• Date: 2010 Jun 29

What is History?

History can be defined in three ways. In fact there are three branches of history closely linked with each other.
I. History is that branch of knowledge which deals with the past events and the conditions connected with the people of the past as distinguished from the present day conditions and circumstances. All events which relate to the existing time, that is the time when they are recorded, are called the events of the day, are judged, reported, and recorded by daily newspapers. But as soon as its time passes, every event becomes a part of history. So in this sense history means that branch of knowledge which deals with the past events and occurrences and give an account of the past people. Biographies, narratives of the conquests and the stories of the eminent people as compiled by all nations come under this category.
In this sense history means, firstly, the knowledge of the individual matters and the events concerning the individuals, not of general laws, and rules of mutual relations. Secondly, it is a transmitted science. Thirdly, it is a knowledge of 'being', not that of 'becoming'. Fourthly, it is related to the past, not to the present. We in our terminology call this sort of history 'transmitted history'.
II. In another sense history signifies that branch of knowledge which deals with the rules and the traditions which governed the life of the peoples in the past.
 These rules and traditions are deduced from the study and the analysis of the past events. The subject of the transmitted history and the questions with which it deals, namely the past events and occurrences, serve as the preliminaries of this branch of history. In fact the past events, for the purpose of history in this sense, can be compared to the material which a physicist collects in his laboratory for his study, analysis and experiment in order to find out its characteristics and properties and to discover general laws concerning it. The job of a historian in this second sense is to discover the nature of historical events and to find out their causative relations in order to be able to deduce some general rules applicable to all similar events of the past and the present. We call this branch of history 'scientific history'.
Though the past events are the subject of study in scientific history, the general rules which are drawn from these events do not exclusively belong to the past. They are equally applicable to the present and the future as well. This aspect of scientific history makes it very useful to man as a source of knowledge and helps him control his future.
The difference between the work of a research scholar of scientific history and a natural scientist is that the subject of study of a natural scientist is the material which actually exists at present and hence his entire study and analysis are physical and experimental; whereas the material which is studied by a historian, though existed in the past, is extinct now.
Only some information about it and some documents connected with it are at the disposal of the historian. As far as his findings are concerned, he can be compared to a judge of a court of justice pronouncing his judgement on the basis of documentary evidence, not in the basis of the evidence of eye-witnesses. As such the analysis of a historian though logical and rational is not physical. He carries out his analysis in his mental laboratory with the instruments of reasoning and inference. In this respect the job of a historian is like that of a philosopher rather than like that of a natural scientist.
Like transmitted history scientific history also relates to the past, not to the present. It is the knowledge of 'being' not of 'becoming'. But unlike transmitted history it is general, not particular, and it is rational not merely transmitted.
Scientific history, in fact, is a branch of sociology. It is sociology of the past societies. The contemporary societies and the past societies both form the subject of study of sociology. But if we confine our sociology to the study of contemporary societies, scientific history and sociology, become two different branches of knowledge, though still closely related to each other and dependent upon each other.
III. The word, history in its third sense is used to denote philosophy of history, that is the knowledge of the development of society from one stage to another and the knowledge of the laws governing these changes. In other words, it is the science of 'becoming' of societies, not of their 'being' only.
Here the reader may ask whether it is possible that societies should have the two qualities of 'being' and 'becoming' and that 'being' be the subject of one branch of science, named scientific history and 'becoming' be the subject of another branch of science named philosophy of history, while we know that it is not possible to combine these two qualities, for 'being' indicates rest and 'becoming' indicates movement. Societies can have only one of these two qualities. The picture we form of societies can depict either 'being' or 'becoming'.
The respected reader may pose this point in a better and more comprehensive form and say: The picture we form of the world and of society as a part of the world, can on the whole be either a static or a dynamic. If it is static, it can have the quality of 'being', not that of 'becoming'; and if it is dynamic, it will have the quality of 'becoming', not that of 'being'. We find that on this very basis there exists a clear division of philosophical schools.
One system of philosophy believes in 'being' and the other in 'becoming'. The school which believes in 'being' maintains that 'being' and 'non-being' cannot exist together for they are contradictory and the simultaneous existence of contradictories is impossible. If there is 'being', 'non-being' does not exist, and if there is 'non-being' 'being' does not exist. In each particular case either of these two must be chosen. As the world and society being existent, obviously have the quality of 'being', naturally they are governed by stillness or motionlessness. In contrast to this view, the school which believes in 'becoming', maintains that 'being' and 'non. being' can exist at the same time, for the idea of 'becoming' implies motion, which means nothing but that a thing is and at the same time it is not.
The philosophy of 'being' and the philosophy of 'becoming' reflect two completely opposite outlooks on existence. One has to choose either of these two philosophies. If we choose the first one, we must presume that societies have the quality of 'being' only not that of 'becoming'. On the contrary if we choose the second philosophy, then we must presume that societies have the quality of 'becoming' and not that of 'being'. This means that either we have scientific history in the above mentioned sense and do not have philosophy of history or we have philosophy of history and do not have scientific history.
