Three Mega-Events Which Shape Our Minds

What is the nature of the world in which I live? As I look around me, I see walls, windows, doors, and furniture. But these are insignificant parts of the world as constructed by my mind. I conceptualize the world through the teachings of history, according to which human history started in the remote past, with hunter-gatherers. I have a smattering of knowledge of the ancient civilizations of Sumeria and Babylon, and much more of the Roman Empire. The rise of Christianity, Islam, the Ottoman Empire, the Industrial Revolution in England.  The NARRATIVE, or the stories woven around these events, and my own place – or that of my ancestors – within these events, shapes my identity, my allegiances, and also my hopes, visions and projects for the future. These narratives guide me about what is worth spending my life and efforts on.  For my present purposes, the important thing to note is that all of this history comes to me via reading of accounts, or listening to oral presentations by teachers and scholars. I did not experience the two world wars, or Hiroshima and Nagasaki, or the “Era of Darkness” described by Shashi Tharoor,  but these events are of major importance in my mental landscape.

History creates the world we live in, far more than the bricks and mortar of the buildings around us, and far more than the rivers, mountains, jungles and oceans that we see. But what is history, and where does this history come from? I was taught that history is just a sequence of facts about the world – dates and events – just one damn thing after another. However, this positivist and reductionist view is extremely harmful to our quest for understanding the world, and our own place in this world.  Due to the influence of positivism, we confuse the NARRATIVE, or the story woven around the historical facts, with the facts themselves. This leads to the false belief that past history is engraved in stone and cannot be changed. While it is true that the events of history are fixed and cannot be changed, we can exercise considerable creative licence in terms of the stories we tell to explain these events. In particular, the stories told by the victors and vanquished are dramatically different, and listening to both sides gives us an idea of how much flexibility exists in interpreting the same events from multiple points of view.

When we see the narratives as FACTS then we are trapped by them, because we believe the historical facts to be unchangeable. Pluralism involves seeing that there are multiple narratives which respect the facts, so we can choose our truths and our past, to a certain extent. Below we describe three mega-events which have shaped the thoughts of everyone living on this planet. Today, the narratives which divide us are gaining strength. In order to learn the vital lesson that the common bonds of humanity we all share are far far stronger than the surface differences of race, religion, language, and regions, we must learn to recognize the divisive narratives and understand their historical origins and roots. This is the first step towards self-liberation.

Below, I replicate one of my posts which analyzes three mega-events which shape our thoughts, from the point of view of the colonized and the conquered. The original post, with links to related materials and context, is available from: The Islamic WorldView Blog.

To a much greater extent than we realize, the thoughts we think are shaped by the major tides of history. In the first place, colonization is a conquest of minds – millions of people cannot be ruled by thousands without giving their willing consent. To become a great teacher, we must first liberate ourselves from the low flying and carrion-eating crow-mentality that is created within our minds by our education. To do this, we must learn about three major historical events that have shaped the minds of all human beings living on the planet today. These are listed below, and their consequences are discussed further.

  1. European Global Colonization and Conquest: As Edward Said writes in “Orientalism”, nearly 85% of the planet was under European control  by the early twentieth century. This event created the “West” (the conquerors and the colonizers) and the “East” (the defeated and colonized), and the corresponding mindsets.
  2. European Transition to Secular Modernity: Abuse of power by Catholic Church led to the Protestant Reformation and religious wars. This eventually led to the exclusion of religious from the public domain, and the creation of secular modern ways of thinking, which now dominate the world.
  3. The Great Transformation to Market Society: The industrial revolution created the possibility of massive surplus production. To create and utilize this surplus for ‘love and war’ – that is is pleasure and power — required a complete reconfiguration of traditional society, along radical different lines in the political, economic, and social realms. The market society wields tremendous economic power, and has now become global, penetrating Muslim minds and hearts.

All of these three developments have had major impact on ways of thinking, always in conflict with Islamic values. As a first step, we must recognize the impact of these events within our own ways of thinking, and cleanse our own minds of the conflicts created by them. This involves a great deal of work. Some of the main points which need work are listed below.

Results of Colonization and Conquest: This created a superiority complex in the European-origin colonizers (see Orientalism) and a corresponding deep-seated inferiority complex in the colonized East. The need to justify the ruthless and brutal conquest, involving genocides of many races, complete destruction of many civilizations, enslavement of millions, and theft and exploitation of planetary resources belonging to all of humanity, on a mind-boggling scale, required the invention many “Myths of Eurocentric History“. To counter the inferiority complex, we need to re-learn history from the Islamic point of view. A key contribution and a starting place for this effort is Syed Abul Hassan Ali Nadwi’s landmark book on “What the World Lost Due to the Decline of the Islamic Civilization.” Restoring self-confidence destroyed by our defeats and domination by others requires work on many dimensions. One is to learn about the “Theft of History”  how Europeans stole inventions of other civilizations and claimed them for their own. For instance, “Islamic Origins of Science” shows how Copernicus was just a translator, and not a revolutionary.

