[Friday Sermon] The Importance And Significance Of Learning History In Islam, By Imam Murtadha Gusau
By Imam Murtadha Gusau
In The Name Of Allah, The Beneficent, The Merciful
All thanks and praises are due to Allah, we seek His help and forgiveness. We seek refuge in Allah from the evil within ourselves and from the consequences of our evil deeds. Whoever Allah guides will never be led astray, and whoever Allah leads astray will never find guidance. I bear witness that there is no god but Allah, He is alone without any partners, and I bear witness that Muhammad is His Servant and His Messenger.
“O you who believed, fear Allah as He should be feared and do not die except as Muslims in submission to Him.” [Quran, 3:102]
“O mankind, fear your Lord, who created you from one soul and created from it its mate and dispersed from both of them many men and women. And fear Allah, through whom you ask one another, and the wombs. Verily, Allah is Ever-watching over you.” [Quran, 4:1]
“O you who believed, fear Allah and speak words of appropriate justice. He will then amend for you your deeds and forgive your sins, and whoever obeys Allah and His Messenger has certainly attained a great attainment.” [Quran, 33:70-71]
Verily, the most truthful speech is the Book of Allah, the best guidance is the guidance of Muhammad, and the worst affairs are newly invented matters (in the religion). Every newly invented matter is a religious innovation, and every religious innovation is misguidance, and every misguidance is in the Hellfire.
Dear Brothers and Sisters! The great Indian Islamic scholar and historian Shaykh Abu Al-Hasan Ali An-Nadwi observes, like other sages of Islam have before, that Islam, being the last and universal religion of Allah, has a unique history of internal revival, reform and self-rejuvenation.
Allah Almighty sent the message of Islam at a chosen moment in the development of human history where the technological, scientific and intellectual understanding of humanity as a whole was reaching a stage of final maturation and ripening. Instead of geographically confined nations and tribal systems which all received their own messengers from Allah, the humanity was now ripe for one, universal, perfected and final message of Allah.
The development of the Islamic Ummah in history was amazingly rapid. It was full of trials and tribulations and encounters with other cultures and religious systems. As a result, the final message of Allah was embodied in a civilization that was enriched by all the great civilizations of the world. Within the first century of its birth, Islam spread across half the known and majority of the civilized world of that time. As different people became Muslims or came under the rule of Islam, the scholars of Islam came from increasingly diverse regions, thus enriching the flowering and protection of Islamic scholarship and tradition with their own cultural strengths. The contributions of the Persians in bureaucracy and culture, the Hindus in mathematics, the Greeks in logic, the Turks in military and architecture fields, just to name a few, all became sources of strength of Islam. On the other hand, the previous philosophical and religious systems of the new lands both challenged and influenced the Muslim scholars. All these factors make the history of Islam extremely fast-moving, diverse and filled with conflicts, debates and upheavals. Each of these experiences, however, also helped it mature and develop.
Dear Servants of Allah! Whenever the Ummah of Islam faced a new danger, internal or external, Allah Almighty raised among the Muslims scholars and leaders who protected the true religion of Allah Almighty and revived it in its true, pristine form. This ubiquitous phenomenon is known to the historian as revivalism or tajdid.
The Ummah of Islam, with its preserved source-texts (the Quran and the Hadith), scholarship and legacy, has survived all its enemies only because of the special Divine arrangements. In history, this protection and guidance of Allah Almighty has been actualized in the form of the rise of great scholars and leaders, fields of scholarship like the sciences of the Quran, of Hadith, of jurisprudence and its principles, the preservation of the Arabic language and so on.
Today, the Muslim Ummah faces great challenges from all sides. But an observer of Islamic history recognizes that the situation is neither new nor hopeless: in fact, these trials and challenges are part of Allah’s plan to take the Ummah of Islam and the message of Islam up to a new level of strength and recognition in this world.
