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I attended a discourse on the difference between Islamic history and world history. World history, said the speaker, is a series of stories, to be heard and forgotten. Islamic history is an altogether greater enterprise. It requires us to learn its stories, transform them into lessons and to see them as reinforcing the truth of the faith.

A second difference between Islamic history and world history is that world history is linear and always new. Endlessly new things are ultimately irrelevant to the big picture. World history is similarly irrelevant. Islamic history on the other hand is circular. All things are repetitions of things that have happened before. This circularity is an essential way by which the story of religion is reinforced.

This pithy dismissal set off my internal radar.

Two things rankled. First, the over-simplification of world history as mere stories. Second, that this simplicity means we can’t learn anything from its stories.

There is a lot of world history from which we can learn lessons. Not all of them may be as applicable directly to a person immersed in the Islamic tradition but that doesn’t mean they’re irrelevant. Many aspects of the Islamic tradition recognise this. Our discourses are full of stories that start ‘once upon a time there was a king that…’ These stories then imbed a moral. We’re told these tales because that moral is valuable. That moral presumably can’t be taught by other sources or other tales within the Islamic tradition as well as it can be taught by a tale drawn from a broader, if generic, world history.

Their stories are eagerly accepted as more than mere stories when they agree with our views.

The second  thing that rankled was the self-entitled sense of cultural exceptionalism. Islam uniquely possess history that is learnable. The perspective that all good and valuable lessons are contained within in the Islamic tradition and there is nothing of value to be found in other traditions. This kind of thinking is not prevalent in other areas. No one would argue that all that we need to learn about mathematics in a modern society can be found in the Islamic tradition so that modern mathematical theories, methods and systems have no value.

I don’t accept that there are any cultures so poor that we cannot learn from them. If we see their values as proof of their poverty, it’s because our sight is clouded by our own prejudices.  The claim that we should simplify the history of others down to mere fireside tales whilst elevating ours to part of the cosmic harmony misses this key point.

All history has valuable lessons. That doesn’t mean that we accept its lessons uncritically. They can teach lessons which reinforce our values, worldview and beliefs.  We have to exercise wisdom to identify the history we want to re-tell. That seems infinitely preferable to drawing an exclusionary line in the sand because of Islamic exceptionalism.

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