Stats not Stories: Problems with our Islamic History

Admit it. You’re bored by Islamic History. Sure, you might say that you find it fascinating, but the likelihood is that you are far more likely to be enamoured by the idea of what Islamic history should be like rather than the history itself.

How can I justify saying this? Well, lets take any other aspect of life that you are definitely not bored by. The latest Star Wars movie perhaps, Super Bowl 50 or all 7 Harry Potter books. Anything at all. Odds are that you can remember a lot about them in vivid detail. But if you’re asked the same thing about pretty much any aspect of Islamic history, the details are likely to be nowhere near as clear or captivating.

islamic history book

Outsold by the story of a wizard kid by a factor of a Million to 1

Relax. For once, it is not your fault.

Islamic history is the poor cousin of the Islamic sciences. It can often be poorly taught, poorly understood and even more poorly preserved. The blame for this partly falls on the shoulders of the Islamic historians themselves. Apart from some notable exceptions, many Islamic history books are dreary affairs over-filled with numbers, dates and exceptionally long names of individuals who sound very similar.

history quote

It is not that Islamic history itself is boring. On the contrary, I would make the case that no other history is as palpitation inducing, full of giddy highs and dramatic – seemingly bottomless – lows. However, even the most amazing thriller can go from awe to yawn if the main focus is on the factual details rather than the story itself.

explainafilmplotbadly

If the Dark Knight was described like your average text on Islamic history

In 2007 Deborah Small at the Wharton School of Business conducted an experiment to see how people would react to a charity campaign that was presented primarily using facts and figures as compared to the same campaign presented as a story. The outcome wasn’t even close. Stories trump stats every time. Or, as Stalin would say “The death of one man is a tragedy. The death of millions is a statistic.” He should know. He was kind of an expert on the subject.

Like this?
Get more of our great articles.
stalin

Hipster Stalin – now he’s taken things too far.

In fact, we don’t need to look to modern research to prove this. The Quran itself is full of stories and lessons, but short on details. How many animals made it on to the Ark? Where exactly did Khidr live? What was the name of the Pharoah that was the arch-nemesis of Musa 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him)? The lack of facts and figures detracts nothing from the power of these stories and their ability to inspire and transform those hearing them.

Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) was explicit on this point when it came to the stories of the Companions of the Cave. Allah admonishes those who debate on the exact number of those in the cave saying “Now some say they were three and the fourth one is their dog and some will say they were five and the sixth one is their dog, guessing randomly at the unseen.” It is unfortunate that we don’t heed this lesson when it comes to how we teach our own Islamic history.

stat-stories-vs-statistics

From “Made to stick” by Chip and Dan Heath

Maya Angelou said ‘I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.’ If we want our Islamic history to be relevant and life-changing, we need to put away the facts and figures and bring out the monsters and legends.

10 / View Comments

10 responses to “Stats not Stories: Problems with our Islamic History”

  1. Haadiya says:

    Why are muslim historians apologetic about Islamic History, if written, taught and related with zeal and strenght there is nothing more soul lifting and spirit raising than the events of our history. I wish some historian writes our Islamic history as it should be written, with courage and valour.

    • Tahera Salma says:

      This topic is so much needed and addressed and Infact it covered points what I have faced while studying Islamic history, I strongly feel the urge that Islamic history has to be retold, and brought to life, and should be added to syllabus as well where coming generations will know the facts and details and be guided. In sha Allah

  2. Shahin says:

    This reminds me of the time when I heard a lecture by someone about the statement of Abu Bakr (R) upon the death of the Prophet (sallallahu alayhi wa sallam): “For whoever worshiped Muhammad, know that Muhammad is dead. But for whoever worshiped Allah, then He is the Ever-Living and never dies!”
    This statement stayed with me forever; in fact, I can still remember the intonation of the speaker’s voice when he said it. And it is such a powerful piece of history preserved in equally powerful rhetoric.

    The way you learn about history is very important indeed!

