Past is prologue, the future is history

“And by that destiny to perform an act
Whereof what’s past is prologue, what to come
In yours and my discharge” — William Shakespeare (The Tempest).

Knowledge of the present alone is similar to looking at one’s reflection in muddy water on a particularly gloomy day. There we see vague arbitrary shapes, ill-defined in construction, chaotic in appearance and too dull for any insight and understanding. A murky aura with a mist of prevalent social and cultural prejudices also hovers around it. The madness and confusion of such an addition may even result in the hallucination of glory and grandeur, shapeless clouds of mist joining for a moment to enhance the viewer’s delusion. Any sane person, desiring a realistic appreciation of life, cannot be constrained with this depressing state of affairs alone. Thus, by adding lights of myriad historical representations into the mix representing the full spectrum of sources, from the red tinge of the closest history to the distant violet hue of the ancient past, one begins to make sense and distinguish between illusion and reality. The mist evaporates as the light becomes stronger, the mud settles and crystal clear water remains, showing the context of human existence in its true colours.

In a report conducted by Sustainable Development Policy Institute (SDPI) in 2002 on the state of curricula and textbooks in Pakistan, one writer says: “In Pakistan, the impression one gets from textbooks on the subjects of Social/Pakistan studies is that students do not learn history. Rather, they are forced to read a carefully crafted collection of falsehoods and fairy tales. History has been used to churn out a mythology about the struggle that led to the creation of Pakistan.” The report further states: “The books on Social Studies systematically misrepresent events that have happened throughout Pakistan’s history, including those which are within living memory of many people. This history is narrated with distortions and omissions…Worse, the material is presented in ways that encourage the student to marginalise and be hostile towards other social groups and people in the region.”

It is no secret that our history textbooks have always been full of venom against anything Indian, especially Hindus. The SDPI report also tells how hate material is spread through our textbooks. Examples cited from various textbooks include, “The Hindu has always been an enemy of Islam...Hindus worship in temples which are very narrow and dark places, where they worship idols. Only one person can enter the temple at a time. In our mosques, on the other hand, all Muslims can say their prayers together…The Hindus, who have always been opportunists, cooperated with the English.” It is as if the Hindus had nothing better to do than trying to outdo the Muslims and usurp their rights. This in turn leads to intolerance.

One reason why our society has become philistine is because we were not taught to value history. For one, we were taught highly prejudiced and limited history. Also, we were taught history in a mechanical fashion without realising why it is important to learn it. No importance is given to preserving ancient history in our country and the concerned authorities are allowing sites like Mehrgarh, Taxilla, Moenjodaro and Harappa to go to ruin. Historical buildings, such as the Lahore Fort, Shalimar Gardens, etc., are being misused by the authorities for official and private functions of influential people and getting ruined in the process. But there is hardly anyone, barring a few people from civil society, who have raised their voice against this. Why is it that only a handful of people out of the 165 million were concerned about historical monuments and ancient civilisations?

History is more than remembering dates and places. It is about analysing the actions of the past nations and their emperors, what they did wrong, what they did right, why they did what they did, what they wanted to achieve, what was their culture, how they changed the world in their days, and much more. It is equally important to know other heroes in history who have achieved far greater things of consequence than to just keep ruminating about our glorious Islamic past in South Asia. This way, we can also learn from others’ mistakes and apply this knowledge to the present day. Our knowledge should not be limited. If our children are only taught about Islamic history or history after Muhammad bin Qasim invaded the Subcontinent, it would become insular knowledge. Insularity must be avoided at all costs, so that a child can have a global perspective. This leads to debate, which essentially leads to self-realisation and the development of individuality.

Pakistani children should not be left behind in today’s world. No matter how much the Islamic fundamentalists oppose the inclusion of chapters about Hinduism, Buddhism and ancient emperor Chandragupta Maurya in the history textbooks for classes VI to VIII, this history must be taught. The notion that our history is only related to Makkah and Madina and anything before that is unimportant (or does not exist!) or that the history of Pakistan began with the invasion of Muhammad bin Qasim is not only false, but also quite ridiculous. The purpose of education is to develop the individual through knowledge. Learning world history is a must for school children as it brings before the child a panorama of periods and incidents, which illustrate the main movements and epochs of human development. Understanding history would instil greater values in a child.

Our history textbooks, on the other hand, have another purpose – brainwashing people on the agenda carefully designed by militant and extremist minds to further their cause to spread bigotry, hatred, intolerance and racism. No wonder the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) are against pre-Islamic history being included in the new textbooks. The self-appointed custodians of religion in our country are afraid of teaching the children anything outside the purview of their tunnel perspective. But why is it so? Is our religion so weak that if children are taught anything other than Islamic history, they will deviate from the ‘righteous’ path? The glorious period of Islamic history should be taught, but knowledge about the Roman Empire, Greek civilisation, European history, American history, Egyptian history, Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism and Hinduism is equally important. This way, we would learn where these people came from, what they used to practice and preach and how they changed, so that we can respect them and see that they are also human like us. It is not about teaching history from a religious perspective, but an archaeological perspective.

