Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes
A writer I am very fond of once remarked that the level of toxicity in anything is directly proportional to the dose. One particular political disease that can be extremely dangerous is the willingness to either ignore the enemy’s statements or to take them at face value; in effect, accepting the enemy’s view of the world. This may be because the human mind is programmed to dislike contradictions and, when two different people have dynamically opposed visions of the world, tends to swing behind one or the other. If there is anything history teaches us, it is that it is important to pay attention to what someone else believes to be true, even if we regard it as arrant nonsense. They take it seriously.
Tamim Ansary (an Afghan-American) has attempted to write a short and fairly comprehensive history of the world, seen though Islamic eyes. Instead of concentrating on Rome, Napoleon and the struggles between Britain and France, Ansary looks at the development of the Islamic world from its birth to the present day. It is a fascinating and generally well-written piece of work (the author writes with a wry sense of humour), although it does have some flaws. It also starts with an interesting warning; not everything in the book might be objectively true (he says, so I give him points for honesty), but it is what Muslims believe to be true.
The early section of the book covers the development of the First Community, from the Prophet Muhammad to the four Rightly Guided Caliphs. The early Muslims found themselves the victims of persecution in Mecca (apparently, notes the author, this was because Muhammad’s opposition to the shines threatened the tourist trade) and had to flee to Medina, where they rapidly became powerful within the multicultural city. This alienated Mecca and a number of wars followed, which eventually resulted in the capture of Mecca and Islam’s triumph in Arabia. Although the author doesn’t make the point explicit, Islam had a fair chance at drawing the lesson ‘God helps those who help themselves’ from some of the battles, including disastrous defeats that occurred because some of the Muslims fled the battlefield, or stopped to loot.
History teetered on a knife-edge when Muhammad died, leaving behind an empire that had grown rapidly in the years since his conquest at Mecca, for there was no protocol for choosing a successor. Indeed, no one knew what being Muhammad’s successor actually meant! Was the successor simply the elected successor of Muhammad, or was he someone related to Muhammad, which suggested that Muhammad himself was somehow more than a man. The former view won out at first, but the latter view remained alive, eventually resulting in the split between Sunni and Shia Muslims. The latter believed that Ali (who was related to Muhammad and would be the fourth Caliph, eventually) was the divinely appointed successor to the Prophet and had been badly snubbed by the elections that eventually put Abu Bakr in power as the First Caliph. Unfortunately for Islam, this early glimmering of democracy faded and flickered out of existence.
The Caliphs found themselves ruling over an empire that was in the process of disintegration. Without Muhammad, the very question of what it meant to be a Muslim was up in the air, leaving some groups splitting away from the mainstream. Although Abu Bakr ruled well, he planted a very nasty seed in fertile soil and equated dissent or disagreement with treachery. The promise of loot from expansion spurred the vast expansion of the empire (the author has no truck with the suggestion that ‘jihad’ means internal struggle, noting that the cause of spreading Islam served as an excuse to loot) and the empire rapidly became too large to control effectively. By the time Ali finally got his chance at ruling Muhammad’s legacy, it was too late to save it from disaster as over-mighty subordinates made their own bid for power.
The next few centuries highlighted both religious wars and attempts to unite and codify Muhammad’s legacy, although those had begun during the First Community. Clerics collected, codified and fixed Islamic Law, believing that it could be finalised and used as a guide to living. They found themselves in competition with philosophers who believed that a more fluid and flexible approach to Islam – in effect, every Muslim would be his or her own final authority on what Allah wanted and didn’t want – and tried to convince the rulers to effectively separate mosque and state. (Although Islam has no Pope, it does have very respected and insular scholars who wielded great power.) Islamic Civilisation was still showing signs of an intellectual fire, but that fire was slowly being dampened by a dead mass of fixed rulings and a growing beaucatic caste. By then, there was no longer any pretence at ruling with the consent of the people; the various emperors (however named) and their courts were firmly in control. This in turn led to the ossification that slowly strangled the lifeblood out of the Islamic World.
Not unlike Imperial China, which suffered from similar problems, the Islamic World found itself under assault from outsiders. (Although the book doesn’t make this clear, Islam itself expanded into a power vacuum.) These assaults included the dreaded Mongols and the Crusaders. (The author suggests that the Crusades were an employment program for the younger noble youths of Christendom, which IIRC is untrue.) Islam regrouped under the Ottomans and eventually formed the Ottoman Empire, which endured until it chose the wrong side in the First World War. The Ottoman Empire saw one of the most determined attempts to break the straightjacket of history – the Young Turk movement – Islam has yet seen, which helped to reform Turkey. It also led to the Armenian Genocide, which the author insists did actually happen and was a cold-blooded attempt at mass murder.
