25 Apr 2024

Want to be great? Study history.

Want to be great? Study history.


Faisal Amjad
Faisal Amjad is a serial entrepreneur and founder, with previous start-ups in the EdTech and Smart Home space. He is hugely passionate about knowing yourself, finding your purpose and lifelong learning which he helps people with through his non-profit, KNOW. He writes about purpose, polymathy and fulfilling one's potential.

Want to be great? Study history.

Who would you say is the strongest nation in the world today? (Clue — it’s not in the West)…

If you’re thinking China, you’d be right. They have become a beast of a nation, now that they’ve finally unlocked and unleashed the potential of their population and natural resources. If you study history, what is happening today in terms of the resurgence of the East is merely the world’s natural order correcting itself — the Western domination of the last few hundred years is only a recent phenomenon and has actually been engineered through colonialism and wars but it was not always the case. Throughout history, it was the nations of the East such as China, India and Persia that were the traditional powerhouses, where natural resources and populations were abundant.

Who cares, I hear you cry. Bear with me.

Another thing about China, is that their domination has been strategically planned since the 80’s — all with a focus on becoming the dominant player within 50 years, through relentless economic growth. One way they did this by subsidising factories for their citizens. One of my old suppliers once told me — ‘in my university class, there were only three of us who DIDN’T go on to open our own factory, the government made it so easy for us and it was actively encouraged.’ They knew that you rule the world through primarily economic power — something Ibn Khaldun talks about in his magnum opus study of history, Al Muqadimmah.

On another note entirely…

What do you think the most popular app in China is? TikTok? Good guess. But no. WeChat? As Roy Walker of Catchphrase would say, it’s good but it’s not right.

It’s actually… Xuexi Qiangguo. Don’t be too upset if you didn’t get it — it was a tricky one. 🙂

Who cares, I hear you cry. Bear with me.

Literally, this means ‘Study and Strengthen the Nation’ — and it’s actually a Chinese history and identity app, telling Chinese people about their history, their philosophies, their leader, and their political ideologies etc. So they get to know themselves. It only launched in January last year and by April was outperforming both TikTok and WeChat in terms of downloads. Even as recently as January this year, it was top of the charts.

Coincidence? I’m not so sure.

It’s strategic. They know what they’re doing.

It’s not been without controversy, of course. Some say the growth isn’t organic, they complain it is pushed heavily by the government and that people are heavily incentivised to download and use the app daily, getting reward points and discounts for high and regular usage. Some go as far as saying it’s pure propaganda. But it is what it is.

This is vitally important because of what it represents.

Think back to when you were at school. When it comes to sexy subjects to study at school or university, what do you think of? The STEM subjects, perhaps? Maybe PPE, medicine, engineering or even law? Probably those which directly link to future wealth, power or status.

What certainly doesn’t come to mind is history. We think of grey-haired bespectacled anorak geeky type teachers, with elbow pad blazers and corduroy trousers. A lot of young people are very indifferent (at best) and very much in the ‘who cares’ camp when it comes to talking about this subject — cue yawns and eyes glazing over with boredom. Traditionally, history especially at school for many was often a snooze-fest. And it’s coupled with the retort, well, what can I even do with it, career wise?

Not for me — in fact it was one of my favourite subjects. Even though, obviously at the time, we only studied mostly British or European history, from the Greeks, to the Romans, to the Battle of Hastings, Tudors and Stuarts, Victorian era all the way through to the World Wars and their implications on the world. At A-Level, we studied the Bolsheviks and modern Russian history, for some reason. We studied propaganda and Hitler’s extensive use of it in WW2 (although strangely no mention of how it was used in the West).

But what brought things to life, was when I started learning about Islamic history and getting an understanding of what came before in our own culture. I started to realise its power. It’s no coincidence that often when a country is invaded (such as the US invasion of Iraq in 2003), the first thing they do is destroy the museums and galleries. Cut a people off from their own rich heritage and you can recreate the history you WANT them to believe — ergo you can control them.

As Ibn Khaldun eloquently writes: “Throughout history many nations have suffered a physical defeat but that has never marked the end of a nation. But when a nation becomes victim of a psychological defeat, then that marks the end of a nation”.

This is what was done to the black slaves that were brought over from Africa to America — they completely cut them off from their identity and roots. They were psychologically defeated for hundreds of years.

‘History is a people’s memory, and without a memory, a man is demoted to the lower animals.’ — Malcolm X

This ‘psychological defeat’ has also happened to us — and perhaps explains our current malaise as an Ummah.

