Incubation

The way the masses respond to the claims of their peers and pass them on without attempting to verify them in any way has set off a chain of thoughts within. An idea that has been incubating for some time now. About group think, about taking sides, about the unimportance of the truth, about the effect of politics on beliefs. What I have encountered over the past few years — even amongst the most sincere and zealous believers — tells me a lot about our seriousness in conveying what really happened today, yesterday or in the distant past. Verification and reliability are very far from the minds of most people, most of the time — and often it is enough for us to consider our companion or our respected sages truthful for us to pass on anything they tell us without a pause for thought. The question I find myself asking myself is whether this is a phenomenon peculiar to these times, galvanised by these strange technologies, or if it has always been so. These are the thoughts in incubation.

Acts of faith

They come to you brandishing what they claim to be an undoubtable historical work, in which they have absolute faith — faith much like that of any believer — which proves your misguidance. Ask them if that work is extant and they will grudgingly admit that the original has not survived. Ask if his student’s work survived, and once more we learn, no, not so. So what is our source? Various students of the student, who passed the information on to others that we don’t know much about, who then edited their versions of the work, resulting in significant differences between editions.   Continue reading “Acts of faith”

Reopen the books

It is always astonishing to encounter people who describe themselves as libertarians advocating for a final solution to deal with a group of people they have convinced themselves are a threat to us all. Remarkable all the more when they present themselves as historians, well versed in apparently obscured narratives of the distant past. If you can’t recall recent European history — horrors witnessed by our grandparents’ generation — how can you possibly judge tales of the ancients and claim yourself an undisputed expert, with the solution to all our problems? Open those books and read your history all over again.

To remember

As a Muslim, I rail against the whitewashing of Muslim history. As an Englishman I rail against the whitewashing of British history too. Some are willing to acknowledge the wrongs perpetuated in the name of empires, friend or foe, but most prefer to overlook realities, and instead invest in varnished histories. Continue reading “To remember”

Reports

There is a clear difference between “it is reported that such and such happened” and “such and such happened”, let alone, “I believe it happened”.

We are familiar with this concept in the science of hadith, where we learn, “It is reported that the Prophet, peace be upon him, said…” The learned draw this distinction for good reason: to attribute words to him, while allowing for the possibility that he did not in fact say them. Continue reading “Reports”

The schizophrenia of the times

My newsfeed reveals a schizophrenic attitude to faith and conflict. Today’s conflicts and violence are condemned absolutely, while the triumphant conquests of the past enjoy great eulogies, their reality whitewashed and distorted. We pine after a glorious past, oblivious to former transgressions, to doctrines of perennial war and imperial rules of engagement as cruel and unforgiving as the battles of any of the zealots of today.

What a strange situation to find ourselves in. Faced by the realities of war and conflict in modern times, we find ourselves perpetually on edge, worn down by the constant litany of barbaric acts and savagery, craving a legendary past when all men were just, all conquests honourable and six hundred years of war a time of peace. Somehow we are meant to reconcile the two implacable positions: to condemn today’s infractions and praise the misdemeanours of the past at exactly the same time. To take a different stance on the same behaviour, depending on when it occurred and who was in charge.

Too often the only element that differentiates one from the other is the question of authority. Barbarity under the auspices of a legitimate religious or political authority is sanctioned and sanctified, clothed in folklore and pious mythology.

Do not cut the tree, do not kill the child, do not kill old people, do not destroy the temple or church, do not kill the woman, do not kill the monk or priest, be good to prisoners and feed them, do not enforce Islam. Yes, all of these are found in the teachings of the Prophet, peace be upon him, and in the verses of the Qur’an. But open those classical books of fiqh, or read our history. How many times were these noble injunctions — spread so widely today — ignored?

Were not many of those past conquests, so celebrated today, offensive and not defensive? Did armies not seek to expand the borders of the state annually, to carry the faith far and wide? Did the empires of the past not believe they were liberating the people they conquered, like the armies of today bringing democracy to whole peoples with the aid of cruise missiles, stealth bombers, mass invasion and proxy wars?

So this is the schizophrenia of the times — on all sides. Civilised nations which invented the concept of terror bombing in World War II and carpet bombing in the decades thereafter, now look on perplexed at indiscriminate bombs placed in market places, condemning their barbarity without a trace of irony. Meanwhile, the faithful, schooled in the nobility of their tradition with its varnished history, sob and wail at our tragic reality today — the unending conflict and violence — while singing the praises of the vast armies of the past and their magnificent leaders, whether they were just or not, or any less sectarian than today’s bedeviled warriors.

How will we exorcise these demons? Surely not by hankering after an imagined past, or speaking of mythical laws in classical texts, or by petitioning us with tales about legitimate authority, apparently unachievable today. A paradigm shift, it seems to me, is needed — a better way of thinking — that unburdens us of these schizophrenic mindsets which cause us such unrest and discomfort. We need to open our minds and forge a thoughtful forward path.

New histories

I am always fascinated by the communal and collective reactions when a well known person passes away, because it shines light on the development of other histories.

It is well worth detaching yourself from the moment, standing back and studying the story telling that follows.

There are the biographies of those who knew the departed intimately, who shared every moment of their lives. There are the curated autobiographies left behind. There is the apocrypha: that body of statements incorrectly attributed to them. There is the mythology attached to the legend. There are the statements of well known others that cement authority. There are the claims of the multitude of individuals who only met the departed once, or who encountered him from a distance. There are selected sound bites. There are the views of enemies and opportunists. To each observer, their own narrative. To each individual, their own claims: saint or sinner, hero or fiend, man or more-than-man.

When we study our own reactions to the story telling and myth making of the present, we begin to better understand the legends and narratives of the past, and perhaps may begin the process of separating fact from fiction, as much as we are able.