I have been an avid reader of history for all of my adult life. It’s what I studied in college, and even when I was in grade school I always found social studies classes to be the most intriguing. Tales from long ago gave me a sense of my own time. I felt grounded in a historical period that was just one of a succession of time periods. The teachers were my guides and I was a sponge.
As a teacher in a school today, I can appreciate what it means to sit “on the other side of the desk.” Imagine being the one to influence generations of people- simply by influencing one child! Parents know this and alternately fear and hope for their children. If their child becomes a loser, then it will affect grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and so on. But if their child excels and becomes successful, then it will have a positive affect on their descendants likewise.
Oh, the travails of youth and their parents! Think about it: when we were all young energetic students, our view of the world was so one-dimensional. Our main concerns were social relationships, sports, buying things, fashion and how best to defy our parents’ authority. As adults, however, we have come to see things in a different light: we want to live in a safe neighborhood, get a good job, set ourselves up comfortably both now and for retirement- and we certainly don’t want our children to play the same kinds of tricks we played on our own parents! The view of youth is shorter in nature, that of adults is, by necessity, longer term.
One of the things that has occurred in the last four years, (with all the world-turned-upside-down events that seem to be falling one after another in a cascade,) is that a few more people than normal are beginning to step away from their little insulated lives and are starting to take a look, albeit from different perspectives, at the “Big Picture.” That there is a wider perspective on life and its meaning is something not new to history buffs, and it is certainly not a new concept for Muslims either. Isn’t the Qur’an chock full of demonstrative stories of the past and exhortations to look at ancient peoples and their mistakes to learn lessons? But still, it’s hard, very hard, for people to lift their eyes away from the ground before them and look to the horizon.
When I entered into Islam, I plunged into the understanding that I was joining a civilization, not just a religious community made up of many immigrants from exotic foreign lands. To even think so narrowly is out of the question. No, Take a stab right back through time and see the rise and fall of the Ottomans, the Seljuks, the Fatamids, the Abbasids and the Umayyids! The Silk Road was the highway of da’wah and the waterways of the Spice Islands were the haunts of great Muslim sailors and adventurers. The mythical Sindbad and the colorful stories of the Arabian Nights were the reflection of the imagination of a far-flung world that produced such opposite characters as Omar Khayyam and Ibn Taymiyah. Swirls of intrigue, achievements in science, the great rulers and lonely poets who dotted the landscape from Timbuktu to Samarqand all compete for our attention in the history books as we consider the flow of our great civilization.
Yes, we still talk of the art and the advancements in culture, though we don’t preserve much of either. We extol the literature and the poetry, but almost no Muslims today read it, (and we certainly aren’t creating much in that department these days except for maybe imitating rappers, comedians and other shallow pursuits!)
People ask me why I’m so cheery all the time. Well, besides the fact that Eman is supposed to make you happy, I am not depressed about the current state of Muslims. No, I have always taken the long view. Sure, Muslims are stuck in a pickle right now, but 200 years from now when (unknown) revival sweeps over the Muslim world, or five centuries from now when the (somebodies) come to power, or 1000 years from now when the great Khalifa (who knows) rebuilds the Muslim heartland with a new vigor and energy after the old (as yet unnamed) empire fell into decay…
Do you get the point? We are not the end-all and be-all of Islamic history. We don’t need to panic and have a heart attack that somehow we will drop the ball and Islam will disappear forever. So we’re losing the youth, so some people are having a hard time struggling for their status in the Masjids, so the Department of Homeland Security is arresting every Muslim taxi driver and tennis player they can find. All of these things are the problems of the moment, but they are not the long view. If all of us are only looking at the dashes on the road and arguing about whether or not they are crooked, painted right, or too bright, then our collective car will slam into a brick wall and we’ll look around dumbly and ask, “What happened?”
Islamic civilization was old before us, and one day we will be part of the past. Schoolchildren will be reading about our time in future classrooms, and innocent young faces will be asking their teachers, “So why didn’t they do this or that?” To which the teacher will reply, “Well, Fatima, I guess they were too busy being caught in the moment to think up new and novel solutions to the many problems they faced.”
Have you ever driven by a graveyard and seen the big monuments and mausoleums? Did the thought ever occur to you: “Why did those fools make such structures over their graves? Did they think it would make them remembered?” For really, no matter the size of the monument, you will only be remembered as long as there are people around who knew you. How many of you go to the graves of your great-great grandparents and reminisce about them? I would venture to say none of you do this, for you never met them. One day your grave (and my grave) will be in some forgotten corner somewhere, awaiting the day when future people decide to pave over the graveyard to build a new parking lot or luxury condominium complex, or even spaceport!
