Why it’s time to acknowledge the complexity of the past

“Goodbye, goodbye, goodbye”: these are the mournful words of the sixth Mughal emperor of India to one of his sons, in a letter in which he expressed sadness and regret for his failures and the sins with which he had burdened himself. Aurangzeb, it seems, wanted to be forgotten; he specified that he wished to be buried in an unmarked grave within the tomb of a Sufi mystic. The world, however, is not yet willing to forget him. For Hindus and Sikhs, he was the manifestation of Muslim tyranny, destroying temples, supposedly banning music, and oppressing non-Muslims. In 2015, a thoroughfare in Delhi named after him was, after considerable debate, renamed, in an act to rid India of this perceived tarnish. Indeed, to be called “the prodigy of Aurangzeb” has become tantamount to some of the crudest conventional insults.

Yet, for all the anger, resentment and division, debates around Aurangzeb lacked historical context. For, while Aurangzeb did destroy a few dozen temples, he issued orders to protect many more temples for a variety of faiths. He did not, in reality, ban music, but rather chose at times not to listen to it himself to test his self-restraint and publicly prove his piety. Aurangzeb also appointed many Hindus to top positions in government, and ordered Muslims to stop harassing non-Muslims. Many Indians who attack him today for his destruction of non-Muslim places of worship forget that in war, to destroy or damage the places of worship of one’s opponents was common practice among Muslim, Hindu and Sikh rulers. His reign, then, was far more complex than either side of the debate suggested. Aurangzeb fits easily into the picture of early modern ideas about violence, state authority and the treatment of minorities. As a man of his time, he cannot be singled out as an intrinsically “bad” person, or a “good” one.

If we judge history by the standards of the day… there is little hope for any historical figures and institutions.

This is precisely the point, and reality, of history. It is a nuanced and complex subject, and the conclusions that emerge from it rarely, if ever, serve to pass a judgement upon a figure, group or polity that evaluates whether they were, on balance, “good” or not. Most historians will have read E. H. Carr’s “What is History?”, which shows how humans are subjective beings, shaped by our experiences and interactions, and thus incapable of judging the past in an objective way. This is one of the most basic points of historiography, and yet it seems to have been forgotten by so many.

If we judge history by the standards of the day, and seek to blot out those elements which sit uncomfortably with us today, there is little hope for any historical figures and institutions. Elizabeth I, the Virgin Queen, who oversaw the defence of the nation against the forces of the Spanish highlights this problem. How would one reconcile the desire to see her as a model female leader, who had the courage to lead at a time when men dominated public and private life, with the ruler who heartlessly abandoned those sailors who fought so valiantly against the Spanish once the invasive force was repelled? Since the matter is subjective, historians have instead sought to understand her rule in its own context, as a product of its time. All history is open to interpretation, and is itself complex and often ambiguous.

These are precisely the terms Nigel Biggar has framed his consideration of the morality of empire around. He approaches the topic from the perspective of moral theology, and seeks to develop, in this case, a Christian ethic of empire. He is correct to try and challenge the orthodoxy of empire, which asserts that it was a “bad” thing. He is also right to observe that historians are rife with “moral assumptions and judgements”, and that these can too often be “unaccountable”. This is not, as Carr showed, something that can be drilled out of the historian, but something they must learn to compensate for in their work. Every historian, as Carr says, has a bee in their bonnet. Just as few historians seek to be moral arbiters of their period and the actors within that time, they should not seek to fulfil this role in such a debate.

Biggar is not committing some kind of heresy by making the case for a more nuanced understanding of empire

Empires are complex polities that cannot simply be defined by their oppression of those over whom they rule. In the early modern Ottoman Empire, Jews and Christians were, for the most part, able to worship freely. However, they also had to accept their status as second class citizens; they were tolerated, but not accepted into the ruling community. Moreover, they had to engage in acts of deference towards Muslims, and they were banned from constructing new places of worship, wearing particular kinds of clothes and even building houses taller than those owned by Muslims. The treatment of minorities was more benevolent than in Europe, but it was hardly the kind of multicultural society some have envisaged.

Biggar is not committing some kind of heresy by making the case for a more nuanced understanding of empire, and yet his opponents portray his writings as precisely that. His proposal is, they assert, intolerant, racist and, significantly, wrong. The topic of empire, it seems, is no longer up for discussion, unless one seeks to condemn it as the manifestation of oppression and racism. This, surely, is not right. Such an absolutist opinion must be challenged more robustly. Empires have been, until recently, a constant throughout history. If we only engage in acts of self-flagellation over imperial history, particularly Britain’s, we have little hope of bettering our understanding of these various institutions, which is, after all, what the historian ought to strive for.

Neither can historians expect to enjoy a monopoly on the past; it is of interest to other disciplines, from moral theology and ethics, to economics and sociology, and we ought to embrace interdisciplinary studies, and celebrate the different ways in which people conceptualise and evaluate the past.

For the historian, it is clear that debate should not be framed around pride or guilt. We can analyse and debate morally ambiguous or even indefensible acts, such as the torture and execution of men and women who were accused of witchcraft, without becoming bogged down in moral outrage and condemnation. This does not affect our understanding of the phenomenon. Scholarship has benefited from trying to understand why people across the confessional divide in Reformation Europe believed certain people were witches and thus deserving of death. Our moral judgement on the matter is neither here nor there.

For the historian, it is clear that debate should not be framed around pride or guilt.

Professor Biggar, however, is not a historian; his modus operandi and the conclusions he seeks to reach differ from those of the historian. His research project is of particular interest given the intensity of public scrutiny over Britain’s imperial past. As an academic concerned with morality and ethics, he is well placed to understand the complexity of these issues, and how they might bear relation on contemporary society, in ways that historians cannot be. He should be allowed to complete the project, and present his findings as any other scholar would hope to. To disagree with him is not to limit his right to freedom of expression and speech, but to suggest he should not be allowed to continue with his research lest he not present an exclusively negative view of empire is an outrage in itself, and an opinion that must be challenged.