Revisiting history without bias

Using proper methodology, sound and valid arguments, any debate could spark a real interest in history itself.

A FEW years ago, there was an interesting debate on whether historical figures mentioned in a number of historical documents were real or myths.

The debate on Hang Tuah and his brethren, as well as Hang Li Po, was indeed attention-grabbing, and sparked interest in “historical revisionism” – revisiting and reinterpreting historical records, usually (but not necessarily) based on newly found historical evidence, which leads to challenging current and popular interpretations of historical facts.

More often than not, historical revisionism is met with much controversy. Those who are comfortable with the status quo would find new interpretations of historical facts unnerving and troubling.

This is in contrast to the many branches of science where theories and ideas are regularly revised, refined and reinterpreted when new knowledge comes to light.

As an example, Arab-Muslim polymath Ibn al-Haytham revised and corrected the theories of vision propagated by his Greek predecessors such as Euclid, Ptolemy and Aristotle, based on experimentation which was empirical and objective.

Ibn al-Haytham’s theory of vision still stands true to this very day, until and unless someone revises it based on new evidence. The beauty of scientific knowledge is that it can be tested and retested, and subjected to peer reviews. This exhaustive process results in science being regarded as “trusted” knowledge.

But there are also instances when certain quarters exhibit “scientific denialism” – the irrational rejection of empirically verifiable realities. Examples include those who subscribe to the flat Earth theory, those who reject vaccination as a conspiracy, and those who view climate change as a myth.

The challenge with interpreting history is even greater, compared to interpreting scientific data. There are those who deny empirical evidence even with science, so imagine the challenge with historical interpretation. There have been many cases in history where events have been interpreted in a biased manner, even denying that events actually took place.

We have just celebrated the 60th anniversary of Merdeka and in a few days, we will celebrate the 54th anniversary of the formation of our beloved country, Malaysia. Having a sense of history is critically important for today’s Malaysians who are mostly born after 1957.

Without any objective reflection of history, we may not truly understand the struggles of the past. The less appreciation we have for history, the greater the risk of creating a generation of Malaysians who do not appreciate the value of independence.

One important reminder is found in Muqaddimah, by the 14th century Arab-Muslim historiographer Ibn Khaldun. He theorised how long a civilisation would survive, based on observations of the Arabs and Berbers. Ibn Khaldun astutely noted that civilisations generally lasted around 120 years, or three generations.

He wrote that the first generation was a generation of fighters, who endured hardship and fought for freedom for their children and grandchildren. They were strong-willed, had a strong sense of brotherhood, possessed strong patriotism, and were willing to sacrifice themselves for the sake of their country.

The second generation benefited greatly from the sacrifices of the previous generation. However, because of the relative comfort that they experienced, the characteristics possessed by the first generation began to wane with the second generation. None-theless, since there was still direct contact with the first generation, the second generation still exhibited an appreciation of the importance of patriotism.

With the third generation, all the traits possessed by the first generation was almost non-existent. They lived in a comfort zone and no longer appreciated or understood the importance of the sacrifice of their forefathers. It was during the third generation that civilisations began to crumble, according to Ibn Khaldun.

We could indeed see this in our own history. The Empire of Malacca stood for about 111 years (a mere nine years short of Ibn Khaldun’s theory) before it fell to the Portuguese in 1511. We have read how treachery, egotism and materialism crept into the empire that led to the downfall of Melaka.

This shows how important it is for us to learn from history. What is more pertinent is that the history that is learnt is history that is objective.

There is nothing wrong with re-evaluating historical events and players. Historical revisionism can be an enlightening and beneficial academic exercise which can contribute towards enriching knowledge.

However, we must ensure proper methodology is used, and that arguments presented are sound and valid, as there is a very fine line between “historical revisionism” and “historical negationism”. If revisionism is done to present a new narrative that negates or denies people or events, then the exercise would not be objective.

by Dr Shaikh Mohd Saifuddeen Shaikh Mohd Salleh
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