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What’s in a date? Why we should trace history

For as long as they have recorded themselves, humans have divided time and community... but are we as disparate as we seem?

Philip Parham

Published: Updated:

For as long as they have recorded themselves, humans have divided time - by the cycles of the sun (or rather the earth) and the moon, by the visibility of the constellations, by the migration of prey and the growth of crops, and by the anniversaries of the events and heroes through whose prisms they make sense of their existence.

Sometimes these various calendars produce happy or thought-provoking coincidences. One such fell on October 4 this year: Eid al-Adha in the calendar of Islam; and, for Catholics, the feast of St Francis of Assisi, who stripped himself of all worldly possessions to identify himself with the poor, the suffering and the outcast. One commemoration recalls Abraham’s willingness to give up his son for God, and God’s signal that he did not desire that sort of sacrifice; the other celebrates an example of radical self-sacrifice inspired by religious devotion and human generosity.

Humans like to divide themselves into neat and comfortable categories. But those divisions quickly break down under the barest scrutiny

Philip Parham

St Francis famously travelled to Palestine in 1219. Appalled by the behavior of the “Christian” troops who claimed to bear the standard of their religion, he slipped through the lines to meet the Muslim commander Sultan al-Kamil. They are said to have impressed each other by their wisdom and humanity, while each remained in his own faith.

The celebrations of Eid al-Adha and St Francis both remind us that the great monotheistic religions do not demand bloody human sacrifice, but rather sacrifice of the human heart. Not aggression and imposition, but humility and peace.

Common heritage

And the figure of Abraham reminds us of the common heritage which we share as People of the Book. We are much more closely entwined than most realize and many wish to admit. My fifteen-times-great-grandmother was Margaret Plantagenet. The last member of the family which had ruled England for nearly four centuries, and mother of the last Catholic Archbishop of Canterbury, she was decapitated on the orders of Henry VIII because she opposed his religious policy. Her six-times-great-grandmother was St Elizabeth of Portugal, a champion and protector of the poor. St Elizabeth’s ten-times-great-grandmother was a daughter of Abu’l Mutarrif al-Hakim al-Muntasir, second Caliph of Córdoba, and a Basque woman called Aurora or (in Arabic) Subh. And Abu’l Mutarrif of course descended directly from Umayya, cousin of the Prophet’s grandfather.

So a descent of fifty-four generations includes, in the same direct line, the family of the Prophet, the Umayyad Caliphs, a canonized Catholic saint, a beatified Catholic martyr, and - after more meandering centuries - the British Ambassador to the UAE. I and countless other Europeans are accumulations of all those same genes, and all that religious and cultural heritage.

Just as humans like to divide time, they like also to divide themselves into neat and comfortable categories. But those divisions quickly break down under the barest scrutiny. The thugs of so-called ISIS have their gruesome historic parallels among those who falsely claimed Christianity to justify their own thuggishness. We should assign them the place they deserve - as awful warnings of how humans can be deluded by greed and sadism. And we should concentrate instead on those, of all cultures and traditions, who demonstrate the human capacity for sacrifice to serve the common good.

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Ambassador Parham was appointed Her Majesty’s Ambassador to the United Arab Emirates in July 2014. Previously he was the UK’s Deputy Permanent Representative to the United Nations in New York.

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