To learn Islamic history is to inquire how Allah’s ways have worked and His will carried out at the hands of myriads of individuals and groups and how His promises have come true. To look at history Islamically is to keep an eye on the moral, spiritual and ethical dimensions of all episodes in history, however big or small. This is precisely why the Quran makes learning history in some ways an act of faith and a source of wisdom.
* Why learn history
– Reasons from the Quran
Just as the food we eat constitutes our bodies, our history constitutes our minds. Our ideas, concepts, sentiments, and preferences, in short, what makes us human, is largely a result of our past experiences. Individuals, peoples, institutions, or nations, all acquire their particular nature or identity primarily because of their unique histories. We cannot know ourselves without knowing where we have been and come from. Not knowing where we come from leaves us without our sense of selfhood. Loss of identity leaves us without a purpose, like a ship without destination, at the mercy of merciless winds. This loss of identity has been mentioned in the Quran as a punishment from Allah. He Almighty Says:
“And be not like those who forgot Allah, so He made them forget themselves…” [Quran, 59: 19]
People who forget who they were may forget who they ought to be. This leads to self-deceit and arrogance. Allah Almighty reminds every human being again and again of his or her individual ‘history,’ to shake them up from their disbelief and arrogance. Allah Says:
“Had he not been a sperm from semen emitted? Then he was a clinging clot, and [Allah] created [his form] and proportioned [him].” [Quran, 75:37-38]
“Does man not consider that We created him from a [mere] sperm-drop – then at once he is a clear adversary?” [Quran, 36:77]
In the chapters of Al-Fil and Quraish, Allah Almighty reminds the people of Quraish of his favours upon them in the past, encouraging them to learn moral lessons from their history. He Almighty Says:
“Have you not considered [O Muhammad], how your Lord dealt with the companions of the elephant (Ashabil Fil)?” [Quran, 105:1]
“For the accustomed security of the Quraish – Their accustomed security [in] the caravan of winter and summer – Let them worship the Lord of this House, Who has fed them, [saving them] from hunger and made them safe, [saving them] from fear.” [Quran: 106]
Allah Almighty repeatedly commands the Muslims in the Quran to observe, consider, and reflect upon the lessons from the history of bygone nations. Instructing the Muslims in moral and spiritual history of the earlier nations seems to be one of the major emphasis of the Quran. The fact that majority of Allah’s Final Message consists of stories of moral struggle of earlier peoples is an indication of the significance of learning history, and learning it with the right perspective of seeking lessons.
The following are a few lessons that can be drawn from the Quranic perspective on history:
1. Universality Of Lessons
The lessons from the rise or fall of any nation in the past are valid for all humanity, for there are some unalterable, universal laws or principles that apply to all nations depending on their specific conditions. The Quran calls these laws the Sunan (established ways of dealing) of Allah Almighty:
“…But you will never find in the way of Allah any change, and you will never find in the way of Allah any alteration.” [Quran, 35:43]
2. Moral-spiritual Interpretation
While modern historians focus on different dimensions of history and offer different bases for the interpretation of history based on their respective belief systems, the basis of Quranic storytelling is emphatically moral and spiritual. In other words, Allah Almighty demands of us to look first and foremost at the moral aspects of a nation’s history. Nations fall, for example, is not due primarily to economic failures, but due to the moral-spiritual failure to properly dispense economic justice based on the correct belief in and obedience to Allah Almighty. In the chapter of Al-A’raf, after relating several stories of encounter between the truthful Prophets of Allah and their disbelieving people, Allah Almighty summarizes the lessons of these stories by saying:
“And if only the people of the cities had believed and feared Allah, We would have opened upon them blessings from the heaven and the earth; but they denied [the messengers], so We seized them for what they were earning.” [Quran, 7:96]
3. Learning Moral Lessons From History Is An Obligation
The cause of the downfall of nations one after the other in the aforementioned verse [Quran, 7:96] is that they neglected the moral lessons of the history of their forefathers, and thought that the same does not apply to them. Allah Almighty Says:
“And what prevented the people from believing when guidance came to them except that they said, ‘Has Allah sent a human messenger?’ Say, ‘If there were upon the earth angels walking securely, We would have sent down to them from the heaven an angel [as a] messenger.’” [Quran, 17:94-95]
4. History Is The Best Way To Teach And Caution
The Quran could have been a book of abstract theories of laws that govern societies, or simply a list of do’s and don’ts. But the fact that our Creator, Allah, the Most Wise, has chosen story telling as a chief means to caution and education of the humankind necessarily means that humans have a propensity to learn from other’s examples. Successful teachers and preachers of Islam always have a good grasp of history.
