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I’ve had the pleasure of reading (actually, listening to) Bay Area author Tamim Ansary’s Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes, over the past few days.   It’s just the sort of introductory history that’s needed in the West, whose citizens have been suddenly made aware of  about one-quarter of the world’s population previously ignored, hidden or appearing only in exotic stories and costumes or terrifying videos.

Ansary doesn’t claim to be a historian. In fact, he’s written a novel, a memoir, several  children’s and young adult books, both fiction and non-fiction.  For many years he was a text book editor for High School history texts, where he first noticed the paucity of accounts of the Muslim world.  He is  currently the director of The San Francisco Writer’s Workshop.  What he has done is to read deeply in academic and popular accounts of the story of Islam, from the revelations of the Prophet Mohammed to what he calls “secular modernism” and the rise of a response to that in our decades.  He writes with balance and poise, often telling how an event or a person has come to be regarded differently by different traditions of Islam.  I can’t make out any bias when he tells us why Shia and Sunni look differently at Aisha, the Prophet’s youngest daughter;  we do understand however, why she is important to each.  Ansary, born in Kabul, Afghanistan in 1948, has lived in the United States since 1964, and describes himself as a “secular guy.”

Chapter 2 alone, will clear up the confusion most of us have had since the Bush invasion of Iraq, over the Sunni and the Shia, and just who is this Ali, and how is he related to The Prophet.  The City of Basra with which we became reluctantly acquainted in the first weeks of the invasion was the scene of the first great battle between Muslims — which the Koran and the Prophet had forbidden barely 40 years earlier– called by many The Battle of the Camel. The Prophet’s youngest daughter, the fiery Aisha [Ayesha], rode into battle and directed her troops from the back of a camel against Ali, the Prophet’s paternal cousin, and quasi adoptive brother.  The years of the “Rightly Guided Caliphs,” the first four successors to Mohammed,  the struggle to maintain the Ummah (the community of the faithful) and the split off of the Umayyad Caliphate become intelligible, if not as familiar to us as to Muslim school children.

We read of Mohammed’s orphaned childhood and therefore his life-long concern for widows and orphans, built into his sense of the Ummah, and spoken of in the Koran.  We read how Jews in the region spoke Arabic and, as great fighting tribes, were sometime allies of Mohammed or one of his successors.  We read how Umar, somewhat like Saul, was converted in a blinding flash from ferocious opposition to ferocious support — and went on to become one of the four Rightly Guided Caliphs.  All these are as well known to Muslims as Gospel parables and old Testament stories are to Christians.

As importantly, Ansary makes the case that these are not just individual apples to be picked up and carefully added to a Western narrative of apples but they are part of an entirely different understanding, one which if seen honestly by its new readers will allow and encourage true inter-cultural understanding.  The Muslim world has been saturated by Western history, values and morays, while to the West, Islam has been in the periphery.  The time has come, it seems, to sprinkle a little of  its history back upon ourselves.    Ansary  says in his introduction:

The two civilizations have narratives with different trajectories   In the ideal future of  Post Industrial Democratic  Societies  the shape of narrative leading to here and now would look something like this:

  1. Birth of Civilization – Mesopotamia and Egypt
  2. Classical age – Greece and Rome
  3. Dark Ages – Rise of Christianity
  4. Rebirth – Renaissance and Reformation
  5. Enlightenment- Science and Exploration
  6. Revolutions – Democratic, Industrial, Technological
  7. Rise of Nation States – Struggle for Empire
  8. WW I and II
  9. The Cold War
  10. The Triumph of democratic capitalism

The Narrative from Islamic eyes, on the other hand, would look something like this, in which the year 0 is not the birth of Mohammed, but the Hijra, the year Mohammed and a few followers moved from Mecca to what would become Median — the beginning of the Ummah, the community.

Through Islamic eyes: Year 0  is year of migration of Mohammed to Medina.

  1. Ancient Times – Mesopatamia and Persia
  2. Birth of Islam
  3. Caliphate  — Quest of Univeral Unity
  4. Fragmentation — Age of the Sultans
  5. Catastrophe – Crusaders and Mongols
  6. Rebirth — The three empires
  7. Permeation of East by West
  8. Reform movements
  9. Triumph of secular modernists
  10. Islamist reaction

It is an interesting and mind-stretching story, one which many of us should be anxious to begin to understand.  I’m far from being a scholar of this and won’t vouch for the authenticity of Ansary’s details, though  any I have looked further into, from other narrators, confirm closely to his telling.  As he says, by the time of the Hijra, 621 CE (Year 0 for the Muslims) the Middle world — as he calls the great land mass between the Eastern Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean, tied together by the major and minor trade routes– was highly literate.  Many contemporaneous sources attest to events and personalities.  Though it sometimes shows Ansary’s background in writing for young readers it is certainly a good beginning for all of us, being young as it were, in the face of this knowledge.  Those who find it compelling enough can begin intellectual journey to fuller knowledge by comparing new scholarship to old, and adding in representations of how Muslim values are represented in fiction and film.

Ansary, has plenty of material on the Internet, as background and incentive to get to know him better, here, here and here.  He is particularly attached to the country of his ancestors, Afghanistan.  His website is a good place to check in on, for his thoughts and late breaking news of his homeland. I can think of no better way to begin, however, than to dive into Destiny Disrupted. It’s like hearing the life story of a neighbor you meet one day after a generation of being separated by the walls built by our grandparents.  And in fact, I can particularly recommend the audio version of the book, narrated by Ansary himself, one the best readers of the several dozen audio books I have listened to in the last year.  I do miss of course, the nice collection of maps he includes in the book itself.


[cross posted at RuthGroup.org]