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The history of Islam told as a narrative, not as an apologetic, an indictment, or a treatise.

Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World through Islamic Eyes

Public Affairs, 2009, 416 pages

Until about 1800, the West and the Islamic realm were like two adjacent, parallel universes, each assuming itself to be the center of the world while ignoring the other. As Europeans colonized the globe, the two world histories intersected and the Western narrative drove the other one under. The West hardly noticed, but the Islamic world found the encounter profoundly disrupting.

This book reveals the parallel "other" narrative of world history to help us make sense of today's world conflicts. Ansary traces the history of the Muslim world from pre-Mohammedan days through 9/11, introducing people, events, empires, legends, and religious disputes, both in terms of what happened and how it was understood and interpreted.

Given Islam's current... fraught relationship with the West, any history of the religion and its people is inevitably likely to be seen through a political lens. On one side you have people screaming "Islamophobe!" to shut down discussion, on the other you have people making serious arguments to the effect that OrcsMuslims are incapable of living in civilized society and that every single Muslim in the West is a collaborator with their radical brethren who want to make us all dhimmis.

Destiny Disrupted is not a political book, except inasmuch as it touches this fraught relationship from a historical distance. Tamim Ansary is an Afghan-American who is probably most famous for his response, after 9/11, to all the folks who were calling for Afghanistan to be "bombed back to the Stone Age." ("New bombs would only stir the rubble of earlier bombs.") The wisdom, weariness, and wit evidenced in that brief letter are all apparent in this book, which covers Islam from the birth of the religion to the modern day, ending with the current post-9/11 phase of Western/Islamic relations.

Ansary's thesis is that while today, both Muslims and Westerners speak of "the West" and "Islam" as two opposing global forces that have been at odds throughout history, in fact they have until recently existed in almost completely separate worlds. Even during the height of the Crusades, Muslims mostly regarded Europeans as annoying barbarians chewing at the edges of the Holy Land. So Ansary tells the story of world history from the perspective of the Muslim world, a perspective in which Europeans and Christendom were only minor players until recently.

First of all, there is a lot of history here. If you are a history buff, this is a meaty book by an author who delivers information in the manner of a storyteller.

Which is not to deny that the Muslim stories are allegorical, nor that some were invented, nor that many or even all were modified by tellers along the way to suit agendas of the person or moment. It is only to say that the Muslims have transmitted their foundational narrative in the same spirit as historical accounts, and we know about these people and events in much the same way that we know what happened between Sulla and Marius in ancient Rome. These tales lie somewhere between history and myth, and telling them stripped of human drama falsifies the meaning they have had for Muslims, rendering less intelligible the things Muslims have done over the centuries. This then is how I plan to tell the story, and if you're on board with me, buckle in and let's begin.

The first few chapters cover the Muslim (meaning Arab, at that time) world immediately prior to Mohammad, and then the years of Mohammad's life and how Islam came to be while its founder was alive. Being a historian, Ansary never attempts to address the theological validity of Mohammad's revelations or Islam itself, only what Muslims believed and how that guided the course of history.

Islam schismed almost immediately after Mohammad's death; the story of Mohammad's son-in-law Ali, whom Shia regard as the rightful successor to the prophet, should be familiar to anyone with even a cursory knowledge of Islamic history since it's the basis of the Shia/Sunni split, but Ansary relates the story with both known and speculated observations about all the personalities involved, turning this critical piece of early Muslim history into an extended family and political drama that was essentially an epic soap opera.

And so it goes, through the Ummayads and the Abbasids, the early Caliphates, and the Seljuks (the first of several invaders to shatter a hitherto peaceful Muslim world and then be absorbed into it). The rise of successive Muslim dynasties, each a little more distant than the last from their roots, is a typical story in any religion, but the theme of believers yearning for the purity of a better, more golden bygone age is one that will recur throughout Islam's history.

When the first crusaders came trickling into the Muslim world, the locals had no idea who they were dealing with. Early on, they assumed the interlopers to be Balkan mercenaries working for the emperor in Constantinople. The first Muslim ruler to encounter them was a Seljuk prince, Kiliji Arslan, who ruled eastern Anatolia from the city of Nicaea, about three days' journey from Constantinople. One day in the summer of 1096, Prince Arslan received information that a crowd of odd-looking warriors had entered his territory, odd because they were so poorly outfitted: a few did look like warriors, but the rest seemed like camp followers of some kind. Almost all wore a cross-shaped patch of red cloth sewn to their garments. Arslan had them followed and watched. He learned that these people called themselves Franks; local Turks and Arabs called them al-Ifranj ("the Franj"). The interlopers openly proclaimed that they had come from a distant western land to kill Muslims and conquer Jerusalem, but first they intended to take possession of Nicaea. Arslan plotted out the route they seemed to be taking, laid an ambush, and smashed them like so many ants, killing many, capturing many more, and chasing the rest back into Byzantine lands. It was so easy he gave them no more thought.

