If we do not recognise the multiplicity of our past, we cannot accept the multiplicity of our present
Tabish Khair in The Hindu
For most Europeans and Europeanised peoples, Western modernity starts assuming shape with something called the Enlightenment, which, riding the steed of Pure Reason, sweeps away the preceding ‘Dark Ages’ of Europe. Similarly, for religious Muslims, the revelations of Islam mark a decisive break in Arabia from an earlier age of ignorance and superstition, often referred to as ‘Jahillia’.
Both the ideas are based on a perception of historical changes, but they also tinker with historical facts. In that sense, they are ideological: not ‘fake’, but a particular reading of the material realities that they set out to chronicle. Their light is real, but it blinds us to many things too.
For instance, it has been increasingly contested whether the European Dark Ages were as dark as the rhetoric of the Enlightenment assumes. It has also been doubted whether the Enlightenment shed as much light on the world as its champions claim. For instance, some of the darkest deeds to be perpetuated against non-Europeans were justified in the light of the notion of ‘historical progress’ demanded by the Enlightenment. Finally, even the movement away from religion to reason was not as clear-cut as it is assumed: well into the 19th century, Christianity (particularly Protestantism) was justified in terms of divinely illuminated reason as against the dark heathen superstitions of other faiths, and this logic has survived in subtler forms even today.
In a similar way, the Islamic notion of a prior age of Jahillia is partly a construct. While it might have applied to some Arab tribes most directly influenced by the coming of Islam, it was not as if pre-Islamic Arabia was simply a den of darkness and ignorance. There were developed forms of culture, poetry, worship and social organisation in so-called Jahillia too, all of which many religious Arab Muslims are not willing to consider as part of their own inheritance today. Once again, this notion of a past Jahillia has enabled extremists in Muslim societies to treat other people in brutal ways: a recent consequence was the 2001 destruction of the ancient Buddhas of Bamiyan statues by the Taliban in Afghanistan, not to mention the persecution of some supposed ‘idolators’ in Islamic State-occupied territories.
Achievements and an error
Both the notions — the Dark Ages followed by the Enlightenment and Jahillia followed by the illumination of Islam — are based on some real developments and achievements. Europe did move, slowly and often contradictorily, from religious and feudal authority to a greater tendency to reason and hence, finally, to allotting all individuals a theoretically equivalent (democratic) space as a human right rather than as a divine boon. Similarly, many parts of pre-Islamic Arabia (‘Jahillia’) did move from incessant social strife and a certain lack of cohesion to the far more organised, and hence hugely successful, politico-religious systems enabled by Islam. It might also be, as many religious Muslims claim, that early Islam marked some distinctively progressive and egalitarian values compared to the predominant tribalism of so-called Jahillia.
In both cases, however, the error has been to posit a complete break: a before-after scenario. This is not sustained by all the historical evidence. Why do I need to point this out? Because there are two great problems with positing such decisive before-after scenarios, apart from that of historical error.
Two problems of a complete break
First, it reduces one’s own complex relationship to one’s past to sheer negation. The past — as the Dark Ages or Jahillia — simply becomes a black hole into which we dump everything that we feel does not belong to our present. This reduces not only the past but also our present.
Second, the past — once reduced to a negative, obscure, dark caricature of our present — can then be used to persecute peoples who do not share our present. In that sense, the before-after scenario is aimed at the future. When Europeans set out to bring ‘Enlightenment’ values to non-European people, they also justified many atrocities by reasoning that these people were stuck in the dark ages of a past that should have vanished, and hence such people needed to be forcibly civilised for their own good. History could be recruited to explain away — no, even call for — the persecution that was necessary to ‘improve’ and ‘enlighten’ such people. I need not point out that some very religious Muslims thought in ways that were similar, and some fanatics still do.
I have often wondered whether the European Enlightenment did not adopt just Arab discoveries in philosophy or science, ranging from algebra to the theory of the camera. Perhaps their binary division of their own past is also an unconscious imitation of the Arab bifurcation of its past into dark ‘Jahillia’ and the light of Islam. Or maybe it is a sad ‘civilisational’ trend — for some caste Hindus tend to make a similar cut between ‘Arya’ and ‘pre-Arya’ pasts, with similar consequences: a dismissal of aboriginal cultures, practices and rights today as “lapsed” forms, or the whitewashing of Dravidian history by the fantasy of a permanent ‘Aryan’ presence in what is India.
All such attempts — Muslim, Arya-Hindu, or European — bear the germs of potential violence. After all, if we cannot accept our own evolving identities in the past, how can we accept our differences with others today? And if we cannot accept the diversity and richness of our multiple pasts, how can we accept the multiplicity of our present?