Thursday, December 15, 2011

History Is Supposed To Englighten, Not To Burden

Typical questions asked in a high school history class will go something like these?  One, in what year did Columbus discover America?  Two, when did the Portuguese conquer the Empire of Malacca and for how long they retained it before finally losing it to the Dutch?  Three, how many Makkan captives were held prisoners by the Muslims in the battle of Badar?  And four, who convoked and convened the Council of Nicaea held in 325 AD?

A dutiful student would answer: one, in 1492; two, in 1511 and for 130 years; three, 70 prisoners; and four, Emperor Constantine.

All of his answers would be correct, of course, but generally that's about all he knows, or cares to know.  His preoccupation tends to be on memorizing dates, numbers, or names, because these are what is generally required of them.  The interesting stuffs about history are generally lost.

The student generally does not know who is Christopher Columbus, the sailor who had made that great discovery, except that Columbus was an Italian sailor sponsored by Queen Isabella, and that the project was to go to Asia by sailing west instead of east, as other sailors did at that time.  If he is a dutiful student, he perhaps knows that when Columbus reached the Island of Guanahani, he called the people there red Indians (perhaps because their skin color was different from Indians he knew), thinking that he had reached India, not knowing he was actually in the group of Bahamas Islands.  If he knows all that, he is already above average student, because the students in history class are generally taught to memorize dates, numbers and names only.

But there are many exciting stuffs in the story of Columbus' discovery other than the fact that he had made a profitable mistake. 

First, the date itself is an interesting date.  The year 1492 symbolized a new era.  It was the year that the principality of Granada, the last bastion of  the Andalusia Empire, fell from the hands of Muslims.  Granada fell in January of that year under the hands of Queen Isabella I of Castile and her husband King Ferdinand II of Aragon, and three months later, Queen Isabella agreed to sponsor Columbus in his exploration.  With the fall of Granada, the 700 years of Islamic history in Spain evaporated. 

It was the year marking the end of one era and the beginning of another.  The Caliphate of Andalusia, centered in Cordoba, which at its height was bigger than the current Spain, was no less illustrious as compared to the Abbasid Caliphate, centered in Baghdad.  While Baghdad served as the center of learning, industry, science and technology for the East, Cordoba was its counterpart in the West.  The West, long oppressed by the monolithic and scientifically regressive Church, rediscovered science and technology through Cordoba and other Islamic cities in Andalusia.  When Baghdad was razed to the ground by the Mongolian army in 1252, under Hulagu Khan, the grandson of Genghis Khan, Cordoba continued to flourish and enlighten both the Muslims and the Christians.   But all that was lost by 1492.

It was also a year whereby Christian principalities of Spain, hitherto had been weak and disintegrated,  had become united under one kingdom, the Kingdom of Spain.  It marked the rebirth and the renaissance of Europe, led by Spain.  It signified the coming of an era of European exploration and colonization. 

The year 1492 also spelled the beginning of the end of Muslims hegemony in the western frontier, as the annihilation of the great Abbasid Dynasty spelt the beginning of the end of Muslims domination in the East two centuries earlier.  By then, all Islamic nations were disjointed under different dynasties and principalities, all essentially weak and small.  Only the Ottoman dynasty was still in ascendancy.   The great Ottoman empire, however, managed to be mighty only in the sphere of military.  In the sphere of learning, of science, technology and industry, the Muslims have lost their lustre forever.

It was the era that marked the shift in power.  The master had become the servant; and the servant, the master.

But this exciting stuff is generally lost to the students taking history lesson.

Second, what is wonderful about the mistake made by Columbus is not that he had wrongly identified the people of Bahamas as Indians.  The wonderful part is that he had miscalculated the extent of his voyage, which led to him to discover the New World by mistake.  New to the European, of course, for the place he landed was already populated. 

As we know, he wanted to go to the Orient, to the East, to Asia.  Sailors during his time would go to Asia by the eastern route, circumnavigating along the African coast and then to the Indian Ocean.  But this journey was long.  Since the world is round, a knowledge that was already accepted during that time, everyone knew that the East can also be reached by going west.

As for Columbus, he had studied Ptolemy geography book which underestimates the earth circumference and overestimates the Asia's eastward extension.  He had heard of the theory signifying the nearness of eastern Asia to western Europe.  He had obtained a copy of letter with a map written by Florentine scientist indicating that a western voyage in the Atlantic would be a shorter way of reaching the Orient than circumnavigation of Africa.  He had heard of the tales about the sighting of land by sailors who went western way.   After he had studied all that and was convinced, he went looking for sponsor for his voyage plan.  He truly thought that he had reached Asia when he landed in the island of Guanahani, and that his calculation was correct.

His case is not unlike the many great discoveries which are made by accident.  Penicillin, x-ray, microwave oven, post-it-notes, potato chips and viagra are some of the well known examples.

Third, there is another interesting feature about Columbus discovery of America.  Gavin Menzies, the British submarine engineer and historian, with his compelling evidences in his book "1421", had theorized that the Admiral Zheng He (the same Admiral Cheng Ho who came to Malacca), had discovered America 70 years before Columbus.  Whether his theory is true or not is a matter of controversy.

Supposed Menzies is right in his theory, then what a loss in opportunity it has been.  Which leads us to another point: a discovery made by mistake but with a clear purpose to profit from it, is clearly more profitable than the discovery made not by mistake but with no clear purpose other than the finding itself.  With a clear purpose of rebuilding their glory, the European explorer seized the opportunity even though the opportunity presented itself through a mistake, while the Chinese Muslim Admiral just wanted to show that his naval fleets can make that kind of journey.

All the above point to the fact that history is not about the date of the event in the past, or about the number of people or things involved, or about the names of people who were dead long ago.  It is a living and enlightening subject, if approach in a more inquisitive and enlightening perspectives.  

There are many interesting and fun stuffs in the questions number two to four, but I think we have gotten the point acrossed, namely that history is supposed to enlighten the students who study it, not to burden them with memorizing dead data. 

1 comment:

  1. keep on writing maulana you are indeed bring ing enlightenment upon us