words | adnan perwez
photos | mujahid zaman
‘Study history - or be ready for the whiplash’
I know, I know. Your finger is already inching towards the exit button of your tab. And honestly, I don’t blame you — the word itself conjures up powerful memories of huge dusty textbooks, dreary tests, and long school periods spent in hot classrooms, idly watching the clock tick by. In short, history was a vapid excuse for a class; a subject forcibly pushed down our collective throats, serving only to be a constant and rather annoying threat to the sacred GPA, which, of course, must be kept pristine at all costs.
God, even just writing that paragraph gives me nauseous flashbacks. And I'm a history major (yes, yes I know; you may give me condolences at the end of the article, thank you).
But despite the painful memories you’re no doubt grimacing at, I’m here to still try and convince you, my dear Muslim college student, to give history another chance.
The fundamental problem with students listening to teachers teach history is exactly that — listening to someone simply teaching history. There’s nothing necessarily wrong about that in and of itself — there is certainly a wealth of benefit that comes from knowing about past events and historical figures. But if you simply learn about the past alone, you miss what is perhaps the most crucial point of history in the first place; the unique connection it has to be able to teach us about the present, the now.
Most history classes focus on the former to the complete exclusion of the latter; so you’ll end up learning about the British Empire, yes, but not about how the reverberating effects of post-colonialism has molded the normative values we think we’re supposed to cherish, and even helped create the temporal framework through which we see the world today.
And thus the Ottomans end up becoming a brief sideshow in the East, rather than a key explanation for the current state of the Middle East; the Civil War is reduced to a simple binary tale of good and bad instead of being seen as an ancestor of current deeply-rooted ideological and racial tensions; the French Revolution altered to resemble a grotesque, drawn-out pageant than serving its purpose as a warning guide for contemporary revolutionary movements. In short, our educational system makes history become isolated from any present-day issues, stripping away its relevance — and, simultaneously, any shred of interest the subject has to the average student.
It’s once you overcome that void — when you force yourself to find the patterns inherent in all history, train yourself to listen to the familiar rhythm of the rise-and-fall of human civilizations — that you begin to extract the true wisdom that only history, out of all human sciences, can provide. History, when properly connected, can serve two purposes. It is constructive, as in that knowing the experiences of your people or other communities can help deepen your own understanding of yourself, and build and expand your worldview. It is also deductive in the sense that, upon learning of past events, you can try to find common symptoms that might help you better break down or understand current events, and the path they might end up taking in the future.
At the core of the subject lies a message that is as obvious as it is overlooked: history means something has happened. And if men can do something once, they can certainly do it again. History thus provides a wide range of possibilities that any given situation can evolve into or become. It is ironic, even; that the subject that is closest to being able to divine the future is the one most engrossed by the past.
But that’s the essence of history. History is not a story of ancient wild creatures or strange celestial beings - it is the story of us. It’s the raw narrative of man, tearing away the lies and glamour that his contemporaries had tried to cover themselves with, to show bare the simple, cyclical desires underneath. Indeed, when one looks past the sheen of dazzling technological advancement and seismic-like geopolitical shifts, one finds that, through thousands of years, surprisingly little has changed. Our desires and our hopes, our fears and our flaws — the parts that make up the fundamental essence of man remain the same. As long as man continues to be man, the past and future are bound to intersect — again and again and again. And as long as they keep intersecting, history will continue to prove itself to be an invaluable tool.
I’m not asking you to drop everything and become a history major (actually, please don’t do that — God knows it won't help our unemployment numbers). What I do hope you do is find a way to personally engage yourself in history once again. Choose an event or a period you’re interested in. Devote some time to read a book or listen to a podcast. Try to draw connections and parallels between what you’re learning and what you’re seeing in the world today. It might be difficult at first, but over time you’ll start to get a feel for the familiar ebb and flow of history, and see patterns you never even thought existed begin unraveling themselves in front of your very eyes.
And let’s face it - the Muslim community is in need of having an intimate knowledge of history today more than ever. To put it in the bluntest way possible, President Trump and his troupe are following the footsteps of fascist movements of the past. The parallels are so close and so shudderingly disturbing, that I have little hesitancy to state that in the most unequivocal way possible. The stage is truly being set for the return of a most frightening show.
If we choose to continue collectively ignoring the lessons of the past; if we continue to pretend that our problems haven’t been faced by many before us; if we continue to relegate history into a dusty and dark corner of our minds, in favor of yet another marketing seminar or programming class; if we continue to sacrifice communal good for a few more immediate, individualistic short-term gains — we cannot be surprised when we suffer the inevitable consequences.
To complete the old yet skin-chillingly relevant titular quote: those who forget history are doomed to repeat it.