The Benefits of Studying Islamic History

THE GREAT INDIAN Islamic scholar and historian Abu Al-Hasan Ali Nadwi observes, like other sages of Islam have before, that Islam, being the last and universal religion of God, has a unique history of internal revival, reform and self-rejuvenation.

God sent the message of Islam at a chosen moment in the development of human history where the technological, scientific and intellectual understanding of humanity as a whole was reaching a stage of final maturation and ripening. Instead of geographically confined nations and tribal systems which all received their own messengers from Allah, the humanity was now ripe for one, universal, perfected and final message of Allah.

The development of the Islamic Ummah in history was amazingly rapid. It was full of trials and tribulations and encounters with other cultures and religious systems. As a result, the final message of Allah was embodied in a civilization that was enriched by all the great civilizations of the world. Within the first century of its birth, Islam spread across half the known and majority of the civilized world of that time. As different people became Muslims or came under the rule of Islam, the scholars and thinkers of Islam came from increasingly diverse regions, thus enriching the flowering and protection of Islamic scholarship and tradition with their own cultural strengths. The contributions of the Persians in bureaucracy and culture, the Hindus in mathematics, the Greeks in logic, the Turks in military and architecture fields, just to name a few, all became sources of strength of Islam. On the other hand, the previous philosophical and religious systems of the new lands both challenged and influenced the Muslim scholars and thinkers. All these factors make the history of Islam extremely fast moving, diverse and filled with conflicts, debates and upheavals. Each of these experiences, however, also helped it mature and develop.

Whenever the Ummah of Islam faced a new danger, internal or external, Allah raised among the Muslims scholars, leaders and groups who protected the true Din of Allah and revived it in its true, pristine form. This ubiquitous phenomenon is known to the historian as revivalism or tajdid.

The Ummah of Islam, with its preserved source-texts (the Quran and the Hadith), scholarship and legacy, has survived all its enemies only because of the special divine arrangements. In history, this protection and guidance of Allah has been actualized in the form of the rise of great scholars and leaders, fields of scholarship like the sciences of the Quran, of Hadith, of jurisprudence and its principles, the preservation of the Arabic language and so on.

Today, the Muslim Ummah faces great challenges from all sides. But an observer of Islamic history recognizes that the situation is neither new nor hopeless: in fact, these trials and challenges are part of God’s plan to take the Ummah of Islam and the message of Islam up to a new level of strength and recognition in this world.

To learn Islamic history is to inquire how Allah’s ways have worked and his will carried out at the hands of myriads of individuals and groups and how His promises have come true. To look at history Islamically is to keep an eye on the moral, spiritual and ethical dimensions of all episodes in history, however big or small. This is precisely why the Quran makes learning history in some ways an act of faith and a source of wisdom.

WHY LEARN HISTORY: Reasons from the Quran

Just as the food we eat constitutes our bodies, our history constitutes our minds. Our ideas, concepts, sentiments, and preferences, in short, what makes us human, is largely a result of our past experiences. Individuals, peoples, institutions, or nations, all acquire their particular nature or identity primarily because of their unique histories. We cannot know ourselves without knowing where we have been and come from. Not knowing where we come from leaves us without our sense of self-hood. Loss of identity leaves us without a purpose, like a ship without destination, at the mercy of merciless winds. This loss of identity has been mentioned in the Quran as a punishment from Allah:

Do not be like those who forgot Allah, so Allah made them forget themselves. [Surat Al-Hashr, 59:19]

People who forget who they were may forget who they ought to be. This lead to self-deceit and arrogance. Allah reminds every human being again and again of his or her individual ‘history,’ to shake them up from their disbelief and arrogance:

Was he not a drop of semen? Then a sticky mass, so Allah created and proportioned him [Surat Al-Qiyamah, 75:37-38], and

Does man not see that We created him from a drop of sperm, but he grew up to be an open belligerent. [Surat Yasin, 36:77]

In Surat Al-Fil and Surat Quraysh, Allah reminds the people of Quraysh of his favors upon them in the past, encouraging them to learn moral lessons from their history:

Have you not seen how your Lord dealt with the People of the Elephant? [Surat Al-Fil 105:1] And

For the accustomed security of the Quraysh… Let them worship the Lord of this House, Who has fed them [saving them] from hunger and made them safe [saving them] from fear. [Surat Quraysh,106:1-4]

Allah repeatedly commands Muslims in the Quran to observe, consider, and reflect upon the lessons from the history of bygone nations. Instructing the Muslims in moral and spiritual history of the earlier nations seems to be one of the major emphases of the Quran. The fact that the majority of Allah’s Final Message consists of stories of moral struggle of earlier peoples is an indication of the significance of learning history, and learning it with the right perspective of seeking lessons. Following are a few lessons that can be drawn from the Qur’anic perspective on history.

