Destiny, Disruted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes
© 2009 Tamim Ansary
The story begins, of course, in the fertile crescent, with city states that become empires. We in the west know of Egypt, Babylon, and Persia because of their connection to our own story, always included as a necessary prelude in any western civ text. But as the western narrative moves from Greece to Rome, then Europe as a whole, the world of the middle east continued to grow in its own right. Persia was the greatest power it ever produced, warring – in different iterations – with both Alexander and Rome. For all of its glory, however, Persia was only an antecedent to the state created by Muhammad and his successors.
The problem with golden ages and transcendent spells is that they always wear away. After the assassination of Ali, things went downhill. Islam would fracture into two, then three, then a multitude of polities. Near the turn of the first millennium, there were three ‘caliphates’; successors-by-assassination Abbasid, the lone-survivors of the old Umayyad’s in Spain, and the Shi’a Fatimids in Tunisia. Against this disunity came Frankish barbarians from the west and Mongolian barbarians from the east; the capital of golden-age Islam would be utterly ruined, millions killed, and Islam reduced to a sideline player in someone else’s story. Even later military triumphs at the hands of the Turks, who rebuilt and advanced much of the original empire, even invading Austria, could not bring back the golden age. The twentieth century is wrought with Islamic nations’ attempts to find their way again after being dominated by the industrialized west, and Ansary’s count covers revolutions in Turkey, Iran, and Egypt, along with the rise of militias and terrorist organizations in Afghanistan and Palestine.
What Ansary has achieved here is a captivating story of an empire rising in glory, stagnating, falling apart, and then struggling to find itself again. The last few chapters are on various Islamic peoples’ attempts to come to grips with modernity — needing it to catch up to the west, but disagreeing on which aspects to incorporate — and display the kind of thoughtfulness that makes this work more valuable than just a historical survey. This is on display earlier, too, especially when writing on the role of Shi’ism, starting first as politics, taking on theological importance, and then molding Persian politics. One section, a European recap prior to beginning the industrialized portion of the book, does give me pause. He writes, for instance, that the Vikings took over England and thereafter became known as Normans. Technically the Normans did descend from Vikings, but they settled in France over a hundred years before their progeny ever entered England. In another instance, he attributes the split between Catholicism and Orthodoxy to being solely the result of Diocletian splitting the empire, and later describes Christianity as being essentially about the individual. Perhaps he’s thinking of Objectivism, but I am tolerably sure Christianity involves a deity,
Aside from the chapter on Europe, Destiny is a wonderful piece of narrative history, informative and funny. Ansary sometimes sounds as if he is writing for cowboys, what with referring to people as “folks” and to disturbances as “ruckuses”. It has an odd humor about it, like when he refers to the Mongolian treatment of a ruling family: they didn’t want to shed royal blood, he writes, it wasn’t their way. They wrapped the royals in curtains and them kicked them to death, instead. Moral crisis solved!
Although this slightly predates the Arabic spring and the rise of ISIS, both only affirm this book’s relevance. For an insight into the middle east, it seems an unmatched introduction.
- On Saudi Arabia, Karen Elliot
- Ornament of the World; Vanished World, both on the Umayyads in Spain
- The Lost History of Christianity, Phillip Jenkins. Another history of the ‘middle world’.
- What Went Wrong? ‘ The Crisis of Islam; Bernard Lewis