Our delusions about history

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Tahir Kamran

In the summer of 2005, the annual history conference was held at the University of Karachi which was a rather grand affair. Syed Jaffar Ahmed, Ansar Zahid Khan and Prof. Sharif ul Mujahid hosted the event that spanned over three days.

In a panel on Historiography which was chaired by Prof. Sharif ul Mujahid, I made my presentation on the fissiparous trajectory of our historical discourse in which ideology had a pivotal role. In the Q&A session, we had quite an incisive debate on the relationship between the exclusionary slant in history textbooks and Pakistani nationalism in which religion eventually came to be the primary precondition for citizenship.

Prof. Mujahid despite being an unequivocal advocate of ideological moorings of Pakistan was exceedingly amenable to my inference of designating ideology as an instrument of political exclusion. The crux of the argument was the construction of the Hindus as the ‘Other’ in the way nationalism was being projected in the historical perception of Pakistani literati. In Prof. Mujahid’s informed opinion, the state of Pakistan having been founded, the entire focus had to be shifted on an all inclusive idea of ‘one nation’. This was a shift from the two-nation theory and as per the new position all factions and groups living within the precincts of the country would be citizens with equal rights. I earnestly put forth that the new national narrative which is the need of the hour has be predicated on Prof. Mujahid’s insightful formulation.

That view propounded by me and avidly supported by Prof. Mujahid was however very vigorously contested by Sher Muhammad Garewal. His views which he articulated with extraordinary vehemence resonated with the archetypical views usually voiced in the school textbooks.

Even after the lapse of ten years, one cannot entertain any illusion that such (alternative) notion would find a favourable environment. Particularly in the prevailing circumstances, that seemingly innocuous notion held by the veteran scholar may cause considerable stir among the brigade of self-styled intellectual-guardians of two-nation theory. The members of that brigade fan out the air of their intellectual belligerence through Urdu newspapers in repetitive fashion.

Reverting to the rebuttal of (late) Sher Muhammad Garewal to my assertion, one is mystified by the disconnect between the exigencies of political realities and ideological formulation. Equally important was his emphasis on Muslim method of doing history with Ilm ul-Hadith as the benchmark for the authenticity and truthfulness of the historical narrative. Similarly he alluded to Tabari, Baladhuri and Ibne Khaldun as iconic figures to be emulated instead of Ranke, Lord Acton, Seeley or Bury. Then he went on to mention Shibli Naumani, Sulaiman Nadvi and Ishtiaq Hussain Qureshi who, according to him, had set the tone for the coming generation of the historians.

What begs the question here is how far were the historians mentioned by Prof. Garewal practitioners of Muslim (you may read it Islamic) history? Tabari’s credentials as a pure historian, I argued, are questionable because he was primarily a theologian and exegete. Tarikh-i-Tabari was a side project to his Tafsir. Baladhuri was a narrator of events about wars therefore he can be categorised as a waqaya nawis instead of a historian. Ibne Khaldun was an ingenuous scholar of sociology and history. He tried to theorise his study of the historical principle on sociology. Prominence of the theoretical slant in his works makes him to stand in a lone splendour among the whole cluster of Muslim historians and scholars in general.

The point that is worth serious deliberation is whether we ever had any historian in the modern sense of the word prior to 20th century. My tentative answer would be in the negative. During the medieval age, waqaya nawais who used to report the events was different from Muarikh (its root is the Arabic word arakh, which means date wise listing of the events) only in a subtle way. Thus I will tentatively submit to the Pakistani history teachers and instructors to differentiate between the two categories, Muarikh and historian, which though seem to be close but connote different meanings.

Etymological reference to History will link it up with Greek word istoria which meant eye-witness. Ironically history and tarikh both are used and understood interchangeably by the people interested in history. The conclusion that I have drawn from modern historiography is that history as a category and also as a discipline in modern construct started from Prussia (or Modern-day Germany) and then spread out to the rest of the Western world. Eventually it came to the colonies like India and had cast influence on the colonial subjects.

Prof. Garewal’s much admired scholar and historian Shibli Naumani imbibed considerable influence from Thomas Carlyle (1795–1881) was a Scottish philosopher, satirical writer, essayist, historian and teacher. He was considered one of the most important social commentators of his time. He delivered many lectures during his lifetime with certain acclaim in the Victorian era. One such deliberation resulted in his famous work On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and The Heroic in History where he explains that the key role in history lies in the actions of the “Great Man”, claiming that “History is nothing but the biography of the Great Man”.

That according to S.M. Ikram in his book Yadgar-i-Shibli inspired him to start writing biographies which subsequently instituted a trend among the Muslim authors and historians. One can also argue that the seminality of personality in the historical imagination of Indian Muslims has its roots in Carlyle through Shibli Naumani. However, it was with the Cambridge-trained Ishtiaq Hussain Quershi that not only the agency of personality got solidified in the discourse of history but also it was virtually subjected to the exigencies of contemporary politics. However, while doing so Qureshi firmly stuck to the methodology of Cambridge School of historians.

To conclude the whole debate the attention of the history students should be drawn to the fact that all history that we are dealing with, in this day and age, essentially flows from the Western knowledge centres.

Tahir Kamran, “Our delusions about history,” in The News, July 5, 2015. Accessed on July 7, 2015, at: http://tns.thenews.com.pk/our-delusions-about-history/#.VZsFzbxVJ_U

The item above written by Tahir Kamran and published in The News on July 5, 2015, is catalogued here in full by Faiz-e-Zabaan for non-profit educational purpose only. Faiz-e-Zabaan neither claims the ownership nor the authorship of this item. The link to the original source accessed on July 7, 2015, is available here. Faiz-e-Zabaan is not responsible for the content of the external websites.

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