Looking at history through different lenses

Nawar Fakhry Ezzi
Nawar Fakhry Ezzi
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“Insiders” in any community seem to be the best qualified to research and write about their community’s history because they have the advantage of better understanding the intricate cultural and linguistic context necessary to validate the accuracy of their description and analysis.

However, history can truly be “but a fable agreed upon”, as Napoléon Bonaparte is claimed to have said, and this agreement can be perpetuated and sometimes even exaggerated when these “insiders” are the sole guardians of this valuable source of information for their community.

Whether the group belongs to the victors or the defeated, or in case of religious history believers or non-believers, the portrayal and examination of events and figures will vary tremendously. Even in the case of scrutinized objective scientific research, this gap will still exist, albeit significantly decreased.

This is usually the case because the authors’ preconceptions and background influences, if not outright biases and generalizations, will always find a way to manifest themselves even through the minutest details.

As Arab Muslims, our history is dominated by our religious history and Islamic figures. This fact further increases our tendency toward selecting our “sanctified” resources whose authors are not only Arab Muslims, but sometimes even belong to the same denomination and sect we belong to.

During a time of escalating conflict between “East” and “West” in a world with an ever-increasing multiculturalism and globalization, we need to know ourselves first in order to successfully engage in a dialogue

Nawar Fakhry Ezzi

It is true that history is intimately connected to our sense of identity and understanding of the world, which can lead to a feeling of vulnerability when it is written by “foreign” hands, especially when it challenges our deepest convictions and assumptions. However, we cannot see the clear picture and our thoughts cannot evolve unless they are challenged and questioned by learning viewed through different lenses than our own.

It is beyond dispute that the books of those “insiders” are indispensable to the foundation of our education. However, as people get older and their knowledge increases, they should start expanding their circle of resources to include those that are written by “outsiders” who belong to an altogether different ethnicity, sect or even religion.

It is true that this involves the risk of being exposed to misinformation or misconceptions where biases and hidden agendas are implied or even explicitly stated, but limiting our knowledge to “insiders” could result in us falling into the same trap with the only difference being that it one of our own making.

Tunnel vision

However, without the exposure to other points of view, we could suffer from tunnel vision where we see the world from only one perspective that creates and reinforces our preconceptions, biases and assumptions leading to intellectual stagnation and sometimes even estrangement from the “other” in cases where it is constantly being represented negatively.

More importantly, we will not be able to recognize the “good” books from the “bad” unless we read them all and learn to know the difference. In addition to broadening our horizons, different perspectives can help us gain new insights that otherwise we would have missed.

For example, those who do not believe in Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) as a Prophet, but objectively study his life away from the sacred lens that we see him through are sometimes better equipped to see his “human” characteristics.

We unintentionally overlook them sometimes because we take them for granted since we believe that he was divinely inspired, forgetting that he was a marvelous human being who had a keen sense of strategy and leadership and used his free will to be kind and loving.

Like many topics, books on Islamic history cover a wide spectrum that ranges from feeble books that have no factual basis to the other extreme of Muslim apologetics that attempt to justify some Muslims’ outdated interpretations of the Holy Quran or portray some Islamic figures as if they were flawless beings.

There are so many writers and scholars in between from both sides who have bits and pieces of the whole truth that cannot be captured unless we include as many of them as we can while learning in the process the “good” books from the “bad” ones.

During a time of escalating conflict between “East” and “West” in a world with an ever-increasing multiculturalism and globalization, we need to know ourselves first in order to successfully engage in a dialogue with the “other” and this cannot happen until we learn about our world by viewing it through all kinds of lenses.

This article was first published in the Saudi Gazette on January 30, 2016.
Nawar Fakhry Ezzi is a Jeddah-based contributor to Saudi Gazette newspaper. She is interested in human rrights, Islam, interfaith relations and the environment. The writer can be reached at [email protected] and tweets @nawarezzi.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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