For a history from below

October 31, 2021

The history of Muslim cultures has been written from a variety of perspectives but there is a need to develop a critical understanding of history that challenges dominant narratives

Infinite patterns in Albayzin. Source: Ali,
Infinite patterns in Albayzin. Source: Ali,

To argue for the primacy of a single historiographical methodology in making sense of an object of study is an arduous task, even more so if the object of study is as vibrant, diverse and complex as Muslim cultures. Historiography of Muslim cultures then should be approached from a variety of perspectives and methodologies. In doing so, Muslim historians are situating their research in the context of three sets of already established ways to approach history.

First, is a collection of various perspectives which we can call classical and is based on the writings of earlier Muslim historians such as Al- abar (d. 923 CE), Al-Mas d (d. 956 CE), Ibn Miskawayh (d. 1030 CE) and Ibn Khald n (d. 1406 CE) etc. Second, is a collection of writings of pre-modern historians of the Arab, Ottoman and Persianate world which we call medieval. Third is a set of modern approaches which are largely Euro-centric and may come across as elitist and colonial. Situating the context of historical research on the careful evaluation of these three sets of perspectives our historians should explore a relatively new historical approach of ‘subaltern historiography’ which is a post-modern and post-colonial response to the modern, Euro-centric perspective. Based on the critical analysis of colonial historiography, there is a need to re-examine history of such Muslim communities which are often marginalised from dominant historical narratives. In response to this need, contemporary Muslim historians must perform their research on ‘critical subaltern historiography’ of Muslim cultures.

I am taking the notion of ‘subaltern’ from Antonio Gramsci (d. 1937) to designate those marginalised groups in a society upon whom dominant powers exert their hegemonic influence. It has been appropriated by Ranajit Guha and his fellow historians to develop a ‘subaltern historiography’ as a new historical approach to study colonised and disenfranchised communities in India. Since the last few decades, scholars of subaltern historiography are bringing insights from a variety of domains, more importantly, post-colonial theory and modern literary criticism to examine the momentum of globalisation in developing countries. It has expanded the notion of subaltern to include developing countries which remain under direct or indirect hegemonic influence of dominant powers.

Using the approach of subaltern historiography, these scholars hope to break away from dominant narratives and monolithic histories which are usually written from the point of view of those in power. They intend to compile the history of marginalised masses and the subordinate people of society who have always been ignored in the statist discourses of elitist historians. Still, much of the recent scholarship remained focused on rural India as the object of their research. To my knowledge, subaltern historiography of Muslim cultures is a relatively under-explored area. There is a pressing need to approach the past and the present of Muslim cultures using the methodology of subaltern historiography and to develop a critical version by taking into account various limitations and blind spots.

The central objective of our research should to re-examine the history of Muslim cultures from the perspective of those whose voices have not been heard. In historical research, we must endeavour to record the lost historical activities of ignored society and to give the voice to those ‘small voices’ that have been deprived of their rights since long. The history of Muslim cultures has been written from a variety of perspectives but there is a need to develop a critical understanding of history that should inform subaltern historiography by incorporating and critically examining insights from the writings of classical and medieval Muslim historians.

In contrast to the colonial and post-colonial approaches to history which are usually skewed towards one extreme or the other, there is a need to balance the overt emphasis on socio-economic conditions in subaltern historiography by bringing in other crucial factors such as theological, intellectual, aesthetic and eschatological concerns which are often detectable in the set of classical and medieval perspectives. Similarly, there is a need to respond to the Eurocentric perspective of many modern, colonial, Marxist and nationalist studies of Muslim cultures which are reductive in the sense that they ignore minority reports and remain occupied with presenting the history from the perspective of those in power. In my view, this can be done by a careful evaluation of subaltern historiography using insights from classical and Eurocentric perspectives by developing a critical subaltern historiography to make it a better fit to study the history of Muslim cultures.

In Pakistan, young historians could take initiative to establish a ‘Subaltern Studies Group’ which can critically examine the methodology of subaltern historiography to engage meaningfully with Muslim cultures and then using this critical subaltern approach aim to bring the historical narratives of marginalised communities into mainstream historiography. There are several research topics that should be investigated including a review of the history of the freedom movement, a history of ethnic and religious minorities, peasant movements in Muslim cultures, a history of Muslim feminine, Muslims as the subaltern, among others.

Having said this, for this purpose, we need better research facilities, a robust knowledge-based infrastructure, better scholarly training and active collaboration. It will be my pleasure to have collaboration and combined research with young historians of the country. Under the kind supervision of our acknowledged historians like Prof Tahir Kamran, Prof Khurram Qadir, Dr Mubarak Ali, Prof M Shafique Bhatti and Prof M Iqbal Chawla, we would have a good chance to develop a critical approach to already established historiographical schools and ultimately compile a people’s history or history from below. This could help recover the nuances of our history.

The writer is a Multan-based critic, historian and author of Al-Mas d ’s Historiography and Colonial Education System

For a history from below