Episode 310: Islamic Concept of History
Mohamed Islam: What is meant by "a concept of history"?
Abdel Wahab El Messeri: Any human writing is not a reproduction of reality. Even a news report includes certain information and excludes others, based on a certain philosophical outlook of the writer. The same with history. When an historian writes the history of say, Ancient Egypt, ( or Modern America, or 19th Century Europe ), he has data that fills the city of Cairo. He will not publish all this information, for that would be an archive. The writer decides what to include and what to exclude. So he picks and chooses determined by his own philosophical back ground to construct a history
For example, a history of the USA from the standpoint of White Settlers will be completely different from one written by Native Americans. The latter may concentrate and elaborate on genocidal massacres. A white historian will start of with the Declaration of Independence, and ignore a thousand years of beautiful Native American history
MI: The concept of history depends on subjectivity and the world outlook of the historian. What different world outlooks are there? What is the Islamic view?
AWM: Lets look at a few different views:
- Cyclical Views: History goes in cycles. So there is no meaning. Things happen in a cyclical, nonsensical, meaningless way. There is no God or purpose behind events. This is the Greek view. Nitschean view is also cyclical , it is the modern cyclical view. E.g. Sprangler.
- Providential View: History completely guided by God: controlled by Him. That either a group or the human species is chosen by God. There is a chosen people with this view, eg. Judaism.. This is similar to the cyclical view in that there is no human input at all.
- Secular Deterministic View: ( Hegalian, Marxist views ) History is propelled by non-human forces, economic motives. Frued: eros, sexual drives. Hagel: The idea of the absolute state. Conflicts within matter that manifests itself through human society.
In all three views the idea of the autonomous human individual who can choose, who is responsible, and who carries moral burdens disappears altogether in a variety of determinism either cyclical, materialism, or providential. In all three there is no freedom of the will.
MI: That brings us to the Islamic concept. Is there an Islamic concept? If so, how did it originate and develop?
AWM: There is an Islamic World Outlook, a philosophy, a concept of history. It is based on a basic duality. God created the world, but does not dwell in it. He is removed from it. He cares for it, and guides it, but is always beyond it : Transcendental ( Muazza ). It is not dualism but duality. It is not God versus the world, but God beyond the world. We can interact with Him. God has granted us autonomy ( Fitra ) rights and drives. He has given us a mind to judge. He gave us a message, and a burden. We deserve to be the center of the universe. He left us free to choose, after giving us guidance, a covenant. He gave us all the tools. It is all up to us. He has given us history. History is the realm of freedom. We can save or damn ourselves.
MI: How did the Islamic Outlook develop?
AWM: The idea of " Seal of the Prophets " ( Khatam al Nabi ) has to be introduced. It is central in the Islamic view of History. In the past God has felt that man needed continuous guidance through prophets. Now he sent the Quran as the final message. It is a fulfillment of the previous ones, a synthesis, not different. Now we have the Quran and the mind and nature, and we have the freedom to choose. Therefore he is the last Prophet. We have all the ingredients to be free agents in history.
MI: "Seal of the Prophets". Does it mean the there will be no more Prophets, or divine messages?
AWM: There is no more interaction in history. He has given the final word in his covenant. From now on we are free. Through our own interpretation we can get guidance and reach some kind of truth. I would like to place this in contrast to the " End of History Idea ". Where did it come from? Fukuyama: is not someone crazy, it all of a sudden came to his mind. I argue that with the concept of determinism, comes the " End of History Idea ", especially within the secular view, because in the secular view there is a movement within matter itself propelling nature, the economic drive, the erotic drive. In the case of Fukuyama it is the economic drive: he declares the triumph of liberal capitalism and democracy. This is inevitable in any materialistic point of view. Unless the movement of matter is infinite, i.e. attributing to it the characteristics of God. In other words he thinks in terms of metaphysics. He has embarked on the concept of infinity, which is really metaphysical. So within materialism there has to be an end to history.
MI: What do you mean by the movement of history?
AWM: According to the Islamic view it moves basically through the human will, not guided by laws of nature, but laws of God, and helped by nature, being an open book. From the secular materialistic point of view, history moves by some materialistic power, e.g. means of production, or the state moving history forward. The characteristic of all the materialistic ideas is that they all have an ending. So a secular messiah, e.g. Robespiere, Stalin, Hitler, Fukuyama, all claim, here is paradise, here is the end of history.
With Islam there is no end in history at all, except the day of judgment, which is outside history. In Judaism the day of judgment is within history. In Christianity the second coming is the end of history and is also within history.
In Islam there is no end in history. God is external to history, he guides history, but is not in it, he transcends it. In Islam history lasts forever, and within its realm man has freedom to choose.
MI: When did the Islamic concept of history develop?
AWM: From the very beginning. It was believed that history is determined by human choice, but guided by God. It was already projected from the history of the Prophet. They always wanted to write a comprehensive history. Ibn Khaldun did not exclude providence altogether. He did see patterns like asabiyah etc., but always saw the human will acting in history. A history that has meaning and is guided by a transcendental power. Western concept cannot accept this duality. Either it is one or the other.
When the West looks at Ibn Khalduns Philosophy, they strip it of its duality, and make him look like a pure secular materialist.
MI: When reading history from the Islamic point of view, what conclusions can we come to?
AWM: Lets look at the way I write history, I do the following:
I first try to reconstruct history, imagine what happened.
I would continuously emphasize the human act or element, to construct man in his full humanity. Even looking at the enemy from this objective human point of view.
I also pass moral judgment, bringing in the providential element.( Islamic territory )
So the whole process is that of constructive objectivity, including Islamic Duality.