Importance of History

By Muhammad Tariq Ghazi

A large number of people are not interested in history. Of those interested, a vast majority is limited to historical myths that help them alleviate pain of the present, which is far more severe than they really deserve. In an attempt to reduce impact of their endless suffering, they find some consolation in remembering that their ancestors were great people who had contributed positively to human heritage, as against the masters of today. An Indian Urdu poet with little understanding of social cycles, once said, “Don’t frown upon torn-up caps on our heads; our crowns are put up in museums”. Such interest in history betrays social sickness, rather than enabling people to make any contribution to society they live in.

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Both attitudes are negative. On both sides we find highly educated and otherwise intellectual or academic leaders of a given community. They want to focus on the present, thinking that by moving away from the current situation or changing their existing course of thinking or action, or by simply copying the now developed communities, they could rise to the pinnacle of progress. They have come to this conclusion because they have divorced their followers of their past – their history.

As a matter of fact, those who think history is boring cannot be good drivers on a busy highway. They will end up with a disastrous accident causing harm to themselves and to others around them. Then it is too late for them to learn even if they return to a car driving school. Once behind the wheel, a good driver first looks at all the rear-view finders, correct their angles, before putting the key in ignition.

History is like the rear-view mirror provided in a moving car. Every vehicle is designed to also move in reverse gear, but primary objective of its maker was to take passengers ahead. To move ahead safely, the car driver needs to frequently look into the rear-view mirror in order to know the situation behind him and plan his movement forward without meeting a collision with other vehicles behind or ahead of his car. The rear-view mirror guides the driver to decide when to change the lane and how speedily, when to overtake another equally speedily moving vehicle, especially when he is travelling on a narrow dual-carriage country highway. On such highways, it is also the responsibility of the driver in the vehicle ahead of you to keep you warned of the situation in front of him that is not within your sight especially when you’re behind an 18-wheeler trailer.

This additional duty of a driver can be described, in Islamic terms, as commanding virtue and forbidding vice (امر بالمعروف و نہی عن المنکر).

History itself is chequered. In the beginning history was merely the narration of a curious or over-awed onlooker. However, after the revelation of The Qur’an, first serious attempts were made to know the past. There is a call on Man to study the past in no less than 27 ayaat. In 23 ayaat Allah commands readers of The Qur’an to “travel around in the Earth” and see how the people of bygone eras lived and study their fate. Similar statements are made in the form of question in another seven ayaat, asking the readers why don’t they move around the Earth and see what happened to people in the past. These ayaat produced the largest number of travellers who wrote down in volumes their studies of human behavior. Eleven major travellers who lived in a 500-year time frame between 900 and 1400 CE left enormous amount of information that was never before available to man. By the end of the fourteenth century, Ibn Khaldun had already developed social science from history of culture, now known as sociology – which was, in the words of an American historian Sheila Blair, “rational in approach, analytical in method and encyclopedic in detail” – thus further qualifying him to develop such new social sciences as economics and political science.

These 500 years were also the period when Arabs were “making” history, rather than just reading it. However, as the fifteenth century dawned, Arabs lost interest in history: they were neither making it nor reading it. The task was taken over by the Ottoman Turks in Europe and other Turks, Pathans and Mughals in South Asia.

Muslims are now living in times when they are not making history, nor are they writing it, and they show little interest in reading it.

No wonder if Muslims are no longer in driver’s seat. They don’t have any use of a rear-view finder in the vehicle of their life. Obviously they are not on the move on the highway of history. Nonetheless, the vehicle is parked just outside their slumber-house, waiting for its generation.