Book Reviews - Judgment of History by Mubarak Ali, published by Badalti Dunya Publications, Islamabad, 2019, pages: 159, price: Pak rupees 400/-.
Judgment of History is the latest book from the pen of Dr Mubarak Ali. As a prolific writer on historical themes, Ali has to his credit more than 80 books. Given the nature of his books and his popular approach in writing history, he has established for himself a unique identity as a public scholar. Ali made his mark on the academic horizon of Pakistan way back in the early 1980s when as a professor of history in the University of Sindh, Jamshoro, he started producing brief books and booklets on historical subjects. Due to his questioning of the fictitious history as well as given the provocative style of his writings, he could not find established publishers who could take the risk to publish his books. As a result of this he got the books printed in his own handwriting, which were sold on very nominal price. Soon he found a good readership which has increased with the passage of time. Now his books are published on good scale by recognized book sellers.
In the last around four decades he has gained the reputation of a historian who writes for general readers, and writes in an unconventional way. Looking back at Ali's work, one can identify four major traits which have made him popular with political workers, students, and commoners throughout the country. First, he has deviated almost completely from the traditional historiography wherein the discipline of history has been devoted to describe and discuss the rulers - the monarchs, dynasties, generals, wars, etc. Even the freedom movement is discussed highlighting the role of the great leaders and their big adversaries. The high politics was shown to be the arena of big leaders contesting each other. The millions of 'followers' did not find place in the pages of history. Similarly, regional sentiments and roles were also conveniently overlooked.
Ali has challenged the limited scope of this historiography and has highlighted the importance of including the diverse segments of the society and their contribution to the evolution of history. He has highlighted that history can be constructed along a number of things. Thus, there can be histories of things, socio-cultural trends, habits, etc. Second, Ali has demonstrated a great deal of objectivity in his writings. He clearly distinguishes between the fact-based narratives and a historical fiction which creates heroes and paints the past as a glorious era without undertaking to look into the failures and contradictions of that period. Third, he has informed that history can be written from different points of view and varying perspectives. There can be a number of schools of thought and it is possible that each one of them has some validity and can offer substantial conclusions which could widen our horizon of historical understanding.
It is his belief in his particular concept of history and historiography that has motivated him to take to the discipline as a mission. To project an objective view of history and to challenge the existing and traditional moors of historiography, he has adopted different channels. Apart from writing books, he brings out a series under the title of Tareekh, which has so far published sixty issues. Under his leadership there has developed a group of young writers, many of them being historians, who together work in unison to give credence to their work as an integrated effort or a movement. Apart from all these, Ali writes regularly in the newspapers. After some time his newspaper writings also go into books. So far some twenty such books have seen the light of the day. The book under review also falls under this category. The significance of such books is this that these assemble scores of articles at one place and prevent them from being lost sight of while scattered in newspaper pages.
Should such articles be taken seriously by those who are interested in history and historiography, and should historians spend their precious time in writing for the newspapers, to this we shall return. Here, it would be attempted to see what this particular book that we have before us offers through its brief chapters, each of which had formed a column of the newspaper, The News. Comprising 40 brief articles, the book presents a big canvas with wide range of themes. These themes can be classified in three major areas. There are chapters on peoples' history, history of attitudes, protests, revenge, oratory, emotions, rituals, happiness, grief, etc. Then, there are pieces on how different historians treated history. One finds references to western historians like Arnold Toynbee and Spengler, as well as the Indians like Shibli Nomani. Another set of articles comprises those which highlight the specific western and eastern themes.
One major feature of all these articles is that almost each of them carries some new information - new in the sense that it may not be there in the knowledge of general people who are fed on generalized, emotional and romanticized version of the past and the so-called heroes or the great individuals. For example, in an article about the era of Reformation in Europe, the author delves deeply in the role of Martin Luther but while discussing how he reformed Christianity and established Protestantism, he also mentions how during the revolt of the peasants in Germany, Martin Luther sided with the princes and the feudal lords who quelled the uprising with brute force. Similarly, in an article about the historians who wrote about the history from peoples' perspective and included in their histories the role of common man in a given period of time, Ali brings in focus a number of western historians.
One finds references to E.P Thompson's The Making of the English Working Class (1963), Chris Harman's Peoples' History of the World (1999), and Howard Zinn's Peoples' History of the United States (1980), and the contribution they made in the field of peoples' history. But quite interestingly, he indicates that K.M Ashraf wrote a peoples' history way back in 1935. Named as Life and Conditions of the People of Hindustan, the book endeavored to search into the everyday life of the people of India and gave idea about what the common people contributed to the society, its economy and the social life. The article on Emperor Jahangir demystifies some of the commonly held misconceptions about him as a ruler and the manner in which he strategized his statecraft. There are a lot of fictitious stories suggesting him to be one who cared so much about justice to be given to his subjects.
A writer of Shibli Nomani's stature also builds a very inflated image of Jahangir in one of his poems, Adl-e-Jahangiri. The author of the book under review recounts incidents which give a very different view of Jahangir. Ali tells us that the prime object of Jahangir, like his ancestors and successors, had been to ensure his strong control over the country for which all types of coercive means were adopted. And, in this respect, no discrimination was made between his close family members and those who challenged him from outside. Thus, Jahangir had Abul Fazal killed without any regard for what he had contributed to the Mughal Empire, particularly during the Akbar's rule. Similarly, when Jahangir's son revolted against him on the pretext of his belief that he was the rightful successor of his grandfather, and that his father was not qualified to replace Akbar, Jahangir lost no time in quelling his son's revolt. He was punished for his wishful thinking with the sentence to death.
Quite curiously one also finds in him a tendency of seeking pleasure from the pain inflicted on others. These 'others' included the animals as well. Ali narrates how in one of his excursions he saw an elephant falling in a ditch. The scene excited him so much that he ordered a number of elephants to be thrown in the ditch. Ali does not mind bringing to the fore the facts which may demolish and destroy the unrealistic and untrue images cultivated by the traditional historians who have been so fond of writing hagiography in the name of history. The above are only some of the examples which may be sufficient to shed light on what 'sedition' Ali's brief articles commit. As these are quite brief they leave one with a lot of curiosity to know more about the themes which have been discussed by the author. Here, one would like to return to the question as to what significance the historical articles, finding way in the newspapers, hold.
And, also, why professional historians in the West as well as in our part of the world opted for writing in newspapers and in periodicals when they already had made their names through their researched works published in the form of books and research journals' articles. This question needs to be discussed particularly because one finds among the circles of certain historians a tendency to look at the historical writings in newspapers with an eye of contempt. Few historians also regard such writings as 'Journalistic', as if anything that comes through the channel of journalism is of lesser value. As a matter of fact the objectives of genuine historiography and objective journalism are the same and at times they are quite intertwined. The purpose of good journalism is to bring the possibly most accurate information to the readers; in the case of past events it is the occupation of the historians to dig out the facts in their possibly most accurate form.
Therefore, both history and journalism have some common, and very important, bases. The professional historians spend a lot of time in libraries and archives, and travel far off regions to gather their material. They employ modern tools of research in order to be able to reach the best possible conclusions. But most of their professional work is so ingrained in technicalities that it is mostly the trained and qualified historians, and students and researchers of history who can benefit from it in maximal manner. But should all this information be confined to the professionals? Certainly not. All good work, weather it is in the field of history, or for that matter, in any field, is the asset of all mankind. So it should be available for as many people as possible.
Journalism provides that ladder making use of which the high-profile historians with their great historical studies and conclusions can step a few pedestals down and enable a wider readership to have access to them. This ladder was used by a good number of historians in the past. More and more historians are using it in our times.