Islamic History – Should we take offense when History is debated?

There has been a long standing debate within the Islamic world that certain events of our history – Islamic history that is, ought not to be discussed over fears parties will take offense, and seek reprisals onto those they perceived as belligerent towards their tradition.

I must confess that this notion of taboo – this concept that we ought to extend a lid onto our religious heritage is difficult to grasp when one of the founding principles of Islam is knowledge.

Knowledge stands after all a tool on the path to Truth … that and a good dose of wisdom.

I would like here to make absolutely clear that I personally do not claim to any truth, except that which our Prophet Muhammad, and all prophets before him, made apparent. Whatever beliefs I have, whatever tradition I hold, I claim only for myself.

But why should we fear History? Why should we deny ourselves the lessons of our past, and condemn ourselves to repeat those mistakes our forefathers failed to rise above? History stands a mirror to our failures and victories – a grand cautionary tale against our most innate shortcomings.

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” – George Santayana.

Now which history am I referring to here? I suspect you already know … those times which saw Muslims draw swords against one another over competing claims of legitimacy.

Maybe competing claims of legitimacy is not the most accurate statement since it is not really legitimacy which was the initial matter of contention, but rather righteous leadership over the ummah [community].

One could argue that reason would implore a statute of limitation upon History – why rehash centuries’ old feuds, when our present has cracked under hardship? Why indeed if not to discern falsehood and hold onto those pillars of faith the Prophet Muhammad commanded us to?

An ayah from the Quran has always stood out for me: “Hold on to the rope of Allah and do not disunite.”

Unity is our greatest strength. It is when we disunite that we offer our throats to our enemies, and lose each other. It is when we rise towers of pride and self-righteousness that we let go of God’s command.

Islam we might do well to remember is submission to the Word of God … the Word is not ours to own or to claim, but to obey and serve.

Maybe offense then comes from our desire to be self-righteous, when we should strive for humility. Arrogance you will find is humanity’s greatest downfall … arrogance leads away instead of towards.

This leads me to the very matter I wanted to discuss:

During this month of Muharram, several lectures and statements pertaining to Islamic history, our school of thoughts, and those divides which communities have risen to separate them in their creed, have prompted great many furious debates … Even when scholars have approached History as forensic experts would, pinpointing to certain events to understand why we suffer today from radicalism, too many have chosen to take offense.

I do not intend here to debate the content of those lectures. I only wish to address the fury they let out.

Here is what I would like to say: We ought to respect each other’s opinions and points of views, rather than attack one another.

And yes scholars and intellectuals have a moral and religious duty to speak those truths as to unburden us. Several great minds have quite rightly noted that as long as we refuse to engage in historical debates for fear of being disproved, challenged, and otherwise led to question, we are bound to relive our forefathers’ quarrels. Maybe worse still we condemn ourselves to err when guidance would be better.

I am not a scholar of Islam and I cannot possibly weigh on religious matters. However, I feel it is important we realise that violently criticising scholars, intellectuals and historians only serve to weaken our faith.

We have a duty to educate ourselves in the way of Allah.

The way of Allah for me go through those “two weighty things” the Prophet Muhammad imparted us with – the Quran and AhlulBayt.

Fear, and prejudices should not prevent us from asking questions. We should not attempt to silence each other, when such silence serves only to drive a wedge in between communities. Our questions are warranted. How can we expect to shine forth if we withhold knowledge, and refrain from reforming ourselves?

“O my Lord! Increase me in knowledge.” (Quran 20:114)

And so we ought to ask ourselves: do we mind debates for they shed a light we wish to dim, or do we object the manner in which ideas are put forward?

In other words, could it be that our “offense” speaks more about our fears than they do about those who speak them.

Should we follow stricter guidelines when approaching certain events in our History? Maybe … Could people choose not to take offense? Maybe …

It is up to us to decide which offense is more deserving – that of a scholar looking for clarity for the sake of piety, or that of people looking to be comforted in their ignorance?

Let me ask you this: Why is it that Muslims will go to extreme length to defend, and assert the sanctity of the companions of the Prophet Muhammad, while they overlook those tragic events which led to the martyrdom of his progeny? I implore you not to read insult in my question.

How is denying the rights and station of those our prophet loved above all others an expression of faith? Why rise a faction and deny another, when the prophet Muhammad offered just guidance?

Muhibb at-Tabari narrates from Aisha that she said: “I saw my father (Abu Bakr) gazing often at ‘Ali’s face. I said: `O my father! I see you gazing often at ‘Ali’s face.’ He said: `O my daughter! I heard the Prophet say: “Looking at the face of `Ali is worship.”‘

Whichever way we chose to look at the issue our debates almost always revolve around AhlulBayt and legitimacy in religious leadership. But do we ever really hear what is being said, and what it implies?

It is narrated from Umm al-Momineen, Umm Salamah that once Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) was in her house lying on a mattress, covered with a cloak from Khaibar when his beloved daughter Fatima Zahra (pbuh) entered with a dish called al-Khazira (a kind of food). Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) asked her to call her husband, Imam Ali and her two sons, Imam Hasan and Imam Hussain. Fatima Zahra (pbuh) called them and as they all sat together to eat, Allah (SWT) revealed the following verse of purity (Ayat Al-Tathir) to Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). “… Allah only desires to keep away the uncleanness from you, O people of the House! And to purify you a (thorough) purifying.” – Quran (33:33)

Upon this Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) covered them all with his cloak and lifting his hands towards the sky said: “O Allah (SWT)! This is my family and the nearest of my kin, keep away from them uncleanness and keep them pure as pure can be.” Umm al-Momineen, Umm Salamah adds that thrice Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) repeated these words and when she poked her head under the cloak and asked him, Am I with you? In a refraining gesture, Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) said twice: “You are (also) among the righteous.”

May I suggest in conclusion that we turn to our religious leadership for direction as our scholars’ knowledge and wisdom far exceed our own. Respect, compassion, humility, and piety are our armours.

Are we not all the Shia of Muhammad? Are we not all awaiting the Hour?

Note – I have chosen to quote Shia and Sunni sources as a reminder that righteous guidance belongs only to God.

By Catherine Shakdam – Director of the Shafaqna Institute for Middle Eastern Studies

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