Sunday, August 21, 2011

World History Through Islamic Eyes

Ansary, Tamim. Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes. New York: PublicAffairs, 2009.

As Americans moved past the initial shock of September 11, 2001, we began to ask a number of searching questions: Who were those people? What motivated them to give their lives for something so terrible? Who supported their senseless violence? And why do they hate us?

We soon learned that those nineteen men who hijacked four airliners and destroyed the lives of thousands were self-proclaimed Muslims. They did not represent any one nation. Their common bond was the culture of radical Islam. Upon learning that, Americans then wanted to know what it was about the terrorists' religion that led them to believe that their actions were justified. Did they represent only the lunatic fringe? Or were their convictions and deeds much closer to the heart of Islam?

President George W. Bush gave his answer when he told Americans, "These acts of violence against innocents violate the fundamental tenets of the Islamic faith." But not everyone was so sure. In a 1996 book titled The Clash of Civilizations, Harvard professor Samuel P. Huntington had claimed that the cultures of the Muslim world and of the West were inherently at odds with each other, and that the lines between them were what he called "the battle lines of the future." In the post-9/11 discussion, many observers suggested that the Huntingdon thesis anticipated those unspeakable events that had now come to pass. So who was right?

Enter the latest book by Tamim Ansary, Destiny Disrupted. As it is with so many non-fiction books these days, once the title catches your attention, it's the subtitle that tells you what the book is actually about: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes. Ansary might just be the very best person to write a book like this. He was born in 1948 in Kabul, Afghanistan, his father an Afghan and his mother an American. At age sixteen, he came to the United States where he graduated from Reed College, in Portland, Oregon, in 1970. Later, he traveled extensively in the Islamic world before settling on the American west coast where he has lived and worked as a writer ever since. Not only does he know both hemispheres, he describes himself as "resolutely secular" from a very early age.

Ansary's basic argument suggests that the relationship between the Islamic East and the Christian West is never going to be simple. Why? Because their back stories are long and complicated and now tangled. As the author explains,

Throughout much of history, the West and the core of what is now the Islamic world have been like two separate universes, each preoccupied with its own internal affairs, each assuming itself to be the center of human history, each living out a different narrative—until the late seventeenth century when the two narratives began to intersect. At that point, one or the other had to give way because the two narratives were crosscurrents to each other. The West being more powerful, its current prevailed and churned the other one under.

But the superseded history never really ended. It kept on flowing beneath the surface, like a riptide, and it is flowing down there still. When you chart the hot spots of the world—Kashmir, Iraq, Chechnya, the Balkans, Israel and Palestine, Iraq—you’re staking out the borders of some entity that has vanished from the maps but still thrashes and flails in its effort not to die
(pp. xx-xxi).

As you might have guessed, Ansary gives no easy answers to the question I raised at first. What he does, however, is much more significant. Starting with the civilization that flourished in ancient Mesopotamia and bringing the reader right up to September 11, 2001, the author provides a masterful, engaging overview of Islamic history. He includes, of course, the story of the life of Mohammed, the careers of his successors, the Crusades of Christians from the west and invasions of Mongols from from the east, the complex Ottoman Empire which eventually crumbled, and the rise of modern, secular Islamic states, followed by a conservative reaction, the evidence of which we see today. But beyond that, he explains how the Muslim story impacts and fits into the larger picture called world history. Here and there, Ansary takes the time to explicitly state what his storytelling implies. Here are a few of his most significant points:

First, any credible account of world history will give appropriate space to the story of Islam. And as the author reveals, not only is that story significant, it is also fascinating. Most Westerners would never guess, for example, that in the 13th century Muslims were able make a stand against the invading Mongols by using a prototype gun they called a "hand cannon"; or that when William Shakespeare was writing his plays, the superpowers of the world were three Muslim empires; or that the steam engine was invented in the Islamic world three centuries before its development in the West.

