Learning History from Dr Umar (Notes from Qurba’s Witnesses over Mankind Course)

Every Qurba Academy course is beautiful. The small classes, the incredible teachers, the opportunity to ask lots of questions, the familiar faces; everything about Qurba creates a beautiful learning experience that leaves you waiting eagerly for the next course. And in proper Qurba tradition,this past weekend  Dr Umar Faruq Abd-Allah taught a breathtaking one-day seminar on Islamic history. I was only able to come in the afternoon, but what I experienced was beautiful.  We travelled all over the world through different time periods, and heard stories about Islam in places like Switzerland, West Africa, and Spain and Portuga. We also learnt about lthe seapower of Muslims, and indigenous cultures in North America among many other topics. Dr Umar is an amazing teacher, and his memory, ability to explain complex subjects with ease, and patience with our unfamiliarity of the subject matter was inspiring. It was a wake-up call to the richness of Islamic civilization, the importance of reading and learning more about history, and the necessity of having constant learning goals.

Below is a small (!) selection of my notes from that day. I’ve left out the actual stories Dr Umar was telling us because his lessons were amazing, and posting little sections of notes is an injustice to the class. But I am interested in continuing the learning process, and for those who are game, it would be neat to have a reading/learning circle of some of the books and topics that Dr Umar mentioned during the course.

  1. Need to understand cognitive frames. If you want to convince someone, have to convince someone from their point of view. One of the first things we need to do is defuse fear and raise hopes.
  2. Beowulf is pure tawhid. Throw the movie in the garbage. It is an old Saxon English poem that has over thirty names of God in it. It mocks idolatry. It talks about Cain and Abel and  the resurrection. But it is not a Christian or Jewish poem because it comes before those religions. It is the oldest vernacular poem, and it gives us more information about ancient Europeans than anything else we have. But it puzzles us, so we put it on the shelf and respect it, but don’t work with it.
  3. It’s important to study and get involved in everything. Islam was powerful culturally, in civilization, and theologically. Islam spread not by the sword but by convictions.
  4. Book recommendation: Africa and the Discovery of the Americas by Leo Wiener.
  5. You learn about civilizations by investigating language and seeing the traces of other languages in words.
  6. Cortez-He called Yucatan Cairo because he believed he had discovered part of the Islamic empire. He reported Aztec Capital had mosque. “In this great city, there are many mosques, houses and idols…”
  7. Book recommendation: Black Elk Speaks: Being the Life Story of a Holy Man of the Oglala Sioux.
  8. Important to know the history of the aboriginal people. Important to know that Toronto was a Huron city, that the name is from a Huron word. Important to know about the Iroquois people, about Hiawatha, the founder of the Iroquois confederacy.
  9. Important to study Arnold Toynbee’s A Study of History. This work creates new cognitive frames. Not all historians like Toynbee, but his work is critical. Toynbee said that the history of Muslims in Switzerland, in Franxinetum specifically for 150 years from ~850-1000  is one of the most important time periods in the early middle ages..
  10. Important to know history that explains to us the past. To study social history, economic history, all kinds of history.
  11. In Berber culture, there was the idea of postponing fear. So you may be in a lot of danger and stress now, but you can think about that tomorrow. Today,while the bull is here, think and deal with that.
  12. How can you talk about European history without knowing the other side of the coin?  If you want to talk intelligently about the past, about history need to know what Muslims were doing.
  13. Scholar recommendation: Study the work of Fuat Sezgin. He has an excellent response to the book 1421: The Year the Chinese Discovered America. (One article found can be read here)
  14. When we study and learn about the plague, it is often presented as a European disease. But it was not a European disease, it was an urban plague. It was in China, in Spain, all over the world.
  15. When we study events in different parts of the world, we have to also see how they were related to each other.
  16. Islamic history is an extremely rich field and to understand it is essential to a sound understanding of nearly everything. Also a lot of Muslims don’t have a strong self-image and have a strong inferiority complex. They don’t have the cognitive frames to understand history. It’s time for us to wake up. History is essential to identity.
  17. In science, when there is science fiction that is really good, it can be an intellectual game to see where science can go. Historical imagination needs to do the same thing and make connections between what could have happened in the past.  There are incredible stories here. Ibn Battuta went twice as far as Marco Polo, and yet he never left his cultural zone. We need to explore and make movies that are well-researched because we can tell beautiful stories.
  18. Honesty is a sword that never takes a nick. It is an excellent riding horse that never stumbles.
  19. Scholar recommendation: Janet Abu Lughod.
  20. All speech comes out with the ornamentation of the heart that spoke it.
  21. Hallmark of civilization is to define terms. People say Muslims have a problem with modernity. Everyone has a problem with modernity.
  22. When speaking about history, be fair, and not obscurantist, where you’re only telling one part of the story, or overstating your case.
  23. This is a lot of history for one day, but would be good to take specific subjects/areas and examine them in subsequent courses.
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4 thoughts on “Learning History from Dr Umar (Notes from Qurba’s Witnesses over Mankind Course)

  1. Thanks for taking notes, Ziadh fwd’d me your blog. Another author he highly recommended was Nabil Matar, the specific book “Turks, Moors and Englishmen in the Age of Discovery”.
    I looked up pre-columbian trans-oceanic contact and found the chinese and the mandingo journeys to america listed under “fringe theories”. Perfect example of a cognitive frame that would prevent someone from being able to take any other narrative seriously.
    Agreed on the need for subsequent courses – would love to take courses on specific chunks of this. Zaid Shakir’s Fall and Rise of the Ummah series was really good but that’s the only other one I’ve come across. Would like to hear if you know of other in-depth history courses.

    • Salaam! Thanks for commenting. Glad that Ziadh forwarded it along! And thanks for the book reference. I came in the afternoon, so missed the morning wonderfulness. Will post any courses I hear of here!

  2. Salam.

    JazakAllah khair for these wonderful notes.

    I’ve tried searching online for a video/audio of this lesson. Do you know if it’s around?

    • Wa alaykum salaam! Glad the notes were of benefit. As far as I know, there isn’t an video/audio broadcast of these lessons, but if I see something uploaded, I’ll post it here insha’Allah. Thanks for stopping by, and do keep us in your duas!

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