Dr Mubarak Ali – With a sense of history

By Zubeida Mustafa

IN Dr Mubarak Ali’s case, appearances can be deceptive. It is incredible that this soft-spoken, unassuming man has shaken the establishment with his liberal interpretation of history. He has become persona non grata for many who do not wish to upset the apple cart — be it in politics or in the academia. Yet Mubarak Ali is one of the most prolific and versatile historians in Pakistan today. The author of countless books, he has written extensively on issues ranging from the Age of Reason in Europe to the women’s movement and the history of South Asia.


For a person whose entry into the discipline of historiography was not quite a matter of well considered choice or the realization of a childhood dream, his profound interest in and commitment to his subject is amazing. He took up history when as a student a friend challenged him to study the subject for his Masters degree and obtain good marks in it. But once he had entered the field of history he was inspired by his teachers — he specifically mentions Prof Tafazzul Daud and Prof Ahmad Bashir. They were fine teachers but orthodox in their views.”Later on I departed from their school of thought and adopted a different point of view altogether,” Mubarak Ali says.

What makes Mubarak Ali an interesting and relevant historian to read and talk to is his infinite capacity to link the past with the present. In his writings, history comes alive and is not a dull and lifeless narration of events of bygone eras, as many historians tend to reduce it to. Neither do his books centre round the rulers who supposedly mould the destiny of nations. Trained in the Marxist tradition, he looks into the lives of people — their psyche, class conflicts and sociological developments to explain historical phenomena.

“In Pakistan we simply study political history. It is an account of conquerors and their conquests. We adopt the colonial perception on many issues. By studying only the history of the rulers we distort the past. It is important to retrieve the history of the common people and their culture from the neglect that shrouds them. If any section of society doesn’t have a place in history, it loses its identity. Our job as historians is to deconstruct history and dispel the myths which surround events and personalities. After all, the one who controls the past, controls the future,” Mubarak Ali says with a sense of conviction.And yet his regret is that since the early sixties when the Harvard team advised Ayub Khan to drop history from the school curricula, children in this country have ceased learning about their past. The Americans id not have a tradition of history for theirs is a young nation for whom civilization began after the discovery of the new continent.

“By not teaching Pakistani school children about their past we have deprived them of a sense of history which is important for them to appreciate the significance of other subjects as well,” he says. “Pakistan Studies which has replaced history gives the children a ‘tunnel view’ of their past. It is heavily ideologized and seeks to control the mind of the young by controlling knowledge. As a result we are producing an intolerant and narrow-minded young generation which is ignorant of the process of continuity and change,” Mubarak Ali continues. As a historian, he says he enjoyed all the freedom he would have liked. Whether it was as a teacher in Sindh University or as a writer, he was never restricted. “But that was because I was dealing with the past and my writing was supported by documentary evidence,” he says. He started his tryst with history by studying Islamic history for which he learnt the Persian and Arabic languages as well. Later on he concentrated on the history of the Indian Muslims specially in the mediaeval period. Being a true historian and not an ideologue, Mubarak Ali read extensively books on anthropology, archaeology, sociology and \other social sciences. He has written about the history of culinary habits, concept of privacy, women, religion and politics, and also on the role of bandits in history. He considers his two Urdu works to be his magnum opus, namely Almiyya-i-tareekh and Barr-i-sagheer mein Muslim muasheray ka almiyya. In English his book Historian’s dispute sums up his views on the Muslim community in the subcontinent.

In a country where little importance is attached to historiography and research in our educational institutions, it is not surprising that Dr Mubarak Ali feels dismayed and unhappy about the academic aspect of history in Pakistan. When he went to Germany for his PhD he realized that he knew nothing about research methodology and how to analyze the texts and present the conclusions. He had to work very hard to understand the basics. That is one reason why, he feels, history has not been our forte.

“We simply study political history,” he says. “Even in Islamic history, with which we claim a special affinity, we have made no real contribution. That is because the ruling establishment does not want to look into issues with which it is not comfortable.” He dilates upon historiography in other countries where it has made great strides. In France, the Annal school has propounded the view that no issue is beyond history. Writers have studied the history of every phenomenon and written about them — be it history of reading, crying, god, media, etc.

In India, the subaltern studies developed in New Delhi seeks an objective interpretation of history of the colonial period. Historians believe that accounts of the British period are biased and incomplete, they are now attempting to retrieve the past and giving it a new dimension. Subaltern studies have become so intellectualized that now it is being realized that its discourse is beyond the comprehension of the common man. In Pakistan, historians have not moved beyond the old style of writing history because the rulers are not prepared to listen to anything which is not how they want to project it. Mubarak Ali had the choice to write in English for the elite and an international audience or in Urdu to reach the ‘unprivileged’ masses. He chose the latter,though occasionally he writes in English as well. But that would explain why he is not popular with the establishment. His views are too enlightened and liberal for the orthodox school of thought. Thus explaining the ‘Talibanization’ syndrome, he says that for orthodox Muslims, religion and civilization are synonymous. Hence the Taliban reject modernization because they perceive it as militating against Islamic teachings which came centuries ago. Since they are not trained to study the ideas and intellectual thoughts of the West, they know nothing about them. It is therefore easy for them to reject these ideas off hand as immoral. The furthest they are prepared to go is to accept modern technology which they need. The religious parties operating in Pakistan who possess the potential of Talibanizing the country have had no intellectual input. They do not study modern sciences and are blissfully unaware of the world around them. They even disown the pre-Islamic civilizations, since they lack historical consciousness.

Dr Mubarak Ali feels confident that Pakistan cannot be Talibanized in the same way as Afghanistan. The Pakistani middle class is intellectually more developed and educated than Afghanistan and will resist Talibanization,” he insists. He points out that it is the backward regions and the rural areas of Pakistan where illiteracy is rife and the level of education is low that are most vulnerable.But the risk is always there of the middle class being weakened. There is also the factor of outside pressure on the government from the aid giving agencies. This is truly a time of crisis for those in power, sandwiched as they are between these two extreme forces. “I believe the pressures of the outside powers — the aid givers — and the economic forces will prove to be stronger,” Dr Mubarak Ali pronounces.One hopes that this is not wishful thinking but his considered conclusion after a thorough study of history. But as a true historian, Mubarak Ali insists that the question which all sensible people must ask is, “How have these religious groups emerged on the scene?”

His reply provides food for thought. The ruling elite in the country has grabbed all the wealth and privileges giving nothing to the common man. Poverty has proved to be a fertile breeding ground for the jihadis. They have shot into prominence because they feel they can bypass our political system which has either offered a feudal democracy or a military autocracy and has denied popular participation to the people. The religious groups which have failed to win votes in an election now feel they can lay claim to the extraconstitutional route to political office just as the military has done.

Source: Dawn, Books & Authors. 17 April 2001

1 thought on “Dr Mubarak Ali – With a sense of history

  1. An honourable name.Dr Mubarik's views are clear and explain our slide into anarchy.We need to stick our necks out for truth if we are serious about our children.

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