At one point during the Makkan period of Prophet Muhammad (salAllahu alayhi wa sallam)’s mission, the disbelieving leaders of Quraysh decided to try a new tactic in their failing effort to undermine his position as the leader of the young Muslim community – raise objections that they hoped he would not be able to provide a coherent response to. One such objection was that, if Allah (subhānahu wa ta‘āla) really had a message He wanted conveyed to the people, he could have sent it with an angel instead of a human. Allah (subhānahu wa ta‘āla) responded to this objection in the Qur’ān: “If there were upon the earth angels walking securely, We would have sent down to them from the heaven an angel [as a] messenger” (17:95). The underlying lesson in this ayah (verse) is quite clear – a human can only relate to and learn from the experiences of another human. This seems obvious enough, but there’s a deeper observation to be made here: the allusion in this ayah is the crux of the Islamic argument in support of studying of history.
If a human can only relate to the experiences of another human, then the next question is of where we can find these experiences and how we can access and benefit from them. Of course, there are lived experiences all around us: your family, your friends, your classmates, your spouse, and your coworkers all have a unique life story, aspects of which you can relate to and learn from. But very soon we realize that we’re cripplingly limiting our range of study. There are important questions that simply can’t be answered by indulging in the experiences of just those around you. For the Muslim, an example of such a question might be of why the Muslim ummah is in the condition we find it in today, or why the Sunni-Shi’a divide exists. To answer such questions, you have to move beyond your immediate pool of others’ experiences.
So if we’re going to explore the lived experiences of humanity beyond our immediate place in time and space, there are only two ways to go insofar as the dimension of time is concerned: either the past or the future. The future, in this case, is useless simply because it hasn’t happened yet. The past, on the other hand, is an incredibly rich source to study the lived experiences of humans as individuals and humanity as a whole. Though the many problems the honest student of history will inevitably encounter are important (and will be discussed elsewhere), history nonetheless remains a crucial source – in many ways the only source – for the human trying to understand the nature of the world and more importantly human nature itself.
This is a very important point to understand, so let’s explore it a bit more with the analogy of the study of a subject that is very similar to the study of history: astronomy. If our range of studying the universe was limited to our own solar system (as it was for thousands of years), we may have known everything about the moon and Saturn’s rings without ever knowing anything about black holes, dark matter, or the Big Bang theory. Studying the universe beyond our solar system helped us learn more about our own solar system and even about ourselves. For an illustration of this, we can take a moment here to reflect on the reality that, on the one hand, we’re empowered by the fact that humans are the best of Allah (subhānahu wa ta’āla)’s creation, and on the other hand we’re humbled by the fact that we can’t even begin to comprehend the vastness and beauty of His creation. Astronomy is thus a subject that provides us with a reason to maintain the delicate balance between empowerment and humility in our lives. History is the other subject that does the same (and the comparison between these two amazing subjects will be a recurring theme in this series of posts). Suffice is to point out that Allah (subhānahu wa ta’āla) refers us to both subjects in the Qur’ān on more than one occasion, encouraging us to reflect on what they teach us.
It can therefore be said that history is one of the key elements of Allah (subhānahu wa ta’āla)’s answer to the du‘a a committed Muslim makes at least seventeen times a day when we recite Sūrah al-Fātiha in our salah (prayer). “It is You [alone] we worship and You [alone] we ask for help. Guide us to the straight path (as-sirāt al-mustaqīm) – the path of those upon whom You have bestowed favor, not of those who have evoked [Your] anger or of those who are astray.” (1:5-7). This sūrah ends here, and at the start of the very next sūrah, Allah (subhānahu wa ta’āla) says, as if immediately answering our du‘a: “This is the Book about which there is no doubt, a guidance for those who are conscious of Allah” (2:2). But more specifically, a Muslim (or even a non-Muslim) who sincerely turns to the Qur’ān for guidance may find something very interesting inside, and that is simply that one of the primary ways Allah (subhānahu wa ta’āla) guides us through the Qur’ān is by presenting to us al-qasas (stories) from the past – in other words, history. The quantitative evidence for this is that an estimated half or so of the contents of the Qur’ān are narrations of the past and calls for us to reflect on them.
If Allah (subhānahu wa ta’āla) chose to dedicate half of His final revelation to references to history, then it’s very sad to see ourselves continue to ignore it because we’ve been convinced by the modern-day education system that it is “boring” and “irrelevant.” Why the education system is designed to create this perception of history will be discussed in another post, inshaAllah.
We’ve now identified the overarching reason for which we’re encouraged to study history: to attain guidance. But there are other reasons that branch off of this one, and they’re worth identifying as well. One is taqwiyat al-‘īmān (strengthening of faith). History is a treasure trove of real, recorded evidence of the supremacy of Allah (subhānahu wa ta’āla)’s will and the truthfulness of His promise both to those who uphold their commitment to Him and those who don’t.
This is illustrated in a very short yet profound sūrah of the Qur’ān that can be described as the best summary of human history: Sūrah ‘Asr. “By time, indeed, humanity is in loss – except for those who have believed and done righteous deeds and advised each other to truth and advised each other to patience” (103:1-3). It is as if time is personified here. One can imagine a person named Time, sitting on top of a mountain and witnessing all of human history unfold before his eyes, who is then asked to comment on everything he has seen. The only thing he can say is that the vast majority of humanity are in loss, but there are distinguished exceptions with certain characteristics. Because Allah (subhānahu wa ta’āla) Himself has sworn by Time, we have no reason to doubt his truthfulness. But still, if we want to strengthen our belief in this reality, we are provided the opportunity to relive his experience by studying history ourselves. This will increase our ‘īmān and inspire us to increase our effort to be part of the exception, not the rule. With these effects, it’s no wonder many scholars have referred to this sūrah as the summary of the entire Qur’ān.
