Ask any history teacher for the benefits of studying their subject and their go-to answer will be “to learn from our mistakes.” If we can understand what it was that caused catastrophes such as the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, or the two World Wars, than we will surely be better equipped to prevent similar calamities from befalling us once more. Yet with Islamic history, the conversation seems to begin and end at “we were perfect.”
To be sure, Muslims achieved great things from the age of the Rightly Guided Caliphs into the Middle Ages, where Islamic rule stretched from Spain to India. But what have we done today?
A Muslim woman founded the first University in 859, but what have we done today?
Muslims in Egypt founded the first hospital in 879, what have we done today?
Muslims in Yemen discovered coffee in the 15th century, but what have we done today?
Why have we let ourselves stagnate? Every Muslim can rattle off the list of Islamic achievements and inventions, but at the end of the day recounting accomplishments of yesteryear is all we have settled for. Rather than simply praise our ancestors, we need to praise them and work to emulate them.
But the problem extends even further. When we idealize our history to the extent that those who lived in previous societies have been elevated to virtual sainthood, we begin to look beyond the very real flaws they had. One of the main purposes of studying history is to learn from past errors – but if we sweep those problems aside than we will never truly learn anything.
We seem to have forgotten that within 100 years of the death of the Prophet PBUH, two civil wars had erupted, and the monarchist Umayyad Caliphate was ripe with nepotism and racism. That in the 1200s the then-weak Abbasid Caliphate was crushed by the Mongol Empire, with Baghdad being invaded and millions of Muslims being slaughtered. That the Ottoman Empire was among the last modern societies to adopt the printing press. That as the Muslim world adopted to modernity, there were periods where even coffee and using a loudspeaker for adhan were declare haram. And finally, that the Ottomans, so commonly idealized and elevated, committed one of the worst genocides in history, massacring between 1 and 1.5 million Armenians in the early 20th century.
Islamic history is rich with great periods of success and bliss. Many famously recount the near-utopian state of the Muslims under Umar Ibn Al-Khattab, where no poor people could be found to receive Zakat, and the money was sent to Europe to free slaves. But we have harmed ourselves twofold by simplifying the rhetoric to that of reminiscing perfection. Not only do we consider our predecessors to have been so amazing that we have ignored our present stagnation, but we also have pushed aside their very real mistakes, preventing us from learning from them. In the long and diverse history of this Ummah, we have seen great success and great failure. Legendary acts of righteousness but also horrible acts of evil. We need to push beyond the superficial beginning and end of the discussion regarding our past, and finally learn from our history rather than just glaze over it with a brush of glorification. If we want to make an meaningful impact today, then we need to live our lives knowing that the present is being recorded in history. So ask yourself, which Muslim era do want to emulate?