Review: Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes

Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes
Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes by Tamim Ansary
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

World History, says Tamim Ansary in his introduction, is always the story about how we got to be where we are. It therefore always includes an implicit notion of who "we" are, and what our current place in the history of the world is.

Most people with a basic college education feel that they know how history works. First there was the ancient world, from whose murky depths emerged the cultural brilliance of the Greeks and the political might of the Romans. Then the Roman Empire fell, plunging the world into an age of superstition and darkness, from which we finally emerged during the Renaissance. Shortly thereafter we discovered science, democracy, and industrialization. Now the First World has reached the pinnacle of human development, and all that remains is for the rest of the world to finally bring itself up to our level.

This history is false.

Or at least incomplete and parochial. This is the historical narrative of a particular civilization in a particular time, and it clashes and competes with alternate historical narratives told by people from outside our cultural milieu. But by conflating our history with the history of the whole world, we not only marginalize and insult those whose historical narratives are different, but we make ourselves incapable of understanding the interactions that we have with the other worlds around us.

And so we come to Destiny Disrupted, Tamim Ansary’s attempt to write an Islamic history of the world accessible to Western readers. According to the very brief autobiography in the book’s introduction, Ansary was raised in a traditional Islamic household, but all of his formal schooling was in Western-style schools, giving him a bifurcated view of the world which he struggled to integrate. His book is part of that resolution.

Destiny Disrupted is a world history, but it’s a world history as understood by the Islamic world. As such, it features a very different set of actors and key events than the more familiar world history given above. The Roman Empire is a footnote in this story; the universal state which defined the classical age is the early united Khalifate. The central geographical regions are Arabia and Persia, with the latter being the cultural and intellectual center of the world for most of its history. The frontiers of civilization were the Sahara Desert in the south, the Central Asian steppes in the north, barbarian Europe in the west, and the Indus river in the east. Within this area the drama and tragedies of civilization played out, only occasionally interrupted by incursions from the outside, such as the catastrophic invasions of the Mongols or the nuisance of the Franji (Franks, i.e. Christian Crusaders).

Ansary does an excellent job of presenting the narrative of this world history so that it’s accessible and interesting to a reader who knows almost nothing about it. His history is not overly detailed—he occasionally skips over entire centuries with a few paragraphs—but it suffices to make one understand who the actors are and how they see the world. More importantly, he gives his narrative a sense of flow, so that every subsequent development makes sense in light of earlier ones, and one can gain the feeling that history is going somewhere and means something.

And that, of course, is why it’s heartbreaking when the whole story turns sideways.

The period that we think of as the Renaissance, Enlightenment, and colonialism comes across in this book as a series of bitter catastrophes. It isn’t simply the case that the European powers overwhelmed the Islamic world militarily—military setbacks and invasions had happened before, and anyway the Europeans didn’t actually conquer the Islamic world except in a few places at the outskirts. Rather, the problem is that the Islamic powers were suddenly changed into pawns, and they found themselves being played around by foreigners who didn’t have any role at all in world history up to that point. Ansary does a masterful job of getting you into the perspective of the Islamic world on this point, so that the sudden domination of Europe feels like a shock, and the crisis it precipitates is profound.

There are weaknesses in this presentation, and if you have a deeper familiarity with the historical epochs Ansary visits you may find much to criticize in his approach. When he discusses the Christian middle ages, the description is so brief that it severely distorts several things, and his presentation of the Reformation is a caricature. But in some ways these distortions are part of the logic of the story. After all, the doctrinal nuances which agitated the Protestant Reformers are of no interest at all to the Islamic world, and so who actually cares if he gets them right? What is more important—and what Ansary does very well—is presenting the internal logic of the Islamic world.

Ansary ends his story on a cliffhanger, with the events of 9/11 and the assurance that, contra Fukuyama, history is not over. Events since then are too recent to recount as history. Nonetheless, this book changed my perspective on one event more recent even than the publication of this book: the "Arab Spring" of 2011. Here in America, coverage of the uprisings presented them as a liberal phenomenon, a recapitulation of the revolutions in the West in which a democracy-seeking populace overthrow the old monarchs and aristocrats. But Ansary’s book makes it clear that this misunderstands the history of the region. The dictators which were overthrown were not in any way the ancien regime of the Islamic world, but were what Ansary calls "secular modernists." They were committed to a secular state (run by them), modernization (by force if necessary), growing a modern, capitalistic economy (at least for the elites), and imitation of Western forms and customs. The revolt against these powers was democratic exactly insofar as it reflected the popular ethos of the Islamic heartland, for which the centrality and ubiquity of Islam is non-negotiable and the West is a corrosive foreign invader rather than a model for emulation.

Events in Egypt since the revolution have largely played out along these lines, with one more secular party (the army) trying to hold on to power against a coalition of popular "Islamist" groups. (The term "Islamist" conflates a number of different streams with wildly different ideals and aspirations together, a fact which Ansary also discusses.) The error that the popular media of West made with regards to the Arab Spring is very similar to the error that we’ve been making all along: we assume that the Islamic world is replaying a scene from our own past, rather than enacting a drama of their own.

We repeat this mistake to our peril.

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