In this piece, I hope to show what a Muslim perspective or representation of Islamic history should entail, especially on the popular level. It is certainly not intended as a substitute for any academic approach to the history of the Islamic world. Rather, it is an attempt to provide a set of preliminary guiding principles for any Muslim hoping to learn more about the Islamic past.
The Necessity of Reflecting upon History
Various Qur’anic verses enjoin Muslims to reflect upon earlier generations of humanity in order to better understand/reform their present, and thus safeguard their future:
“We destroyed many generations before you when they did wrong” (Surah Yunus, 10:13).
“If the people of these towns had believed and practiced piety, We would have showered on them the blessings of the heaven and the earth “. (Surah al‑A’raf, 7:96).
“The evil designing recoils only on those who do it. Then can they expect anything other than the punishment meted out to the earlier people? You will not find a change in Allah’s ways, nor will you find Allah’s ways to change. Have they not travelled across the land and seen the fate of those who were before them, though they were far mightier in power than themselves?” (Surah, al‑Fatir, 35:43 ‑44)
“Precedents have been set for you in the past; roam the earth and note the consequences for the unbelievers.” (Surah al-Imran, 3: 137)
“If only there had been among the generations that have gone before you, men possessing good sense who could warn their people and stop them from spreading corruption on the earth” (Surah Hud, 11:116)
The message is clear and simple: 1-learn to recognize the errors of previous generations and avoid them; and, implicitly, 2-learn to recognize where people were on the correct path and seek to understand why they were successful. At the center of both of these conceptions is the interrelationship between the application of the core principle of Islam–the submission to God alone–and Muslim society. How should we best approach Muslim history (632 onwards)? One sensible approach seems to interpret the Muslim past and present through an Islamic prism. We need to clearly demarcate between what is meant by “Muslim” and what is understood by “Islamic” in order for us to more effectively and clearly make sense of the Muslim reality in light of the Islamic ideal. We should also be conscious that there are various interpretations of Islam which will necessarily dictate how we view and assess Muslim history.
It is best to begin by posing the question: what is history? What is the relationship between history and the present? Is our view of history dictated by the concerns of the present, or do we seek to interpret the past as a means of understanding the progress (or regression) of human society? In his Muqaddima, the North African polymath Ibn Khaldun (d.1406) provides some insight into these questions:
“[…] History is a discipline that has a great number of approaches. Its useful aspects are very many. Its goal is distinguished. History acquaints us with the conditions of past nations as they are reflected in their national character. It acquaints us with the biographies of the Prophets and with the dynasties and policies of rulers…The writing of history requires numerous sources and much varied knowledge. It also requires a good speculative mind and thoroughness, which lead the historian to truth and keep him from slips and errors. If he trusts historical information in its plain transmitted form and has no clear knowledge of other principles resulting from custom, the fundamental facts of politics, the nature of civilization, or the conditions governing human social organization, and if, furthermore, he does evaluate remote or ancient material through comparison with near or contemporary material, he often cannot avoid stumbling and slipping and deviating from the path of truth.”
Elaborating on this notion of the science of history, specifically on the issue of discerning the truth, he continues:
“It should be known that history is informative about human social organization, which itself is identical with world civilization. It deals with such conditions affecting the nature of civilization as, for instance, savagery and sociability, group feelings [‘asabiyya], and the different ways by which one group of human beings achieves dominance over another. It deals with [political] authority and the dynasties that result in this manner and with the various ranks that exist within them. Also with the different kinds of gainful occupations and ways of making a living, with the sciences and crafts that human beings pursue as part of their activities and efforts, and with all the other institutions that originate in civilization through its very nature. Untruth naturally afflicts historical information. There are various reasons that make this unavoidable. One of them is partisanship for opinions and schools….Prejudice and partisanship obscure the critical faculty and preclude critical investigation. The result is that falsehoods are accepted and transmitted…Another reason is the fact that people as a rule approach great and high-ranking [historical] persons with praise and encomiums. They embellish conditions and spread their fame. The information made public in such cases is not truthful. Human souls long for praise and people pay great attention to this world and the positions and wealth it offers. As a rule, they feel no desire for virtue and have no special interest in virtuous people. Another reason making untruth unavoidable, and this one is more powerful than all the reasons previously mentioned, is ignorance of the nature of various conditions arising in civilization. Every event (or phenomenon), whether (it comes about in connection with some) essence or (as a result of) action, must inevitably possess a nature peculiar to its essence as well as to the accidental conditions that may attach themselves to it. If the student knows the nature of events and the circumstances and requirements in the world of existence, it will help them to distinguish the truth from untruth in investigating the historical information critically.”
