We should embrace the country’s pre-Islamic heritage

The UAE should embrace its pre-Islamic history rather than ignore it, writes Peter Hellyer

A Christian monastery discovered on Sir Bani Yas, whose foundation predated the coming of Islam, is part of the UAE's heritage. Lee Hogland / The National
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In the horrific situation now prevailing in those parts of Iraq and Syria where ISIL has established its presence, the focus of international attention is, naturally, on the impact on the civilian population.

The beheading of opponents (among whom are dozens, if not hundreds, of ordinary Syrians and Iraqis, as well as a few westerners), the slaughter of Muslims who disagree with the intolerant evil of ISIL and its theologically-flawed interpretation of Islam, the deliberate enslavement of women and girls from Iraq’s Yazidi religious minority, the repression of Christian communities – there is sufficient here to cause concern among all those with the merest hint of humanity in their moral values.

It is easy, amid this horror, to overlook another aspect of the views held by ISIL – and that is the way they seek to eradicate the diverse heritage of thousands of years of civilisation. We’ve seen this kind of ignorant, obscurantist approach before, from the Afghan Taliban, who in 2001 blew up the 1,500-year-old statues of Buddha in Bamiyan.

Not only has ISIL blown up old mosques, it has looted important archaeological sites and has, as I noted a few months ago, destroyed ancient pre-Islamic statues out of its hostility to any­thing that counters its own perverted view of the past.

Such an approach is doomed to fail. However many physical manifestations of life before the revelation of Islam are destroyed in Iraq and Syria, it will always remain the case that the culture of those countries cannot simply be restricted to what has occurred since the coming of Islam.

Whatever religious beliefs people may hold, in whatever country, their national identity draws upon and is affected by both the recent and the distant past. Most Italians today may be Roman Catholic and the Greeks may be Orthodox Christians, but their identity is still deeply influenced by the Roman and Greek civilisations that flourished before the birth of Christianity..

Here too, the national identity is built upon the inheritance of the past. I recall how the late Sheikh Zayed warmly welcomed the discovery, by an archaeological team that I directed, of an early Christian monastery on Sir Bani Yas whose foundation predated the coming of Islam. This was also, he noted, part of the UAE’s history and identity.

I was, therefore, shocked some weeks ago to hear that some education officials believe that the teaching of local history should begin with the coming of Islam.

That is an extraordinary approach, not least because of the great richness of the UAE’s pre-Islamic history. Islam is a fundamental part of the UAE’s national identity, but our history didn’t begin with its arrival. The skills and innovations of much earlier ancestors are what made it possible for people to live in this land. The tribal system has roots that stretch back for well over 2,000 years and it is arguable that the traditions of hospitality that are so important in Bedu society are at least of similar antiquity.

The domestication of the camel and the invention of falaj irrigation systems, around 3,000 years ago, allowed people to continue living here despite the increasingly arid climate. The exploitation of natural resources didn’t begin with the oil industry, or even with the mining of sulphur at Jebel Dhanna, about 400 years ago, but with the copper mining industry, which began 5,000 years ago and only faded away 400 to 500 years ago. The origins of the maritime trade on which today so much of the country’s non-oil economy depends can be traced back for over 7,000 years. The pearling industry also began over 7,000 years ago.

To suggest that the UAE of today owes nothing to those who lived here before Islam is inaccurate. It promotes a narrow, ignorant view of national identity that is in direct contrast to the openness and tolerance that is an essential part of the country’s success. Such views are at variance with the reality of our past and our present.

Peter Hellyer is a consultant specialising in the UAE’s history and culture