5. History Of All Humanity Is Relevant
By Islamic history, we often mean the history of Muslims. But the Quran is full of history of rebellious nations. We conclude that so long as the framework of history is Islamic (i.e., moral spiritual), no part of human history is irrelevant to the believers.
6. History Repeats Itself
It has become a cliché that history repeats itself. This is true inasmuch as all struggles of good and evil are bound by the universal Sunan (principles) established by Allah Almighty. In order to show the Muslim Ummah its potential failings, the Quran focuses on the moral stories of the Children of Israel, for they were, as some Islamic scholars have observed, ‘the ex-Muslim Ummah.’
7. Systematic Learning Of The Science Of History Is A Requisite
The Quran, the Final Message of Allah Almighty, is a book of guidance and contains all foundational principles and general moral exhortations that will suffice all those who seek Allah Almighty till the Day of Judgment. The Quran is not a book of history, and the way it tells stories presumes that the audience has some knowledge of the history being told. If the Quraish, for instance, did not know the something about the history of Aad, Thamud and the destruction of the army of Abrahah and his Elephants, the Quranic references to these incidents would make little sense to them. The Quran provides the moral interpretation to the human drama of life and gives many instructive examples. But it is an obligation of Muslims to learn as accurately and objectively as possible the facts of history so the Quranic principles could be correctly applied, since fulfilling the requisites of an obligation is an obligation itself. To learn objectively the science of history, therefore, is part of Islamic obligation upon the Muslim Ummah, without which they cannot fully benefit from the message of the Quran.
Respected Brothers and Sisters! Remarkably, the chapter of Al-A’raf, the Heights, the seventh chapter of the Noble Quran, has for its theme the topic that we are concerned with here, that is, history. Or more precisely, it is about the manifestation of Allah’s message of Tawhid, monotheism, in history and the various human responses to it.
This theme is lost to most cursory readers of the Quran. Remarkably few readers notice that every chapter of the Quran has a unique theme, an ethos that sets it apart from all other chapters and hence the meanings every chapter derives from the same historical event are different. This is why the same historical event appears to have been narrated several times in the Quran in different chapters; few realize that it is not mere repetition; it has a different purpose and perspective each time. In the chapter of Al-A’raf, the theme of the narratives is to give a sense of the historical progression of humankind and how different groups of humans responded to the Truth of Allah Almighty. It begins by reassuring the Prophet Muhammad that his mission is not only true, it is the truth – the truth around which the entire history of humanity revolves. Hence he should have no hesitation in reminding his folks of their Creator and warn them of their waywardness. To reassure him, Allah Almighty calls to witness the entire history of humankind. He Almighty Says:
“Alif, Lam, Mim, Sad. [This is] a Book revealed to you [O Muhammad] – so let there not be in your breast distress therefrom – that you may warn thereby and as a reminder to the believers. Follow (O mankind!) what has been revealed to you from your Lord and do not follow other than Him any allies. Little do you remember! And how many cities have We destroyed, and Our punishment came to them at night or while they were sleeping at noon!” [Quran, 7:1-4]
Then, the chapter recounts the story of the creation, emphasizing the promise Shaitan (Satan) made to himself that he will do his best to deceive and delude the humanity. Human history is a sad witness to how he has been able to triumph over human reason and goodness so often — despite Allah’s clear signs. The chapter recounts stories of Allah’s message in human societies, and after relating several stories of encounter between the truthful Prophets and their disbelieving people, it summarizes the lessons of these stories by saying:
