Monthly Archives: July 2011


Divvying up history by Dr Mubark

Historical process is not a linear one. It is also not stagnant. On the contrary, it moves ahead and brings changes to social, political and economic structure. Historians of the modern period, keeping these changes in view, divide history into different periods signifying the change.In the medieval period, the concept of history was dominated by religion and historical process was thought to be related to divine scheme. According to this particular belief, there was a beginning and end of history. In this context, periodisation was based in the framework of Biblical narratives. History started from the Adam and was divided according to the age of coming prophets. The religious periodisation failed to understand the human evolution and development of human civilisation. Therefore, during the Renaissance, this periodisation changed and the humanist scholars introduced the modern periodisation of history. This liberated history from religious dogma and secularised it.

The scope of history has broadened since archaeologists discovered sites of old civilisations which were hitherto unknown to the world. Archaeologists, anthropologists, and historians introduced quite a different periodisation which helped to understand the changes which occurred from time to time in the history of humankind.

To understand the origin and development of human civilisation, archaeologists periodised it into the following eras: Hunting and Gathering, Old Stone Age, Middle Stone Age, New Stone Age, Bronze Age, and Iron Age. Based on this division, they assessed the discovered civilisations of Mesopotamian, Egyptian, Indus Valley, the Chinese, the Greek and the Roman.

Historians, on the other hand, divided history as pre-history (whose written record is not available), proto-history (whose written and oral record is accessible) and the beginning of history (whose written record is the source of its writing). Written history is divided as Ancient, Medieval, and Modern. However, all these three periods are loosely applied by historians as far as the time line is concerned. There is also a new period called post-modern history which deals with present events.

Ancient and Medieval history is further subdivided on the basis of ruling dynasty such as the Abbasid, the Ghaznavids, the Tudors, and the Bourbons. This kind of periodisation was also used politically to undermine the importance of a certain aspect of history. William James, the author of The History of British India, writing from the colonial point of view, divided the Indian history as the Hindu period, the Muslim period and the British period. His periodisation is on the basis of religion. However he did not characterise British history as Christian and emphasised a secular approach to its own history. By this division, his implicit message was that the British, as a secular power, would maintain peace and prevent conflict between the Hindus and the Muslims.

When history widened its scope and freed itself from politics, historians analysed its process on the basis of ideas and thoughts. Therefore, we find the terms like the Age of Faith, the Age of Reason, Age of Enlightenment or Age of Revolution etc. Those historians who believe that individuals are makers of history have attributed whole ages to their favorite person. A particular example of such usage is Age of Napoleon named after the famous Frenchman. Besides politicians and rulers, historians also included religious leaders and the philosophers whose ideas, in their opinion, changed the course of history. Will Durant’s famous series includes the Age of Voltaire and The Age of Rousseau.

As history no more remains ‘past politics’, social and economic aspects of past history are now equally highlighted by historians. The concept of history from below changed its structure and made it more attractive and interesting. History of people has become popular and historians are now documenting the history of those groups of peoples who were ignored and sidelined by traditional historians. New subfields such as “history of sensibilities” and the history of daily life have transformed history and reinvigourated it as a dynamic subject.

Thus, we find that periodicities of history reflect the thinking of historians with respect to their interpretive framework. These categorisations are not accepted by all historians and there are often academic disputes about whether a periodisation is valid. For example, the William James division was challenged by the Indian historians arguing that there were also Buddhist rulers in ancient India and thus it was not correct to label it the “Hindu period”. The same is true about medieval India which was ruled both by Muslim and Hindu rulers. Therefore, it is not correct to call it the “Muslim period”.

Similarly, some historians do not accept the role of individuals and point out that without economic, social and multiple other forces, an individual cannot contribute to history. The varieties of interpretations and different points of view provide more arguments to comprehend and analyse the historical process.

Keeping in view this background, when we analyse the periodisation of Pakistan’ history, all credit for making it is attributed to particular individuals. This attribution ignores people’s participation and their sacrifices. The result of such history writing is that people rely on individuals to rescue them from troubles as they did in the past. They have lost all faith in their own power and resources. This is what the ruling classes want. The traditional historians are repeating the same arguments again and again to emphasise the role of individuals and neglecting the potential power of the people. Our history textbooks fully reflect this

point of view which is further perpetuated by the media. To create a mature historical consciousness, there is a dire need to change history writing in Pakistan.

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