As a Muslim growing up in the West and going through the national curriculum at school, I always felt a sense of emptiness sitting in my history class as powerful nations and great religions were discussed and celebrated for their contribution to world history and culture. I remember anticipating the turn for Islam and its followers to be revered for our significant contribution to world affairs, modernising society through invention and academia, as well as producing great heroes of the past. Sadly such a time never came.
Growing up my sense of belonging as a Muslim was strong but the lack of recognition my religious identity received within wider society (in this instance school) resulted in a build-up of frustration and emptiness which continued throughout education until reaching university level. As a passionate history student I found myself trying to constantly remind my peers of the Islamic involvement in the topics we were learning at the time.
In Year 8 when we covered the Crusades, there was no worthy mention of Islam in the light I felt it deserved so I asked my history teacher if I could do a speech to the class on the Saracens (the European term for Muslim in that particular period). In GCSE history we were taught a module called “Medicine through Time” covering different civilizations’ contributions to medicine, the Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, etc. I sat in my chair fidgeting, restless, eager to cover the Muslim-Arab contribution to medicine which I knew was a great deal. To my surprise (and disappointment) all that was mentioned was how Muslims preserved the European knowledge from Greek transmitting it into Arabic whilst the West entered the Dark Ages, burning books of knowledge gathered over centuries. Although this is true and considered a noble contribution to world history there was no mention of our pioneers of medicine such as Ibn Sina (Avicenna), Al Razi (Rhazes), Al Kindi, Ibn al Nafis, Al Tabari. Yet we were taught of Galen, Hippocrates and many other European figures who contributed to modern medicine.
Shahida Rahman shares a biographical account of the astonishing life of Noor Inayat Khan.
In A level history whilst studying Spain I was looking forward to learning about the Moors (another term for Muslims of the time) and how they ruled for over 700 years in Al Andalus but all that was mentioned was of the brutal Reconquista – the mass killing, forced conversion and exodus of Muslims and Jews across to North Africa. Absolutely nothing was mentioned of how the Muslims transformed Spain through architecture, agricultural expertise, and made cities in man’s image of paradise. There were no positives and definitely no praise. As a result I decided to submit by coursework on Muslim rule in Spain.
If the existence of Islam was going to be erased from the history books I was going to write what little I knew of at the time.
Now looking back I realise what I yearned for was recognition of my religious identity through history. I was so proud and honoured to be a Muslim and I was completely in love of the little of our legacy I knew at the time. I longed for us to have a voice in the textbooks, classrooms and discussions with my teachers. I wanted the Islamic contribution and perspective to be given the respect it deserved rather than being erased from the education I and many others received. I wanted to feel validated. Secure in my identity as a Muslim living in the West.
Through University, every opportunity that came about I wrote and wrote on Islamic perspectives of history and Muslim related issues. The reality is the Muslim contribution to world history is as extensive and equally important as any other. Muslims like all communities deserve to be proud of their vibrant and diverse legacy and have access to such knowledge.
I believe many of the issues we face today as a community are due to our lack of knowledge of our past and thus not learning from our mistakes to move forward. Everything we face now, in these confusing and difficult times, our predecessors faced and worse. We must look into our history to empower our youth, our community – and keep alive the memory of those who achieved and contributed so much to the world. Those Muslims who sacrificed everything to ensure the deen reached us today.
From this educational experience I now dedicate my pen to writing Islamic history. My vision is a simple one. To make Islamic history accessible and enjoyable. The Islamic History Project is a initiative to empower Muslims through their history. Through articles, radio and community engagement we strive to narrate episodes in Islamic history that are relevant and important for us to discuss in today’s world. We are committed to presenting history in a fun and informative way, focusing on the lesson behind a certain event or period. All our work is with the intention to educate Muslims and provide a source of confidence for our community and youth. By remembering the great figures of our past we hope to build well rounded and focused Muslims who strive to follow in their footsteps (insha Allah).
Nafisah Kara is an aspiring historian, founder of Islamic History project (www.islamichistoryproject.wordpress.com), a passionate advocate for animal rights and green issues in Islam, as well as a full time mother.