Historical Thinking History

Ideas in History

I started listening to the Head On History podcast this summer and I’m continuing to catch up with the episodes during my commute now that school has started. It’s been great for adding nuance to and correcting misperceptions of the history of Islam. I plan to suggest some episodes as supplemental resources to students in my World History classes. I listened to most of Season 1, including episodes on Sunni and Shi’ite Islam and the Ottoman, Safavid, and Mughal Empires, during a time when I read Audrey Truschke’s short and interesting reappraisal of the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb (r. 1658-1707). Considering the book and the podcasts together sharpened some of my pedagogic notions about teaching students about the reflexive nature of ideas and actions in history.

Cover of Audrey Truschke’s Aurangzeb

Historian and Head On History host Ali A. Olomi traces how Sunni and Shi’ite approaches to Islam initially developed outside of or even in opposition to the exercise of political power, but were later adopted by the Ottoman and Safavid Empires, respectively, as tools of statecraft. Olomi describes how political elites in the Middle East–particularly in Turkey, Iran, and Saudi Arabia–have built on this politicization to encourage nationalism in their state building projects. Thus, perceptions of Sunnis and Shi’ites is an effect of political and religious history; these are not categories that can be applied to the past with consistent meanings about the people identified as such.

Similarly,Audrey Truschke demonstrates how Hindu and Muslim categories in South Asian history are often historians’ categories, not always used in good faith, for people who may have identified themselves much more narrowly. From page 14:

“Hindus” of the day often did not even label themselves as such and rather prioritized a medley of regional, sectarian, and caste identities (e.g. Rajput, Maratha, Brahmin, Vaishnava). As many scholars have pointed out the word Hindu is Persian, not Sanskrit, and only became commonly used self-referentially during British colonialism. The Mughals, too, emphasized differences between groups of “Hindus.”  For example, Mahabat Khan, who led Mughal efforts in the Deccan for a short period in the early 1670s, preferred “Rajputs and Hindus” among the Mughal nobility, even while fighting the Marathas (who apparently did not count as “Hindu” in this instance).

The British Empire imposed and emphasized broad religious categories to divide their Indian subjects, unlike the Ottomans and Safavids who used these identities to unite people in support of their imperial projects.  Going deeper, Truschke argues that historians can more fruitfully view Aurangzeb’s statecraft as affecting his personal religious identity than, as descriptions of his reign in textbooks often posit, the reverse (69). Aurangzeb’s experiences as Emperor influenced his Islamic piety. Ideas, religious ones in this cases, have reflexive relationships with public and private actions. Our ideas come from our actions and experiences, as much as they inform them.

In class I discuss other historic ideas in this way, including race, ethnicity, nationalism, and political ideologies. I may have been slow to extending this thinking to religion because of how I teach religions, especially in on-level World History, as simultaneously historic and contemporary. Meaning, I often teach the roots of religions as immediate prelude to how they function in the world today, without historicizing their evolution across time and their complexities. Olomi and Truschke have encouraged me to complicate this presentation. [And, yes, this is another reason why the College’s Board’s recent decision to amputate the first two and two thirds periods of AP World History was a poor one.]

Encouraging students to consider the reflexive relationships between ideas, identities, and actions is very important. Contextualization is a key aspect of historical thinking. Truschke’s book is an extended argument that people today need to understand Aurangzeb in the context of his time. One simple thing such contextualization can mean in class is being clear about when we are using historians’ terms for a group, event, or era and when we are using terms of the time. For instance, people thought of the Cold War as the Cold War while it was happening, at least to some degree, but medieval literati in Europe may not have thought of themselves as living in a “middle age”. With religion, students should know that early followers of Muhammad included Christians and Jews (Head On History, Episode 2).  At times conflict has developed between these groups, of course, but those conflicts were not inevitable. Significantly, I want my students to consider alternatives to their present realities, in both their public and private lives. History can be a tool for considering the varieties of the possible.

Labels for ideas that bound groups of people in the past are an important part of historical thinking. Without them students and teachers risk becoming overwhelmed by detail and nuance. But, we all need to resist the temptation to see identities and ideologies as disembodied and unchanging, when, in fact they are the contingent on lived experiences.  These experiences are the stuff of life, past and present.

By Eric Beckman

I am a veteran high school history teacher interested in decolonizing history curricula, anti-racist pedagogy, and e-learning.

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