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Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World through Muslim Eyes, by Tamim Ansary.

February 16, 2016

Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World through Muslim Eyes, by Tamim Ansary.  PublicAffairs (2010), Edition: Reprint, 416 pages.

5 stars—FAVORITE

A fine global history centering on the Muslim world.

We in the west like to assume that anything written from our perspective is truly accurate and unbiased. Afghan writer Tamim Ansary presents an alternative view. He tells the history of Muslims from Mohamed to the presen,t focusing his story on what was happening within Muslim countries and communities. In his eyes, this story is a parallel account happening alongside the worlds of Europe and the Western Hemisphere. In doing so he provides us with new insights and understanding.

Ansary is a widely published writer. Although he is not a historian, Destiny Denied is clearly based on extensive research and knowledge. Rather than writing as a scholar, he sets out to tell a story, accessible to a wide range of readers. As he says, he writes as if he and his readers were simply talking casually. With this approach he is able to move beyond history as an endless list of strange names. He intersperses sweeping political narratives with more detailed attention to particular individuals and situations. Social, economic and religious histories are all part of his narrative. Instead of debating over whether or not a source is valid, he includes stories that may not be true, but still shaped Muslims’ thoughts and actions.

Through much of their history, Muslims were successful in their attempt to bring all known lands under their sway. The names and leaders of their empires changed, but taken together they dominated an incredible amount of land. As traders and experts from Europe quietly gained dominance in Islamic countries, they experienced their present sense of “destiny disrupted”.

A principle theme of this book is that the popular notion that there has been a “clash of cultures” between the west and the Muslim worlds is false. He identifies how the empires of each interacted along their borders. Yes, the Crusaders came, but there were also less violent exchanges of goods and ideas. As Europe expanded its global reach, they entered Muslim lands buying and selling goods and then as advisers to instruct purchasers how to use new military products. The process was never about decisive battles, but was an almost invisible process of establishing colonization. I found his descriptions of the British and French growth of power in India particularly useful because Ansary forces us outside our usual assumptions about how one group of people come to dominate another.

In addition to his excellent historical writing, Ansary gave me a better sense of what Islam is and has been. Like many others, when I tried to understand Islam I took facts about it and stuck them into a Western, Christian framework. Ansary was helpful in showing me how Islam has its own structure. Despite the similarities between Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, underlying differences exist. For example, Ansary points out that for Muslims, the goal is not individual salvation but the creation of a religious, social, and political community “where orphans won’t feel abandoned and in which widows won’t ever be homeless”. The world is not to be escaped through religion but to be changed by it. Within that community, power is not distributed as it is in European-based countries. Our split between religious and political power is unthinkable for Muslims.  Such differences in basic assumptions mean that all too often we talk past each other even when we use the same words.

Along with the historical accounts that Ansary gives, this book has an outstanding set of maps conveying what was happening where in a part of the world I know little about.

I was very impressed by Tamim Ansary’s Destiny Disrupted. I recommend it highly and hope it is widely read.

And thanks to my friend, Dr. Bill Neumann, for introducing me to this book.

For another approach to the history of the Islamic world, see Women and Gender in Islam, by Leila Ahmed. (See my review).

3 Comments leave one →
  1. February 16, 2016 11:14 pm

    I think that “our split between religious and political power” being unthinkable for Muslims is exactly what the “clash of civilisations” is about. Christian proselytising doesn’t bother me, because I am protected from it by the society I live in through the constitutional separation of church and state. But Muslim ambitions to spread their Islam worries me very much because there is no such separation, and although I have no problem with Islamic immigration or their choice to practise their religion in my country, I think I would be anxious if I lived in Germany with the influx of over one million mostly male Muslims – because numbers like that very easily translate into political power in a democracy. You only have to look at how sharia law operates in separatist states like Aceh in Indonesia, and in parts of Malaysia, and all of Pakistan to know that pressure to introduce Sharia law ends up being a bad deal for non-Muslims and for women.

  2. aartichapati permalink
    February 25, 2016 7:50 pm

    I also really enjoy books that provide a different perspective on events that I have always assumed happened a certain way. I have mostly focused on the Americas to date, but I will definitely look into exploring other parts of the world soon. Thank you for bringing this to my attention.

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