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First published April 28, 2009
The conflict wracking the modern world is not, I think, best understood as a “clash of civilizations”, if that proposition means we’re-different-so-we-must-fight-until-there’s-only-one-of us. It’s better understood as the friction generated by two mismatched world histories intersecting.History is a narrative, and narratives form our identities, drive our actions. For this reason, Ansary's conclusions are quite significant. He's basically saying that the Western narrative and the Islamic narrative are categorically different. It's not simply that we've left out some events. It's that the understanding of what lead to this moment is driven by two complete different understandings of the world . Thus, when we look at the same current event, we see the causes for this event to be two totally different things. It's like we're a bitter couple, each not hearing the other person in an argument, but only becoming more convinced by our own voices.
"Here are two enormous worlds side by side; what's remarkable is how little notice they have taken of each other. If the Western and Islamic worlds were two individual human beings, we might see symptoms of repression here. We might ask, "What happened between these two? Were they lovers once? Is there some history of abuse?"
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.
HISTORIAN SCHMISTORIANEveryone has a specialty. Mine, for example, is translation studies: it’s not what I originally studied, but it’s where I (pardon me) excel, and I know a lot about various different languages, about the intricacies of translation, about the politics surrounding the field, about the mechanics behind it. But this is translation studies, which is different from translation itself—I know a fair amount about translating to and from classical (Middle) Chinese, for example, but I’m by no means fluent in the language; a Chinese–English translator would know far more about the practical work involved in moving a text from one of those languages to the other, because their specialty is Chinese-English translation. (I do also work as a translator, but that’s more of a side gig at this point.) Within the field of studying history, there are many, many subsections. An historian with a background in Islamic history would be better equipped to write a more factual introduction to the history of Islam and Islamic thought. An historian with a background in mediaeval Arab scientific advancement would be better equipped to write about that period, etc. With Ansary, his bias is very evident: Persia. While Persia does indeed to be treated as important when covering the entire history of Islam, it’s not the only important place. In contrast, for example, Ansary’s focus on the Umayyids in Spain lacks even a modicum of the attention paid to Persia.
INACCURACIESObviously there’s no shortage of inaccuracies and biases in Western history books. But combating inaccuracies with different inaccuracies is not actually an improvement. I don’t know whether Ansary had a specific political agenda for certain “mistakes,” or whether he genuinely made errors (it happens!), but they’re worth noting. I won’t list all of them, of course, but I’ll cover a few.
CRUSADES WHO?Ansary’s chapter covering the Crusades and the Mongolian Empire is a tricky one. There’s this relatively popular misconception, in recent (and primarily online) non-academic spaces, that the stereotype of Europe as the pinnacle of education and the rest of the world as uneducated barbarians during the Middle Ages should in fact be the exact opposite: Europeans didn’t even bathe regularly, while the rest of the world was calculating star maps and navigating the globe. This is, to put it simply, nonsense. The chapter begins ca. 1100 CE, whereupon Ansary states that:
WASH YOUR BARBARIANSI don’t like the stereotype of all of Europe as overrun by unwashed barbarian warlords for countless reasons, but perhaps chief among them is the fact that it is not actually progressive to apply the same stereotypes historically used against oppressed peoples against the oppressors. Countering a misogynistic belief that all women are physically weak by saying “actually, women could beat you up, because you’re so pathetic and scrawny and couldn’t lift a single box of bananas!” is not actually progressive. But I digress.
ONE SIZE FITS ALLAnsary’s analyses of the impact Western “modernity” had on the independent and powerful Islamic world (spoiler alert: it wasn’t a good impact) were incredibly solid. I would have vastly preferred a 400-page book covering how Western imperialism has influenced not only outsiders’ perceptions of the Islamic world but also internal growth as well: a genuinely fascinating topic with a whole host of good company (such as the likes of Edward Said). But trying to cram nearly 2000 years of history into closer to 300 pages (excluding introductions etc.) is like watching a clown car trick with a Matchbox toy. Ansary’s recap of Islamic history sped through the majority of it, with only a handful of pit stops for anything beyond a superficial detail. The best analysis was in the final quarter of the book, while the first three quarters were too hasty to be worth much of anything.
CASCADESA scattered handful of errors, while frustrating, would not really diminish my opinion of someone’s academic work in any significant way. Everyone fucks up, especially when there’s a hell of a lot of pressure on you to do things perfectly. I get it. I really do. But these “scattered handfuls” accrued over time, to the point where, by the time we’d reached the 19th century, an unignorable percentage of what was being presented was simply wrong. Some of this was by omission; some, inconsistencies; some, what seemed to be little more than outright lying. Again: I am not professing that Western books are any better; in fact they’re almost always worse on average. But these things add up.
FOR WHOM?I’m also conflicted as to what Ansary’s intended audience is. If you’ve studied Islamic history and/or are a Muslim, there’s not going to be much “new” information contained within, and what is new is often not worth slogging through the 200 other pages in order to dig it up. On the other hand, however, if you’re coming at this book without a general understanding of Islamic history, you’ll likely not pick up on the mistakes which would probably be brushed off by someone more familiar with the actual happenings. The uncharitable interpretation would of course be that this is by design, that the intention was to trick the unknowledgeable into believing a certain narrative. I don’t think that’s what’s happened, thankfully. But I’m still conflicted as to the intended audience. I think this book was a hubristic project, doomed either way. Of course it’s incredibly popular with laypersons; that’s not what I meant.
WESTERN BIASYeah, I’m going there.
THE GOOD STUFFAnsary is an engaging writer, and this book is incredibly readable where a lot of pop history is not, either relying too hard on the academic (not that I don’t personally eat those up) or the layperson audience and tone. But Ansary manages to straddle that line, and he has the elegant prose and engaging storytelling ability to back it up. The core thesis of the book—that an Islamic history of the world is entirely different from a Christian (or Western but we all know what that really means) one—is correct. When he’s good, he’s great, and when he’s not, he can almost be forgiven because he’s just so damn entertaining. This is really a masterful book, regardless of my personal feelings on the matter, and I sincerely hope more of its kind are able to be produced—in English no less, to save us poor translators some work.