Connecting Faith and Life

Sheik Ali: History – Its Theory and Method

History is one of the oldest and fascinating disciplines in the field of academics. And yet, it is often underestimated by scholars of other disciplines for varying reasons. History is often seen as boring, merely descriptive, and far from producing truth. Sometimes, it is even assumed that history could be written by anyone, and the discipline needs no specialist. B. Sheik Ali’s, History: Its Theory and Method, is a masterly work which portrays the grandeur, purity and dynamics of the discipline.Ali divides the book into three broad parts and deals the following aspects of history: Theory, Methodology, Historiography.

The first part is a sweeping analysis of the various definitions and theories related to history. The author first cites many historians and their views of history, and then analyses each of them with precision, showing the readers the different shades of understanding. Similarly, the section dealing with the ‘philosophy of history,’ shows forth the author’s expertise. Ali is able to explain in simple terms the journey of the discipline through the ages and the subsequent ideas which evolved and shaped the theory of history at various periods. In this respect, it is interesting to note that social, cultural and religious aspects played a very important role in moulding the nature of history in various periods.

The pattern of history has changed drastically from being merely descriptive to highly analytical. Ali covers this evolutionary story with the flair of a seasoned historian. Moreover, the author’s balanced approach to the controversy, ‘History: Science or Art,’ is worth mentioning here. His critical thinking is in full flow at this point. He clearly shows that history involves both scientific and literary skills. I totally agree with Ali in this regard – scientific approach would help history to become accurate and authentic, whereas artistic sense would make historical work interesting and readable.

The second part of the book is the most useful section as far as students of history are concerned. It gives a clear and systematic guidance for writing a historical work like a dissertation or thesis. In other words, the author prescribes a framework for historical researches. As every discipline has its own research methodologies, history also possesses its unique quota. The methodologies used in history are well described by Ali in the book. The three levels of historical research – addition of new data, new interpretation of known data, subordination of the data to a principle, as explained in the book would help history students to be more focussed in their research goal. Similarly, Ali touches upon a wide range of skills which are needed for a historian. He does not gloss over any aspect. The minute details which are usually overlooked are presented as important. For instance, he writes about the importance of making notes and grouping the data, and provides some useful and practical methods of doing that while involved in research.

Above all, in this second part, Ali makes his readers well aware of the pitfalls in historical research. He shows how easily people can fall into the temptation of subjectivity and ignorance. However, Ali is not an idealist but a realist. He observes that 100 percent historical objectivity is not possible. We all have our own biases. Therefore, Ali states that our attempt should be to attain objectivity as far as possible. Moreover, I was particularly impressed by the author’s recurrent emphasis on the necessity of establishing the authenticity of the documents through external criticism. This point is well stated. Usually, the tendency of a researcher is to simply look for documents and then take them to be true prima facie. Ali’s words caution us not to do so. I think in practicality though it might not be easy for a beginner to involve in external criticism, Ali’s words still sound valid – nothing should be taken for granted, everything should be tested and proven. An overall emphasis that comes out of the second part is this – historical research should be undertaken with utmost care so as to provide originality, accuracy and readability. This requires hard work, commitment and professional integrity.

The third part of the book, ‘Historiography’, is the lengthiest section of the book. Ali describes historiography in two ways. First, in simple terms, he calls it as the history of history. Second, historiography, as a branch within history, denotes to the study and assessment of historians and their approach. Ali fails to develop this further conceptually. Rather, he presents a survey of the history of history from the beginning (ancient Greek period) to the twentieth century. Though the survey helps us to to get a fair idea about the nature and diverse writing style of history in various periods by different historians, it would have been better if the author had written more about the historiographical parameters by which a historian could be assessed. Nevertheless, the author has taken a painstaking effort in giving the readers a glimpse of some of the great historians of the past.

The section on Indian historiography gives a bird’s eye view of the development of historical thought in our nation. Ancient Greek mythology is well recognized by historians as a bedrock for Greek history whereas ancient Indian mythology is not. The way Ali distinguishes between Greek and Hindu mythology provides interesting insights. Though his observations are controversial, it throws much light into some of the recent religio-historical debates over Ayodhya and Ramar-Sethu project.

The author deserves much appreciation for his systematic arrangement of the materials in the book. It is a good, if not perfect, model text book. The objectives are clearly stated in the beginning of each chapter, and the author stays put within the topic. Each chapter also has a summary towards the end. This help the readers to retain much of what is read. The language is simple and straight-forward. The author provides good illustrations all over the book to make his points clear. Overall, I think the success of the book owes much to the author’s impeccable ability to simplify concepts and articulate them in a simple form.

Nevertheless, I found a few short-comings as well. First, Ali becomes a bit inconsistent in making statements in some places. For instance, in page 184, Ali notes that Herodotus was fairly accurate in his information. In page 185, he observes that Herodotus sacrificed truth many a time for want of powerful style. This sort of statements leads to confusion. Second, Ali’s prejudice against Christianity is evident in many places. While analyzing Christian Historiography, he out-rightly suggests that Christian historians contributed mostly in a negative manner. Moreover, the historicity of the gospels are put under question by him. The authenticity of the gospels cannot be easily refuted as Ali presumes and claims in the book. I think the author shows his own ignorance here as there are more than five thousand NT manuscript copies available (the earliest one falling between 125 – 150 A.D) to support the reliability of the gospel documents. Third, the book needs revision at least in a few areas. For instance, the coming of the internet era has opened up a world of new possibilities in identifying and collecting historical data. This sort of new information techniques have to be updated in the book. Similarly, the book needs a good bibliography to help students further in their study.

Madras: Macmillan, 1996. Pp. 1-383.

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