The problem if you don’t seek it out and study your own history, is the version you’re most likely to casually come across is a flawed, whitewashed version which has been rewritten or censored from the actual reality.

As Napoleon once said, ‘What is history, but a fable agreed upon?”

“Knowledge is power, and if unchallenged, the powerful will always write the version of history they want you to hear: …. if you write people out of history it’s easier to write them out of Britain’s future’ — Akala

This is one of the reasons at KNOW we focus so much on history, such as in our Second Golden Age media campaign. There is SO much we have just left to the school textbooks and the national curriculum to teach us, most of which we have accepted readily for lack of alternative solutions, but much of this doesn’t quite portray the real picture. One example in particular is the history of science and the extremely deep, rich Muslim legacy of it and the impact to this day. Science is seen as the height of modern day intellect and often used as a stick to beat Islam with by people who are just counting the number of nobel prize awards won in the last century by Muslims and modern day inventions as evidence for the lack of contribution by Muslims to this field, and indeed, the world. It’s no wonder our young people are growing up with a massive inferiority complex and a whitewashed world view. Hence the need to go back to the history books and relook at the real story. It also provides us with lessons, context, aspirations, a framework to follow for success.

Even when you look at the Quran — it is FULL of stories of history and constantly implores the reader to learn from the past, to learn the lessons of those who were good and to avoid the mistakes of those who went astray. It’s very clear. Nothing is the Quran is a coincidence — it is there for a reason. Read it.

Ray Dalio, a hugely successful hedge fund manager and author of the world-renowned book ‘Principles’ owes a lot of his success to studying history — in fact a key part of his methodology is to study the past as everything repeats and patterns and trends can be gleaned from it. It obviously gave him massive success in the financial world and he even designed algorithms to take certain actions with stocks, once it recognised certain trends and patterns in historical financial data happening in real time. Smart, eh?

My father has always been an avid movie fan — particularly two genres — action and kung fu. I’ve noticed something very interesting in his behaviour recently — he doesn’t seem all that interested in films any more. What triggered the change? Believe it or not, since he watched Ertugrul. So much so, he is currently going through the entire series for the second time. He even said words to that effect the other day — when our own history is so awesome and we have heroes that make you feel inspired, why should I watch something that doesn’t relate to me?

So, what does having a strong understanding of history give you? For one, a strong sense of self. An identity. Roots. Stability. Role Models. Heroes. Greatness to aspire to. Stories to relate to. Inspiration. More than anything, confidence and pride in who you are — so that no-one can make you feel inferior or questions your right to exist or to do whatever you aspire to do. It gives you belief and confidence. You have a framework, a reference point. After all if someone with your background or heritage has achieved such and such and overcome huge tribulations, why can’t you? Whilst it might sound silly — here’s a good example.

I remember watching a hip-hop documentary on Netflix not long ago. It was talking about how the rap game started and developed across different regions in America. Obviously the powerhouses were New York and later the West coast — LA etc but there was a whole time where people from the South (Atlanta, Georgia, Houston, Texas etc) were looking enviously at everyone else but not producing any music of their own. That is until, the Geto Boys (who were from that region) dropped an album and got signed.

When they saw one of their own, a Southern group in the charts, mixing it with the big boys — it led to a proliferation of new artists from the South, such as UGK, 2 Live Crew and later OutKast — leading to it becoming known as the third powerhouse of hip-hop after New York and LA.

One of the main reasons for studying history is that patterns and trends often repeat themselves. You can see warning signs ahead of time. You can learn what to do or not to do. As the saying goes — history repeats itself, it has to, no-one listens. Learn about the history of the world, of how money used to work, how governments have used propaganda, and how medicine used to be. At least that way, you have an alternative to refer back to, instead of the madness often enforced upon us.

At the end of the day, what is history, really, but the study of self? As Will Smith said in Will2K (and Maya Angelou, before him!) — ‘you don’t know where you’re going, until you know where you’ve been. Nuff’ said.

As such, for true greatness, it’s important that you study what makes you, you. Learn about where you come from, your heritage, your historical icons. Learn about what came before, and take off the rose-tinted spectacles that ‘modernity is best’.

Ultimately, all of this comes down to that age old wisdom —

‘To know thyself is the beginning of wisdom’ — Aristotle

The Chinese certainly know the importance of knowing themselves, and that self-identity and understanding roots as a key part of what forms a strong society. Maybe the Islamic world needs to sit up and pay attention.

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