Lessons from the Past

 It’s quite common in the twenty-first century to look back at the stories (or history) of previous nations and wonder “What do those people have to do with me?” While it’s true the world we live in is a very different place in terms of advancements in technology, science, medicine, etc., prematurely dismissing our past may lead us to endanger our future. As George Santayana famously said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Let us take a few moments of our time and reflect on not only the histories of those who came before us, but also on the divine wisdom in preserving some of their stories in the last revelation to humanity; The Quran.



God tells us, after concluding the story of Yusuf (Joseph, the son of Jacob, may God’s peace be upon them both) in chapter twelve of the Quran, “In their stories there is a lesson for those of understanding. This [Quran] is no invented tale, but rather a confirmation of the previous [scripture] and a detailed explanation of all things, as well as guidance and mercy to those who believe” (12:111). From this, we can understand that God has revealed some of the stories of previous peoples for a specific reason; so that by learning about, reflecting upon, and understanding their stories we might take lessons which will help us in our own lives. Thus, learning about them is not idle talk or a waste of time.

God told the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him), “(Muhammad), tell them the story of the person whom We inspired with Our guidance, but who detached himself from it and who was then pursued by Satan until he turned into a rebel. Had We wanted, We could have raised him to an exalted position but he clung to his earthly life and followed his own (evil) desires. His example is like that of a dog who always has its tongue hanging out, whether you chase it away or leave it alone . Such are the people who have called Our revelations mere lies. (Muhammad), tell them such stories so that perhaps they might ponder” (Quran 7:175-176).



Heave The Lead!

The experiences of the people of the past can teach us a lot about life, about ourselves, and about God’s plan for His servants and the wisdoms behind it. From the first “story” of our father Adam (peace be upon him) we find the “story” of humanity. It is the story of God’s servant who forgets his Lord and falls into error. This is the human condition in a nutshell. But more importantly his story teaches us the other part of the human experience, which is repentance. How do we correct our errors? How can God forgive us after we abandoned His message, and after we have followed our own desires instead of what God wants from us?

It has been said, and rightly so, that “A smart man learns from his mistakes, but a wise man learns from the mistakes of others.” Yes, Adam (peace be upon him) made a mistake and fell. This is enough of a lesson for us to reflect on; that our sins have severe consequences. If we’re wise, this should be enough for us to avoid falling into the same mistake. God tells us in the Quran, “O Children of Adam! Do not let Satan seduce you, as he drove your parents out of the Garden, stripping them of their garments, to show them their nakedness. He sees you, him and his clan, from where you cannot see them. We have made the devils friends of those who do not believe.” (7:27)



Thus, God is telling us that what happened to them can most assuredly happen to us if we’re not on guard. He is also warning us that our fall might be final as well. Although Adam was blessed to be able to repent to God and have his repentance accepted, we are not guaranteed the same fate. While we believe in God’s ultimate mercy toward the believers, we know that it is possible that He will hold us to account for our sins. This punishment could be given in this world or in the next life, which only God knows the severity of. He says, “Inform My servants that I am the Forgiver, the Merciful, but that My punishment is a painful punishment” (15:49-50). Because of this truth, the believer must strive to live their lives free from sins, and to hold themselves accountable for their mistakes when they occur; seeking God’s forgiveness and guidance in all their affairs.

But we find another lesson in the story of Adam (peace be upon him), and others such as Jonah (peace be upon him) which is just as important; the lesson of how to return to God. If our sins are a form of failure, then repentance is our path to success. Just as we learn a lesson from the mistakes of others, we must look at the successes of those who came before us and follow their example. How did Adam succeed? How did Jonah succeed? They completely accepted their own faults and sought help from the only one who could help them, God Almighty. God tells us about Jonah saying, “And (remember) Jonah, when he stormed out in fury, thinking We had no power over him. But then He cried out in the darkness, ‘There is no god but You! Glory to You! I was most assuredly one of the wrongdoers!’” (21:87).



Secrets of the last adventure of the Endurance Ship and its captain, Ernest Shackleton


Another important reason to study the stories of those who came before us is to strengthen our hearts. God tells the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) in the Quran, “Everything We narrate to you of the history of the Messengers is to strengthen your heart therewith. The truth has come to you in this, and a lesson, and a reminder for the believers” (11:120). When the believers understand the history of the struggle between humanity and their enemy , they are strengthened in knowing that what they’re experiencing is not unique to them. Some people mistakenly assume that because Islam is the truth, God will always give the believers success in every single event in their lives. This false assumption is due to a lack of understanding about the nature of this struggle, as well as about how God’s laws of cause and effect work. When we see that those who came before us suffered for their faith, were patient, and due to their patience, were successful we can understand that our challenges are of a similar nature, it is incumbent upon us to bear similar burdens with faith, and patience until God wills. God tells us, “And [know that] if God should touch you with misfortune, there is none who could remove it save Him; and if He intends good for you, there is none who could turn away His bounty: He causes it to descend upon whomsoever He wills of His servants. And He alone is truly forgiving, truly a dispenser of grace. Say [O Prophet], ‘O mankind! The truth from your Sustainer has now come unto you. Whoever, therefore, chooses to follow the right path, follows it solely for his own good; and whoever chooses to go astray, goes astray to his own detriment. And I am not responsible for your conduct.’ And [as for yourself, O Muhammad,] follow but what is being revealed unto you, and be patient in adversity, until God shall give His judgment: for He is the best of all judges” (10:107-109).

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