Destiny Disrupted:  A History of the World through Islamic Eyes
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Throughout much of history, the West and the core of what is now the Islamic world have been like two separate universes, each preoccupied with its own internal affairs, each assuming itself to be the center of human history, each living out a different narrative—until the late seventeenth century when the two narratives began to intersect. At that point, one or the other had to give way because the two narratives were crosscurrents to each other. The West being more powerful, its current prevailed and churned the other one under. But the superseded history never really ended. It kept on ...more
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If you look at ancient sea traffic, the Mediterranean emerges as the obvious center of world history, for it was here that the Mycenaeans, Cretans, Phoenicians, Lydians, Greeks, Romans, and so many other vigorous early cultures met and mingled. People who lived within striking distance of the Mediterranean could easily hear about and interact with anyone else who lived within striking distance of the Mediterranean, and so this great sea itself became an organizing force drawing diverse people into one another’s narratives and weaving their destinies together to form the germ of a world ...more
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Unfortunately, common usage assigns no single label to this second area. A portion of it is typically called the Middle East, but giving one part of it a name obscures the connectedness of the whole, and besides, the phrase Middle East assumes that one is standing in western Europe—if you’re standing in the Persian highlands, for example, the so-called Middle East is actually the Middle West. Therefore, I prefer to call this whole area from the Indus to Istanbul the Middle World, because it lies between the Mediterranean world and the Chinese world.
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Geography, however, did not separate the Mediterranean and Middle worlds as radically as it isolated China or the Americas. These two regions coalesced as different worlds because they were what historian Philip D. Curtin has called “intercommunicating zones”: each had more interaction internally than it had with the other. From anywhere near the Mediterranean coast, it was easier to get to some other place near the Mediterranean coast than to Persepolis or the Indus River. Similarly, caravans on the overland routes crisscrossing the Middle World in ancient times could strike off in any ...more
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Perhaps the most dynamic petri dish of early human culture was that fertile wedge of land between the Tigris and Euphrates known as Mesopotamia—which means, in fact, “between the rivers.” Incidentally, the narrow strip of land flanked by these two rivers almost exactly bisects the modern-day nation of Iraq. When we speak of “the fertile crescent” as “the cradle of civilization,” we’re talking about Iraq—this is where it all began. One key geographical feature sets Mesopotamia apart from some of the other early hotbeds of culture. Its two defining rivers flow through flat, habitable plains and ...more
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Daniel Moore
political unit—a confederation, a kingdom, an empire. 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. Conquest, consolidation, expansion, degeneration, conquest—this was the pattern. It was codified in the fourteenth century by the great Muslim historian Ibn Khaldun, based on his observations of the world he lived in. Ibn Khaldun felt that in this pattern he had discovered the underlying pulse of history.
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About fifty-five hundred years ago, a dozen or so cities along the Euphrates coalesced into a single network called Sumer. Here, writing was invented, the wheel, the cart, the potter’s wheel, and an early number system. Then the Akkadians, rougher fellows from upriver, conquered Sumer. Their leader, Sargon, was the first notable conqueror known to history by name, a ferocious fellow by all accounts and the ultimate self-made man, for he started out poor and unknown but left records of his deeds in the form of clay documents stamped with cuneiform, which basically said, “This one rose up and I ...more
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In time, a fresh wave of nomadic ruffians from the highlands came down and conquered Akkad, and they were conquered by others, and they by others—Guttians, Kassites, Hurrians, Amorites—the pattern kept repeating. Look closely and you’ll see new rulers presiding over basically the same territory, but always more of it. The Amorites clocked a crucial moment in this cycle when they built the famous city of Babylon and from this capital ruled the (first) Babylonian Empire. The Babylonians gave way to the Assyrians, who ruled from the even bigger and grander city of Nineveh. Their empire stretched ...more
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Daniel Moore
opposed to our base-10 system) and were pioneers in the measurement and division of time, which is why the year has twelve months, the hour has sixty minutes (five times twelve), and the minute has sixty seconds. They were terrific urban planners and architects—it was a Chaldean king who built those Hanging Gardens of Babylon, which the ancients ranked among the seven wonders of the world. But the Chaldeans followed the Assyrian strategy of uprooting whole populations in order to divide and rule. Their king Nebuchadnezzar was the one who first smashed Jerusalem and dragged the Hebrews into captivity. It was also a Chaldean king of Babylonia, Balshazzar, who, while feasting in his palace one night, saw a disembodied hand write on his wall in letters of fire, “Mene mene tekel upharsin.” His sycophants couldn’t make heads or tails of these words, probably because they were blind drunk, but also because the words were written in some strange tongue (Aramaic, as it happens.) They sent for the Hebrew captive Daniel, who said the words meant “Your days are numbered; you’ve been weighed and found wanting; your kingdom will be divided.” At least so goes the Old Testament story in the book of Daniel.