In a commencement lecture at the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture, Karachi, Pervez Hoodbhoy asked a very pertinent question: “Why are there only a dozen or two internationally known Pakistani inventors, scientists, writers, etc., for a nation of 165 million people?” He also answered it aptly when he said that it is because our society does not want to pay the price of having creativity. He further elaborated that creativity can only take place when individuals are not subjected to oppressive social control, when they are allowed to have intellectual space and have a sufficient degree of personal autonomy, because creativity defies tradition and coercion. Since Pakistan is an authoritarian society, it does not allow the lid of ignorance to be lifted, because it is afraid of the unforeseen consequences.

The only way a nation develops is when it values history. An open, democratic society cannot exist without a commitment to the study of unbiased history, as this study would emphasise the importance of individual judgment, evolution of culture and civilisation, lessons learned from bitter political experiments, impact of one wrong and right move on the history of the world and key insights into the socio-economic growth of prospering nations. It is imperative that we shun our prejudices and embrace the history of mankind as a testimony to human ascendancy and try to become a part of the brush stroke that would paint the history of our time in a positive light.


Anonymous said…
I agree with you fully on how the text book system of Pakistan is distorted, narrow and dangerous to satiate the ulterior motives of the designers and extremists. How bring emotions in students by inciting hatred towards hindus and jews and all non muslims in general.
One point you overlooked which I want to add is its not just Pakistan studies that is used to brainwash people it is also Islamiat which is taught as a compulsory subject for 16 years down the young students throat. It also gives a very narrow perspective of what actually happened in Islamic history by cherry picking 5% of hadith and ayats and distorting what really happened in various battles. All that information is available if somebody reads Sahih hadith, Ibn Ishaq or Tabari and Quran with tafseer.
Its presented as if each and every arab living with prophet was a saint and human being with the best of morals and on the contrary their true barabaric nature becomes visible when you view the authentic sources and then the point of view of fundamentalists and taliban start making more sense to you as they are getting all that information from these authentic sources. Nothing is mentioned about how slavery is allowed by Quran and hadith and how the slaves were made etc. Battles other than Khandaq which wasn't fought in the end weren't defensive.
Why so many muslim customs borrow from the pagans especially what is done at Haj time was done before Islam as well. There are so much information that is omitted and some false information shamelesssly attributed to the prophet for increasing his gradeur for so long from Islamiat books that it seems that fundamentalists have finally succeeded in indoctrinating multiple generations in their own color.

Anyways a very good article and these issues need to be brought up for the society to be seen.
Hemanshu said…
kameeni, kam se kam blog pe tou mujhe thorha credit de diya kar! :P
Mehmal said…
Thank you anonymous (btw, it would be nice if you left your name the next time =D).

You've raised a very good point about Islamiat, but the reason I avoided it was because I was solely talking about history, and even though the Islamic history depicted in Islamiat does come under "history", but if I had also included that, the column would've expanded a lot and since I write for a newspaper, I've to be careful about the word limit :D

but I can always raise this subject in another column and insha'Allah I will do it soon =)

err, Mr. Hemanshu, do I know you? =P

hehe okie okie, I'd like to thank Mr. Hemanshu Kumar for his help, without which this column could not have been what it is today *giggle*

and while I am on a thanking spree, I'd like to thank my dear brother-in-law, Mr. Farhan Zaidi who not only helped me with column, but has helped me each and every one of my columns! He has inspired me to do my best and I can never thank him enough. Thank you Farhan *hug*
Mehmal said…
*btw, it would be nice if you leave your name the next time
Farhan said…
Thank you for such a gracious acknowledgement. I am pretty sure, it is your own effort that has brought you to this point and your own motivation which keeps you going and seeking for the truth and answers. I wonder who this anonymous person is because this person virtually mirrored my own thoughts and I would've liked to make that person an acquaintance had I known who that person was :).
Vani said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
mehmal said…
You're most welcome Farhan :=)

Vani, even though you've deleted your comment, I'd like to repost it and answer your query :)

You said: Well-written! Its an eye-opening experience for me as an Indian! I wonder if you've read Barkha Dutt's post on called 'Behind the veil'-I would be interested in your views.

I hadn't read the article, but after your comments, I did read it and though I agree with her to some extent, yet I cannot say that I completely agree with her viewpoint. You see, I chose to wear a hijab almost a year before 9/11, and I chose to do so after a lot of reading. I chose to wear it due to my own conviction, and not because I was 'forced' to wear it or because I was making any political statement. The right to choose is what matters... and I think freedom grants you that right :)
Anonymous said…
I was wandering the bylanes of blog world when I stumbled into yours. I've been hooked for hours now. I would have left without a word; I usually do. However, you touched upon a subject I've always felt strongly about in this article. I have often felt the same about the teaching of history in India. While our textbooks seldom villified people, they made superheroes out of some people, whiting out their shades of the gray. The very shades that coloured the times that followed. It is only getting worse, with politicians clamouring for changes in the texts that glorify their parties' past and religious beliefs. No good can come of this.

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