What happened in the past cannot be altered. But the past can be viewed from political, social and ideological perspectives so that historical events and personalities appear in varied shades. This approach transforms history into a dynamic tool that can fulfil the aspirations and needs of a particular set of people.
For example, Renaissance scholars were eager to get rid of their medieval heritage — the beginning of the Middle Ages is thus called the Dark Age as no development of new ideas and thoughts took place during that period. On the other hand, they revived the classical Greek and Roman past to create a new body of knowledge based on rationalism, rather than faith.
The followers of the Romantic period rejected the arguments of Renaissance scholars because they had experienced the Industrial Revolution and degradation of the natural environment, which led them to look back and romanticise the Middle Ages. They glorified the medieval past as an era of peace and harmony, which produced beautiful art, architecture and music. The two contrary ideas are based on different circumstances which scholars of both categories experienced. Hence, they viewed the past from their own perspective.
“There is no single, eternal and immutable ‘truth’ about past events and their meaning.” — James M. McPherson, historian
Similarly, in the medieval period, rulers, politicians and scholars highly admired the ancient Greek state of Sparta. They were very impressed by the Spartan’s military training, discipline and tolerance for war. Herodotus (d.425BC) further glorified the Spartans’ courage and fighting spirit when he narrated the events of the battle of Thermopylae in which 300 Spartans fought against the huge Persian army. However, when democratic institutions developed in Western societies, democracy in Athens was praised for creating freedom of expression manifested in the works of the great philosophers, dramatists, architects, artists, historians and politicians of the time. Democratic society in Europe preferred Athens over Sparta. In fact, Spartan society was condemned for being dictatorial and despotic as it blocked all creative activities and reduced citizens to mere tools for fighting wars — they died young in the name of Sparta.
In the age of democracy, the images of many individuals have been altered or rehabilitated according to the traditions and norms of popular democratic ideas. In Roman history, the assassination of Caesar (d.44BC) is regarded as an important event. Generally, Brutus (d. 42BC) and his friends who had a hand in the murder are depicted by Roman historians as enemies of the state, who subverted its development by killing Caesar — a great general and conqueror. He extended the boundaries of the Roman state and brought war booty and a large number of slaves. Admiration of Caesar continued for a long time in historical narratives.
However, democracy changed the outlook, and Brutus and his associates were portrayed as defenders of freedom who wanted to restore the Roman republic. In England, Cromwell’s (d.1658) army defeated Charles I (d. 1649), the king of England, and executed him for being a traitor. Three years later, Charles II ordered the dead body of his father’s murderer to be hanged, drawn and quartered.
When Carlyle (d.1881) wrote a book on Cromwell, he rehabilitated him and restored his honour and prestige. As a result, British society also recognised his contribution to politics.
When history is written from a local perspective, it changes the central outlook. Akbar (r.1556-1605), regarded as the greatest Mughal emperor, became an invader and imperialist from the local Sindhi point of view for occupying Sindh without any provocation. From the Pathan point of view, the jihad movement of Syed Ahmad Shaheed (d. 1831) is considered a violation as he and his followers interfered in their political affairs and established an Islamic state without their consent. But traditional historians criticised the Pathan tribes who opposed him and resisted his movement.
Initially, the East India Company tried to become the inheritor of Mughal rule and emulated their ceremonies, customs and traditions. However, when it acquired political power, it rejected the Mughal past and portrayed it as despotic and oppressive.
This is how the interpretation of the past changes. The question is whether the present perspective can help us understand the past better. Mostly, we judge the past in light of the present situation, as in the case of Pakistan. Presently, there is political chaos, social anarchy and economic inequality, so many of us feel that our colonial past was an ideal period. Similarly, when we compare the present to the earlier history of Pakistan, the rule of Ayub Khan appears to be peaceful and prosperous. But this assessment of the past is not correct because we tend to ignore the exploitation of colonialism and the dictatorial policies of Ayub Khan. History should be analysed, free from all prejudices, likes and dislikes.
Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, April 24th, 2016