There are certain books and personalities present in the culture of every region, whose fame and renown stretches far beyond the confines of their reading circles. These books defy the cruelty of time and age,indubitable proof of their merit. Many centuries later they are equally perused by the curious for ideas and knowledge.Regardless of the topic they deal with, they reveal to us at a the distance of centuries the picture of those earlier times.In a way they become symbols of the social fabric that originated them. These works are not restricted to one specific genre as they can be either poetry or prose, fiction or non-fiction. Some of them become more important than others thanks to the spread of that specific language that gave birth to them.
Every learned Pashtun knows the existence of a classical book called “Patta Khazana” * though there are very few who have actually read the book or even seen it. A common person in the land of five rivers will refer us to Waris Shah´s Heer if asked for a classical Punjabi composition. In Arabian lands the name of Amr Al Qays knows no introduction. Shahnama e Firdausi holds similar position in Persia. As we are concerned today with history so I will give you few examples from that subject which are celebrated to this day for their style and material.
Ibn khaldun´s Muqadimmah is a complete mirror of Maghreb and by extension all Islamic world with its history, social mores, architecture, Government structures and philosophical works of that time.
Reader of the Indian history is familiar with the name and work of Abul Qasim Ferishta who catalogued the beginning of Muslim reign in the subcontinent. His work minutely follows all dynasties of Muslim rulers up to Mogul reign with effortless ease. His interesting anecdotes allow us to understand the customs of those times.
The reign of Muslims ended just like Persians and Roman Empires. Their identity was left intact by the virtue of their strong religious and social polity unlike the Zoroastrians or followers of Jupiter and Juno. But their political power was subjugated by the colonial expansion of Europe. So Muslims became subjects of the nations who had no inherent connection with the natives in History or Civilization. Here I would like to clear the common misconception propagated by our more westernized brethren that European Colonialism was similar to Muslim expansion. It is true that Islam spread along with the territorial expansion of Muslim Government but nowhere did it occur by completely suppressing and silencing the natives nor is there any evidence that Muslim rulers drained the money of their subjects away from their land to their native countries. The Turkish Slave Kings lived and died in India, Mughals didn’t take the treasures of the subcontinent to their native Samarqand or Bukhara. Afghanistan was not enriched at the expense of India. Muslims came in few numbers and most of their lineages became obscure in span of less than a century. The bulk of Muslims were the natives who had converted and zealously adhered since then to the religion of Prophet Muhammad S.A.W.Islam did not came to impoverish nor impose its policies and ideals on vanquished nations.Rather it included them in its march towards a universal quest of social and moral well being ….
If we compare this to the European colonialists the contrast is self evident. In the decline of Muslim countries the British, Portuguese, French and Russians imperialists started the planned conquest with the intention of impoverishing the weaker countries of East to fill their coffers in Europe. If our Westerner intellectual believes that Muslims and European colonialists were one and the same, he should be referred to read European accounts of East India Company and its policies and to present a single parallel of it in Muslim history. If he still persists in this belief than we should leave him in peace. No king or Prince of Europe permanently left his Seat of Power for his Oriental lands. They never committed their and their children’s’ lives to their colonies. Instead they took all the native resources without paying anything in return for the benefit of their own industrial revolution. The youth of India and Africa was mowed down in the war theaters of Europe for no reason or crime of their own. Colonialists never looked upon the natives as equals nor recognized their established social and moral customs as legitimate parallels to European social system. And as soon as it became beneficial for them to leave than to stay , they left for their own continents leaving behind festering sores of enmity of their making among native Muslims.The ravages of war and ever-bleeding borders across the landscape of East are the prize of that Civilization.
But this colonization scheme was not a rash enterprise. It was a well thought out plan whose seeds were sown centuries ago in the times of the Crusades. I will not dwell into details for these subjects have been widely discussed by many scholars since then. With the arrival of European Military and Bureaucracy on eastern shores, the European languages also arrived. The main purpose for teaching natives English or French was not the enlightenment but rather to create a body of natives who will perform the menial tasks of Government including mediation with common people. It must seem a very suspect allegation against Colonialists but there are many evidences and confessionals available to prove my point. Nevertheless with the passage of time this matter of policy hardened into a tradition and a symbol of honour especially among the newly-created elites among native Muslims.
Thus, we became acquainted with the classical works of English and European Literature, Philosophy and History. And with time Shakespeare, Voltaire and Schopenhauer became well known names among Muslim students and intellectuals. After granting limited political independence willingly in the case of India or begrudgingly in the case of Northern Africa to Muslim land European Arms finally departed in the second half of the last century. But the long cherished tradition of English or French stayed as a permanent feature partly due to our impoverished economy and partly due to the servility of our upper classes.
Gibbon is just such a symbol of the western Civilization landscape as Ibn Khaldun is undoubtedly ours. His magnum opus “The Decline and Fall of Roman Empire” has retained its fame and glory notwithstanding three centuries. Its subject by the name of it seems obscure and irrelevant to modern times. But therein lays the genius of the book for in the mirror of narrating history of an Empire, whose remnants have even departed from this world, it discusses the ageless social problems that afflict every empire more or less whether modern or antique.
The theory and material of this book is very vast and diverse. Many books have been written analyzing its aspects. But I have chosen a subject in it that every Muslim or unbiased philosopher who reads it will fail to overlook. The topic of this debate is the treatment of Muslims and other non- Europeans in classical European works whether it is Fiction, History or Philosophy. This topic is essential in my opinion to understand many bewildering things that assail a Muslim youth when he comes in contact with Western thought or policy.
The world has shrunk into a global village with technology and innovations. A pernicious idea or a distorted fact of History which a few centuries ago could be ignored for being harmless have attained a dangerous importance by sheer magnification power of internet. Therefore in following column we shall start our discourse on the Muslim aspect of Edward Gibbon’s Work and its implication for a modern reader.