A point to be noted here is that an essential element of our ‘īmān is to love our Prophet Muhammad (salAllahu alayhi wa sallam), and it is impossible to really love a person and take him as our ideal example in life without actually studying his life. Another element of our ‘īmān is to study the Qur’an, which covers much of the history from the creation of our father Adam (alayhis salām) up to and including the life of the Prophet (salAllahu alayhi wa sallam). As for the rest of history after this, at its core it is nothing more than an extension of the Prophet’s sīrah across space and time: those after him who have taken his life as an example have always been successful, and those who have not have always wallowed in failure. In this way our fundamental education in history is built into our religious obligations.
A third reason for which we’re encouraged to study history is so that, as Muslims, we can nourish our self-awareness and as a result unify ourselves around the predominant element of our identity: the kalimah of tawhīd, “lā ilāha illAllah, Muhammad ar-rasūlAllah.” We all declare this kalimah and believe in it, but rarely do we think about the exclusive membership it provides us with – by declaring this kalimah, we become part of the Muslim ummah, a family that has existed for more than 1,400 years and has spread to every corner of our planet. Allah (subhānahu wa ta’āla) chose you and I out of millions upon millions of people, at His own discretion, to be part of this family. One of the many benefits of this, particularly for those of us living in modern-day Western societies characterized by individualism, is a sense of collectivity that transcends any of us as individuals. Though our lives may be drastically different, I share a core feature of my identity as a Muslim with the Muslims who ruled over Spain and Russia, the Muslims who spoke Arabic and Tamil, the Muslims who fought at Badr and in World War One, the Muslims who were the first to use paper and the last to use the printing press, the Muslims who created the first university and first brewed coffee. As different as we may be, we’re inseparably attached by the immense power of the kalimah of tawhīd.
And this sense of self-awareness is the main ingredient for Islamic unity. “Lā ilāha illAllah, Muhammad ar-rasūlAllah” is a very heavy statement, one that transcends all of our petty differences, and once we make the decision to really respect it, reflect it, and mean it when we say it, the unity we all desire for will appear a lot more clearly on the horizon. The other benefit of developing this self-awareness by studying history is to clear up the misconception that many Muslims have, whether they admit or not, that the Islamic way of life is inherently primitive and not feasible in the modern context. The plot twist in this narrative is that it’s simply not true. For almost one thousand years, the dīn of Islam was most advanced way of life the world had ever seen, as was the Islamic society it constructed. But of course, you have to reflect on history beyond your own experience to arrive at this incredibly empowering conclusion.
Speaking of this, we arrive at our fourth reason for studying history: contextualizing our present-day lived experience. As harmless and dormant as it may seem, history is a powerful force that is always shaping our present-day reality. And I don’t just mean that something that happened yesterday is going to affect what happens today – that’s obvious enough. What is not so obvious is that events that happened decades and centuries ago continue to shape the world we live in today. If today’s world is full of cancerous problems (which I would argue it is), we have to revisit the past and try to eradicate them from their historical roots. Poverty, for example, is widespread in the Muslim world today. This is not because “there will always be poor people in the world and there’s nothing we can do about that,” but simply because wealth isn’t circulated in society according to the way Allah (subhānahu wa ta’āla) has commanded us to circulate it. And yet there was a time when so many people had been systematically taken out of poverty in the Muslim world that you would have to go out of your way to find someone to give your zakah to. What is the difference between then and today? That is history we have to explore if we’re serious about eliminating poverty from our world, which is an effort we’re responsible for making.
And finally, there is one last reason why the Muslim should study history: da’wah. One of our responsibilities as members of the ummah is to act as the Prophet (salAllahu alayhi wa sallam)’s ambassadors and take the message of Islam to the rest of humanity. We know that ultimately it is Allah (subhānahu wa ta’āla) who guides His chosen servants to Islam. Our responsibility, however, is to carefully repackage and present the message of Islam to non-Muslims in ways that are most likely to spark their interest. A key aspect of this is to develop an understanding of how our audiences identify themselves and particularly how their self-identification is rooted in their historical experience. Genealogy, for example, was very important to the Arabs at the time of the Prophet (salAllahu alayhi wa sallam) and beyond, and many famous conversions to Islamic history happened because Islam was presented to the people in a way that appealed to their identity. The more we understand about where our audiences have come from – intellectually, ideologically, religiously, linguistically, and culturally – the better we will understand who they are today. This knowledge will make us better prepared to present the message of Islam in the most appealing way possible.
To conclude, we can summarize five of the primary reasons why the Muslim is encouraged in Islam to study history: for guidance, for the strengthening of one’s ‘īmān, for developing our self-awareness and unity, for contextualizing our present-day experience, and for perfecting our da’wah. It’s important to mention that the point here hasn’t been to scare you off because you think you need to leave your wife and drop out of your college program to chase a PhD in the history of Western music. The purpose of this point was to share why history is important to study. The questions of where and how will be addressed in the next post, inshaAllah.
And Allah (subhānahu wa ta’āla) knows best.