The History of Islam: New Directions

History is very important from the ideological and educational standpoint in addition to its importance as a discipline of knowledge and as information. The Qur’an teaches us, “Indeed in the stories of these men, there is a lesson for those who can think.” [12:111] Educationally, then, for the new generations and ideologically for those who are committed to Islam as a way of life, it is very important to get the message of history which enlightens us in dealing with contemporary circumstances.

Is it more correct to say Islamic history or Muslim history? Each description has its pros and cons. When you say “Islamic history“ you care more about commitment to Islam and assessment according to Islamic criteria, since not everything which happened in the past or happens at present on the Islamic scene can really be considered Islamic. Historical events should be evaluated under such a term according to Islam whether they are social, cultural, political or economic.

What may be positive in terms of a historical development or very important as a mere material accomplishment may or may not be something important from the viewpoint of Islam. Suppose that we have a very magnificent tomb made by Muslims, would you consider this Islamic or not? Calling our history “Muslim history“ may draw a line between human behavior and Islam itself. History represents the outcome of Muslim practices and each can be evaluated according to Islam. It is just a development of Muslim thinking and behavior- Muslim interaction with other human universal effects. Muslim history is the product of Muslims as human beings. It may be right or wrong ideologically, but it is the product of people. According to Western terminology, Islam may be “the religion,” “the history,” or “the people” of the present time. When Westerners write about Islam they may mean contemporary Muslims or past Muslims or Islam as a religion. Consequently, when you say Muslim history you remove any confusion, you are talking about “people” and this people may or may not comply with the teachings of the religion and their practice may or may not be accepted by Islam. The term “Muslim history” seems preferable to emphasize the human nature of this history, and to underline the fact that any event in that history might be positive or negative, good or bad, might comply with or contradict Islam. Muslim history might be a direct reflection of Islam or any other influence which is allowed by Islam. Therefore, Muslim practices may not necessarily represent Islam as revealed by God, and the word “Islam” should be used exclusively for the “religion” in its divine sources: the Qur’an and Sunnah, while “Muslims” live as human beings and may abide by or deviate from divine guidance.

Are we rewriting, or just reviewing, or representing the history of Islam in an understandable way? I don’t like the word “rewriting,” since it is far from reality. The sources of our history have been there for centuries even though reading these sources, scrutinizing and analyzing their reports may be successful or not, and thus successive efforts are needed and expected. We are just reading and presenting that history through our fresh understanding and benefiting from general current knowledge.

What about the Islamization of knowledge with regard to the history of Islam? It may mean that we care about objectivity and accuracy because we have Islamic criteria concerning extending or receiving information. It may mean that a study of Muslim history should include a study of Islam itself because you cannot study any history without knowing the cultural background of the people. One cannot understand the political history of ancient Greece unless one studies Greek mythology, belie&, philosophy, arts, etc. Similarly, the history of Islam is not just information about the succession of rulers and the military confrontations with internal or external forces. It is necessary to really know the cultural background of Muslim society: the rulers and the ruled.

However, Islamization in the field of history should never mean -as it may be understood by some people -that we will be selective and that we will choose what we like and defend it as authentic while we reject what we don’t like and consider it false. History is history and Muslims were and are merely fallible human beings, not perfect angels. We are consistent in all our approaches and we accept the facts according to applied criteria, whether we may be happy or unhappy with these facts. We try to understand why the unIslamic practices happened, not to deny that these practices existed. What we may be criticized for in our history, cannot be ignored or erased since it happened, but it should be analyzed so that contemporary and future Muslims may not allow it to happen again. Our past, whatever its glories might be, also had its shortcomings and failures, and that past should enlighten, not dominate our present and future. Of course we respect the past and the time of the Prophet (SASS) and his Companions: those who had direct access to Islam. However, the Qur’an teaches us that those earliest Muslims might make mistakes; and it corrected them when they were mistaken and praised them when they were right. This does not mean that we consider the past a paralysis preventing us from planning our future. The past guides us with many positive elements and warns us against the negative elements which were practiced and could be repeated in any human society if we do not learn from past lessons. This is obvious in what the Qur‘an has mentioned about the battles of ‘Uhud and Hunayn for example.

After this introduction about some terms and concepts related to Muslim history, focus is drawn to the sources of this history, then the perspective and the methodology and, in the end, the interpretation and ideology of that history.

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