“And if only the people of the cities had believed and feared Allah, We would have opened upon them blessings from the heaven and the earth; but they denied [the messengers], so We seized them for what they were earning.” [Quran, 7:96]
One thing Shaitan (Satan) often did successfully, the chapter states, was to make people forget the true meanings of their history. The cause of the downfall of nations one after the other in the aforementioned verse is that they neglected the moral lessons of the history of their forefathers, and thought that the same does not apply to them. Allah The Most High Says:
“And We sent to no city a Prophet [who was denied] except that We seized its people with poverty and hardship that they might humble themselves [to Allah]. Then We exchanged in place of the bad [condition], good, until they increased [and prospered] and said, ‘Our fathers [also] were touched with hardship and ease.’ So We seized them suddenly while they did not perceive.” [Quran, 7: 94-95]
One remarkable verse of this chapter comes after a long description of the rise and fall of the Israelites, and tells us how they became more and more corrupt because instead of learning lessons from their past and holding fast to the Book of Allah, they became adept at making excuses for themselves. Allah Almighty Says:
“And there followed them successors who inherited the Scripture [while] taking the commodities of this lower life and saying, ‘It will be forgiven for us.’ And if an offer like it comes to them, they will [again] take it. Was not the covenant of the Scripture taken from them that they would not say about Allah except the truth, and they studied what was in it? And the home of the Hereafter is better for those who fear Allah, so will you not use reason?” [Quran, 7:169]
Dear Brothers and Sisters! Let us now look at some of the most prominent advantages of learning history of humanity from an Islamic perspective.
1. Faith And Certainty
When connected to a Quranic understanding of history, a believer feels connected to the numerous Prophets, reformers, martyrs and inviters/callers to Allah Almighty who have struggles and sacrificed in the way of Allah since the dawn of humanity. The facts of history bear witness that the truth always prevails and Allah’s side is always victorious, and this increases the believers in faith and certainty in their cause.
2. Liberation From The Deception Of Narrow Materialist Thinking
History of rise and fall of nations makes us realize the fleeting nature of power and glory in this world. A thoughtful look at history shows us that the nations that today arrogantly rebel against Allah Almighty and oppress others based on their material superiority or their military superiority were not too long ago dependent and weak, and will soon be replaced by others. It is human nature to be deceived by a ‘static’ view of history, that makes us think that those who are wealthy, strong and powerful today have always been so and will always remain so.
Imam Al-Ghazali gives an example of this weakness and shortsightedness of human senses. He said:
“If we look at the Sun, it appears still, and if we did not know the big picture and know its course of daily rising and setting, we would imagine that it will always stay up in the sky shining forever. Just as our eyes deceive us about the Sun being static; our lack of knowledge of history and of Allah’s ways misleads us into thinking that the wealth and power are permanent.”
3. Tolerance And Forbearance
Critical knowledge of one’s origins and one’s past is always humbling and eye-opening. In the history of Islam, one often sees some ignorant followers of a great Islamic scholar fighting the followers of another Islamic scholar, while the two scholars greatly respected and learned from each other. If we know even a little history of how the Islamic sciences of Fiqh (Islamic Jurisprudence) and Hadith developed through diverse and multiple contributions of scholars from all over the world, how the pioneering scholars were open-minded about criticisms to their verdicts and opinions, and how they changed their opinions when a reasonable argument was presented to them, we will never fight other Muslims over differences in opinions. The much-needed attitude of mutual tolerance and accommodation of opinions (within well-known Islamic limits) can be attained only through proper education of Islamic history.