He didn't know that this "army" was merely the ragtag vanguard of a movement that would plague Muslims of the Mediterranean coast for another two centuries.

Europe begins to brush against the Muslim world during the Crusades, which was largely a series of misadventures ranging from the comic to the atrocious, but always tragic. However, to Muslims it was not the Crusaders but the Mongols who were the most fearsome invaders in history, and they get a chapter of their own; the Crusaders plagued the Mediterranean coast, but the Mongols smashed the very heart of the Muslim world.

It's well known that Islam had a golden age of science and scholarship, during several centuries in which Arabs were far more advanced than Europeans. Ansary talks about the intellectual and theological movements that roiled the Muslim world during this time, and how they differed from similar movements in the Western world. It's all quite interesting, and also puts in context Islam's decline, the forces that resulted in what ultimately became technological and cultural stagnation as Europe emerged from its Dark Ages.

Upon reaching the modern era, European colonialism, and finally, the 20th century, World War II, Israel, and age of oil, Ansary tries to put everything together so that the reader can see the forces in conflict as a complicated result of all sorts of historical factions and shenanigans, Muslims oppressing each other most of all, yet exacerbated by the at times heavy-handed meddling of Western powers. Nothing is as simple as "They hate our freedom" or "Muslims wants to take over the world," nor is Israel and oil exploitation the sole reason for conflict now. At the same time, Ansary is no apologist:

On the other side, I often hear liberal Muslims in the United States say that "jihad just means 'trying to be a good person,'" suggesting that only anti-Muslim bigots think the term has something to do with violence. But they ignore what jihad has meant to Muslims in the course of history dating back to the lifetime of Prophet Mohammed himself. Anyone who claims that jihad has nothing to do with violence must account for the warfare that the earliest Muslims called "jihad." Anyone who wants to say that early Muslims felt a certain way but we modern Muslims can create whole new definitions for jihad (and other aspects of Islam) must wrestle with the doctrine Muslims have fleshed out over time: that the Qur'an, Mohammed's prophetic career, and lives, deeds, and words of his companions in the first Muslim community were the will of God revealed on Earth and no mortal human can improve on the laws and customs of that time and place.

How did Iran come to hate us? What are the true origins of Wahhabism? How did the Muslim Brotherhood go from what was essentially a Muslim YMCA to the scary product of democracy in Egypt? And why is Israel the eternal sticking point in every peace process in the Middle East? Ansary addresses all these questions historically, with little evident bias one way or the other, but Destiny Disrupted is not primarily about conflict with the West — the West only figures into the last few chapters. It's a broad, comprehensive overview of fourteen hundred years of history that didn't matter to most Westerners until now.

Verdict: Destiny Disrupted is a very well-written history that will be enlightening to anyone interested in that part of the world, and full of insight into the Muslim way of thinking, without trying to tilt the reader one way or the other with respect to current political conflicts. Tamim Ansary pulls off what few historical writers do, especially on such a dense and relatively obscure subject condensed into a book of readable length. I found it utterly interesting and enjoyable, educational, and the author's voice was a noticeable enhancement to the narrative without ever slipping into didacticism or soapboxing. So, in case it's not clear, I really liked this book and recommend it highly.

My complete list of book reviews.


