Monday, March 12, 2007

Appropriating History

I heard some time ago a caucasian Muslim convert discuss "his" history; and by this history he did not mean Irish, German, Colonial, pre-Columbian, Victorian American or Christian history, but rather "Islamic" or "Muslim" history. This is important to note because when it comes to creating and shaping an individual's vision of the world and creating his place in it, the historical narratives that are passed down to us from our predecessors shape are consciousness. Simply, as John Randall Groves writes, "History has a role in the constitution of individual, social and cultural identity. History tells us who we are." Therefore, an individual who is German-American probably draws from German and American histories, and all the complex people, cultural traditions and events that shaped and continue to shape them, to create his or her identity and construction of self. This is because many of us look to the history and stories of those who came before us to gain orientation and direction in our frgamented modern world in order to understand the now and look toward the future.

This can be explained by understanding History, with a capital "H," or the official account, as a product of interpretation and point of reference of the offical "accounter" codifying History. For example, as some individuals in this country say that all Mexicans are immigrants to this country, one Mexican-American woman said she did not immigrate to the United States, rather the United States came to her when the US government annexed Mexican territory to create the state of Texas.

Furthermore, if one were to read Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States, the historical narrative absorbed would be much different than the one found in many contemporary history textbooks. This is because Zinn looks at history from the eye of the downtrodden and explains it via the discourses of class, racism, sexism and imperialism whereas other historians see America in a trimumphant light that is filled with benevolence and innocence. These "eyes" and "discourses" are the burial shrouds that allow us to embalm the very fragments of our collective pasts because no matter how far removed I am from Chinese history, it is very much apart of my collective identity because the US is an amalgamation of multiple national and ethnic narratives that coalesce into a political and social consciousness that has helped to create what some call "Americaness."

And this is why so many individuals are concerned with what a certain history is and how it is portrayed. Contemporary Iraqis, Syrians, Lebanese and others, for example, consistently bring up the accomplishments of their Arab predecessors such as the invention of Algebra and the creation of one of the first universities (Al-Azhar) in the world in order to contrast the current political, social and cultural instability gripping the Arabic-speaking world.

So what happens when an individual's historical consciousness is fluid? What about "histories" that are not tied to language and direct cultural experience, but rather religious in nature that encompass whole groups and nations? Is there then such a thing as "Islamic history" as one history or is it a collection of histories of multiple groups of people who happened to find spiritual orientation from the Islamic tradition and ethos?

Hmmm...I'm lost here, does anyone know where I'm going with this?


zanjabil said...

Interesting points. Long ago, history was a part of one's national identity, oral traditions handed down from the past.

The whole subject of history as it is approached today is an invention of the modern world.

jordan robinson said...

Agreed. Modernity is very much a discourse that attaches significance to the future and in the process rips us from our past.