European Transition to Secular Modernity: The standard story which is told about this is that, for the first time in human history, Europeans learned to reason. In the light of their superior knowledge, they rejected the superstitions of Christianity, and made tremendous strides in all fields of knowledge as a result. Their tremendous power and glory is due to the new was of thinking, acting, and being that they have invented over the past three centuries. This story is strongly in conflict with Islamic teachings, but is widely believed by Muslims today, because a Western education teaches us to believe in this story. In order to re-learn Islamic teachings, we need to take several commonly used words, and  UNLEARN the meanings which we have been taught. For example, the idea the Development means getting more wealth (GNP) is correct only for those who thing the robbing the entire planet by brute force is development. Islam, on the other hand, defines development as the development of human character and capabilities. Similarly, knowledge is defined as that which can help us acquire wealth and power, corresponding to a civilization based on colonization and conquest. Islamic knowledge teaches us how human beings can realize their hidden potential to become the best of the creations. The West defines prosperity as possession of wealth and power, while Islam defines it as excellence in conduct. Unlearning Western lessons and relearning Islamic ones is essential to follow the pathways and methods of the Greatest Teacher of All Time: Our Prophet Mohammad SAW.

The Great Transformation to Market Society: Today, we are at the bottom of the pyramid. Our thoughts are shaped in whatever direction the education we receive shapes us. We accept without question any knowledge coming from the West. To learn to soar above like the eagles, we need to look at where this knowledge is coming from. What are the forces that shaped the minds of the Europeans, and led them to the creation of the types of knowledge that we study in our schools, colleges, and universities? Why did our Muslim ancestors not invent this type of knowledge? To learn the answers to this question, we have to look at how the great tides of global history have shaped the lives and thoughts of mankind. At the root of the answers to these questions is the industrial revolution in England, which created the capacity for massive overproduction. This capacity was developed by other cultures, in other times and places as well, but this did not have any consequence, because over-production is useless in a self-sufficient society – what will we do with goods far in excess of those needed by the society? Through a sequence of peculiar and unique events in England, the emerging market society managed to launch a revolution, which destroyed traditional society, and created the modern world. For more details about this, see the Great Transformation in European Thought.

Postscript: This is part of a sequence of posts about “How to Become a Great Teacher”. The next post in the sequence is GT5: Reshaping Lives: Identity and Purpose: A great teacher reshapes lives of students by changing their goals and thereby their identities.

4 comments
  1. Vic Volpe said:

    Asad, European Transition to Secular Modernity — the basis for the break is an emphasis on the individual, the value of the individual’s experience and ability to reason, not simply to conform to a societal norm or family tie. Simply put, the courage to love is the affirmation of the individual.

    This transition will take centuries. It culminates in 1776 with the American independence movement — Are people capable of governing themselves? The American Experience is a break from the European Enlightenment. 1776 may have been the culmination, but we are still at work with renewal and trying to demonstrate that idea to others.

    • We are all trapped by the streams of history which have shaped our minds. The goal of this post is self-liberation — can we learn to stand outside the streams of history and just watch the events unfold from the perspective of a Martian – not Eurocentric and not Islamocentric — This is difficult because we need to have some ground on which to stand, to be able to see. My original post is addressed to Muslims, because they have a genuine alternative framework for viewing the world, but that is not available or easily accessible for you. So another alternative is to see this transition as a CHANGE, instead of an improvement (identifying with it), where some good things were lost, while some other good things came into being – understand the change without IDENTIFYING with it. See, for example. https://azprojects.wordpress.com/2018/02/03/the-dark-side-of-the-enlightenment-project/

  2. Edward Ross said:

    In reply to ASAD ZAMAN whom i respect as a scholar it seems to me that he expresses the ideals of the muslim faith without acknowledging that in many faiths including the muslim faith. Their are many ideals that contribute to good friendly cooperative friendly society that treats all people equally. Therefore i think what destroys belief in a particular belief of religion or political ideology is when power becomes isolated from its members.to me this raises the importance as Asad writes of a clear unbiased understanding of history and open friendly conversation between those of different backgrounds Here on the subject of economics it seems to me the reason main stream economics is locked into the neoliberal ideology, is that it is driven by the wealthy elite who have no respect for the common man and will not engage in any conversation in case it puts their wealth an power in jeopardy Thus the question remains how do we bring all parties together in meaningful unbiased conversation..O

    • Agreed. In this post, I am not considering the LARGER issue of how to bring the parties together, and how to counteract power. I am considering the much simpler PERSONAL issue of how we liberate ourselves from dominant narratives, and gain freedom to think for ourselves. This requires an ability to SEE the narrative, as distinct from the facts of history around which the narrative has been woven. One of the most effective tools is a counter-narrative, a coherent alternative perspective. The Islamic view is offered here NOT as alternative for you to believe in, but just to see that there are many ways to spin stories around historical facts, and so we can detach ourselves from all narratives, for personal liberation.

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