The answer to this question is that this view about existence and non-existence, about stillness and motion, and about the principle of the impossibility of the simultaneous existence of contradictories, is purely a figment of Western idea. This way of thinking is actually due to ignorance of many vital questions concerning existence, especially its fundamentality and some other relevant matters.
Firstly, to say that 'being' is tantamount to stillness, or in other words that stillness means 'being' and motion' means a combination of 'being' and 'non-being' that is a combination of two contradictories, is a grave error, in which some philosophical schools of the West have fallen.
Secondly, the question under discussion has nothing to do with the above mentioned philosophical question. What has been brought out here is that society like any other living being has two types of laws. The first type is that which governs species within the framework of its class, and the second is that which becomes applicable to it with its evolution and transformation to another species. We call the first type the laws of 'being' and the second type the laws of 'becoming'.
Incidentally some sociologists have taken due notice of this point. Auguste Comte is one of them. Reymond Aron says: "Statics and dynamics are two basic categories of Auguste Comte's sociology . . . Statics consists essentially in examining, in analyzing what Comte calls the social consensus (social unanimity). A society is comparable to a living organism. It is impossible to study the functioning of an organ without placing it in the context of living creature.
By the same token it is impossible to study politics of the state without placing them in the context of the society at a given moment.... As for dynamics at the outset it consists merely of the description of the successive stages through which human societies pass". (Raymond Aron, Main Currents in Sociological Thought, vol. I. pp. 85, 86)
If we take into consideration every species of living beings, from mammals, reptiles and birds to all others, we find that there are special laws which relate to each class. So long as the members of a particular species continue to belong to it, they are governed by its special laws, such as the laws relating to the embryonic stages of an animal, its health and sickness, its mode of nutrition, its mode of reproduction, its way of rearing its young ones, its instincts, its migration or its mating habits.
According to the theory of the development and evolution of species, in addition to the special laws peculiar to every species and operating within the fabric of its own class, there exist a number of other laws which relate to the process of the evolution of the lower species to the higher species. These laws have assumed a philosophical form and are sometimes called the philosophy of evolution instead of biological laws.
By virtue of its being a living thing, society also has two kinds of laws: biological laws and evolutionary laws. There are some laws of societies which relate to their social life and the origin and decline of their cultures. They govern all societies in all stages of their development. We call these laws the laws of 'being'. There are other laws which relate to the development of societies from one stage to another and from one system to another. They are known as the laws of 'becoming". When we later discuss both these kinds of laws, the difference between them will become clear.
Thus history in the third sense is the study of the evolution of societies from one stage to another. It is not merely the knowledge of their living conditions at any particular stage or all stages. Not to confuse it with the questions, we call scientific history, we have named this knowledge the philosophy of history. As most people do not differentiate between the questions of non-evolutionary movements dealt with by scientific history, and the question of evolutionary movements of history dealt with by philosophy of history, confusion crops up and leads to misunderstanding.
Like scientific history, philosophy of history is also general, not particular and is rational, not transmitted. But unlike scientific history it is the knowledge of 'being', not of 'becoming'. Moreover, unlike scientific history, the questions with which it deals are not considered to be historical because they relate to the past events alone. They are considered to be so because they represent a process which began in the past, though it still continues and will be drawn to the future. Time is one of the dimensions of these question, not merely the period of their duration.
The knowledge of history in all these three senses is useful. Even transmitted history, that is the knowledge of the conditions and the events connected with the life of the individuals can be useful, inspiring, instructive and constructive. Of course the usefulness of transmitted history depends on the persons whose life account it is, and on the points which are drawn from their life. Man by virtue of the law of imitation is influenced by the behaviour, conduct, habits and customs of his companions and contemporaries. Just as he learns manners and rules of behaviour from the actual life of his contemporaries and sometimes like Luqman learns politeness from the rude and goodness from the wicked, by virtue of this very law he is benefitted by the account of the people of the past also. History like movies turn the past into the present. That is why the Holy Qur'an mentions useful points from the life of those persons who are fit to be a model for others. About the Holy Prophet it says: "Surely in the Messenger of Allah you have a good example." (Surah al-Ahzab, 33:21)
About Prophet Ibrahim it says: "There is a good example for you to follow Ibrahim and those who are with him." (Surah al-Mumtahinah, 60:5)
When the Holy Qur'an mentions any individual as a pattern or a paragon of perfection, it does not take into consideration their worldly personality. It refers to their human and moral personality only. The Holy Qur'an describes as a sage even a black slave, who is not a king, nor has he the reputation of being a philosopher, nor is he a wealthy person. He is only a clear-sighted slave. The Holy Qur'an makes his name synonymous with sagacity. The believer of the tribe of Fir'awn and the believer of al-Yasin also belong to this category.
In this book we have discussed society and history from the viewpoint of the Islamic conception of the world. Here our attention is confined to scientific history and the philosophy of history, for only these two fit in within the framework of world conception. For this reason we propose to discuss these two subjects a little further. We now begin with scientific history.
Man and Universe by  Martyr Ayatullah Murtada Mutahhari
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