Is our past connected to the present and future? Ibn Khaldun answered in his famous book, Muqaddimah, that “surface history is no more than information about political events, dynasties and occurrences of the remote past, elegantly presented and spiced with proverbs”. Thus, it seems it’s futile to make any connections about the past history of nations with their present and future conditions. Ibn Khaldun continued in his answer that “the inner meaning of history involves an attempt to get at the truth, subtle explanations of the causes and origins of existing things and deep knowledge of the how and why of events”. It is this deeper meaning of history which can help in understanding the contemporary Islamic world and the formation of its major, regional powers which will define its future.
The Ottoman, Safavid and Mughal empires defined the course of the Islamic world in the Middle Ages. The Ottomans under Suleiman the Magnificent (1520-1566), the Safavids under Shah Abbas (1571-1629), and the Mughals under Shah Jahan (1592-1666) had reached the zenith of their respective empires. After the passage of the 15th century, all started their eventual journey of slow disintegration which ultimately led to the formation of nation states. Does the glorious past of these empires have any whisperings about the present and future of the Islamic world?
We will first start with the Republic of Turkey which is the inheritor of the Ottoman Empire. The current President, Recep Erdogan, and his ruling AK Party draws inspiration from the Ottoman legacy. Turkey recently gave citizenship to 30,000 Ahiska Turks and 150,000 Syrians. This is an important marker as it implies that Turkish citizenship is not just reserved for ethnic Turks. Since it is an inheritor of an empire, people of former provinces of the empire are part of its citizenry as well. It is also why Turkey has been actively involved militarily in former Ottoman provinces of Azerbaijan, Cyprus, Iraq, Libya and Syria. In the future, as Turkey continues its resurgences to its former glory the geopolitical implications will be immense for the Islamic world.
The second state is the Islamic Republic of Iran which is the inheritor of the Safavid Empire. The overthrow of the Shah of Iran in 1979 can be attributed to the resentment of its people who started to see Iran as a vassal state. Iran currently plays a key role in the affairs of Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen which echoes its legacy from the past. In the future, Iran will remain an important regional power.
The third and last state is the Islamic Republic of Pakistan which is the inheritor of the Mughal Empire. It is this historical legacy that still ignites debates about the identity of Pakistan as a conventional nation state or an ideological unique state. This explains Pakistan’s transnational foreign policy where it takes a leadership role in international problems such as Islamophobia in the West and the Israel-Palestine issue. Internally, a lot of policies which define Pakistan’s identity can be explained from its historical legacy. For example, why did the early leaders of Pakistan insist on Urdu as the national language which was not the language of any ethnic groups in the country? Why did the national poet, Allama Mohammad Iqbal, have a global outlook with the majority of his work in Persian instead of in Urdu? Why is Pakistan more receptive to introduce the Arabic language in its national curriculum? Why do the Turkish series of Ertugrul and Magnificent Century have such a strong resonance in the country? I argue that it is the multicultural yet Islamic legacy of the Mughal Empire which allows the country to look beyond its borders and aspire for something greater than a conventional nation state.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 27th, 2021.