Universality of lessons

The lessons from the rise or fall of any community in the past are valid for all humanity, for there are some unalterable, universal laws or principles that apply to all nations depending on their specific conditions. The Quran calls these laws the Sunan (established ways of dealing) of Allah:

For you shall not find any alteration in the way (Sunna) of Allah; and you shall not find any change in the way of Allah. [Surat Fatir, 35:43]

Moral-Spiritual Interpretation

While modern historians focus on different dimensions of history and offer different bases for the interpretation of history based on their respective belief systems, the basis of Qur’anic storytelling is emphatically moral and spiritual. In other words, Allah demands of us to look first and foremost at the moral aspects of a nation’s history. Nations fall, for example, not due primarily to economic failures, but due to the moral-spiritual failure to properly dispense economic justice based on the correct belief in and obedience to Allah. In Surat Al-A‘raf, after relating several stories of encounter between the truthful prophets of Allah and their disbelieving people, Allah summarizes the lessons of these stories by saying:

If only the people of the towns had believed and feared [Allah], We should indeed have opened out to them (All kinds of) blessings from heaven and earth; but they rejected (the truth), so We seized them for their misdeeds. [Surat Al-A‘raf 7:96]

Learning Moral Lessons from History is an Obligation

The cause of the downfall of nations one after the other in the aforementioned verse [7:96] is that they neglected the moral lessons of the history of their forefathers, and thought that the same does not apply to them:

Whenever We sent a prophet to a town, We took up its people in suffering and adversity, in order that they might learn humility. Then We changed their suffering into prosperity, until they grew and multiplied, and began to say: “Our fathers (too) were touched by suffering and affluence. “… then We took them by surprise, and they did not perceive. [Surat Al-A‘raf , 7:94-95]

History is the Best Way to Teach and Caution

The Quran could have been a book of abstract theories of laws that govern societies, or simply a list of do’s and don’ts. But the fact that our Creator, the Most Wise, has chosen story telling as a chief means to caution and education the humankind necessarily means that humans have a propensity to learn from other’s examples. Successful teachers and preachers of Islam always have a good grasp of history.

History of All Humanity is Relevant

By Islamic history, we often mean the history of Muslims. But the Quran is full of history of rebellious nations. We conclude that so long as the framework of history is Islamic (i.e., moral-spiritual), no part of human history is irrelevant to the believers.

History Repeats Itself

It has become a cliché that history repeats itself. This is true inasmuch as all struggles of good and evil are bound by the universal Sunan (principles) established by Allah. In order to show the Muslim Ummah its potential failings, the Quran focuses on the moral stories of the Children of Israel, for they were, as some scholars have observed, ‘the exMuslim Ummah.’ The Prophet has explicitly informed us that the Muslim Ummah will follow in the footsteps of their sister community, the Children of Israel:

What great brethren the Children of Israel are to you if they possess all the vices and you all the virtues. No, by Allah, you will follow their path [very closely] like the length of a sandal strap. (Al-Tabari in his commentary on verses 5:44-47)

Systematic Learning of the Science of History is a Requisite

The Quran, the Final Message of Allah, is a book of guidance and contains all foundational principles and general moral exhortations that will suffice all those who seek Allah till the Day of Judgment. The Quran is not a book of history, and the way it tells stories presumes that the audience has some knowledge of the history being told. If the Quraysh, for instance, did not know something about the history of Aad, Thamud and the destruction of the army of Abrahah and his Elephants, the Qur’anic references to these incidents would make little sense to them. The Quran provides the moral interpretation to the human drama of life and gives many instructive examples. But it is an obligation of Muslims to learn as accurately and objectively as possible the facts of history so the Qur’anic principles could be correctly applied, since fulfilling the requisites of an obligation is an obligation itself. To learn objectively the science of history, therefore, is part of Islamic obligation upon the Muslim Ummah, without which they cannot fully benefit from the message of the Quran.

Written By

Uwaymir Anjum is the Imam Khattab Chair of Islamic Studies at the Department of Philosophy, University of Toledo. He is also professor of Islamic Intellectual History at Qatar University. He studies the connections between theology, ethics, politics, and law in classical and medieval Islam, with a subfocus on its comparisons with western thought. Related fields of study include Islamic philosophy and Sufism. His dissertation, published in 2012 by Cambridge University Press, is entitled Politics, Law, and Community in Islamic Thought: The Taymiyyan Moment. His translation of Ibn al-Qayyim's Madârij Al-Sâlikîn is forthcoming.

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