I’ve seen nationalists of every stripe praise and glorify the past of ‘their’ nations – and make some claim that their ancient civilisation, empire, or an inventor from their ethnicity, had contributed something that partly shapes the world today, or led to some part of some chain (in a long chain) of technologies, that eventually led to some technology we use today. However, in many cases these technologies died out before anyone else popularised them, needing to be ‘reinvented’ by someone else at a much later date who had never heard of the civilisation in question.
Take for example the Armenian Empire. Many Armenian nationalists today look back to it with national pride. Most people, of course, probably haven’t even heard that Armenia was actually an empire that stretched from the Caspian sea to the Mediterranean (in north of modern day Syria). But it was – albeit not for long. It was soon reduced by the Parthian Persians and the Romans. However despite all this, it is still cited and revered by many nationalist Armenians today.
Of course, the most risible amongst nationalists are Muslim nationalists. Colonialism imposed secular liberal ideas that demanded that the world needed to be divided into regions of governments that would be representative manifestations of its people’s ‘collective will’.
Prior to this, people around the world had all been subjects under the protection of a dynasty, king, chief, or council as part of a kingdom, tribe, chiefdom, or empire (a kingdom of multiple tribes ruled by a preeminent tribe). However, the idea of the ‘nation-state’ developed by the West was to collect people who (supposedly) shared a common language, culture and religion and had lived in their region for at least 200 years to be ‘identified’ as a new collective group, and ‘represented’ by a government formed to represent their ‘collective will’.
Of course, humans are not so readily pigeon-holed, and many ‘nations’ contained people who spoke different languages, had different religions, and even different cultures. Many ‘nations’ were ‘created’ by simply assigning to a ‘state’ an arbitrary geographical location separated from others – often despite adjacent regions containing majorities of people of the same language, religion, and culture.
The Muslim world was purposely divided this way in order to create manageable fragments that would be too weak to defend themselves or each other from Western ‘policing’ (i.e. military operations), and simultaneously prevent any reunification of those fragments into a consolidated and coherent state capable of denying Western strategic use of the region.
Muslims born after the partition of the lands, like all humans do when born, believe the state of affairs they were born into was simply the natural state of things, or ‘how they were meant to be’. For example, modern Lebanese Muslims do not realise that their state was created by the French to separate the Muslims of Syria from the Muslims of Lebanon, in order to create a state with a French-influenced Christian majority, in order to keep the Muslims in the region in check. Another example is Iraq – created to capitalise on the oil of the region for the British Empire (northern Iraq being given to the British ‘protectorate’ by France’s Syrian zone).
However, in order for a ‘nation’ to ‘awaken’ (according to Secular liberal theory), the relevant peoples must imagine themselves as a common people with a shared history. Usually, nationalists turn to history and pick a particular moment to be the defining mythos for the country, even if the historical figures had nothing to do with the people of the present generation. For example, English nationalism reveres Richard the Lionheart, despite the fact that he hated English weather enough not to live in England, lived in modern-day south-west France, and spoke French! The patron saint of England, St. George, was (most probably) a Roman soldier of Greek origin, who lived in Anatolia (modern day Turkey) – and no, he didn’t fight any dragons either.
Of course, post-colonial Muslims have been taught by the Secular elites in their countries to find their ‘national identity’ in ‘their past’ – but notably not Islamic history. Nationalist Egyptians are proud of the Ancient Egyptians, despite the fact that modern day Egyptians do not follow the religion, culture or even language of these Egyptians. Many Egyptians are only tenuously genetically connected to these Ancient Egyptians – as Egypt has been conquered by numerous civilisations and peoples throughout history, as well as a lot of intermarriage between them and others. Most people today are not ‘pure’ descendants of any particular ancient civilisation they would care to pick. And who cares even if they were? Would it really confer any honour upon an uncouth, demotic, English speaking member of the English Defence League (EDL) to demand credit and respect for sharing the same part of the earth’s crust as Shakespeare once did? If people do not bear the sin of their ancestors, how can they claim credit or respect for any their ancestors’ achievements either?
