Column: ‘The History of Muslims’

Yasin AktayBY: Yasin Aktay*

When we approach historical knowledge without looking to who remembers a historical event, why he brings it up today and what he wants in this, we cannot go beyond being an ordinary and fast agenda consumer.

In this sense, historical knowledge is much more complicated than it is supposed to be. It may at times be toxic to consume a piece of knowledge without questioning what is remembered from the past and in what way it is remembered, or how it is made to be remembered.

“They say history repeats itself. If man could draw a lesson, would it repeat itself?” These verses on history by Mehmet Akif Ersoy are famous. If a lesson could be drawn, history would not repeat itself. However, the fact is that history always repeats itself. So, it is a certain fact that people have some flaws or disability in drawing lessons from history.

We can see that there are numerous similar examples in the history of what we are experiencing today. The reason why we resort to history to deal with the problems we are experiencing today is sometimes because of our quest for a solace and a way out, and sometimes for a common experience.

Usually, we do not come away empty-handed, but what we bring with us sometimes breaks us from our own reality and, while we seek solace, we stick around examples that do not match our reality at all. We attempt to deal with past conflicts among the people who live today, and produce or sustain a revenge for blood and a hate that cannot be resolved in any way.

There is the history of the Era of Bliss which forms a model for us. This history itself is of course guiding for us. The Quran tells us that there is a beautiful example and a model in the life of the Prophet Muhammad. The way that this experience is recorded is very different from any other chronical historical experience. Once, a significant part of the historical knowledge of that experience was recorded by the Quran, no latter of which has been distorted. The rest was recorded with a system of critical narration that was ensured by a great way of disaffirmation and modification (a criticism in which data in favor of and against the narrations is assessed). Despite this, it cannot be said that there is no debate.

There have been countless experiences of Muslims for 1,400 years that followed. I remember how I felt dizzy in the face of a history that is full of similar and different experiences and were displayed all around the world for these 1,400 years, while I was translating Ira Lapidus’s “A History of Islamic Societies” into Turkish, which was published in two volumes by İletişim Press. Lapidus wrote about the cultural and sociological history of Muslims who manifested themselves in different forms in different societies and cultures, rather than a simple chronology and history of Islam.

Apart from the history of humanity, the experiences of Muslims in this history are full of exemplary lessons for Muslims today. I said to myself that I had to read some history in this month of Ramadan. Thus, I took “The History of Muslims,” a five-volume work by Professor İhsan Süreyya Sırma, which was meticulously published by Beyan Press some time ago.

Sırma has a unique history method, style and narration. I remember how we used to excitedly read the Small Books series (what a beautiful series it was) of the Beyan Press, such as “The Mecca Period of Islamic Dawah and the Torture,” “The Medina Period and the Jihad” and “The Period of the Exemplary Caliphs” and others, share them with our friends and get carried away by Sırma’s narrations in the early 1980s when I was studying at an Imam Hatip high school.

These books certainly boosted the interest of young generations in Islamic history and the biography of Prophet Muhammad, considerably updated Islamic history and narrated it as scenes that are still continuing and affecting us today, rather than as events that remained in the past.

Sırma reflected his great excitement about history to his narration which makes readers a part of that history. Lecturing at Siirt University at the moment, Sırma still has the same excitement about history that surpasses the excitement in young people.

First of all, turning to the history of Muslims, rather than Islamic history, is a much healthier understanding of history. This is because, there is no other way for Islam to appear than in the practices and experiences of Muslims in history. These appearances, however, cannot be identified with Islam itself.

Muslims have tried to determine, influence and construct the realities they have experienced as they understood from Islam. So, they have created an interpretation. While doing so, they both have hit the mark and have been mistaken. They have also left a huge historical legacy that stands out with its diversity and mosaic structure with their own cultures and political and geographical conditions.

When you read this legacy, you will see victories, defeats, weaknesses, betrayals, heroism, ordinary and extraordinary glories. In short, you have read the history of a concrete person with his or her flesh and bones.

The history of Muslims has a distinct taste when it is viewed from Sırma’s perspective. In this history, you will read many events that tragically repeat as no lessons have been learnt from them. One of the events I reminded about the Qatar crisis in my last article was the boycott and embargo and protection system similar to the one applied on Muslims in Mecca. You can see surprising resemblances to the present, if you read how Muslims lost Jerusalem to the Crusaders, as they failed to unite against the Crusaders’ alliance because of local tribal power struggles. You can also read how Nur ad-Din Zangi and Saladin al-Ayoubi fought against the same powers to save Jerusalem from occupation.

In summary, the history of Muslims is full of examples that will shed light on what we are experiencing.

*Yasin Aktay is the vice chair of the ruling Justice and Development (AK Party) in Turkey.

(Published in Yeni Şafak Turkısh newspaper on June 19,  2017)