman caliphate of Turkey practiced for hundreds of years. Interestingly, it was unlawful to spill royal blood, so these princes were strangulated with a silken cord. In later generation killings were replaced with lifetime imprisonment. Sometime in an ironic twist, if a sultan died without any male offspring of his own, one of the imprisoned brother or nephew was brought out to be the king. One such sultan was Ibrahim I. The guy was actually mentally unstable due to his years of confinement, and yet he became a sultan.

The intriguing for power was the prime occupation of the sultan, his sons, and the sons’ respective mothers. In process beside killing brothers, one could end up killing own father or even sons. These Muslim caliphs from Ummiades to Ottomans, created top of the line luxuries for themselves. They engage in all kinds of excesses, that any king would enjoy, lots of women, booze, killing undesirables at whims etc. Yet they were called caliphs and they used religion to keep the large Muslim population in check.

I have come to the conclusion that failure to analyze Muslim history critically has been one of the root causes of Muslims present plight. We must understand how different rulers used religion as a tool for their own purposes. How it was used to ensure strict confinement of women in the guise of protection require a separate article, but needless to say all laws and customs were designed to keep women under control. The rulers kept multiple wives and hundreds of concubines but were incredibly jealous of any possibility of their women going astray. So the guards and overall administrators of Harems were castrated soldiers/slaves, the head of harem guards was known as Khawaja Saraa in case of subcontinent. By the way castration is condemned in Islam and yet it was practiced for the benefit of the ruling class.

Another ugly aspect we hardly read in our textbooks, is rampant racism and slavery. There were open racism against blacks, and preference for whites. In the slave market, white slaves, normally captured from central Asia, were much more pricy than slaves captured from Africa. The blacks were given more menial tasks as compared to whites. The slave traders of Americas and Europe are so much maligned, but in some parts of the Muslim world, slaves were traded until the early 20th century. Racism still exists within us against blacks right here in Pakistan, just ask the Makrani community.

The purpose of this article is not to deny the good points of those eras. The Muslim empires, particularly in their heydays, promoted arts, sciences, and architecture; build public infrastructure, set up effective administrations and armies, and had reasonably well functioning courts. Tolerance towards people of other faiths was much better than what was practiced in Christian countries in those times.

The point is that we should not omit to mention the darker aspects of the past, otherwise we will make false analyses. History will show that what makes a nation accomplished and respected in the world is its ability to put in place a superior governance system, and its adaptability to changing times. It would also tell us that excessive patronising of religion by the state ends up compromising the process of innovation and adaptability

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