4. Motivation And Inspiration
When the believers from the Israelites encountered the mighty giant Jalut (Goliath) and his tremendous army under the leadership of Saul (Talut), people felt overwhelmed by the enemy’s strength, except a few who had obeyed their leader. These few reminded their fellow believers of lessons from history to encourage them to fight for the truth. Here is the story in the Quran. Allah Almighty Says:
“And when Saul went forth with the soldiers, he said, ‘Indeed, Allah will be testing you with a river. So whoever drinks from it is not of me, and whoever does not taste it is indeed of me, excepting one who takes [from it] in the hollow of his hand.’ But they drank from it, except a [very] few of them. Then when he had crossed it along with those who believed with him, they said, ‘There is no power for us today against Goliath and his soldiers.’ But those who were certain that they would meet Allah said, ‘How many a small company has overcome a large company by the permission of Allah. And Allah is with the patient.’” [Quran, 2:249]
Dear Servants of Allah! In summary, the today’s Sermon have made the case that reading human history from a correct perspective, the spiritual and moral perspective, is an obligation of the Muslim Ummah without which we cannot properly understand and apply the message of the Quran. And that Islamic history is not only history of Muslims, but any history learned with the eye on Allah’s plan and on moral and spiritual forces at work. This does not mean that Muslims can neglect material explanations for historical changes – in fact one cannot fully understand the moral or religious challenges without carefully sifting through the political, economic, military and social challenges of any given time. Hence, by learning history, carefully and critically, both as amateurs and as academic scholars, we will be reminded time and again of Allah’s power and plan and of the power of faith and hope in Him Almighty. Thus, our learning can become a guide towards the regeneration and revival of the Muslim Ummah.
* On The Recent Texas Shooting
Dear Brothers and Sisters! It has truly become the wild west. Ten killed and ten injured in the twenty-second school shooting in the United States in 2018 last week at Santa Fe High School, near Houston, Texas and the media has already moved on.
The teen terrorist was wearing a trench coat with Nazi, fascist, and religious symbols. Unsurprisingly, the media, which always jumps ahead of itself in identifying a criminal as Muslim, has been silent about the attacker’s faith and refrained from calling him a terrorist.
This teen murderer was clearly a product of their violent culture. He was wearing a shirt that said “Born to Kill”; his Facebook page had artwork inspired by the music of neo-Nazi groups and the Alt-Right. This culture of violence allows us to ignore the murder of those we consider “The Other”, like the 60 Palestinian protesters killed by the Israeli army earlier this month. It also allows us to tolerate and forget the appointment of a known torturer to one of the highest positions in the United States, which, like this shooting, also took place last week.
After each mass shooting, America gives the tragedy a little attention before turning to other topics, in this case, the royal wedding. But the student movement of #NeverAgain, which emerged from the school shooting in Parkland, Florida earlier this year is changing this attitude.
As Muslims, it is our responsibility to not only connect to Allah in prayers, but to also take appropriate steps to change this culture of violence.
Respected Brothers and Sisters! I ask Allah to assist us in living by the Quran and Sunnah. I pray that He lets us recognise the truth for what it is and helps us to follow it, and that He lets us see falsehood for what it is and helps us to avoid it.
O Allah! Guide us and protect us from the causes of ignorance and destruction! Save us from the defects of ourselves! Cause the last of our deeds to be the best and most righteous! And forgive all of us.
Dear Servants of Allah! Anything good I have said in my today’s Sermon is from Allah the Almighty, and any mistakes are my own and I seek refuge in Allah from giving wrong advice and from all forms of calamities and fitnah. And I ask Allah’s forgiveness if I stepped beyond bounds in anything I said or I do.
May Allah be praised; and may the peace and blessings of Allah be upon His Messenger Muhammad and upon his family and Companions.
With this I conclude my Sermon and ask Allah, the Almighty and the Sublime, to forgive all of our sins. So seek his forgiveness, He is all forgiving and Most Merciful.
This Jumu’ah Khutbah (Friday Sermon) was prepared for delivery today Friday, Ramadan 9, 1439 AH (May 25, 2018), by Imam Murtadha Muhammad Gusau, the Chief Imam of Nagazi-Uvete Jumu’ah and late Alhaji Abdurrahman Okene’s Mosques, Okene Kogi State, Nigeria. The Imam can be reached via: [email protected] or +2348038289761.