By this point, Europe (and to a lesser extent America) had thoroughly impinged upon the Islamic world. The collapse of the Ottoman Empire opened the door for sweeping changes, including the mass migration of Jews to Palestine (later Israel) and the conquest of Arabia by the Saudis, who renamed it Saudi Arabia. The author is unusually sympathetic to the Jews and places blame far more evenly than most Islamic writers, blaming a rogue’s galley of Islamic leaders, the British, the Americans, the Russians, the French and last, but not least, the Palestinians themselves. One point the author neglects to make is that the Rule of Law did not exist in the Ottoman Empire or in its successor states, leaving it hard to tell who was actually in the right. The Jews bought land from those who owned it, not from those who lived and worked on it. Depending on how one looks at it, the land was either bought legally or stolen. There were no laws designed to cover the interests of those who worked on the land.
Odd as it may seem, this led to further mental ossification in the Middle East. Many Muslims spent the twentieth century trying to grapple with the problems facing the Islamic world, but many of the solutions were badly flawed. Attempts to go back to ‘pure’ Islam failed because no one had any idea of what ‘pure’ Islam was supposed to be. (The author is at pains to make clear that while Wahhabism represents itself as a return to ‘pure’ Islam; it is in fact just as much an innovation as those it rails against.) In a similarity to the USSR, the elites tasted the rewards of power and refused to give them up. Those who dared to suggest that democracy was the answer could be harassed and killed. This eventually led to a region that seemed largely incapable of taking responsibility for itself, choosing instead to blame the US and Israel for its woes. This attitude led to both 9/11 and an endless series of childlike displays of temper tantrums when the West failed to abase itself in front of Islamic superiority and give it what it wanted. The author does hold out some hope for change in the wake of the US invasion of Iraq and the shifts in power across the Middle East. This reviewer is less hopeful.
The book does have some flaws. Chief among them is the very limited discussion of Islam’s relationships with other religions. The treatment of Jews and Christians – an insistence that they convert or pay a tax – led to considerable trouble for the Islamic world. Intended as an incentive to convert, it gave the Muslims thousands of hypocrites who pretended to convert in order to escape harassment. Worse, it made the Muslims arrogant and confident in their superiority, a sin that is inevitably punished by the universe. The treatment of religions who were not ‘people of the book’ was often a great deal worse; the author concentrates on relatively enlightened or sensible Muslim rulers (like Ackbar of India) and ignores far darker souls.
Ansary also glosses over Islam’s experiences with slavery and racism. After a hopeful period during the rule of the Second Caliph where slavery nearly died (according to the author, at least), Islamic involvement with slavery rapidly mushroomed into an enterprise that dwarfed anything the West did. Islamic slave raids on Europe go unmentioned, apart from the creation of the Janissaries, who were both the guardians of empire and its slaves. The involvement of Arab slave traders in selling black Africans to the West also goes unmentioned, as does the racism epidemic through Middle Eastern society. In fact, the book almost completely ignores Islam’s expansion into Africa.
The book says very little about how the role of women in Islam mutated from near equality (one of the most dangerous challenges to Ali’s rule came from Muhammad’s youngest wife) to a pattern of near-complete submission. It is actually sickening to realise that early Islam gave women far more rights than the preceding religions and then threw it all away. I suspect that it happened, in general terms, because the society became heavily authoritative and men were pushed into having authority over their women, if not over anyone else.
The problem in reviewing this book is that it is hard to know when to take it seriously. The author’s specific warning that he isn’t writing objective history so much as subjective history means that I cannot tell if he is telling the ‘subjective truth,’ or if he is either ignorant or trying to mislead us. For example, his story of the PLO and Arab Nationalist/Fascist leaders could hardly be considered objective. There are other points in this book where I am left wondering if this is merely a rosy view of history. A set of footnotes outlining objective truths, or at least subjective truths, would have been very helpful.
In conclusion, this book is interesting and very well written, but it is also a timely reminder of a fact that is rarely made clear. Someone may have a different opinion to you, a different sense of history, a different culture…but that doesn’t make it a valid point of view.