  3. Really interstink thanks. I’ve also written this paper on the enduring deeds, may be he’ll interst you.

    The Baqiyat Salehat, the Enduring Good Deeds In Hadith and Qur’an: سُبْحَانَ اللّهِ ، والْحَمْدُللّهِ ، وَ لا اِلهَ اِلَّا اللّهُ ، وَ اللّهُ اَكْبَرُ –
    ***************************************************************************

    “Remember Me, and I shall remember you” (2:152)

    Hadith: “Those that remember Me in their heart, I remember them in My heart; and those that remember Me in a gathering (i.e. that make mention of Me), I remember them (i.e. make mention of them) in a gathering better than theirs.”

    Hadith: When asked, “O Messenger of Allah, who are the single-hearted?” he replied, “The men and women who remember Allah abundantly.”

    http://sayyidunanouh.blogspot.com/2016/04/the-baqiyat-salehat-enduring-good-deeds.html

    Website
    http://sayyidunanouh.blogspot.com/

  4. Abdullah Muhammed says:

    A good way to learn ISlamic History is by attending this lecture in chicago about “We have always been here” ITs May 15th.

    The legacy of the Prophets of Islam from Adam (عليه السلام) to Muhammad (ﷺ) is deeply rooted in demonstrating activism through conveyance of the message from Allah (سبحانه و تعالى).

    We Muslims must arise to the call of Allah (سبحانه و تعالى) when He commands in the Qur’an:

    وَلْتَكُن مِّنكُمْ أُمَّةٌ يَدْعُونَ إِلَى الْخَيْرِ وَيَأْمُرُونَ بِالْمَعْرُوفِ وَيَنْهَوْنَ عَنِ الْمُنكَرِ وَأُوْلَئِكَ هُمُ الْمُفْلِحُونَ

    And let there arise among you a group, inviting to all that is good (Islam), commanding al-Marouf (good) and forbidding al-Munkar (evil); and those are the ones whom are the successful. -[Translated meaning of Surah Al-e-Imran 3:104]

    Indeed the Prophet (ﷺ) has also stated in a Hadeeth as narrated by Imam Bayhaqi (ra), “There will be from the end of my Ummah a people that will be rewarded like the first generation as they enjoin the Maroof and forbid the Munkar”.

    Please join Hizb Ut-Tahrir-America at their annual Khilafah Conference titled “Muslim Political Activism- Aspiring to the work of the Prophets”.

    From Adam (عليه السلام) to Mohammed (ﷺ): continuing the call of the Prophets and Messengers
    “We have ALWAYS been here”: Recognizing our Muslim roots of Reverence and Perseverance
    Beyond Ballots: Political Activism in Islam
    Chicago, IL USA
    Sunday, May 15, 2016
    2-5 p.m.

    Hizb Ut-Tahrir-America
    https://hizb-america.org/

  5. Sakina says:

    I actually love history, and learning about Islamic history. Perhaps it is the materials that I have. I recommend anything written by Dr. Ali As-Sallabee as the translator does a great job, making the text wonderful to read. Also, many of his books have been made into movie series, such as the Umar ibn al Khattab series. They are in Arabic but have English subtitles and really bring you into history. I teach my children Islamic history as part of our lessons, and I narrate and read to them in language they understand. There are resources that we have that are dry and boring, so we don’t use them. There is actually a lot out there, you just have to look, and read more.

    • Khalida says:

      That’s interesting, Sakina!
      Although I’ve been learning Seerah since a young age, I never felt much of a connection to it. I couldn’t really understand why. I only truly started to love it when the teachers I started later studying under taught it differently. They didn’t simply mention historical incidents; they reflected on each event, each personality, and brought them to life for me. They taught me to make a personal connection with history, to see myself in their shoes and learn life lessons from them.

  6. Feresh says:

    100% agreed. Could anyone recommend some sources easy to read? Especially in the German sphere this topic seems to be abandoned (or at least that’s my perception).
    BTW, public speaking courses also teach you to use narrative formats as they catch the audience’s attention.

  7. Taban says:

    spot on !!!!actually today just i was watching quran cover to cover of surah israh by nouman ali khan … he was sharing a large part of history of both jews and muslims and their comparison…..i got bored and i felt gulity that i got bored…. Rest was all excellent but history part was boring

  8. Taban says:

    well his ramadan series of surah baqarah is excellent…he is giving detailed account of history in an enjoyable way….May Allah bless him Aameen

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *