Myth, Narrative and History
اللهم صلي على سيدنا محمد وءاله وصحبه وسلم تسليماً، بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم
Because of our ignorance of history and our ‘ulama’s ignorance of of history, certain events have come to assume mythic proportions. One of these is the event of Kerbala. The movement of this event-as-myth to the centre stage of Muslim discourse has resulted in a cynical view of Muslim power, and a defeatism that glorifies useless sacrifice. This myth serves a subordinate role in the global myth of the dominant technique/technology culture that strides the earth. It thus serves a very useful geo-political purpose for the power élite. In that culture of globalised warfare and total spectrum dominance, the technique of the creation of money from nothing is absolutely central. In ignorance of the power politics of the age, active Muslims are locked into a false struggle with local dictators. Primed with the myth of al-Ḥusayn, they are pre-configured to seek defeat. Moreover, as their understanding of power is false, even when they win it is a defeat. As the core community of mankind, it behoves the Muslims rather to turn to the primordial historical model of the Messenger of Allah, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, and his Companions, the people of Madina, both in the telling of his history and the transmission of his practice, the Sunnah. The transmitted practice alone, which is the Qur’anic revelation embodied, deals with the motor, the money nexus, that drives the global frenzy of the age. The sirah represents, contrary to the myth of Kerbala, a life-affirming and positive victory-oriented approach to life and to political power.
Myth: 1 a: a usually traditional story of ostensibly historical events that serves to unfold part of the world view of a people or explain a practice, belief, or natural phenomenon…
In this apparently supremely rational age, it is quite extraordinary how myth sways the hearts and movements of millions. This is a simple matter when the myth has been made up – The Lord of the Rings and Star Wars spring to mind – even if still effective. But when the myth is based on a smattering or more of historical realities, its effectiveness can be deeply troubling, for this cross fertilisation of mythic narrative and history is most potent, and indeed daily moulds our geo-political and personal realities.
We have the myth of the ‘crucifiction’, as one writer wittily named it, many of whose elements are also to be found in the story of al-Ḥusayn, may Allah be pleased with him. But here it is necessary to clarify that what we say about myth does not apply to the historical personages involved, even though the historical narrative and the myth are almost inextricably intertwined. Nevertheless, they must be separated for the safety of the individual and the society. There are so many factors leading us to global conflagration that it is vital we extinguish them, even if piecemeal, a step at a time, and myth is one of the issues that contributes most to that danger.
I would characterise the worst aspect of our age its suicidal tendency. A considered reflection on any number of themes, such as global warming or the geo-political situation which has many factors close to igniting the conflagration that we claim to fear, would serve to illustrate my thesis that there is a willed suicidal tendency at work. If at present that tendency amounts only to a flirtation, everyone knows how quickly flirtation turns to a full-blown love affair and even marriage. The union in this case would be the apocalyptic end of the current age in an all-out war, with the incalculable death and destruction that would entail.
And this one narrative is a thread in that fatalism.
Myth is ideology as narrative
Myth – a marriage of narrative and emotion
The ordinary stuff of knowledge is short on emotion. Knowledge and scholarship are slow, demanding and undramatic. History is a mass of details that don’t always make a good story, as Hollywood knows all too well when it bends every historical narrative to spin a yarn. When you see the credits roll and they say ponderously, “This film is ‘based’ on a true story…” then you know for sure that they meant ‘debased’. Similarly, with many myths that grow and assume the proportions of irrefutable truth, the story-like narrative has its own convincing emotional content that persuades us the story is true even though the facts may contradict it.
Yet nevertheless, emotion is a vital component of the human and where it is not evident, as in the glacially cool regions of mathematics, philosophy or science, you know that it is certainly working its mischief out of sight. I say ‘mischief’ because if emotion is not integrated into the being, its covert operation only causes trouble. Therefore, underneath the frosty and forbidding exterior of Darwin’s work on evolution and its apparent rigour lurks the murky world of Darwin’s emotional life, the actual driver of his research and its conclusions.