( 12 comments — Leave a comment )
Graeme Sutton
May. 11th, 2014 07:39 pm (UTC)
You may want to check out "The Crusades Through Arab Eyes" by Amin Maalouf, though it's entirely possible that this book's account of the crusades was heavily sourced from that. Basically my point is that describing the crusades as "plaguing the Mediterranean coast" is like saying that the American Civil War was a short-lived revolt in America's less-developed agricultural regions or that 9/11 was an airline accident that destroyed some skyscrapers and damaged a government building. The crusaders occupied the Arab world's most commercially important cities for over a hundred years, as well as one of their most important holy sites. If you want a clear analogy consider that Israel has existed for less than half as long as the Kingdom of Jerusalem and controls less than half as much territory. The cultural, political, and emotional impact of the crusades is far greater than this author seems to be admitting based on this review.
May. 11th, 2014 09:18 pm (UTC)
It's not that he claims the crusades had no widespread or long term effect, but that at the time, few Muslims saw them as a major incursion with the kind of impact as the Seljuk or Mongol invasions. The crusades didn't reach Baghdad or Mecca or Persia or other major Islamic headlands. It's like comparing 9/11 to World War II. Emotionally and politically and psychologically, 9/11 was a very big deal, but its material impact on the US was not comparable.
Graeme Sutton
May. 14th, 2014 06:40 am (UTC)
In terms of population, economic importance and military strength, the major islamic headlands at the start of the crusades were andalusia, Egypt and Syria/Iraq. Persia probably wasn't even majority islamic yet, had no centralized political authority after the Seljuks fell apart with Nizam Al-Mulk's death and was too poor to be truly considered a headland. Of those three headlands, Andalusia was completely destroyed, Egypt was invaded and it's most important cities were besieged or sacked multiple times. Syria lost it's access to the sea for a period of almost a hundred years as well as having almost all of it's most valuable cities taken and colonized by crusaders. The crusades may not have been as destructive as the Mongol invasions, but they fundamentally altered the political structures of the arab world. Also, none of the other invasions you mentioned actually resulted in islam being eradicated from a significant territory, the crusades did.
May. 13th, 2014 06:44 am (UTC)
I am a little puzzled by the title "Destiny Interrupted." What destiny did he think Islamic culture would achieve?
Graeme Sutton
May. 13th, 2014 08:38 am (UTC)
It's the Islamic culture's perception of it's own destiny, almost all sufficiently powerful cultures develop one, and it takes more than a century or two of defeat and decline to eradicate it.
May. 14th, 2014 02:45 am (UTC)
Ah, yes, it is hard to give up the dream, historically or personally.
May. 16th, 2014 04:14 am (UTC)
It's not hard to imagine a world where the Middle East, and not the West, became the dominant world power. That it didn't is probably not due to anything inherent in the culture or religion, but because of contingent historical circumstance.
May. 16th, 2014 06:24 am (UTC)
I think it had something to do with the Mongolians running rampant over most of Asia, and then divisions among Europeans leading to competition leading to advances in technology and warfare. Which is a long way of agreeing with you, in my mind.
May. 16th, 2014 11:47 am (UTC)
It's hard, if not impossible, to say with any degree of certainty what the reasons were. The Black Plague certainly obliterated much of Europe, and it's not like there weren't divisions among the Muslims (I think there were three competing Caliphs at one point), Chinese (warring states period), etc. Personally, I think a more fruitful approach might be investigating why European-style cities arose, as well as why ideological revolutions such as the Protestant Reformation or the Investiture Controversy took place--but that's just a personal opinion at this point.
Graeme Sutton
May. 16th, 2014 08:09 am (UTC)
In "The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers" it's explained by the geography of the continent of europe- it's so divided and criss-crossed by natural barriers such as rivers, mountain chains and inland seas that it is nigh impossible for a single power to dominate the continent for long. This means that, rather than a handful of empires that expand like ideal gasses between far flung natural barriers that existed in the great plains and deserts of asia and the Americas, Europe has always had numerous smaller states in constant military and economic competition with each other, forcing these states to devise new technology and organizational methods to compete with one another. There are also some more mundane geographical factors that give europe an advantage- the temperate and wet climate of northern europe is ideal for an organized agricultural society, the long coastline and abundance of good harbours and navigable rivers- Europe has 50% more coastline than Africa etc.
May. 16th, 2014 12:00 pm (UTC)
Yeah, I've read Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel which argued similarly. There is something to be said for the geographical explanations, but I don't think they tell the whole story. Diamond himself admitted in the book that he didn't really know why China never took over the world, and offered some relatively half-assed suggestions that weren't terribly convincing to me.

I have several problems with the "Europe has always had numerous small states" explanation (which was Diamond's as well). First is the one given above: the Muslim world and China have often contained competing states. Second, it assumes innovation-generating conflict can only take place between states; there's no inherent reason why a country couldn't devise new technology as a result of factions within it competing for power. Third, and relatedly, it to an extent projects the nation-state model back throughout history; before really recently, most power was held by local lords and power-brokers and the state had to constantly battle these people for authority, which was a constant source of intra-state conflict. Fourth, some of the greatest sources of European innovations were inherently trans-national, such as the Catholic Church, the university system, and the Renaissance and Enlightenment.

Don't get me wrong, it might be part of the story, same with the other geographical factors you cite, but I don't think it's close to being the full story. Contingent historical factors also must play a role, IMO.
May. 16th, 2014 04:13 am (UTC)
I often hear liberal Muslims in the United States say that "jihad just means 'trying to be a good person,'" suggesting that only anti-Muslim bigots think the term has something to do with violence.

This defense has always seemed to kind of miss the point to me; same with the argument that Islam is a "religion of peace." It's not a religion of peace or of war; it's a religion with an extremely long history and a huge number of different strains that cannot possibly be summarized in a book, much less a phrase.

Seriously, it's not like Christianity--or hell, just about any ideology, including democracy, communism, etc.--can be accurately described as being "peaceful" or "violent" either.
( 12 comments — Leave a comment )

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