Selective Memory and the Myth of Arab Heritage

Selective Memory and the Myth of Arab Heritage

Efforts are rereading Arab heritage in view of modern theories are few and far between. Too many factors stand in the way of this, not least of which is the extent of the dismantling that such a task would wreak upon this heritage, and the inevitable rage that would be invoked against any researchers in this regard.

Thereby, the majority of the reevaluations that occur in relation to Arab heritage are concerned with searching for that which is concealed, hidden, or excised from the memory of traditional Arab heritage. The work of researchers is restricted to questioning historical narratives and providing alternative views, in accordance with the historical, critical, and interpretative approaches canonized by Western researchers during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

This brings us to the totality of Arab minds that were targeted and eliminated by the bullets of extremism and the daggers of power. Tampering with history leaves contemporary power structures vulnerable to collapse, where those at the top of those power structures hold no more powerful a weapon than the sanctity of 1,400 years of history.

Yet, modern science today seems to have taken a sledgehammer to all knowledge transmitted through oral and narrative tradition and myth. The critical scientific mind has developed the tools to counteract the dominance of the otherworldly. Any scientific research into such otherworldly projections is capable of uprooting it with almost mathematical precision, as though it were a simple equation.

Have we Fallen for an Illusion?

Such revisions can materialize by following one of the most recent contemporary studies on memory and the human mind. Memory represents a crucial axis in the transmission of Arab heritage, and our faith in everything contained therein, as it served as the main source of knowledge, through which the entirety of pre-Islamic Arab history. Further, Islam emerged before the advent of recording and writing in the second century of the Hijri calendar.

A series of studies recently revealed a new phenomenon, prompting the reevaluation of the idea of a “flashbulb memory”, i.e. a memory that can recall in perfect detail significant events that a person has experienced, including the person’s feelings in the moment, the people who were present, their reactions, the color of their clothes, etc.

The study was conducted following the September 11, 2001 attacks in New York, wherein scientists chose to conduct tests on 3,000 people who were in the vicinity of the attack on the twin towers. The test subjects were surveyed about the details of the accident and the timing at which they experienced it, in addition to other vital questions. A year later, the same sample group was tested again, with the same questions, and the two sets of answers were compared. They were surprised to find significant discrepancies, with up to 40% differences from their previous answers. This pushed the researchers to continue the study, and measure the difference in recollections after three years.


Share TweetStudies have shown that 50% of a memory is altered over time. How, then, can we trust the collective memory of Arab heritage?

Share TweetWhen so much of Arab heritage is based on oral transmission, where does the truth lie?

The same sample group was tested three years later, and they found a 50% discrepancy compared to the first set of answers. This marked one of the most critical achievements in understanding how memory works, ascertaining that flashbulb memory does not actually allow us to retain the important events of our lives. This in turn raises the question: what of our day-to-day memory retention that we use to recall regular events?

Repeat a Lie Long Enough...

Different studies conducted at Duke University revealed that the more time that passes since an important event, the surer a person is of their ability to recall the event, despite the fact that about half of the memory is altered over time.

These scientific findings raise major questions that should be addressed in relation to Arab heritage. What is to say that the memory of the narrators of Arab heritage and history have not themselves altered 50% of the truths they witnessed? And how do we resolve the situation in light of what we know about memory? Do we completely destroy our heritage? Or do we review it, or select that which is viable within it, while eliminating that which is not?

Arab heritage is not inherently a handicap in the modern Arab mind, if its role is restricted to the role of heritage, as a story through which we can trace our history and lineage. Yet, in reality, when one considers that the totality of the systems that shape the landmarks of our lives draw their legitimacy from this heritage, one concludes that it does indeed obstruct the modern Arab mind. The majority of such heritage was never verified, unlike the Quranic texts and the Hadiths, the authenticity of which was ensured.

The importance of these experiments and of applying them on Arab heritage becomes manifest when discussing the patterns of extreme violence that have become increasingly prevalent in recent days. Many of the beheadings, stonings, and bloodshed committed by extremist groups are “inspired” by stories attributed to the Prophet Muhammed. Moreover, a great many of the orally-passed tales of the prophet and the ṣaḥābah are spun out of the minds that wish to consecrate such events. As such, they reflect the transcendence that the storytellers wishes to bestow on the biographies of the ṣaḥābah and the prophets, though they do not necessarily require such tales to cement their historical significance.

Do We Believe in the ‘Scripture of Daniel’?

Many are the stories that make up our Arab heritage; in the maghāzī (stories of military conquests) of Arab Muslim hagiographer and historian Ibn Ishaq, the story of the discovery of Prophet Daniel’s grave is recounted, along with the scripture found next to him. Ibn Ishaq narrates that the scripture was translated into Arabic, and that the narrator who relayed the events to Ibn Ishaq bore witness to this. He said:

When we conquered Tastar, we found a bed with a dead man in the treasury of al-Hormuzan, and near his head was a scripture. We took the scripture to Omar Ibn al-Khattan, who called upon Ka’ba, who wrote it out in Arabic. I was the first among the Arabs to read it, and I read it as I would read this Quran.

I said to Abi al-Aaliyah: What was in it?

So he said: Your biographies and affairs, the melodies of your words, and what will occur afterwards.

I said: What did you do with the man?

He said: “We dug thirteen separate graves in the rivers, and at nightfall we buried him, and settled all the graves, to conceal him from the people so that they will not exhume him.

I said: What do they want of him?

He said: If the sky dried up on them, they would raise his bed, and it would rain.

I said: Who did you think he was?

He said: A man who was called Daniel.

I said: How long ago did you find him dead?

He said: Three hundred years ago.

I said: He had not changed?

He said: No, except for a few hairs at the back of his neck, for the bodies of prophets are not decayed by the earth, and predators cannot consume them.

Mohamed Abu Arab

Mohamed Abu Arab is a journalist at Al Khaleej newspaper in the UAE. He writes about poetry, thought, and the future of Arab culture, among other topics. He previously worked for Arabs Today and Al-Liwaa in Jordan, as well as a number of online news agencies.


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