So, we do not wish to decry the emotions in favour of a cool and detached view of existence, but we certainly need to engage with historical narratives with some modicum of rational understanding to modify our primitive emotional responses.
Myth 2 a: a popular belief or tradition that has grown up around something or someone; especially: one embodying the ideals and institutions of a society or segment of society
The Christian Myth
The christian myth comes to us out of the clouds of a much disputed and almost lost history. Historians differ to the extent that some even consider it a genuine myth with no historical basis. The records are few and confusing, and more seriously they come to us via people who have a vested interest in purveying the narrative as we know it: the Roman Catholic Church, itself the conveyor of the secular Roman State model into the modern age. And the Protestant dispensation is similarly married to the state and thus has a similar motive for the crime of historical and theological distortion. But what is the connection between the christian myth and the state, and what vested interest has the state in purveying this myth?
What more satisfactory myth could any political order desire for potentially disruptive, idealistic young men than this? The supreme virtue for a young man is seen as his not interfering in the state although utterly opposed to it, and his then courting disaster and finally martyrdom at its hands, passively, and seeking no outcome whatsoever! Imagining that this process will effect some transfiguration of the human into the Divine! For, whereas Christian dogma asserts this as the unique qualifier of Jesus, peace be upon him and may he be honoured for never having uttered such twaddle and for his repeatedly insisting “Allah is my Lord and your Lord, so worship Him”, nevertheless any statement about such a figure is always an assertion about the nature of man, every man. So christendom has deceived itself and the world with the prospect of man becoming Divine – and I do not like even to write such things down, and ask Allah’s forgiveness for what is necessary to articulate, repellent though it is. Worse still, this, along with usury finance, is the motor of christendom’s great list of crimes, including the long catalogue of crimes of the nation that claims a ‘manifest destiny’ which has amounted to little more than a trail of dead bodies and torture victims and the theft of many peoples’ resources. So this claim to divinity looks somewhat tawdry now, Christendom, does it not?
And this motor has an inbuilt mechanism to deal with the natural idealism of youth. Every generation, contrary to the sick myth of original sin, comes to us shining with a light from beyond, if they reach maturity with even a fraction of their original purity unsullied, and sees the appalling nature of the ‘state’ and its brutal domination of the masses. And what does the myth require of them? Why, it demands that they taunt the state and bait it enough that it will turn on them and do what the myth demands: martyr them. Thus, its abominations continue, and their virtue is ensured in our memory, a virtue they do not deserve, unless getting killed is in itself something worthy.
Thus, the myth serves two purposes: the lure of man becoming divine is held out as the unique claim of christendom, and how many it has misled, and as a subsidiary myth the radicalised and idealistic youths, who could conceivably halt the monstrous progress of what is now a vast machine out of control, are persuaded to offer themselves up in useless sacrifice.
The reason for this, which we would characterise as spurious- or pseudo-myth, is the debasement of history. There is another sense in which we can talk of myth as something deep and enriching, something that is a dimension of history itself, that is a richness and is enriching. But the pseudo-myth is never thus; it is always a pestilential and dangerous affair. And it becomes so when it detaches itself from history. There are a number of reasons for that, foremost among which are the various reasons that disqualify most scholars from talking about or benefitting from history. Our ‘ulamā’ and many scholars, including some historians, are largely not qualified to talk about history and even when they do, it amounts to nothing much better than telling funny, tragic, awful or edifying stories. But it is not history. Ibn Khaldun says:
“Untruth naturally afflicts historical information. There are various reasons that make this unavoidable. One of them is partisanship for opinions and schools. If the soul is impartial in receiving information, it devotes to that information the share of critical investigation the information deserves, and its truth or untruth thus becomes clear. However, if the soul is infected with partisanship for a particular opinion or sect, it accepts without a moment’s hesitation the information that is agreeable to it. Prejudice and partisanship obscure the critical faculty and preclude critical investigation. The result is that falsehoods are accepted and transmitted.”
