Don’t you think we try too hard sometimes? And yet, in our zeal to project minorities, or those less favoured in our community in a more favourable light, I suppose we could be forgiven for cherry-picking examples of their accomplishments, or glossing over issues in which they do not excel, so long as there is no attempt to deceive. No serious effort to hyperbolize. All of us are multitudes, and usually only context decides what face we show. And that can be a problem when we judge the past by current standards. The danger is, as Shakespeare’s Antony explained about men like Caesar, ‘the good is oft interred with their bones.’
We all do it, although often unconsciously. We pick situations from the past like apples from a tree, and assume that old flavours should accord with current tastes. They seldom match, of course, so the past risks being disappointing unless we paint it differently and demonstrate its relevance and connection to the present.
Usually this involves investigation, verification and interpretation -it is seldom possible to understand a novel by picking a page at random and drawing conclusions about its contents. Especially if the story is one that hasn’t even been written. An article in Aeon, an online publication, delves into the distribution of fake miniature paintings that purport to represent aspects of Islamic science that may be misleading: https://aeon.co/essays/why-fake-miniatures-depicting-islamic-science-are-everywhere
The essay was written by Nir Shafir, a historian of the early modern Ottoman Empire, at the University of California San Diego. And as he says, ‘The irony is that these fake miniatures and objects are the product of a well-intentioned desire: a desire to integrate Muslims into a global political community through the universal narrative of science. That wish seems all the more pressing in the face of a rising tide of Islamophobia.’ But he wonders just what science the counterfeiters hoped to find. ‘These fakes reveal more than just a preference for fiction over truth. Instead, they point to a larger problem about the expectations that scholars and the public alike saddle upon the Islamic past and its scientific legacy.’
But, Shafir does raise an important question of whether the ends justify the means. ‘Using a reproduction or fake to draw attention to the rich and oft-overlooked intellectual legacy of the Middle East and South Asia might be a small price to pay for widening the circle of cross-cultural curiosity. If the material remains of the science do not exist, or don’t fit the narrative we wish to construct, then maybe it’s acceptable to imaginatively reconstruct them… However, there is a dark side to this progressive impulse. It is an offshoot of a creeping, and paternalistic, tendency to reject the real pieces of Islamic heritage for its reimagined counterparts. Something is lost when we reduce the Islamic history of science to a few recognisably modern objects, and go so far as to summon up images from thin air. We lose sight of important traditions of learning that were not visually depicted, whether artisanal or scholastic. We also leave out those domains later deemed irrational or unmodern, such as alchemy and astrology.’
‘Perhaps there’s a worry that the actual remnants of Islamic science simply can’t arouse the necessary wonder; perhaps they can’t properly reveal that Muslims, too, created works of recognisable genius. Using actual artefacts to achieve this end might demand more of viewers, and require a different and more involved mode of explanation. But failing to embrace this challenge means we lose an opportunity to expand the scope of what counted as genius or reflected wonder in the Islamic past.’
It’s an interesting point that he makes. I wonder how many other things are slipping beneath our radars -information we never had occasion to investigate. We still use pictures to disguise our own histories, of course -to freshen them up, and portray otherwise mundane realities in rosy lights. It’s not the same as adding colours to improve an already vaunted past, I suppose, but we often try to dandy up what we’ve boasted about. And the pictures that we take usually seek to portray things as we promised they’d be. Confirm what we want people to think about our lives. A vacation that we hope others would envy, we picture in glowing scenes, that disguise those moments of disappointment in the sites we visited or the food we ate.
My grandfather used to describe his early years in glowing terms, and every photograph depicted triumphs or events that made me envious. But for some reason, my father saw them differently. Life was hard for him, and there were few luxuries when he was growing up. Clearly, history is contextual, and there are as many pasts, as there are participants in it.
But because there are discrepancies in its telling, that doesn’t necessarily invalidate what we’ve tried to illustrate in selected photos. True, it’s unlikely we’ve Photoshopped the pictures, or staged them whole cloth like the Islamic miniatures, but we’re still trying to sell an image of the past that embodies the story we want believed. A story that casts us in a favourable light despite the way our circumstances may appear today.
And yet, the camouflage itself can be a façade. It hides some things merely because there is a belief they need to be disguised -veneered. But it is sometimes the perspective itself that is deceptive -or, perhaps more accurately, selective. None of us see the world through the same eyes; ‘vanquished’ and ‘victorious’ can both describe the same event, and yet colour it with different adjectives.
I have to wonder whether, in the long run, it really matters. Once it is history, it is up for grabs anyway because there is no one, lasting view of anything in that dark and smoky room. As Shakespeare’s King Henry says, ‘Presume not that I am the thing I was’.