Only a few short weeks ago, the view outside of my window was awash in riveting color. A vivid blue sky framed a dazzling foreground of yellow-gold trees; the wispy outlines of the Rocky Mountains loomed in the distance. The airy blueness of the sky, the fiery brightness of the leaves, and the solid, imperturbable presence of the mountains—beauty so striking, I remember thinking that I had seen paintings which looked more realistic.
But today, as I looked outside this very same window, the scene was changed. There was no gold or blue. There were rows of skeletal, brittle teeth where leafy branches once had been. Dull, murky clouds blocked the sun and choked the mountains, enveloping them in a haze of grey.
How many times has this change occurred? Twice a year, every year, from gold to grey and back again. Year after year, for hundreds of years, for thousands of years, the world changed colors. I began to wonder about the kinds of people who had lived on this land before me. They too had witnessed this change throughout their lives, this marvelous transformation of the earth around them. Some of these people had made their mark in this place and countless more had not. They simply vanished into the chasm of history, swallowed by the hungry mouth of the past. They are nameless and faceless to me, and yet they too beheld this glorious tableau of color.
I began to think about these strangers. Like me, the beauty of this scene had probably touched them. This beauty must have flooded them with incomprehensible wonder and awe, if only for a moment. Then the moment would have passed. They would have gone on, like me, to work, eat, sleep, play, laugh, worry and pray. Then, at some point, they would have passed from this life to the next, a journey that is as inevitable for me as it was for them. And the leaves would have fallen all the same, insensible to the breath of any man.
I have always loved history because it allows me to extrapolate my life and set it against the background of ages past – so very different, and yet similar, because they too had seen the sky as flawless as a polished sapphire and trees as incandescent as flames. And they too had lived their lives with the same sense of immediacy that I do. Without the stories of those that came before us, all that we know is ourselves, here and now. All the people, places, and things we know, we know through the lens of our own experiences and our own understandings.
And this is why history is beautiful. It can flood the senses; transport one into a novel frame of thought – a new dimension of perception. It can reveal patterns, cause and effect, consequence and outcome. It can shatter these very same patterns, diverge from the trodden path, meander into horror and violence, impart a sense of shock and disgust. But history bequeaths knowledge and the gift of common sense. History teaches us about death and about life. History tells us about splendor slipping into dullness and insipidity blooming into color.
It sometimes occurs to me how little history is valued in this day and age. Ours is a time of urgency, of the holiness of now. As our society moves at a hyper-kinetic pace, it is difficult to view history without a heightened sense of contrast to the present age. Humanity has never seen progress such as this: nanotechnology, the internet, airplanes, television, automobiles.
One cannot help but think, however, that the pyramid-mounting ancient Egyptians and the astronomically advanced Mayans must have felt much the same way.
I cannot say that history is as exact as science, or that it is interpreted and told the same in all places and by all people. In my age, science is considered the best approach in the quest towards truth. Science and technology has conquered an array of infectious disease and bested the villainy of pests, infestations, germs, extreme heat, and cold. But I hold that an appreciation and respect of history can only benefit us and allow us to think in that additional dimension: above and beyond the immediacy of our present desires and concerns, stretching into the time before and after us.
As a Muslim, history has always been an integral part of my life. When I was very little, I remember my mother telling me a story about a man who lived a long time ago, in a land far away. This was a man who came from a long line of prophets before him, and he was at once like them and very different. He was different from anyone that had come before him and from anyone that would come after him. This man was gentle, kind, loving, strong, wise, patient, spiritual and courageous. My mother told me of an incident during his lifetime where his neighbor would throw garbage at him as he walked through the street, on his way to prayer. Every single day, a volley of garbage came flying down at him as he went on his way. One day, however, no garbage fell upon him. Now this man, Prophet Muhammad ﷺ, worried about the health of his garbage-throwing neighbor and went to see her. He inquired about her well-being and helped her in her time of sickness.
This piece of history struck a chord within me as a child, and it continues to do so. It was a beautiful act, and this was a beautiful man, and his presence leaped boldly across the span of fourteen hundred years to resonate in my thoughts. This makes me feel the same sense of awe I felt seeing the liquid amber of leaves against a cerulean sky.
I think of him, walking on sunlit golden sands under the bright desert sky, leading humanity behind him.