Can Muslims Reflect Critically on their History?

Artwork depicting the Bulgarian War of Independence, against the Turks
Artwork depicting the Bulgarian War of Independence, against the Turks

In advance of the Yom Kippour / Ashura holiday, CNN ran a very interesting op-ed written by Haroon Moghul about the links between Jewish and Muslim commemoration. But he drops a hint about history that can be very provocative among Muslims, though he develops it in a direction, that while essential, misses the bigger challenge.

But kudos to him for opening the door. Perhaps he has reflected more fully elsewhere.

He writes:

I know a lot of Muslims who demand the West own up to its sins. They expect Western schools, institutions and leaders to acknowledge the dark side of our history. The expansionism, imperialism, colonialism.

I wonder, though, if we could tolerate the same introspections in our mosques and madrasas. It’s easy to talk about being the victim. It’s a lot harder to talk about doing wrong. It’s easy to talk about what other people do to you. It’s hard to talk about what we do to others. Or what’s done in our name.

His very next paragraph, which I will quote below, provides the hint. But instead of pursuing it he goes on to make still worthy reflective criticism on the merging of Islam and ethno-nationalism and the political use of the religion. For example:

Today, Syrians die by the thousands, attacked by a Ba’athist regime uncritically supported by the Islamic Republic of Iran. A revolution that came to power calling the despotic shah a tyrant has now inaugurated a regime with a more murderous record. Iran, with its allies in Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Hezbollah, have killed and tortured more than even ISIS has. Like ISIS, too, it happens in my religion’s name.

The author then asks the reader not to take his confession as an opportunity to ‘pile on the Muslim world’, and then offers criticism of American politics and culture, where we walk a similar path. It is good of him to find parallels and challenge toward the pursuit of justice, though readers will be divided if his examples hit the mark.

I beg his patience if the following is interpreted as piling on. But take note of the tense of the original hint: ‘It’s hard to talk about what we do to others,’ he writes. Not what we have done.

Here is the paragraph I delayed quoting:

When I was young, I was taught about Islam as a catalog of battles and conquests, rules and rituals. There was little serious ethical deliberation, not much in the way of cultural direction and precious little spiritual content.

Above, Moghul mentioned the Muslim tendency to ask the West to own up to its sins. Many have. Pope John Paul II, especially, offered apologies for the Christian share in the sins of our history. Perhaps today many conservative Christians must face the reality of how their support for a war in Iraq contributed to the emergence of ISIS. Not many are yet apologizing, but at least some, like Tony Blair, are beginning to reflect.

Let not Christians, or even America, be fully blamed for this tragedy. And similarly, though Moghul is right to ask Muslims to consider how they have permitted a world where Islam is so fully implicated in the most wretched of atrocities, neither Muslims nor Islam are guilty. Only those committing crimes.

But just like Christian history, Muslim history is also full of sin. At least, many Christians can look back and admit this. Are Muslims also able to do so?

Again, Moghul asks for consideration:

The first Caliph, Abu Bakr, died of natural causes. He lucked out: The second Caliph, Umar, was assassinated. The third, Uthman, was killed, too, except by his own troops. The fourth, Hussain’s father, Ali, was assassinated by radical Muslims — the Khawarij, the precursors of ISIS — while in prayer…

Who wants to focus on this history?

In fact, many Muslims near-mythologize their early history altogether. Salafis in particular look back at the first three generations of Muslims in the most uncritical terms. They wish to craft a present based on restoration of this enlightened past. Who has practiced Islam correctly, they ask? The answer is logical: Those who were closest in time to Muhammad.

But these closest in time were also those who launched Islam’s much celebrated wars of expansion. In Arabic they are called al-Futuhat al-Islamiya, the Islamic openings. They are heralded as the beginning of a golden age that saw Muslims reach the pinnacle of world civilization, as nations from Spain to India were enveloped in the fold.

It will be good to remember Moghul’s appeal not to pile on. Nearly every civilization was built upon military might. While the caliphate spread by the sword, most conversions happened voluntarily over time, though with many this-worldly inducements. Muslim history witnessed great examples of chivalry and compares favorably to some of the baser instincts of Christian expansion and crusade. And no matter the time, place, or people, war is hell.

But so was Muslim war and the ambition that fueled much of it, whether ethnic, nationalist, political, or religious. Can Muslims today look back on this period, and apologize? Even as the much needed nuance of justification is offered–and at times accepted–can this history be relegated to its ethnic, nationalist, or political causes, and Islam made innocent?

It seems Moghul’s essay points in this direction, and he knows well the firestorm he would light if the argument is pushed. These thoughts are mine, but does he share them? Can he help lead Muslims to greater critical reflection?

His hint is appreciated.

2 replies on “Can Muslims Reflect Critically on their History?”

There is no Psalms 14,3 / Romans 3,10 in the Quran, but there is al-Imran 3:110 in the Quran. People who are taught (supposedly by Allah) they are the best of all that mankind has to offer, will see no need for critical reflection. The others (non-Muslims) are always worse than they (the Muslims) might be.


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