In the early Islamic period, the discipline of history hadn’t been fully developed and had no significant impact on the consciousness of Arab society. Scholar Ibn Hazm (d.1064 AD) explains that religion was a source of understanding history; this transformed history into a branch of religion, which in turn, changed its structure and form.
The Arabs were proud of their poetry and had little interest in any other sources of knowledge. This can be interpreted from the fact that in the writings of Al Kindi (c. 873), Al Farabi (d. 950 AD) and Ibn Sena (d. 1037), there is no mention of history. As their source of knowledge was Greek translations, they took more interest in philosophy than in history.
Later on, even after the subject of history had evolved and transformed as a major source of past events, it did not find the kind of recognition that other sources of knowledge enjoyed. For example, in the encyclopaedic work Rasa’el Ikhwan al Safa, the topic of history is dealt with at the end — thus denoting the insignificance attributed to history at the time.
Scholars, therefore, had limited knowledge and perspective of history. It was believed that studying pre-Islamic history was of no use as it belonged to the days of ignorance (Jahiliyyah). According to these scholars, only Islamic history should be studied because it was based on truth and veracity.
Truth and facts take a beating when recording history becomes an act of theology
History as a subject was regarded as inferior to the extent that scholars would not take it up as a profession. Those who were involved in history writing were either courtiers or religious scholars and jurists; their reputations were based on their other professions and not as historians. For example, al Tabari (d. 923 AD) was known as a religious scholar and Ibn Khuldun (d.1406 AD) was renowned as a Qazi, although both men were great historians as well.
When independent Muslim states emerged, the rulers appointed court historians to write the history of their reign. These men were usually awarded this task in addition to their administrative posts.
As Muslim society was divided into different religious sects, history was used by each sect to prove their viewpoint and the righteousness of their ideology. As a result, history became subordinate to religion.
History was written either with a sense of devotion or in opposition to other sects, which in turn, caused prejudice and fuelled sectarian hatred. History suffered because each sect tried to write history in order to prove their truthfulness. In the process, history was distorted and past events were misquoted.
It, therefore, became impossible for a Muslim historian to write critically because faith and history were so intensively integrated with each other that they could not be separated. History was written between the bounds of theology, often reduced to sermonising and preaching ethical values only.
At a time when writing history was confined to reigning monarchs, royal dynasties and aristocracy, historians wrote only about things related to the court, its ceremonies, administration, collection of taxes, war strategy, organisation of army, conspiracies and intrigues. The object of such history was to train young princes and ruling classes on how to govern and control the affairs of the State.
However, the characteristic of Arabic historiography was to include different topics related to society besides the narrative of the ruling elite. On the other hand, Persian historiography dealt only with the history of rulers, aristocrats and state officials, and did not mention the contribution of other classes.
In the modern period, Muslim historiography has changed drastically. In every Muslim country, historians are writing history on the basis of nationalism.
They are now proud of the pre-Islamic past of their countries and include it as a continuity of their civilisation. For example, the Egyptians are taking pride in the Egypt of Pharaohs, the Syrians and Iraqis are tracing their roots to the Sumerian, Akkadian, Babylonian and Assyrians civilisations.
This approach changed the structure of Muslim historiography and the spirit of nationalism secularised it. For example, Lebanese Christians richly contributed to the writing of history, and produced works such as Philip Hitti’s book History of the Arabs and Albert Hourani’s A History of the Arab Peoples.
Muslim historiography was further enriched when Muslim countries struggled against European imperialism. At this stage, politicians used past Muslim glory and grandeur to inspire people to fight against foreign powers. This nationalist history also included religious minorities as a part of their nationhood.
This politicisation of history resulted in a distortion of events to justify particular political points of view. And perhaps it is this dynamic that still begs the question: did Muslim societies learn any lessons from history, or was history treated as entertainment?
Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, May 22nd, 2016