Saturday, September 17, 2011

History, historians and the relative importance of individual wars

by Salman Hameed

I spent the last two months listening to the Teaching Company course on The Peloponnesian War. It has 36 lectures, and initially I was worried that this may be a bit too much Peloponnesian for me. However, it turned out to be really good and provided a fascinating overview of the Greek civilization and a deeper insight into the culture and politics of Sparta and Athens covering roughly from 480-370BC (this particular war was fought from 431-404BC). The main reason we have so much detail about this war is because of Thucydides - an Athenian general who served in the war - and his highly influential book, History of the Peloponnesian War. He was fired as a general in the middle of the war, but he turned out to be an excellent historian.

Throughout the course, the question I was grappling with is whether the Peloponnesian war is important because of the uniqueness of its participants (for example, city-states with citizen populations voting to go to war), or that we find it important simply because we have an extraordinary amount of good history available to us for that time period? I can more easily see the defense of the latter statement, but even then I find it fascinating that the lessons from the war are (or can be) brutally relevant to contemporary times. Thucydides, while commentating on the specifics, managed to hit on some universal human traits.

I was also reminded of the History of the Prophets and Kings by al-Tabari (838-923CE). Tabari's primary effort was to write a really broad history - as is evident from the title of his work - but he provides fascinating details of the early history of Islam, including the early civil wars (for example, the Battle of Siffin between Ali and Mu'awiyya) and for some contemporary battles he was witnessing in the late 9th century [A few years ago, SUNY press published Tabari's history in English in 40 volumes!]. I wonder how historians look at Tabari's work in terms of accuracy and his commentary. Does anyone know?

By the way, my interest in history (and in Urdu) grew out of reading historical fiction in Urdu, written by Naseem Hijazi. I think I devoured all of his books before 10th grade. I loved his books, but now I know that he presented a very romanticized version of Islamic history. Nevertheless, it provided the broad contours of significant events in the medieval times. For example, he has a novel about the Muslim invasion of Sicily from north Africa - an interesting detour in terms of the larger Islamic history.

Similarly, he had a novel titled Yousuf bin Tashfin about a north-African Almoravid King who brought his forces to southern Spain in the late 11th century and fought Christian armies from the north. I don't think I would have known much about that part of Muslim history had it not been for his novel. I think my favorite book of his was Qaisar o Kisra, about the battle between the Byzantine empire and the Sassanid empire on the eve of the rise of Islam in the 6th and  early 7th centuries. But I think Naseem Hijazi was obsessed with the nostalgia of Al-Andalus, and he had numerous books about the rise and fall of Moorish Spain.

I find a parallel with this sort of romantic (and romanticized) history with that of popular science fiction. I know that Edgar Rice Burroughs's Mars series was/is an inspiration for many budding scientists. We can argue about the lack of sciency-ness of his novels, but it is the fantasy of space exploration that locks you in. In the same way, I think, Naseem Hijazi's novels provide an inspiration to learn more about history.

And this is precisely the reason I had a great time spending the last couple of months with Thucydides and in the Peloponnesian War.

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