The problem for us at this late juncture in history is that whereas we may be clear about this and that sect (although many of us will differ as to who are the sects, labelling each other in the process), what we are not clear about is the sect that most Muslims today belong to without realising it, or rather the syncretic amalgam of sects’ doctrines and practices that make up our sense of being Muslims and indeed ‘orthodox’ Muslims today. It is from this perspective that we interpret our history without thinking for a moment that our judgement is skewed even before we start. The person who wants to discover his own blindness need only reflect that we clearly do not have the same Islam as the first generations. Then the question arises: what Islam do we have? This is not a counsel of despair and guilt, but a very necessary step to recovery of the dīn. Truly, the man who knows he is blind and wants to see is in a better position than the man who has been blind from birth and does not even know that sight exists.
“Another reason making untruth unavoidable in historical information is reliance upon transmitters. Investigation of this subject belongs to (the theological discipline of) personality criticism.”
Again, in our case this is exacerbated by the great mass of transmitted narratives and the uncritical acceptance of data simply because it has been cited by someone eminent somewhere. History books are replete with historians citing each other until like a great Chinese whisper, no one knows where it all began. Our Arabic sources are sometimes no better. Great great ‘ulamā’ uncritically cite events and conversations simply because they make too good a story to miss, failing to analyse those events and reported words to see if they are feasible. This is most obvious to the modern reader when he finds ‘history’ books replete with magical events that make little sense and which contradict known geographical and physical possibilities. But, as Ibn Khaldun says with some exasperation, they have done so simply because of the names of the eminent people who cited these fabulous and fantastic events. That means, however, that those same historians are just as unreliable when they cite down-to-earth events that had and still have huge political ramifications, simply because they only apply the methodology of the reliability of the narrators. Thus, it behoves us when we read the work of ‘authorities’ to retain the use of our critical faculties and not swallow everything whole.
In the case of history, people often place great reliance on scholars who are excellent in other disciplines but who are utterly unreliable in transmitting historical data, because people assume that their excellence in other sciences necessarily equips them to transmit history accurately, which it does not.
But again, it would be a mistake to limit this to Muslim scholars, who actually do have a science of criticism of narrators, when it applies equally widely to Western historiography and even to the operation of the media today, but that is the subject for another time.
“Another reason making untruth unavoidable – and this one is more powerful than all the reasons previously mentioned – is ignorance of the nature of the various conditions arising in civilization.”
I have previously written about presentism and this is something that afflicts almost all contemporary discourse on the past and pollutes most ages’ discussions of other ages and other cultures. We understand past ages and other societies by applying our own values to them. If people do not understand another age and another society deeply in the way that that age and society understood itself, they will end up applying the wrong measures and judging by the wrong values. This is not relativism; we agree on the universal values of the Book and the Sunnah but we do have to understand how other ages saw those values, particularly the first generations of Islam who were closer to the revelation itself. Indeed, for us to apply our late understanding of the Book and the Sunnah to events that happened among the first generations would be a real inversion.
The Prophet, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, is reported to have said:
خَيْرُ أُمَّتِي الْقَرْنُ الَّذِينَ يَلُونِي ثُمَّ الَّذِينَ يَلُونَهُمْ ثُمَّ الَّذِينَ يَلُونَهُمْ
“The best of my ummah are the generation who are near to me, then those who are nearest to them, then those who are nearest to them.” (Sahih Muslim. This hadith is widely transmitted in different wordings by many different routes.)
This applies to the right-acting of those blessed generations as a whole and not just to a select few. So it behoves us to take some trouble to understand just what went on between them.
Al-Ḥusayn, may Allah be pleased with him
Thus, we have to turn to an Islamic variant of this pernicious myth: that of al-Ḥusayn. We affirm all that is narrated about the merits of the family of the Messenger of Allah, may Allah bless him and them and grant peace. It is not this we are talking about, but about the Hollywoodisation of his story, this narrative myth that long predates Hollywood, but which has worked and is working so much mischief in our historical understanding, in our geo-political landscape and in our private and personal lives.
First element: youth
Al-Ḥusayn is perpetually young, the embodiment of the youth who rises against tyranny. Fact: he was 54 when he died, by no means an old man, but certainly no longer young.
Second element: Umayyad wickedness
The given of the story is the self-evident worldliness and corruption of the Umayyads, and in particular Yazīd. Those whose piety is safe from all engagement with actual danger or struggle, content themselves with abusing someone about whom they know nothing from the distance of a millennium and a half, whom they insult and slander, as if slander and backbiting are not prohibited here too. As if historical detail did not matter here. As if a man sitting in Damascus 750 kilometres from the action could personally be responsible for each detail of the undoubted atrocity that happened. But we are already treading in the historical and forgetting that this is a myth, where facts and history no longer matter.
This is a myth whose substratum is the ‘given’ of Umayyad corruption, a corruption that is narrated to us by scholars of a dynasty that exterminated them in one of the most shameful moments of Muslim history. It comes from scholars of a dynasty with a guilty conscience.
In fact, the corruption of the Umayyads is by no means self-evident. But such historical considerations do not matter to those whose rhetorical abilities exceed their historical knowledge and intellectual capacities, and they matter not at all to those who enjoy telling a good tale more than the responsibility telling such tales incur.
So the myth itself here is an almost inevitable consequence of untested assumptions. Once the Bani Umayyah are cast as evil despots whereas the Bani Hashim are luminous beings of pure intelligence and piety, then the result is a forgone conclusion. ‘Umar ibn ‘Abd al-‘Aziz, may Allah be pleased with him, is cast as the exception that confirms the rule, the one almost accidental example of piety in the Umayyad dynasty, but we forget that the dynasty itself placed him in governance and concurred with what was the highly unusual decision of Sulayman ibn ‘Abd al-Malik to appoint him his successor. But such details don’t bother the mythical mind. And the mythical dualistic mind sees the Bani Umayyah/Bani Hashim duality as an epic battle of good and evil from which battle, the myth of Kerbala is just a detail that proves the thesis.
Myth: …and typically involving supernatural beings or events.
Every such romantic/tragic myth must have a simple Manichaean duality: the impossibly good against the impossibly wicked, a duality that is in itself kufr in the literal sense of ‘covering over’ reality. We have used the term ‘myth’, and indeed most accounts of myth include the fact of it dealing with the doings of gods and other supernatural beings. The mythification of the story of al-Ḥusayn, may Allah be pleased with him, has altered historical beings into supernatural entities of goodness and badness. It is no longer a tale of humans but of a metaphysical dualism. Reality, particularly human reality, is always a much more complex affair.
Thus, such simplistic tellings take no account of the fact that a kafir can actually be a rather nice man, and sometimes the mu’min may not be so nice. The world does not fit into the duality of ‘nice/not-nice’. Niceness is not a measure of anything, certainly not history. But the danger of this Manichaeanist mechanism is that once it is invoked, it is almost always preceded by evocation of Haqq and Batil which when you hear it you know you are in for trouble. It guarantees a polarisation of events into black and white. Just as Haqq ‘Truth’ is quite correctly capitalised since it is one of the names of Allah, exalted is He, suspiciously, such people capitalise Batil ‘falsehood’ as well, showing that it has now crept up into a kind of ‘equal and opposite’ relationship with the Haqq. But tawḥīd, the unitary science of Divine knowledge, says that there is only One Author of existence, not two in perpetual unresolved conflict.
Rhetorically this dualism has a certain satisfying aspect to it for story-tellers, but one must always remember that people will undertake certain actions based on this rhetoric, and that while the rhetorician will share in the reward if the person impelled into action by his words does good, he will also share in the punishment if the person is impelled to do wrong. And there is a multiplier here since we are in the age of the masses in which media can move millions by one man’s words. That would make any sane man hesitate a thousand years before unleashing his eloquent tongue unless he is simply in love with that power.
The worst aspect of the myth here exposed is that at the core it elevates and honours defeat and prepares people in advance for it. It honours the role of victim and prepares people in advance for it. How differently people behave when their goal is success. How much the discourse of the Noble Book and the Sunnah is predicated on success, both here in this life and in the later life after death. The martyr is the exception in this narrative of victory with his own victory. But martyrdom in itself is not the goal. A movement that has placed defeat as the very essence of its vision, whose analysis of history is that of the almost unstoppable wickedness of political power, which they see as invincible, has nothing but the unearned sense of virtue of the victim and the downtrodden; an easy virtue. This is the essence of shi’ism and paradoxically, for all the rhetoric out of Tehran, this is the essence of the perverted Judaism we have seen since that people were cut off from prophecy.
And the exponent of this myth, this dangerous motor for the heroic and meaningless sacrifice of young people on the altar of sacrifice. Who is he? He may be of the east or the west, an Arab or non-Arab, convert or someone born into a Muslim family. He is an archetype. He is impeccably groomed and visibly every inch the public speaker. He is the product of a tradition that values the narration of data, preferably with some kind of license showing its transmission man-to-man over the ages. In this dispensation, the more data a man has, the more knowledge. How far from Malik’s dictum that “Knowledge is a light which Allah places wherever He wills; it is not a great deal of narration.” The rhetoric too is of the highest quality, whether in English, Urdu or Arabic, but it is tuned to stir the emotions, to rouse the takbir from the numerous dispirited modern Muslims and give them a taste of the electricity that rhetoric can generate, either for its own sake or as an engine that will drive them out to stand in front of the tanks and the troops to die. He may have been trained extensively in this rarefied art, and it is expected of him by his society that he will thrill them in this way. He is an entertainer. Even if knowledgeable, he is an ‘infotainer’. The orator, of course, who lives far from the action and is in no danger from his emotion-stirring discourse, will not see the young lives snuffed out. But he is content with their adulation and their mistaking his rhetoric for action and dīn.
Just as nothing we said before should be interpreted as hostility to the House of the Messenger of Allah, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, similarly, what I am about to write should not be considered an endorsement of dictators.
Rhetoric has consequences. Armies sometimes had men with rhetorical gifts to deliver orations before the battle who would lift their spirits and which sent many of them to their deaths. Thus, it behoves the man of intellect with the gift of eloquence to consider precisely what purpose his rhetoric may serve, what army it will strengthen and to what death he is sending young men. If the purpose is democratic elections, if the ‘army’ is a demonstration on the street, marching Gandhiesque to suicidal ‘martyrdoms’, leaderless and without knowledge, then such a rhetorician ought to pause. He ought perhaps, before sending them out to fight, to use his considerable skills to equip those young men with the knowledge necessary to see the failings in democracy and to equip them for the correct forms of leadership and governance and to establish the dīn and all its mores, which is obligatory on them and us.
That does not mean that anyone has to acquiesce passively in a tyrannical dictatorship or open kufr. It does mean that we need an emergency kit knowledge of the dīn which is what has to be implemented, now and once victory is achieved. We need some grasp of history since it has become one of the major battlefields of the age in which we live. It is a cliché, but a valuable one, that those who do not learn the lessons of history are condemned to repeat them. We have learnt the dangers of relying exclusively on knowledge that is ‘narrated’, which is void of training in the use of the intellect and the faculties of discrimination and understanding. If we can take on some of that, we might be well placed to recover some vital aspect of the dīn for the benefit of mankind. What use is a revolution that merely changes the locks on the prison cells? And it means that we need to beware a thousand times of suicidal tendencies and cultivating the psychology of the victim and we need to cultivate the urge to victory and the knowledge necessary for it.
My thanks to Abdalhakim Andersson for providing me with the quotes from the Muqaddima of Ibn Khaldun which contributed so much to the development of this part.
Leave a Reply
You must be logged in to post a comment.