Second, although the West has traditionally ignored Islam, quite often a knowledge of Muslim history sheds light on our well-known western version of world history. A good example of this is the anti-philosophy project taken up by the great Muslim scholar Ghazali. Ansary tells how this man, by all accounts a towering academic, wrote a book explaining the Greek philosophical tradition, giving special attention to Aristotle. In a second book, according to his plan Ghazali set out to dismantle the system he had described in the first book. But, as fate would have it, the first one traveled far and wide, sometimes unaccompanied by the all-important refutation contained in the second. Consequently, and ironically, Ghazali's excellent description of Aristotelian thought led to a boom in its popularity most everywhere the first book was read. Fast forward to more than a century later, when an Italian Dominican priest named Thomas Aquinas set out to square the Church's teaching with Aristotle's philosophy. How many westerners realize that that influential work of Aquinas, which runs to dozens of volumes, owed so much of its inspiration to a Muslim?

Third, the common American notion that Islamic terrorists hate the freedom of the United States is just plain wrong. Contrary to the rhetoric of George W. Bush, for example, those who plan to carry out a literal jihad against the U.S. do not resent the liberty of America. Instead, their rage is directed against what they regard as the boundless decadence and imperialism of the West, especially the United States. Along this line, Ansary relates what has to be one of the great geo-political tragedies of the twentieth century. In August 1953, the Central Intelligence Agency funded the violent ousting of Mohammed Mosaddeq, the recently-elected prime minister of Iran. Mosaddeq, who took a secular modernist approach to governing, looked to be the ideal Muslim leader. However, upon coming to power, he canceled Iran's lease with British Petroleum and announced that Iran would take control of its oil. As Ansary remarks, "Nice try." Eventually, the world learned that the United States actually sponsored the bloody coup that toppled Mosaddeq. Ansary observes that it would be hard to overstate "the shudder of anger it sent through the Muslim world" (p. 334). Since the end of World War II, the memory of a handful of events like the one just described has convinced a large percentage of the world's Muslims that the United States is, again, not only morally decadent, but hopelessly imperialistic.

Fourth, when the West and the Muslim world address each other, their messages almost always miss the target. The two sides often speak past, rather than with each other. Ansary explains: One side charges "You are decadent." The other side retorts, "We are free." These are not opposing contentions; they're nonsequiters. Each side identifies the other as a character in its own narrative. In the 1980s, Khomeini called America "the Great Satan," and other Islamist revolutionaries have echoed his rhetoric. In 2008, Jeffrey Herf, a history professor at the University of Maryland, suggested that radical Islamists are the Nazis reborn, motivated at core by anti-Semitism and hatred of women. It's a common analysis. (p. 350).

Fifth, although Islam certainly is a religion, comparable to other religions like Hinduism and Christianity, it is many more things than that. Ansary says that Islam is also "a social project," belonging to the same category as communism, parliamentary democracy, and fascism. One can also think of Islam as a civilization, in the same class as Chinese, Indian, or Western civilization. And, Islam can also be seen "as one world history among many that are unfolding simultaneously, each in some way incorporating all the others" (p. 356).

To summarize, in Destiny Disrupted, Tamim Ansary has presented the English-speaking world with an understanding of the sweep of history--and, therefore, an understanding of the way things are--from an Islamic point of view. By doing that, he has opened up a door that can lead at least "our side" towards a much-needed mutual tolerance. Anyone who wants to understand Islam and how it relates to world history and the present situation should read this book.


Stoned-Campbell Disciple said...

thanks for this Frank. my tuesday morning Coffee with Bobby group is studying the Quran and the general history of Islam right now. I will be getting this book.

Frank Bellizzi said...

Hi, Bobby.

This book really is a great read, much easier to digest than most books on history. I have not looked at any reviews of Destiny Disrupted, but my guess is that Ansary might sometimes be faulted for painting too glorious a picture of Islamic history. If so, that's where we have to remember the subtitle. This is "A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes." The story is related from a certain standpoint, one that leans toward a sympathy with Islam, (yet without whitewashing everything).

Stoned-Campbell Disciple said...


I got the book a couple days ago and have read a good portion of it. Easy to read it is. I have been looking forward to it actually because we - I - need to see the world from his point of view.

You are right in that he is much like Pavel Chekov on Star Trek in which the Russians invented everything. But this is ok because Westerners also have rosy glasses and have a tendency to take to much credit for the good and deny any of the bad.

I have enjoyed a number of Bernard Lewis' books. In my class I recommended his "What Went Wrong" which in my opinion is a very good book and helps many see that Islam was not always "backwards" (to use a term one of my guys used).

Thanks for pointing me too this one.

preacherman said...

Great. I got to order it now... Again great