Whether one agrees or disagrees with this assessment, the fact remains that questions of sources, bias, interpretation, and representation are essential when looking at history. It is necessary for any truly Islamic approach to history to be conscious of these facts and attempt navigate through many of the misconceptions and misrepresentations (both by Muslims and non-Muslims) of Islamic history, seek a correct understanding, and relate our discussions to the present Muslim experience. Among the social scientific disciplines, history is among the oldest. It holds a particularly distinguished position within Islamic civilization, which produced some of the best historians in human history: al-Tabari, al-Mas’udi, Ibn al-Athir, Ibn Khaldun, Ibn Kathir, al-Suyuti, Rashid al-Din Fazlullah, to name only a few of the most well-known. In fact, much of the modern discipline of history is indebted to figures that were products of Islamic civilization. However, one would almost be forgiven for their ignorance of this fact. Unfortunately, the discipline of history has been dominated by a Euro-American centrism, which focuses largely on the entity (real or imagined?) of “Western Civilization” as the central driving force in the history of human progress. In our discussions, we need to problematize and address this assumption, which has not only informed western approaches to Islamic history, but also—especially in recent years—Muslim approaches. Another major barrier, which has become more prevalent within the Muslim community, is the tendency of “Golden Age” paradigms to strongly inform the approach to pre-modern Muslim history.
What is Islamic History? Importance of distinguishing between “Islamic” and “Muslim” history
It is not my intention here to provide a major critique of the periodization of Islamic history are three distinct phases of “Islamic history”. Rather, it is important to understand that, traditionally, Islamic history has been divided into three, broad phases:
1) History of the Prophets and Revelation before Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him). This often includes the history of pre-Islamic classical civilizations, especially those mentioned in the Qur’an and Hadīth (including Banī Isrā’īl, ‘Ad, Thamūd, Rome, Egypt, etc.). The primary purpose of understanding this history is to underscore the significant role of the Prophets as messengers of Divine Revelation, champions of Justice, destroyers of Tyranny, and guides towards Salvation. As Muhammad Husayni Behishti explains in Chapter 13 of his book Philosophy of Islam entitled “The Islamic Conception of History”:
“A study of the Prophets shows that they have been the biggest source of intellectual and reformatory revolution in society. It is they who preached justice, humanity, philanthropy, brotherhood, equality, service to mankind, love, human freedom, peace, purity, piety and other social and human virtues.
Furthermore, it is they who more than anyone else exposed the oppressors, the tyrants, the hypocrites and the self‑seekers, and taught the people to resist them boldly and make a sacrifice for this purpose. The main feature of their [mission] was to fight against subjugation and humiliation and strive for liberty and emancipation. Reflect on the following verses: “Indeed We raised in every nation a messenger, (proclaiming): Worship God and shun false gods”. (Surah al‑Nahl, 16:36).
“We indeed sent Our messengers with clear signs, and revealed with them the scriptures and the criteria for judging what is right and what is wrong, so that the people may establish justice”. (Surah al‑Hadid, 57:25)
There is no doubt that every prophet started his mission at the most opportune time, when injustice, wrong conceptions, undue discrimination, dissensions and neglect of duties were rampant and the situation demanded the beginning of a reformatory movement to dispel darkness and to illuminate the atmosphere with the light of virtue and truth. But in all cases the actual campaign for changing the intellectual and social conditions started only at the behest of Divine revelation.
