Lessons from Al-Biruni: “The Character of the Reporters”
In writing Saviors and Survivors Mahmood Mamdani has painstakingly removed the activist smokescreen that has clouded and confused the tragedy of Darfur. His book is a work of serious and authentic scholarship but more than that it reflects an act of moral courage to confront the half truths that have bedeviled the discourse on Darfur and more broadly on Sudan, and possibly prolonged the suffering and sorrow of all Darfurians, African and Arab alike.
Reading Saviors and Survivors, I was reminded of another illustrious Muslim scribe, Al-Biruni, who authored Kitabu’l Hind, a book about India and Hindus, in 1030 AD. More than a thousand years ago, Al Biruni wrote:
“The tradition regarding an event, whether true or false, depends upon the character of the reporters, who are influenced by the divergence of interests and all kinds of animosities and antipathies among nations. We must distinguish different classes of reporters.”
“One tells a lie, intending to further an interest of his own, either by lauding his family or nation, because he is one of them or by attacking the family or nation on the opposite side, thinking that thereby he can gain his ends. In both cases, he acts from motives of objectionable cupidity and animosity.”
“Another tells a lie regarding a class of people whom he likes, as being under obligation to them, or whom he hates because something disagreeable has happened between them. Such a reporter is akin to the first one, as he too acts from motives of personal predilection and enmity.”
“Yet, another tells a lie because he is of such a base nature as to aim thereby at some profit or because he is such a coward as to be afraid of telling the truth.”
“Lastly, a man may tell a lie from ignorance, blindly following others who told him. If, now, reporters of this kind become so numerous as to represent a certain body of tradition, or if in the course of time, they come to form a series of communities or nations, both the first reporter and his followers form the connecting links between the hearer and the inventor of the lie, and if the connecting links are eliminated, there remains the originator of the story, one of the various kinds of liars, as the only person whom one must confront.”
“That man only is praise worthy who shrinks from a lie and always adheres to the truth, enjoying credit even among liars, not to mention others.”(1)
If one were to substitute ‘lies’ by ‘half or partial truths’ in the foregoing excerpt, it would appear that one can identify all the various classes of reporters identified by Al-Biruni in the way the Darfur conflict has been reported over time.
The byline on the number of dead and displaced in Darfur used by every correspondent worldwide in nearly every story on Darfur is a telling example of the formation of the connecting links between the readers and the writer of a story based on partial information, until the story passes for truth. It would appear that not much has changed over a millennium in the way events are reported.
Despite some omissions and a few slips in his Darfur narrative, in writing Saviors and Survivors, Mahmood Mamdani has emulated Al-Biruni’s praiseworthy reporter, who shrinks from a lie and adheres to the truth, enjoying credit even among liars, not to mention others.
(1) Al-Biruni, India. Edited by Qeyamuddin Ahmad. National Book Trust of India, New Delhi, 1983.
Asif Faiz served as the World Bank’s Country Manager in Khartoum in Sudan from 2005-2008.