Book #23 of 2021. This year I aim to read 60 books. This was one of them. Be sure to check out my Goodreads.
It’s no surprise to anyone that’s been following this blog that I’m a pretty big history buff and a self-taught one at that. I haven’t formally studied history at GCSEs or A-Levels, so most of my knowledge comes from books and the internet (shout out Kings and Generals on YouTube). That being said, history is just that: a story. A narrative. The prevailing narrative of world history in the West goes a little something like this:
- The Birth of Civilisation: Egypt and Mesopotamia
- The Classical Age: Greece and Rome
- The Dark Ages: Rise of Christianity
- The Rebirth: Renaissance and Reformation
- The Enlightenment: Exploration and Science
- The Revolutions: Democratic, Industrial, Technological
- Rise of Nation-States: Struggle for Empire
- The World Wars
- The Cold War
- The Triumph of Democratic Capitalism
But what about other parts of the world? How do they view world history? That’s where Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes by Tamim Ansary comes in. Ansary attempts to retell world history from the Muslim perspective. A counter-narrative to the Western view of history that goes something like this:
- Ancient Times: Mesopotamia and Persia
- Birth of Islam
- The Khalifate: Quest for Universal Unity
- Fragmentation: Age of the Sultanates
- Catastrophe: Crusaders and Mongols
- Rebirth: The Three Empires Era
- Permeation of East by West
- The Reform Movements
- Triumph of the Secular Modernists
- The Islamist Reaction
Ansary does away with the diagnosis that the world’s current political turmoil results from a “clash of civilisations”; instead, he argues that it is a “clash of narratives”. Both the Western and Islamic world have gone through different experiences to get to where they are today. It is a failure to recognise these different experiences that have led to poor policy-making. Furthermore, the “clash of civilisations” diagnosis implies that Western and Islamic civilisation have mutually exclusive attributes. Secularism, democracy and science are not just attributes of Western civilisation. In fact, Ansary highlights how many things we consider to be Western achievements and ideas were actually predated in Islamic culture by centuries.
My favourite part of Destiny Disrupted would have to be chapters 2 to 4 detailing the early rise of Islam and the lives of Prophet Muhammad and the Rashidun. Ansary presents the facts, but he also explains the lessons that can be derived from them. After all, history isn’t just about the past; it is also about what we can learn for the future. For this reason, Ansary refers to this early period of Islam as a kind of theological drama. A drama that Muslims and non-Muslims alike can learn from. Ultimately, the story of the Rashidun (and subsequent Muslim leaders ever since) is a story about people trying to work out the best way to run civilisation in accordance with the Islamic social project. They may not always get it right – more often getting it completely wrong – but that is the ultimate destiny and goal of the Ummah as a socio-political body.
Many religions say to their followers, “the world is corrupt, but you can escape it.” Islam said to its followers, “the world is corrupt, but you can change it.”
Of course, as with any book that claims to be a complete retelling of history, one must remain cautious not to take its claim at face value. *Cough* Our Island Story *cough*. And this is where I must put forth some criticism. For a book that claims to be A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes, Ansary has left out large swaths of the Muslim world from his narrative. Indonesia, the country with the largest Muslim population on Earth, is only briefly mentioned once in the entire book.
Furthermore, pretty much the entirety of Sub-Saharan Africa is left out of Ansary’s narrative. Perhaps the greatest crime of his work was the complete omission of the Mali Empire of Western Africa, a contemporary of the three empires he mentions during the rebirth period (Ottomans, Safavids, and Mughals). I would argue, therefore, that Ansary’s work starts off as history of the world through Islamic eyes in its early chapters. But then ultimately morphs into a history of the world through Arab, Persian and Turkish eyes with some fair amount of time dedicated to South and Central Asia.
Despite its limitations, I would say that Ansary succeeded in presenting a counter-narrative to global history that proves very enlightening. I recommend this book to anyone who wishes to learn more about early Islamic history and the Middle World (what we usually call the Middle East) from a non-Western perspective.