One of my early encounters with the erasure of history was a very literal one. In the late 1960s as a student in the English Department at University College London, I observed that throughout the department the word ‘history’ on all notices had been crossed out and replaced with ‘herstory’. Thus, the ‘History of the English Language’, my favourite subject, had been altered to the ‘Herstory’, an act of radical revision very much in tune with the rising feminism of the time, shortly to be given powerful voice in Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch (1970) which became a key text in the feminist movement through its combination of polemic and scholarly research.  Whoever replaced ‘his’ with ‘her’ would doubtless have been pleased that Women’s History Month, a celebration of women’s contributions to history, culture and society, has been observed annually in the United States since 1987, albeit twenty years after the noticeboard revision. The National Women’s History Alliance (NWHA) also promotes an annual Women’s History theme, with 2022 devoted to ‘Providing Healing, Promoting Hope’, a tribute both to the ‘ceaseless work of caregivers and frontline workers during this ongoing pandemic’ and also a recognition of ‘the thousands of ways that women of all cultures have provided both healing and hope throughout history.’ 

The current ‘woke’ insistence on the erasure of what is judged to be beyond the pale in history is often associated with radical ‘cancel culture’ and its very concrete expression in the removal of statues, especially of those with reprehensible historical connections to slavery such as Christopher Columbus and Edward Colston. The word ‘iconoclasm’ springs to mind, and Israeli-American writer, editor and columnist Benjamin Kerstein believes ‘we are watching the era of the new iconoclasm take shape, no longer in the form of the destruction of religious icons, but in the demolition of historical memory via the toppling or desecration of statues and memorials across the West’. I see evidence of religious iconoclasm every time I pass by Wells Cathedral on my daily walk to the Bishop’s Palace Gardens, for the thirteenth century west front was damaged in 1685 during the Protestant rebellion led by the Duke of Monmouth against the Roman Catholic King James II, with many carved stone figures destroyed or left headless. There were originally around 300 figures, including those of Christ, the Apostles and the Nine Orders of Angels in what has been described as one of the greatest collections of medieval sculpture in the world. 

It goes without saying that in the same way as seventeenth century Puritans would not have regarded the destruction of religious figures as ‘vandalism’ or ‘desecration’, but rather as an expression of their rejection of idolatry, the same applies to the iconoclastic actions of the victorious Prophet Muhammad on entering Mecca. In his riveting book, Mecca, in which he traces the history of the sacred city, Ziauddin Sardar relates how, ‘after performing the seven circuits of the Kaaba, he walked towards the hills of Safa and Marwah. The area was covered with 360 deities of those the Meccans worshipped as lesser gods…Using the stick he was carrying, he smashed them all, one by one, reciting the verse: “The Truth has come, and falsehood has passed away; falsehood is bound to pass away”.’  According to one source, on entering the Kaaba, he protected an icon of the Virgin Mary and the infant Jesus with both hands while instructing ‘Uthman that all the other images should be destroyed, including pictures of Abraham painted by a Byzantine artist. It is worth noting, however, that Martin Lings, in his account of the life of the Prophet based on the earliest sources, prefers another source which records that the painting of Abraham was also exempted from destruction.  Lings also notes that yet other sources say that all the paintings were effaced without mention of any exceptions. 

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