History might appear to one of the more black and white topics to study. Dates are irrefutable, the facts of a person life can be supported with clear evidence. But history is also seen through the eyes of the present and through the eyes of those with the loudest voices, the most influence in the present. Those voices and that influence in my life growing up were evangelical Christians and white, American, wealthy and well-educated men. Primarily. The history I learned was presented as truth, not as perspective. And while there is truth to most of what I learned, when it came without being placed in a larger, more global and inclusive context, that truth got warped, twisted slightly or massively out of shape.
Even in current events, this is painfully clear. Take for example, the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. Israel is perpetually presented in western media as the victim, ever retaliating or acting in defense against uncompromising Palestinian violence. To the Palestinians, and to my husband’s Muslim students and my Muslim friends, Israel is the aggressor. Palestinians are the victims struggling for their right to survive.
Which is true?
That depends on your perspective.
I am learning from Islam to view news, stories, and history with a critical eye. To ask questions, to look at the wider context, to pay attention to who is telling the story and carefully weigh multiple sides.
I am also learning new history. Not that the events are new, but the people, the heroes, the battles, the ground-breaking developments, are things I’ve never heard of before.
How about during the Crusades when the so-called Christians invaded Jerusalem and slaughtered every Muslim in sight? Let blood run in the streets so deep it reached the stirrups on horses? Ilearned that the Christians were heroes, marching onward in the name of God. That they were pure, holy warriors (though I will admit that I was always skeptical of this).
But what about the Muslim heroes during the Crusades? Like Saladin?
His reportedly noble and chivalrous behavior was noted, even by Christian chroniclers, and despite being the nemesis of the Crusaders, he purportedly won the respect of many of them, including Richard the Lionheart who led the Third Crusade.
Even more important, to me, is the history of men like St. Francis of Assisi who worked for peace and interfaith dialogue, more of a hero than Richard the Lionheart. Or the Sultan Malik al-Kamil, a Muslim who was so merciful that some Christians believed him to be a secret Christian. As though they could not fathom a merciful Muslim.
Instead I learned of Muslim aggressors, violent terrorists. Or of heroic Christians, slaughtering the wicked in the name of God and peace and freedom.
I am learning about the development of the modern world and about how much of that came from Muslims.
The word ‘algebra’ is Arabic, from the book “Hisab al-jabr w’al muqabala”, written around 830 by the renowned astronomer and mathematician Mohammed ibn-Musa al-Khowarizmi. When translated into Latin, it caused a sensation in Europe – 310 years later. Where would Newton have been, without the Arabs? On what would he and Leibniz have based the calculus? Whither Maxwell and Einstein, without Islam?
(for more on mathematical developments from Islam, read here.)
One reason it is important to have a more balanced view of history is that it will inform our present day worldview. The differences in perspectives on Palestine and Israel does not come from the here and now but rides on the stories, the heroes and villians of the past.
Do you think history as we learn it affects the way we see the present day? Who are some lesser known heroes we in the West need to learn about?
*image via Flickr
*image via Wikipedia