Why take interest in history?

I am a history teacher and I love teaching the subject. But I am saddened to see a lack of interest given to the critical study of the subject by many of my students and parents alike.

As I was growing up, my father – rahimahullah – was a huge influence in my interest in the subject. He would often share anecdotes about our family roots, and how “we” as a nation were part of a great civilization. He would lament on why and how things have changed. This cultivated in me a great sense of identity.I wish more of our parents do what my father did. He didn’t have much of an education but he knew the education that mattered; the concepts he imparted enabled me to navigate out of the jungle of cultural norms. Had he been just concerned with my grades in the “core subjects”, I may have been more successful in the dunya, but lacking in the wider sense of self.

Our lack of participation in history is giving a free reign to others to tell our story in the way that they see fit, from their own political and cultural perspective. As a young Youth Worker, I remember being amazed by a poster, that served me well ever since: “Until the lions have their own historians, the tales of the hunting will always glorify the hunter” (an African proverb). Indeed, what a profound statement it is! How can you let others, especially your adversaries, construct and tell your history?

The importance of history cannot be separated from our Islamic culture. Indeed the Book of Allah is filled with stories from the past nations as is the Sunnah of our beloved Prophet (sws). One prominent Tabi’een said, “We learned Seerah (frequently and in details) from our parents the way we learned Qur’an.”

Of course, our Islamic Saheeh tradition the best preserved objective history in the history of mankind. No society can boast the accuracy with which these primary sources were preserved from over 1400 years ago. On the other hand, we can’t say for sure that the story depicted, for example, in Bayeux Tapestry, about 1066CE is at all reliable. Should we, then, not be the people of history?

Let me present a couple of examples of how even today GCSE history is taught from Anglocentric perspectives. About African missionaries, BBC’s AQA GCSE notes state: “British Christians had been heavily involved in the campaigns to abolish the Transatlantic Slave Trade and slavery itself. They saw success when both were abolished (in 1807 and 1833 respectively). Following abolition, the campaigners kept a watchful eye on the states of Africa to make sure that slavery did not continue illegally. One of the aspects of this anti-slavery work was to encourage new kinds of trade and another was to bring the religion of Christianity to the native African peoples.”

We can see that work of Christian missionaries is presented as a force for good. But is this according
to an all-embracing African perspective on the matter?

A balanced perspective on this would include views of activist such as Jomo Kenyatta, which was later echoed by Desmond Tutu in similar words – “When the missionaries arrived, the Africans had the land and the missionaries had the Bible. They taught us how to pray with our eyes closed. When we opened them, they had the land and we had the Bible.”; or the views presented by Ahmed Hassan Makki in his book “Sudan: The Christian Design” where he outlines how the country’s culture and religion was hijacked by activities of Christian missionary during the period 1843 to 1986. Makki states “In the eighteenth century, Europeans stole the black man from his country. In the nineteenth century, they stole the Africans country from them.”

Of course proponents of Social Darwinism (which led to rise of Fascism) especially in the last few centuries, would unashamedly advocate colonialism and cultural imperialism as “white man’s burden” to civilize the world. Do we not see the similar thought processes even today, although slightly watered down? So who is going to present this balanced perspective, if we all shy away from this responsibility to educate our children in our story?

Another example relates to Asian Africans who sought “refuge in Britain” after rise of African nationalism led to hostility towards them in their home countries of newly independent African nations such as Kenya and Uganda. Their story is often presented as Asians’ who were expelled from Africa, given refuge in Britain despite protests from many people here. The stories often neglect to mention how these Asian came to be in Africa in the first place (that they were indentured labourers brought), and that they held British passport. Despite this many of them were denied entry to this country after tightening of
immigration of non-White people into the UK.

There is a movement in the Black community about how their history is presented and taught. They celebrate and promote Black achievements, monitor curriculum and hold policy makers to account.

We, the Muslims, too need to become more sensitive towards how others are defining us and our stories. Our history is rich and it is time we recognise our collective contribution to the word, if not for anyone else but for our children.

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