Sunday, March 20, 2016

Book review: Destiny Disrupted by Tamim Ansary

This article was first published on Aquila Style.


For a version of ancient and modern history from the eyes of Muslims, look to this easy-to-understand book as a beginner’s resource.

It’s important to know where you come from, so that you know where you are going. For many Muslims who live as minorities in their countries, learning about the history of the Muslims before them can be a powerfully empowering way to overcome many of their struggles today.

I first learned about the Golden Age of Islam as an undergraduate, in an extra-curricular course at a mosque I was active in. I never quite got the order of the caliphates right, confusing the Umayyads with the Abbasids. Perhaps it was a trend to hark back to this Golden Age in that decade, but I began to notice that more and more of the Muslim social circles I found myself in began to talk about these (male) travellers, astronomers, mathematicians, herbalists and doctors (these scholars were the epitome of multidisciplinary) in glowing terms.

I never heard a peep about the grand women of this history, like Fatima al-Fihri, the founder of the first university in the world in 859: Qarawiyyin University in Fez, Morocco. I had heard mostly of male scholars like Ibn Sina and Ibn Rushd (along with their Latinised names Avicenna and Averroes respectively, given to obscure their Muslim origins), but I had never heard some of the latter’s philosophical ideas that I could best describe as overwhelmingly feminist. It seemed that an incomplete version of Islamic history was being presented for a particular purpose.

So I was a little sceptical to read Destiny Disrupted, which I had received as a birthday gift. But I cracked open its fresh pages anyway, since it was also the most appropriate attitude to take towards gifts.

Barely five pages in, I was hooked. As an example, the author cites Ibn Khaldun’s dry codification of the process of empire creation – “conquest, consolidation, expansion, degeneration, conquest” – as a running theme of history. The author then goes on to give a lively description of the process in detail:

“The pattern went like this: settled farmers would build irrigation systems supporting prosperous villages and towns. Eventually some tough guy (…) would bring a number of these urban centers under the rule of a single power, thereby forging a larger political unit (…) Then a tribe of hardy nomads would come along, conquer the monarch of the moment, seize all his holdings, and in the process expand their empire. Eventually, the hardy nomads would become soft, luxury-loving city dwellers, exactly the sort of people they had conquered, at which point another tribe of hardy nomads would come along, conquer them, and take over their empire.”

The dominant version of world history taught in most educational systems around the world divides time into periods like the medieval Dark Ages, Renaissance, Enlightenment and the two world wars. When this version of history is taught, Muslim players are often left out. While many of us have read the classics of Shakespeare, how many of us know that in his time there were three Islamic empires that held most of the world’s power? “If you didn’t know Moors were Muslims, you wouldn’t learn it from Othello.”

Instead, this book tells the story of world history as seen “through Islamic eyes”. There are a series of simple but informative maps throughout, and an extensive list of footnotes for those who hanker for further reading. The crucial time periods for this narrative are the birth of Islam, the four caliphates, attacks by Crusaders and Mongols, and European colonisation, for example. There is also a brief tracing of the rise of “Islamism”, which can help both Muslim and non-Muslim readers understand the crisis of terrorism and violence in recent decades.

The author does a tremendous job of bringing important characters of these historical dramas to life, in each page. I would feel like I had learned so much just from reading a page or two; it is a challenge to squeeze thousands of years into 350-odd pages.

The author is remarkable in covering the scope of academic research, making these stories come to life, and then whittling it down to what he considered as essential. What I missed and would have loved to read was an inclusion of a history of the Islamic world that includes the sultanates in Southeast Asia, as well as the empires of Africa, as these had Muslim rulers too.

There was also very little mention of women in history besides the timeless examples of Aisha and Khadijah, which also reflects a problem of history in general. In the last chapter, the author makes the awkward essentialisation of Muslims as people who believe that men and women should live in separate realms. This is in comparison to people from “the West”, who believe that genders can mix. This completely erases the experiences of Muslims who are born and bred in countries where the majority are not Muslims, or who don’t have Muslim rulers.

Overall, the book is a great place to get acquainted with the alternative, Islamic narrative of world history, and the points at which they intersect with the Western one. It helps the reader to understand the motivations of the Islamic world, the violence that occurred, and where we are heading now.

“But what if we look at world history through Islamic eyes? Are we apt to regard ourselves as stunted versions of the West, developing toward the same endpoint, but less effectually? I think not.”

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