Likewise, Rameses II did not build his empire in the hope that, thousands of years in the future, the descendants of his subjects (mixed with Greek, Roman, Persian, Arab, Berber, Turkish and Sudanese, following a completely different religion (or none), speaking a completely foreign language (Arabic) or devolved hybrid language (Coptic) from himself) could use the crumbling remnants of his works to fund their poor, import dependent economy by providing some passing sun-burnt tourists with something to gawp at.
One could only imagine what Rameses would say about the modern day Egyptian nationalists, whose only justification for nationalistic pride is 3000-year old technology. For nationalist Egyptians to claim him as one of their own is inaccurate to say the very least.
Likewise, one can only wonder at what choice words Salahudeen al Ayubi would respond with, if ever a Kurdish nationalist asked him to join their cause – considering Salahudeen al Ayubi pledged his allegiance – as a religious duty – to the Abbasid Caliph Hassan al-Mustadi (an individual of Arab ethnicity), leader of the Muslim world, and under whose name Salahudeen had the authority to abolish the Fatimids and wage war against Crusaders.
Likewise, could anyone imagine Salmaan al Farsi or Suhayb al Rumi extolling to the other companions of the Prophet, or to Prophet Muhammed (saaw) himself, how great the (Sassanid) Persian civilisation or the Roman Empire respectively were?
What do you think the Prophet Muhammed (saaw) would respond to such pride?
‘Is there not in Hell an abode for the proud?’ (Quran 39:60)
‘But honour, power and glory belong to Allah, and to His Messenger, and to the believers, but the hypocrites know not’ [Quran 63:8].
Of course, it is heartening to see increasing numbers of Muslims revering the achievements of the Islamic civilisation, where Islam provided the impetus that caused a wondrous and amazing surge of material development, learning, culture, enlightenment and civilisation, turning a relatively backward group of desert dwelling people – on the periphery of civilisation – into a world-spanning leader of human civilisations. It is heartening because this revering shows the change of the heart from nationalism to an Islamic sentiment, and viewing of each Muslim as part of an Ummah, not an artificial nation.
Ummah, as a concept, is simply that people who believe in the same God, His book, and His messenger, from whom emanates an entire way of life that is the fulfilment of human purpose since the Creation of Adam (a.s.), are all one FAMILY (rather than tribe or nation). One’s beliefs, more than the accident of one’s birth, would surely be the most natural (and rational) way for people to identify themselves within, surely?
Of course, and we need to be objective here, many Muslims also make the same mistake as nationalists when revelling in the different aspects of their history from science, to technology to the glorious victories in battle performed by asserted heroes of Islam. Islam isn’t a nationality in need of a founding ethos or myth. The Ummah is one family, and under one mission, worshipping the One God – that is all.
The only utility in looking to the past achievements of Muslims, is not to revere, revel in, or glorify them – NOR to claim that these achievements somehow mean people must respect Muslims today. Rather, these achievements are only to show Muslims just what can be achieved when Muslims put their minds to things in the name of Allah (swt), for the purpose of Islam.
Islam came as a world project, to invite the whole world to the worship of the One God, and offer guidance, and establish justice, mercy and peace. Multitudes of the Islamic history exhibitions in museums will not achieve this. Likewise, the backward, retrograde ,and internecine divisions and fighting in the Muslim world will not be ended.
The companions of the Prophet Muhammed (saaw) came from a multiplicity of tribes and ethnic groups – some of which had been fighting each other for centuries. Yet, Islam united them, gave them drive to explore, understand, and expand their horizons. They didn’t look backward for past glories, they looked firmly at the future. They asked themselves, what can I do for Islam NEXT?
Therefore, and not to denigrate the achievements of Islam’s history, we should not ask ourselves what Islam did in the past. Rather, we should ask ourselves what will we do for Islam in the present, and more importantly, our future.
‘Whosoever desires honour, power and glory then to Allah belong all honour, power and glory’ [Quran 35:10].
Abu Huraira reported: The Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, said, “Verily, Allah has removed from you the pride of the time of ignorance with its boasting of ancestors. Verily, one is only a righteous believer or a miserable sinner. All of the people are the children of Adam, and Adam was created from dust.” [Sunan al-Tirmidhī 3955]