What our text books do not say

Published: November 12, 2011
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My students seemed to be stuck in a romanticised past where Islamic empires and caliphs were the dominant paradigms.

While having class discussions with my sociology students sometime back, I noticed that some of my students, although very bright and intellectually capable, seemed to be uneasy with various debates within the stream of sociology about topics that are considered taboo in our society.

However, what struck me most was their constant reliance on pinning down problems in the societal realm of Europe to the continent being not impacted by Islam.

Their reference point always seemed to be the ‘glorious age of Islam’-the years of Madinah republic. My students seemed to be still living in a romanticised past where Islamic empires and caliphs were the dominant paradigms ruling the globe economically, politically and militarily. They seemed to be enveloped in seams of denial-history, as it seemed, was all about what their textbooks had drilled into their minds in the formative years of their life from grades one to eleven.

I inquired from them if the ‘Age’ had been so glorious and virtually free of any conflict and disharmony, then why is it those three out of four caliphs that immediately followed the Holy Prophet (pbuh) were assassinated. If the ideal society had been formed, why was it that not even the grandson of the Holy Prophet (pbuh) was not spared at the hands of a Moslem army after only 63 years of his death?

Complete silence resonated in class.

Who was to be blamed for this impasse?

When reflecting upon the whole scenario, I tried to find out the roots of this pervasiveness of ‘dysfunctional utopia.’

It is my reasoning that for this utopia to be there in the first place, it is we who deserve to be held accountable.

Our history textbooks, for decades a tool for the ultra-nationalists and self-styled ‘know-alls’ ignored many of the facets of alternative history-obscuring personalities ranging form Bhagat Singh to Martin Luther King.Jr, never to be studied or appreciated for their mammoth roles in history.  We are guilty of presenting a clearly ideological scribe version of history never having the critical component, always sure of our heroes and villains.  We also tend to ‘otherise’ the latter, dehumanizing them in the worse precedents of living in the cave named the ‘façade of grandeur.’

The problems do not end here. We seem to impart to our students a much distorted version of history as well, one that suits our religious dogma, nationalist aspirations and ‘comfort’ zones.

Why do not our textbooks recongise the significance of Gandhi, who along with Jinnah literally spearheaded the movement against the Raj. Why do we paint him as the arch-enemy of Jinnah when the latter himself held deep respect for him?

When detailing the various ventures of Moslem generals throughout history ranging from Muhammad bin Qasim to Tariq ibn e Ziyad, why don’t our textbooks mention the fate that these generals suffered at the hands of Moslems themselves.

Why is there made no mention of the fact that Alhambra was designed by a Jewish court bearer of the Abbasid caliph?

Why, when titling Iqbal as the poet of the nation, do we forget the countless ‘kufr’ fatwas that were labeled against him and by whom?

Why don’t we remember that Jinnah himself hailed from a community that is not the dominant sect in Pakistan and has been constantly targeted ever since the country’s creation?

Europe of the medieval ages seemed to suffer from the same malaise 500 years ago. The Turk was presented as the pinnacle of deviance from civilisational norms while the Persian was deemed too patriarchal, ignorant and haughty.

They partially learnt from the consequences of their terrible otherisation in the period of Renaissance. However, much still needs to be done in their spheres of academic inquiry too as made clear by Edward Said in his brilliant work of ‘Orientalism.’

Moslems, as well as Pakistanis should try to solicit historical scrolls of the ‘other’ since giving our future generations a distorted version of history would not serve any purpose. On the other hand, giving them a critical impetus would make them more comfortable about their own conflicts, roots and societal norms. At the same time, they would be better equipped to learn from the ‘Missing Chapters’ which is instrumental both for prospects of academic excellence and well rounded understanding of forces at work in the current geopolitical scenario.

Since people who do not learn from history, often have to repeat it – I hope the message is well received by those who are in charge of designing the minds of future Pakistanis.

Taimur Arbab

Taimur Arbab

A former sub-editor at The Express Tribune, college teacher of Sociology and English Language and a graduate student at Aga Khan Institute for Educational Development, who leans toward the left side of the political spectrum and looks for ideas for his short stories and poems in the everyday happenings of life.

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.