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Balshazzar barely had time to ponder the prophecy before it came true. A sudden blistering bloodbath was unleashed upon Babylon by the newest gang of ruffians from the highlands, an alliance of Persians and Medes. These two Indo-European tribes put an end to second Babylonia and replaced it with the Persian Empire. At this point, the recurrent pattern of ever-bigger empires in the heart of the Middle World came to an end or at least to a long pause. For one thing, by the time the Persians were done, there wasn’t much left to conquer. Both “cradles of civilization,” Egypt and Mesopotamia, ended ...more
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Daniel Moore
folks might pursue the arts of civilized living on the settled side of the fence. By the time the Persians took charge, around 550 BCE, a lot of consolidation had already been done: in each region, earlier conquerors had drawn various local tribes and towns into single systems ruled by one monarch from a central capital, whether Elam, Ur, Nineveh, or Babylon. The Persians profited from the work (and bloodshed) of their predecessors.
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They developed a completely opposite idea of how to rule a vast realm. Instead of uprooting whole nations, they resettled them. They set the Hebrews free from captivity and helped them get back to Canaan. The Persian emperors pursued a multicultural, many-people-under-one-big-tent strategy. They controlled their enormous realm by letting all the different constituent people live their own lives according to their own folkways and mores, under the rule of their own leaders, provided they paid their taxes and submitted to a few of the emperor’s mandates and demands. The Muslims later picked up ...more
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Darius (“the Great”), who brought the Persian Empire to one of its several peaks, had his life story carved into a rock at a place called Behistun. He had it inscribed in three languages: Old Persian, Elamite, and Babylonian, fifteen thousand characters devoted to Darius’s deeds and conquests, detailing the rebels who had tried and failed to topple him and the punishments he had meted out to them, essentially communicating that you did not want to mess with this emperor: he’d cut off your nose, and worse. Nonetheless, citizens of the empire found Persian rule basically benign. The well-oiled ...more
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Zoroaster lived about a thousand years before Christ, perhaps earlier or perhaps later; no one really knows. He hailed from northern Iran, or maybe northern Afghanistan, or maybe somewhere east of that; no one really knows that, either. Zoroaster never claimed to be a prophet or channeler of divine energy, much less a divinity or deity. He considered himself a philosopher and seeker. But his followers considered him a holy man. Zoroaster preached that the universe was divided between darkness and light, between good and evil, between truth and falsehood, between life and death. The universe ...more
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In the late days of the empire, the Persians broke into the Mediterranean world and made a brief, big splash in Western world history. Persian emperor Darius sallied west to punish the Greeks. I say “punish,” not “invade” or “conquer,” because from the Persian point of view the so-called Persian Wars were not some seminal clash between two civilizations. The Persians saw the Greeks as the primitive inhabitants of some small cities on the far western edges of the civilized world, cities that implicitly belonged to the Persians, even though they were too far away to rule directly. Emperor Darius ...more