Narratives of the Prophets are provided in the Qur’an, not out of mere historical interest, but for the spiritual and moral lessons which they convey. These narrations are often intended to illustrate the trials and tribulations which the Prophets endured, God’s absolute justice, and His sovereignty in the world. This phase of history is important for Muslims because, among other things, it puts the Qur’an and the Prophet’s mission into a broader historical perspective, and clarifies the context and significance of many verses. As such, although it is largely the realm of tafsir, the principles of reflection, knowledge, and interpretation of the past, based on the Qur’anic and Prophetic model, must certainly serve as the key guiding conceptual and theoretical principles for any discussion of history from an Islamic perspective.
2) The Mission of the Prophet (pbuh). This phase lasted approximately 23 years, from 609/610 to 632. This is primarily the realm of sira. For many (although not all) Muslims, the significance of this phase is that it marks the end of what may be called “sacred history.” Following the death of the Prophet (pbuh), there was no more Revelation by which humankind would be guided (on this fact, all factions and schools of Islamic thought are in agreement), although the Shi’ite interpretation is that divine guidance continued through the figures of the Imams. Most Sunni Muslims, however, believe that the sole sources of guidance on which humankind can rely for salvation are the Qur’an and the Sunnah of His Prophet (saw). As it is laid out in the Qur’an:
“This day I have perfected your religion for you, completed My favor upon you, and have chosen for you Islam as your religion.” (Surah al-Ma’edah, 5:3)
3) The History of Islamic Civilization since 632. This is the realm of historical inquiry and reflection, and deals exclusively with the history of Muslims, rather than Islam per se. It is during this phase when a distinctive civilization, based on the principles of Islam, took shape. By 750, we can speak definitively of an “Islamic civilization.” This is the phase which will concern us directly in our discussions, and may be further divided as follows:
1) The Formative Period (ca.632-900): this refers to the period which witnessed the articulation of a distinctive Islamic civilization, jurisprudence, political theory and social organization. It is this period in which the various schools of thought came into being, when socio-political structures were established, and when various institutions were conceived (Sufism, Caliphate/Imamate, ‘ulema’, etc.). Note that this does not refer to the articulation of Islam, the revelation of which was completed by 632, but rather denotes the layers of interpretation which subsequent generations of Muslims produced in their attempt to understand and implement Islam as a social, political, and economic reality.
2) The Period of Islamic Ascendancy (ca.632-1699): this is the phase when the bulk of Islamic history, as traditionally understood, most significantly manifested itself politically, religiously, scientifically, and intellectually. Many of the important developments occurred during this time period.
3) The Period of “Decline” and “Revival” (1700 to present): perhaps the most problematic periodization and the subject of continuous debate among Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Was there a decline? Why did it occur? What is meant by “revival”? As Muslims, are these even useful categories of analysis? These are terms and questions which need to be problematized as we think about Islamic history.
To conclude, one of the most important objectives of any Muslim discussion of Islamic history should be an arrival at an understanding of the meaningful and significant aspects of the history of Muslim civilization. This should involve neither nostalgic idealization nor fierce condemnation, but should seek to elucidate the main theoretical and practical aspects of the historical Muslim experience and reflect upon their relevance for the Muslim present. This would involve a careful and detailed investigation of both the positive and negative aspects of the Muslim historical experience, and attempt to make sense of it. As such, it would be useful to understand history as a supplementary discipline to other Islamic sciences and one that is essential for truly coming to terms with the significance of the Islamic past, interpreting the Muslim present, and looking towards the future. Many of the issues and problems faced by the Muslim community today are merely echoes of a long historical process, and the rich history of Muslim civilization is a crucial repository of wisdom upon which we should draw to make sense of this present.