The following is a summarized transcription of a lecture given by Dr. Ahmad Pakatchi on December 5th, 2020 for Shahid Beheshti University, Tehran.
History has numerous definitions. I prefer to define history as the understanding of the relationship between past events and actions that create a change in humanity, that are worth remembering. Therefore, a mere past event is not the subject of discussion in the study of history, rather it is the relationship of the events and actions that are to be studied.
The Quran repeatedly makes mention of past events in a way that gives us meaning. Although there are also some past events mentioned in the Quran where humans do not even play any role, such as verses speaking about the creation of the earth and skies. These latter events do not cause any change in humanity on their own unless humans build some sort of relationship with them in which case they can be studied in the discipline of history.
In addition, the Quran also alludes to prophets whose stories it does not mention. This implies that not everything that occurred in history is worth mentioning, and the fact that the stories of some prophets are mentioned but not others indicates the priority and significance of the stories of the prophets mentioned, or that other stories were better off recorded and preserved in the ḥadīth corpus. This is one of the main components of Quranic stories, that is, the criterion for mentioning these stories is that they were the ones worth preserving and the ones that have a significant impact on humans.
History in the Quran
The Quran refers to these stories as qaṣaṣ (stories) and does not use the word tarīkh (history) for them, which makes one wonder, where are we supposed to look if we intend on studying historical facts in the Quran? A group of scholars believe that there is no history mentioned in the Quran at all, rather they are all just tales seeking to motivate listeners and readers to a message. Another view says that these stories are in fact history and have been conveyed very precisely. I believe there is an alternative and that is, when we look at the stories of the Quran, we find three elements that can assist us in seeing how these stories are related to history.
First of these elements is the word ḥadīth. The Quran says: [34:19] But they said, “Our Lord! Make the distances of our journeys longer,” wronging themselves. So We reduced them to cautionary tales (aḥādīth), and scattered them utterly. Surely in this are lessons for whoever is steadfast, grateful.
This verse says that We turned the wrongdoers into ḥadīth, meaning, We erased them, We put an end to their wrongdoings, and the only thing that remains of them are their historical tales, i.e. the transmissions of what happened with them. In other words, the Quran is showing how certain nations were destroyed and turned into oral transmissions only to be made into signs for those who are steadfast and grateful.
Perhaps someone can ask, does this not happen to every human? Don’t all humans die, either passing away naturally, or through some natural disaster, accidents, wars etc.? Is there anyone who is safe from death? To clarify our point, the Quran is not trying to say people will die, which is a given, rather there are groups of good people, communities and nations who did good, and their goodness continues onto later generations. On the contrary there are groups of people or communities who did evil, and their evil was not allowed to be continued onto future generations, instead they all ceased to exist. All that exists regarding them are their tales and stories.
Once again, someone may ask, would it not have been better if their memories and tales were also erased? The aforementioned verse itself answers this question when it says that We brought this punishment onto them, turned them into tales, and that these tales are signs for people. You will find this concept in many verses, the idea that you should gain knowledge about the past to find guidance for your life today.
A second element that can assist us in determining the relationship between these stories and history is to note how these stories in the Quran are often called a “remembrance” (dhikr). One example of it is in Surah Kahf [18:83] They will ask thee of Dhu al-Qarnayn. Say: I shall recite unto you a remembrance of him. It is as if a group of people would come to the Prophet (p) to ask him about the history of a figure, and Allah (swt) tells the Prophet (p) that He (swt) will inform him (a) about this person very soon. Regarding the word “dhikr”, there are two concepts to keep into consideration; one is that we are speaking of a matter which is now no longer present, lost in memory; and second, it is something that is repeatedly brought to attention. When it comes to history, we are dealing with humans and events that occurred in the past, regarding which we only have memories, and these memories are repeatedly brought to our attention in order to be revived.
Laws Governing History
The third element concerns the qaṣaṣ themselves. The word qaṣaṣ is used in its noun and verbal form in the Quran, and in every instance, it is used in reference to a series of connected scenes to convey a certain message. The Quran, through its qaṣaṣ, appears to imply that history is governed by certain laws – for example, it says: [13:7] … and for every people there is a guide; meaning we have not sent any nation without a warner and a guide.
In a sense, the Quran speaks about history within a framework of causality. If there is a causal relationship between certain events and actions of people, then these laws are absolute and can admonish us regarding the future by being a lesson for us. For someone who does not believe any laws govern history, studying history has no purpose for them. The events themselves do not have any significance, rather, we must determine the importance and meaning behind the occurred events in order for us to be able to use them as lessons for the future.
The Style of Qaṣaṣ in the Quran
With the aforementioned preliminaries, the question we want to ask is, what style is employed by the Quran when the qaṣaṣ are being revealed in its verses? The third point regarding the laws which govern history was important because these stories show us the path to guidance and paths that lead to destruction. Most of the stories in the Quran actually show us the paths to destruction and are stories of nations who were destroyed. This is for the fact that by studying nations that were destroyed, we can extract laws and principles so that we know how not to act and behave for the sake of our own success.
As per this, we can say, the history mentioned in the Quran is a salvation-themed history. If we were to compare the history mentioned in the Quran versus the history mentioned in the Torah, we could briefly compare the two by saying that the history in the Torah concerns nations and groups of people, whereas the Quran is concerned with ways to attain salvation and to avoid destruction.
When you read the Torah, its main concern is to try and guide the Children of Israel so that they can live in the holy land, whereas the Quran speaks about salvation of all nations and individuals who are righteous, [21:105] …My righteous servants will inherit the earth.
The Quran speaks about Prophet Adam (a), but his story ends when he receives salvation by asking for forgiveness. After that, the Quran does not concern itself with Adam (a), nor speak about his life on earth or his children. When the Quran speaks about Noah (a), the story ends when his ship comes to a rest on Mount Judi and he is saved. The story of Prophet Abraham (a) begins with him breaking the idols and ends with his salvation. Even the lengthy story of Joseph (a) is conveyed in a way where it ends with his salvation as he meets his father Jacob (a). That is where the story ends. What happens afterwards is irrelevant and not mentioned in the Quran.
These examples indicate that the most important element in the stories of the Quran is the dimension of salvation from destruction. The Quran is not concerned with mentioning the details of a specific group of people or a nation. It does not mention the historical details of Makkah or Medina, rather it is concerned about the destruction of different nations and individuals, as well as the salvation of different nations or individuals.