Inverarity (inverarity) wrote,

Book Review: Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World through Islamic Eyes, by Tamim Ansary

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.
Tags: books, highly recommended, history, non-fiction, reviews

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