The Dawn: April 12, 2015

Past present: A multi-layered heritage

Mubarak Ali 

In the history of nations, the past is often in many layers. It is the task of the historians to discover and reconstruct the past which disappeared into the oblivion of history. The past is interpreted on the basis of contemporary historical writings, archaeological excavations and antiquities. Sometimes, the different layers of the past are amalgamated as one unit while at other times they are treated separately.

The past is used politically and socially, sometimes glorified or criticised as circumstances may demand. In case of India, most of its ancient past was forgotten because of the lack of historical resources. During the colonial period, attempts were made to rediscover this forgotten past by editing and publishing the classical texts and through excavation of old sites.

The Asiatic society of Bengal has contributed to the reconstruction of the ancient past of the subcontinent. For example, historians were unaware of the rule of Asoka, the Mauryan king. After the discovery of his edicts, the inscriptions were deciphered which provided an insight into his rule, his conversion and preaching of Buddhism.

Our history neither starts with 1947, nor with Muhammed bin Qasim’s conquest of Sindh, but goes back to the Indus Valley Civilisation — are we going to reject our past?

In the 1920s, nobody knew anything about the Indus Valley Civilisation, until excavations in the cities of Harappa and Mohenjodaro brought to light the great civilisation which flourished before the arrival of the Aryans. The findings enriched the ancient past of the subcontinent and inspired politicians to use it in the struggle of freedom against the colonial rule.

During the freedom movement, Indian nationalism resurrected the ancient, as well as the medieval past which was dominated by Turkish and Mughal rule. Although the Indus Valley Civilisation was Dravidian, the Aryan past consisted of Vedic, Buddhist and Hindu periods, while the medieval period is characterised as the Turkish and the Mughal period. All the three layers were amalgamated to consolidate Indian nationalism. However, a change occurred when Indian politics was communalised and the Muslim community of India developed the two-nation theory which divided the past on the basis of religion.

The Muslims rejected the ancient pre-Islamic past and the Hindu period. They also hesitated to recognise the Turkish and the Mughals as their heritage because it was treated as a part of Indian nationalism. Therefore, they turned their attention outside India in search of an Islamic past. Muslim historians, poets and novelists redefined the Muslim identity in the Indian subcontinent, relating them to the past which was different to the Hindus. Shibli wrote Al-Farooq and Al-Mamoon; Abdul Razzaq Kanpuri wrote Nizamul Mulk and Al-Bramica. Abdul Haleem Sharar published Islamic novels narrating Muslim conquests and glorifying their role in history. Altaf Hussain Hali composed the Musaddas describing the rise and fall of the Muslim power. Iqbal narrated achievements of the Muslims which inspired the Muslim community of India and created in them a sense of pride. As a result, the Hindus and the Muslims were separated politically and culturally which culminated in the Partition of the subcontinent in 1947.

After Partition, Pakistani historians confronted the problem of presenting the past. The question is: whether the pre-Islamic past should be accepted or rejected? If they disown the pre-Islamic past, we would be deprived of the Indus Valley Civilisation and the Gandhara culture which originated and developed in this part of the subcontinent.

The other issue is that there are changes in the Middle Eastern countries which have altered their perspective of the Islamic past. The emergence of Arab nationalism sought to unite Arabic-speaking countries while excluding the non-Arabs from their fold. Also, when the nation states were established, they looked at their past from the perspective of their local nationalism; for example, the Egyptians are proud of their civilisation which produced great monuments and technological achievements.

The Iraqis are proud of the Mesopotamian civilisation which introduced the writing system, agricultural techniques and contributed to art, literature and architecture. Similarly, the other Muslim countries are tracing their past in the pre-Islamic period. This has weakened the roots of Islamic past in the Middle-Eastern and North African countries.

At this critical juncture, should we continue to search our history and identity outside Pakistan or find it in our own homeland? The consciousness of the past is very important as it is related to our national identity. It is high time that in order to determine our national identity, we decide where the roots of our civilisation and culture lie.

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