In Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes, Tamim Ansary describes a historical narrative of the world from Islamic eyes, from the time of Mohammed to the fall of the Ottoman Empire and its effects on the modern day Middle Eastern socio-political landscape.
If you’re reading this review, there’s a good chance your narrative of history goes something like this: civilization developed in the Middle East and then the Egyptians, and the Greeks arose. The Romans then showed up and took over most of the world before converting to Christianity. When their empire collapsed, there were about a thousand years without any technological progress (but a lot of kings, wars, plagues, and churches). Suddenly, in the 1500’s, the Renaissance occurred, and people like DaVinci and Michelangelo appeared on the scene. During that time we had the discovery of the New World and the Age of Exploration, and the destruction of the Native Americans. This was followed by the Napoleanic wars and the American Revolution, then the Industrial age and finally the modern era.
What’s conspicuously missing from all this is a second major historical player, the adherents of Islam, whose citizens share an entirely different narrative for a thousand years, but who also share foundational roots with the West. That’s what Destiny Disrupted seeks to clue you in on.
The book starts by warning you that it’s not a scholarly history book, but a book that reads like a conversation you’d have over dinner with a friend. This is entirely true, though throughout the conversation you never forget that your friend is also an expert on world history, both Middle Eastern and Western. But like a friend over a dinner conversation, the book keeps a light, brief tone that is easy to keep up with, meaning that most readers, no matter how unfamiliar they might be with Middle Eastern names, will still be able to keep up.
Throughout the book, Ansary takes special care to cover not only the historical events that shaped the Islamic historical narrative, but also the development of ideas, their consequences, and later interpretations. In fact, it is how history is interpreted which ultimately creates the very disparate versions of Islam we see today, from religious extremists like the Taliban to the secularized Muslims of the West. He clarifies why our civilizations grew up oblivious to each other, what happened when they intersected, and how the Islamic world was affected by its slow recognition that Europe–a place it long perceived as primitive and disorganized–had somehow hijacked destiny.
A good example of the differences in the historical narrative comes by the way each of our cultures view the Crusades. In the West, we learn about the Crusades as the great wars which took place over the course of about 200 years in order to secure Jerusalem for Christianity. (Spoiler: we failed.) But to those in the Middle East, the Crusades proved to be not much more than a nuisance, an incursion by the barbarians inhabiting the lawless wastelands between Constantinople and Andalusia. (“Why, they still eat pig’s meat!”) This holds especially true in the face of what would happen next: the invasion of the Middle East by the Mongol hordes. Where the Crusades were merely a set of skirmishes which ultimately solidified the superiority of Muslim ideas and the righteousness of their cause in their own eyes (thanks in large part to the leadership skills of Saladin), the Mongol invasion was a paradigm-changing event which had many Muslims believing that they had lost God’s favor. Ultimately, this brought about Middle East’s version of the Dark Ages.
One of the key insights provided by Ansary is this: Islamic culture invented Algebra. They had the works of the Greeks available to them, and had had amassed and categorized even more knowledge and technology. They were on the cusp of the invention of Calculus, had created a printing press, and had even started the beginnings of their own industrial age, nearly 600 years before the West. Yet, with all of these advantages, why was it that, ultimately, the West became the dominant culture?
While all of these advances were indeed happening in the Islamic states, they were happening during a period of decline. In Europe, on the other hand, these developments occurred as they were coming out of their Dark Ages, after the Black Plague had all but finished its rampage of Europe, and after travelers coming from the Middle East reintroduced the works of the great Greek philosophers to European audiences. All of these developments, therefore, contributed to the cultural expansion and growth. It was good fortune for the West, too, that Chinese expansion had come to a halt, or else they might have found themselves either being “discovered” by the Chinese during the 1400’s, a delicate time during Europe’s development, if there ever was one.
On the subject of religion, it may be surprising, but Ansary doesn’t delve too deeply, except to treat its key developments as historical tales. In fact, he treats the subject secularly, though without disdain of any sort. Supernatural influence is not directly denied, but neither is it acknowledged other than it a driving and shaping cultural force. He does, however, use his treatment of history to thoroughly successfully present and explain the underpinnings of the current Islamic struggle, not just with the West, but with itself.
For anyone who wants to know about the underpinnings of the current conflicts between the West and the Middle East, this is a must-read. In fact, I plan to read it again, and follow up on certain strands of history discussed.
Now, you won’t become a Middle Eastern history scholar by the time you finish reading Destiny Disrupted (especially if you’re as ignorant as I was), but you will at least gain an good understanding of the forces and ideas driving the events of the region, and the players therein: The Muslim Brotherhood; the Ba’ath Party, and its ideological antithesis, the Taliban; the Palestinian/Israeli conflict; Iran’s (Persia’s) role in the region; the Shia and the Sunni; Wahhabism and its role in the rise of the House of Saud (for which Saudi Arabia is named); and a lot more. You can also be assured that, when you see the news coming out of the region, you won’t fall victim to the belief of silly notions like “they hate us for our freedoms,” and “anyone who goes to a Madrasah is a terrorist sympathizer.” You will, however, gain an appreciation for topics like Jihad, and why to say it only means “a great work” is as blind to historical connotations as saying it only means “killing infidels”.
Of course, if you already have a good, deep understanding of Islamic history then this is probably beneath you: Ansary skips over a lot of historical nuances, and if you’re so inclined, you can probably make a satisfactory case as to why he’s wrong on a particular point. Not being anything of the sort, I can’t lay claim to finding any factual mistakes. The closest I can get is that at one point, when talking about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict and the role of the United States within it, I had a slight disagreement with his interpretation of facts, but the point was so minor that it did not detract from the overall argument and could simply be attributed to his wanting to explain how Muslims saw that particular point.
On a personal note, I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and will put this one up there with Mann’s 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus as a must-read history text for people who want more than just a European-centric understanding of history and the development of the modern world.
You can pick up a copy of Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes from one of the following retailers:
Note: I didn’t read, but instead listened to this book via Audible.com. If you haven’t signed up for their service, you can actually get Destiny Disrupted for free, or get it (and 2 other books) for just $7.49. This is what I did, and boy I’m glad I did it.