Reading history book is much more easier than reading economic or political science book, that I must say. Much of this, I think, is the human inclination toward stories rather than abstract theories, rhetoric, and argument. It took me just 11 days to finish Firas Alkhateeb’s book Lost Islamic History: Reclaiming Muslim Civilization from the Past.
To compress 1400 years of history of Islamic civilization into 274 pages is very hard, if not impossible. To do this, of course, you have to pick and choose on what is important, what to be included, what to exclude and what is history and what is not. This selection is exposed to the bias of individual historian, all historian cannot escape from this dichotomy, Alkhateeb included.
Alkhateeb made ‘lost’ as a title to fill the gap that American textbook left about the Islamic history in their teaching of world’s history. So, for average Muslim, who received Islamic education, much of the book is pretty similar to what they were thought in school, especially on the early history about Prophet Muhammad and the first four caliphs. There are a lot of interesting stories, speculation, myth, but none were dealt in details as this work is a compression of 1400 years of history. But all in all, it was a pleasant read, one that spark your brain cell to have a long thinking.
Commenting on how Muslim scholar such as al-Razi and Ibn Sina contributing to the human knowledge, which further the studies of previous scholar such as Galen and Hippocrates, which was used to lay the pillar of modern medical science in the West, Alkhateeb dispelled the theory of ‘the clash of civilization’ stressing that civilization not only interact in aggressive and warring attitude. They also inspire each other and advance the work of each other in many fields in harmonious ways.
If there is one thing that is new from the book, at least for the Muslim who are well versed with Islamic history, is that Alkhateeb is successful in breaking the romanticized narrative of Islamic history. As we often thought that across the time there were great unity among the Muslim, the fall of one Islamic empire is succeeded by another, politely taking turns. This was not the case. The division is bloody, especially after the killing of Uthman, the third caliph. There are a lot of politicking and civil war, in fact in the 900s, there were three dynasties claiming the caliphate: the Abbasids, the Fatimids, and the Umayyads.
The saddest part of Islamic history may be the sacking of Baghdad by the Mongols on 10 February 1258. Not only the population of estimated 200,000 to 1 million was massacred, but the fall of Baghdad also means that hundreds years of scholarship in the field of mathematics, science, history, lost forever as the Mongols razed down the ancient institution of House of Wisdom and dumped all the books into the Tigris River, turning the river black with ink.
The story of Islam in Spain also were discussed, from my point of view, in adequate detail, although the student of history might want to find other sources which delve in it deeper. From the founding of Ummayyad Caliphate of Al-Andalus by Abdul Rahman Al-Dakhil until the fall of the last Muslim Kingdom in Granada under Muhammad XII, known as Boabdil by the Spaniards. The most interesting part of that history is how the Berber Muslim of North Africa frequently crossed the strait of Gibraltar to defend their Muslim brethrens, first by the Murabitun, then by the Muwahhidun, but in the end the infighting among the Muslim brought down the Muslim rule in the Iberian peninsula.
As a Malaysian, I chuckled a little bit as I read how Alkhateeb wrote the issue of how the Malay identify greatly their identity with Muslim identity. Not that it was wrong, it kind of funny to read how our culture were written in the international writing. He even quoted ‘masuk melayu’ the term given when someone embraced Islam with the meaning that he had enter the realm of the Malay. This issue actually very contentious at home, as the Muslim in Malaysia want their non-Muslim brother to understand that you can keep your culture even if you embraced Islam.
We often think that Mustafa Kamal, was the one responsible to secularized Turkey from their Islamic roots. But, the fact was it started much earlier, from the reign of Abdulmecid I (1839-1861) which brought in the era of Tanzimat or re-organization. During this era the legal code was changed from Shari’a to the French system in favour of a liberal and secular Western approach.
As the Islamic empire crumbled, the Muslim was instilled with nationalism, their land were carved under colonialism and imperialism. In the end they entered the modern world as individual nation states, much of which the boundaries of these new nation states was drawn by their previous colonial master. Ending his book, Alkhateeb noted that in this modern world, the Muslim now are in the cross road. To return to their former glory, some revivalist scholar preached that they need to return back to their faith, at the same time emerged a new class of scholar that preached that they should not return to the past but embraced the new ideals of the modern world. These two ideas are still contesting with each other, and their future will be determined by how this contest played out.