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History and the idea of progress

While the Muslim sensibility looks for a utopia in the bygone era

History and the idea of progress

The phrase ‘Age of Reason’ became current in 18th century European academe, in the wake of the Scientific Revolution. It also resonated with the conviction of that particular era that “man could by the exercise of his power of reason, pluck the mystery out of the universe and lead his fellows into a future of ever-increasing happiness”.

Hard on its heels came the ‘intellectual revolution’ which used reason and science to redefine all the studies of man in society like history, politics, economics and education etc. The intellectual revolution connotes, as Ernest John Knapton says in his book Europe: 1450-1815, “the change from the concept of a mysterious world directed by the inscrutable will of God to one in which the complex phenomena of life could be regarded as orderly processes, subject to laws which the mind of man was competent to discover”.

Thus the faith in reason and intellectual reason spawned such an atmosphere in which the centrality of ‘man’ was established vis-à-vis the forces of nature or other extraterrestrial agents. Immanuel Kant wrote in 1784, “the Enlightenment is the liberation of man from his self-imposed minority”. Here ‘self-imposed minority’ is a reference to the clergy, controlling the system of instruction and knowledge production. The term that characterised the situation in which ‘man’ was accorded the prime status was the English ‘Enlightenment’, the French ‘Eclaircissement and the German ‘Aufklarung. All these representations signified “a victory brought by the forces of light over those of darkness”.

The precursors of the Enlightenment were such luminaries as Bacon, Descartes, Newton and Locke etc.

The modern discipline of history owes more than its existence to Enlightenment. The idea that the study of history is a natural, inevitable kind of human activity sprouted in the 18th century. In Europe, the rejection of all divine plans and the supremacy of providence made it possible for history to emerge as a separate discipline, emphasising the role of ‘man’. It is important to mention here the seminality of the idea of ‘progress’, which formed the essence of history. That was the influence of the natural sciences and the unequivocal faith in the growing power of reason which had profoundly impacted Enlightenment historiography.

Historians of extraordinary merit such as Turgot (in his lectures Discourses on Universal History which he delivered at the Sorbonne in 1750), Gotthold Lessing’s brief account (On the Education of the Human Race) and Condorcet underlined the evolution of human society towards an immaculately rational future in which scientific laws would reign supreme. The idea of progress, of course, was orientated towards the future. Rationality would keep unfolding itself. Thus every moment that awaits us in an unforeseen tomorrow would be better (in every way) than the day that had gone by.

Thus the whole discourse centered on History was future-oriented. If given a close thought, the seminal postulate of the Enlightenment (by which I mean the ‘Idea of Progress’) was made universal through various means and methods, colonialism being one of them. Therefore, all post-colonial societies including the subcontinent had no choice but to accept it. Therefore we in the Pakistani educated class, too, have embraced it, as it virtually forms the kernel of the prevailing discourse.

The point which might mystify some is the reigning historical sensibility among us which runs counter to it.

Confining my analysis to Pakistan, the state of ambivalence regarding our relationship with history or philosophy is quite discernible. Our historical sensibility affords primacy to the time and locale inhabited by the Prophet of Islam. According to this narrative, as history is heading towards the future, it is drifting away from the best, golden period, as the best era in history has already gone by. The Prophet presented the best possible example for humanity by leading his life exactly according to the prescription of Allah (Providence), which is beyond the reach of any other human.

In the modern period, Muslim history started with Allama Shibli Naumani’s Sirat un Nabi followed by Syed Amir Ali’s History of Saracens. Most of the Muslim scholars of the subcontinent (particularly Pakistan) emulated Shibli instead of following the analytical style of Amir Ali. Consequently, biographical literature of various Muslim personalities was produced in abundance, which prioritised the past over the present or the future. Such a view was diametrically opposed to the view of history couched in the episteme of the Enlightenment, which envisaged a gradual realisation of human potential as time rolled on, through the accumulation of reason and knowledge, generation upon generation.

In this understanding, the future holds immense promise and upward mobility in both material as well as intellectual state of humanity. In Pakistan in particular, one comes across many zealots, devoted to the cause of turning it into a replica of the 6th century state of Medina. Here, then, one comes across a clear divergence in these two sensibilities and particularly in their orientations. One (the Western) points to the future whereas the other (the Muslim, Pakistani) looks for the utopia in the bygone era, exhorting Muslims to revive it in letter and spirit.

Ironically, so far, no attempt has ever been made to conceptualise the historical sensibility which is believed by the overwhelming majority of Pakistan. The divergence in the two sensibilities gives rise to a dichotomous understanding of history even among the relatively perceptive students of history and philosophy. A similar sort of dichotomy exists in science and religion when it comes to the theory of creation prescribed by religious scriptures and Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. I will be surprised if Darwin and his works are being examined with profundity in the Pakistani institutions of higher learning.

The same holds true for the contrasting inferences drawn from the way history has been written in the West and how can it be juxtaposed against the peculiar trajectory of Muslim history. I will conclude this article by asking a question. Can this dichotomy be resolved?

Tahir Kamran

tahir kamran
The writer is Professor in the faculty of Liberal Arts at the Beaconhouse National University, Lahore


  • sir of course it was an insightful and worth reading article, but you don,t think that all your focus is on western and Muslim historiography , when you came to Pakistan intellectual then it has been attached to the Muslim art of writing history about progress which is linear and there is no discontinuity in history writing, that is upward . but sir what about the history of common people ,where then the idea of progress exist, when one writes history from blow or about the more recent phenomenon of subaltern approach in history?

  • Syed Ameer Ali’s A Short History of Saraccens was published in 1898. Shibli Nu’mani had finished only the first volume of his Siratun Nabi before he died in 1914, and when the book came out. The rest of the book was written by his student Syed Sulaiman Nadvi. Syed Ahmad Khan and Zakaullah could be mentioned as the pioneers in writing History in Urdu. But for any scholar of that time, there were any number of Persian texts to emulate. Shibli was rejecting the progress made before him, and creating a romantic and nostalgia-ridden history that was quite reactionary in intention. Syed Ahmad Khan was not very pleased with his books, but the middle class Muslim readers loved them.

  • Good piece. It is meant to make readers think about whether they want to move forward, or remain stuck in the past. Simple

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