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Together We Are: Studying the past to dream our future

[Together We Are]

In this piece for the Together We Are blog, Adnan Husain, a professor in the Department of History, talks about using education to combat stereotypes, and he explains how universities provide us with the opportunity of learning from the past to build a better future.

As a historian, my reflex is to look to the past to analyze contemporary conditions and understand recent experiences. When I first began to study medieval European and Middle Eastern/Islamic History as a university student, I did not imagine that my preoccupations with how religious identities were formed through the interrelationships between Muslims, Christians and Jews in the pre-modern world would seem so relevant to so many others. My interests at the time developed from a more personal perspective as a Muslim from a religiously observant family raised in North America. I was seeking historical grounding for what seemed an eccentric problem – being what one scholar would later term a “Western Muslim.” My exploration of inter-religious interaction was meant to satisfy an internal dialogue about identity and its diverse sources and to discover ways to integrate and reconcile disparate influences of my heritage and formation.

[Adnan Husain]
Professor Adnan Husain, Department of History

It soon became clear that much more could be at stake than my own individual curiosity and exploration, even in such a remote and apparently distant past that initially seemed an antiquarian escape from modern relevance. But I discovered that so little of the surprising intellectual, humanistic and scientific achievements of pre-modern Islamic societies were generally appreciated or their profound contributions to Europe even commonly acknowledged. A diverse, complex and interconnected world of commercial, cultural, and intellectual interchange among Christians, Muslims and Jews had flourished around the Mediterranean and even sustained multi-ethnic and multi-religious societies for centuries. These untold stories and forgotten histories of the Medieval Mediterranean world hardly figured in Eurocentric narratives about our past and seemed crucial to me if we were ever to imagine a collective and cosmopolitan future.

Yet, medieval history continued popularly to be represented as entirely divided by narrow religious bigotry, crusading conflict and cultural isolation. And this vision of the past seemed increasingly attractive to extreme ideologues — nationalists and religious fundamentalists alike — emerging at the end of the Cold War. Right at the time I started graduate studies, Samuel Huntington published his infamous article The Clash of Civilizations? which attempted to use this distorted perspective on pre-modern global history to ground a conservative investment in exclusivist identitarian conflicts based on religious and “civilizational” identities.

Since the Gulf War of the early 1990s to our own era of terrorism, interventionist warfare and massive migrations of refugees, studying the historical relationship between “Islam and the West,” as it is typically and crudely formulated, has possessed undeniable relevance and importance. However, approaching the relationships from a skewed set of assumptions like Huntington did leads dangerously towards re-enacting the bigotries of the past in the present and regarding them as natural.

At our campus, our challenge is even more immediate than this. The general absence of curriculum on Muslim societies and diasporas globally affects our intellectual and academic community rather profoundly. In my two history seminars this term — one on the Crusades and another on Muslim, Christian and Jewish in the Medieval Mediterranean world, we examine and discuss together the episodes of conflict or persecution as well as the long periods of coexistence and cooperation that patterned a shared past and allow us to consider and imagine a shared future. Rather more such opportunities are needed in our curriculum and at our campus. Education affords us the chance to critique dangerous misconceptions and to combat the stereotyped fears that fuel Islamophobia and other forms of prejudice. It allows us to reflect on important contemporary issues or share experiences in an environment of genuine inquiry and respectful discourse. These are precious opportunities that universities can provide toward dreaming and, hopefully, building a more equitable future together.