There is a think-tank called the Rand Corporation, which has some loose ties to the U.S. government. Besides trying to come up with policy suggestions for them, this group has a department that projects current trends into the future to try and predict events of interest to the U.S. 50 years, 100 years, even up to 300 years from now, so that policy makers today can tweak their decisions to get more favorable results for future Americans. Besides the fact that, as a historian, I laugh at the idea that the future can be so micro-managed, I do appreciate the effort that at least somebody has seen the value of looking at the wider picture; not just worrying about the war in (fill-in-the-blank) or the repeal of the state tax, but trying to see what they can do today to make their country more stable in the future.
This is not a new concept for Muslims either. The hadith literature abounds with predictions and suggestions for future generations of Muslims, while the Qur’an gives us the example of how charity can have a ripple effect, likening it to a corn plant that produces more and more kernels. Even Muslim rulers and scholars knew that their actions would affect Muslims for countless generations. Listen to this story:
Once there was a famous Seljuk Muslim ruler by the name of Malik Shah, who had a very able prime minister called the Nizam ul Mulk. While Malik Shah was the muscle behind his kingdom, it was the Nizam who demonstrated his superior intellect and foresight. The Nizam traveled all over the land not once, but seven times to check on the condition of the people. From North Africa to the borders of India he caused innumerable Masjids, orphanages and schools to be built. To top it all off, he established the University Nizamia of Baghdad to which all the brightest young scholars were attracted to.
When Malik Shah noticed these things and thought about it, he called to his prime minister in alarm and said, "What are you doing, minister of mine? To support all these institutions you began, my treasury is almost empty. Why, you haven't even built a single fortress nor have you built up a powerful regiment of soldiers to defend the empire if need be!"
The Nizam became very serious in his tone and replied, "The fortress you speak about is perishable and temporary. But the fortress I have built for you will defy the ravages of time and prove unbreakable. You have spoken of increasing the numbers of soldiers, but the arrows of those soldiers won't travel beyond 100 yards. The arrows of the army which I have built up will ascend into heaven itself and make your name imperishable."
This has always been one of my favorite nuggets of wisdom, for in these times when we’re having to combat any number of idiotic challenges from every dark corner, we need to be reminded that we are only a small footnote in a grander story. Islam will not perish, for Allah has promised to protect it. Too many Muslims forget this and they fill themselves with stress and worry, thinking that somehow they were the protectors of Islam, and thus, whenever there is a setback or things are unbearably tough, they take it as a personal defeat.
It’s not that we have to stop doing what we are doing. No, because Allah calls upon us to work actively in His cause. What the problem is is that our attitudes are focused only on the now without the hope for the future and the satisfaction that Islam, will, yes, prevail over all other lifestyles. It’s when we have this kind of attitude that we can take a fresh look at what we’re doing and free our minds up from defeatism to come up with ingenious solutions, bold initiatives, creative concepts and long term goals.
I’ve seen too many good brothers and sisters running from one crisis to another like a fireman working alone to contain a forest fire. Not every problem needs to be addressed right away and with a knee jerk reaction. I like the fact that we have an organization like CAIR, for example, because it allows national coordination and action on many issues of hate mongering, whereas in the past, individuals ran themselves silly trying to do everything themselves. Now CAIR can approach major news organizations and get them to adhere to standards that are not Islamophobic, and in turn they filter these guidelines down to the countless newspapers and radio stations they own.
This is creative thinking with long-term impact. Now what about other areas? What can Muslims do to solve other headaches, keeping in mind goals for 50 or even a hundred years from now? This is where you come in. Whether it’s saving the youth, getting sisters their equal Islamic rights or how to make (and keep) converts- there are better ways to do things that will outlive and outlast our own fragile lives.
The key is in two things:1) remembering that you are part of a greater process of history, and that you will die and not be a physical part of that history, and, 2) you can still be a “player” in the grand drama that leads humanity back to its Lord by setting your sights a little higher and trying to see what you can do today that will alter the course of generations to come.
Think long term. Do things smarter. Influence the lives of your great, great grandchildren that you will never meet for the better. Make sure they will have access to the only path that will bring them true success- the path of Islam. You won’t be with them in person, but wouldn’t you love to see them in Jannah! Be prepared to sacrifice a lot of time and money because your life is the blink of an eye, yet our history is ageless.