Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Destiny, Disrupted

Destiny, Disruted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes
© 2009 Tamim Ansary
416 pages



When Tamim Ansary was a boy, he loved history. Specifically, he loved narrative history, the kind of drama that brought the past to life.  The problem was that the only histories he could find written in  this style in Afghanistan were written by Europeans, and as such were expressly about European history.  Being unable to find a narrative history about his own people, he decided to grow up and write one. Destiny, Disrupted is a sweeping survey of the middle east, telling the story of Islamic civilization from its own point of view. It is cavalier history, galloping through the centuries and shooting from the hip. Yet for all its breeziness, Ansary offers more insight than idle jollies. Here is the story of what became of Egypt, Babylon, and Persia, of a civilization that brought them together, shone brilliantly for a few centuries, and then fell away. But the past is never dead, as the present turmoil in Syria and Iraq makes all too plain.
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 beginnings of Islamic civilization – Muhammad and the succeeding caliphs Abu Bakr, Omar, Othman, and Ali – receives outsized attention not only because they were the creators, but because so much of what followed continues to look back on them. Key to Ansary’s account is that Islamic was not merely a religion, but a transformative political community that overcame not only Arab tribal differences, but racial quarrels as the expanding Muslim state captured vast portions of the multiethnic Byzantine and Persian empires. This age was to Muslims what Rome was to the west – and even more so, because it combined the moral and spiritual force of religion with the establishment of law and economic success: imagine if classical Rome and Christian Rome’s golden ages had happened at the same time,  a sudden eruption of law and charity around the Med, and that the only emperors were the Five Good Ones, started off by a figure like King Arthur or the biblical David. This was the weight the founding era held for Muslims, and which has since pressed Muslims on, looking for the restoration and aggrandizement of what once was.  There is no singular school of thoughts on how to restore it;  it has been attempted through feats of arms, like the Turks; through religious martialism, like the Taliban, or through politics, led by both strongmen and populist revolts. As conservative politics look to the golden past, and progressives look to building a golden future, Islam can encompass most visions simultaneously. 
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.

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3 comments:

  1. What a fine review! I am a huge fan of well-written narrative history -- about any era -- and I will track down a copy of this one because of your superb commentary. Well done!

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  2. Also a far of narrative history - as you know - plus interested in differing perspectives (ditto). Sounds interesting... maybe except for the Europe chapter [grin].

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    1. There are a couple more in this vein, including "When Asia was the World", I intend on reading within the next few months. :)

      I'm hoping the weak Europe chapter just owes to the author having to include it as a necessary prelude, and so just providing a sketchy outline.

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