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Once upon a time…

Discovering the past has always fascinated archaeologists and historians. Archeologists recreate the past through excavation of what lies hidden beneath the earth and long forgotten, building their ideas on their findings through destroyed monuments, artefacts, tools, instruments, human and animal bones. They organise scattered evidence to reconstruct the past. In this way creation of ancient and pre-historical past has immensely enriched historical studies.

On the other hand historians recreate and reconstruct the past through documents, inscriptions, coins, paintings, architecture and sculpture. In this process of reconstructing the past, archaeologists and historians are influenced by social, political and economic perspectives of their time. For Jews, the past is full of suffering, pain, genocide, massacre and expulsion from one country to another. Their perseverance and their will to survive serve as inspiration. However, after the establishment of Israel, they applied all the methods which were used for their persecution against Palestinians.

In turn, the loss of their homes, expulsion from their ancestral land and bloodshed of their community has urged Palestinians to struggle and fight for their independence. Some historians regard the past of a particular age as dark and worthless. For others, the same could be an inspiring source of enlightenment.

When medieval Europe was dominated by religious narrow mindedness, the Renaissance humanists believed that the state of affairs was barren and useless. On the contrary, the classical past of Greece and Rome was fascinating to them as it encouraged creative thinking for a better understanding of human nature. Opinions about medieval Europe changed during the romantic period, when scholars depicted it as period of peace and serenity.

For Muslims, the medieval period of their history was glorious with their civilisation and culture at its zenith. Interestingly the rise of Europe coincides with Muslims’ decline. Therefore, they take pride in the medieval past but ignore the recent past.
Renaissance humanists were inspired by philosophical and literary aspects instead of military conquests. Hence it seems that politicians and scholars use the past according to their likes and interests.

For the European colonial powers, past glories were interpreted through occupation and civilisation of land. When the European nations conquered South America and found the monuments of the Inca, Maya, and Aztec civilisations, they refused to recognise these as the work of native Americans. Instead these were attributed to foreign invaders.

Similarly, historical heritage of African countries was credited to foreign conquerors. In India, the Taj Mahal was long considered the work of European architects. By rejecting the past of a civilisation, the natives were considered subhuman and uncultured.

In China, the intellectuals rejected their past as orthodox and as an obstacle in the way of advancement. Their argument was that the Chinese were defeated and humiliated by the European powers due to their tradition and culture which failed to defend the country against the onslaught of western imperialism. Therefore, to struggle against invasion and to become independent, it was important to get rid of the past and adopt modern civilisation. This led to the socialist revolution in China.

In India, the political leadership revived the Indian past to create a sense of unity and belonging among the people struggling against colonialism. In the first attempt, historians reconstructed the Mughal history and culture as a tool to unite Hindus and Muslims as one nation. In the second attempt Gandhi and other Hindu leaders propagated the revival of ancient India in order to mobilise the Hindu population.

Criticising this approach, Muslim intellectuals presented an alternative past —- the Islamic period. Their glorification of the Abbasids and the Muslim rule of Spain isolated Indian Muslims. So absorbed were they in the grandeur of their distant Islamic past that the Mughal dynasty was excluded from it.

Hali in his long poem on the rise and fall of Islam laments upon the past but in Iqbal’s poetry, there is pride and a sense of admiration of the past grandeur. However, both approaches have been unable to change the Muslim thought process to understand change and to adopt modern ideas to confront challenges.
By Mubarak Ali,

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