By Maulana Wahiduddin Khan for New Age Islam
12 February, 2015
It is common for communities to consider some of their key figures in the past to have been larger than life. They commonly project an exaggerated image of them. Sometimes, they go to the extent of according them a legendary status.
This is something that present-day Muslims also do—and on a massive scale. Muslims today project some of their past figures in a grossly exaggerated manner. This has caused two major great damages to Muslims—overestimating their past, on the one hand, and underestimating their present.
Muslim writers and preachers often highlight some figures from the Muslim past and insist that there is only one way for Muslims to be able to change their fortunes—and that is for such figures to be born again. By presenting a larger than life image of these Muslim personalities, they think that only if such people could be present today, the Muslims’ conditions would have been drastically different.
This, however, is nothing but wishful thinking.
The well-known Arab historian Khairuddin al-Zirikli (d. 1976) prepared a multi-volume compendium of famous Muslim personalities of the past, titled al-Aʿlām. He imagined that Muslims could experience a new revival if such figures could again be born. In a couplet, he expresses this sentiment thus:
Bring Salahuddin Ayyubi back in our midst
Let there be a revival of the Battle of Hattin or battles of similar vigour!
This couplet only shows the poet’s complete lack of awareness of the times. Today’s age and today’s conditions have changed in every respect. Today, if you want to do anything, the very first condition for this is to have a deep understanding of the times, and not to have Salahuddin Ayuubi being born once again. The fact is that in today’s age, people like Salahuddin Ayyubi have indeed been born, but they could do nothing in practical terms to produce the expected results because they were bereft of the required insight into, and awareness of, the times. One example of this was the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat (d. 2004). In terms of his natural capacities you could call him a second Salahuddin Ayyubi, but despite all the many sacrifices that he made, he was completely unsuccessful.
History can be divided into two major periods—the ancient traditional age, and the modern scientific age. There is a fundamental difference in every aspect between these two ages. This distinction is so immense that if a noted personality of ancient times were to be born today, he might not be able to achieve anything spectacular. He might find himself a total misfit.
If you want to do anything meaningful in today’s times, a basic condition is deep understanding of the age. You must prepare yourself properly in accordance with present-day conditions. You must have the proper insight about the age we live in. Only then can you do something meaningful—be it in the field of education, scholarship, institution-building, governance, leadership, social reform, intellectual exchange or whatever. If you want to provide guidance in any aspect of life today, you have to have the necessary understanding of modern life. If you lack this understanding but somehow manage to garner a leadership post for yourself, then your case would be best depicted in these lines of a poet:
When a crow becomes the leader of a community, he guides them to the path of ruination.