Tamim Ansary: “Destiny Disrupted” – World History from an Islamic Perspective

Afghan-born Tamim Ansary has written a history of the world that takes Islam as its central focus. Events are related from a Muslim point of view, beginning with the life of the Prophet through to September 11th, 2001. Review by Klaus Heymach

Tamim Ansary (photo: © publisher)
Tamim Ansary, born in Kabul in 1948, grew up in his father’s home country, Afghanistan. His mother was an American of Finnish origin. He is the author of the best-selling memoir “West of Kabul, East of New York”

Ten years ago Tamim Ansary was contracted by a Texan schoolbook publisher to develop a new history of the world for the junior high school curriculum. The publishers envisaged ten units, with three chapters each. But which thirty events represent the history of mankind? There was to be not more than one chapter on Islam, at any rate, the publisher insisted.

For Ansary, who grew up in Kabul, it was not enough to include Islam in this history as a glossary, a digression, a note in the margin. The author, who came to the United States at the age of 16 on a high school scholarship, is not a missionary; he is not even a practising Muslim. Only his family name reveals that he is a descendent of the Ansar, the “Supporters”, the name given to the first Muslims from Medina.

Yet Ansary believes that there is a second history that exists alongside the Western version in the text books. “A completely independent and alternative history of the world; a competing narrative to the one I was supposed to write for the Texan publisher.”

Islam – a civilization of its own

For Islam is not simply a belief system, Ansary claims. He argues that it could be discussed as part of the school curriculum alongside communism, democracy and fascism, as it is also a social project that regulates politics, economics and justice – as well as a civilization of its own that has achieved outstanding accomplishments in arts and crafts, and one of many world histories.

Cover of the book 'Destiny Disrupted'
In Destiny Disrupted, Ansary recounts world history as it looks if one assumes that the heart of the world is situated somewhere between the Indus and Istanbul

Like two parallel universes, the West and the heartland of Islam existed alongside each other for centuries – and ignored each other. For a long time, writes Ansary, each regarded itself as the centre of world history. He comments that it was only in the 17th century that the two perspectives began to overlap. “And because the West was more powerful, its narrative prevailed and suppressed the other.”

Ansary now tells the other version in his book. “Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World through Islamic Eyes” is not a schoolbook, nor is it an academic thesis. The author is not a historian. The 61-year-old, who now lives in San Francisco, has written an entertaining book, replete with anecdotes, that relates “what happened from a Muslim perspective” – a “human drama”.

The apparently inevitable dominance of the West

Ansary not only compares the lives of caliphs, sultans, and reformers; he also probes the big questions that still characterize the tense relationship between Orient and Occident today. How did this apparently inevitable Western dominance come about? What led to the clash of these two universes on 11th September 2001? Are we really experiencing a clash of civilizations?

Readers from West and East alike will profit from this book and its discussion of these questions, because Ansary takes an extremely enlightening approach in his world history. He explains how the sciences already existed more or less as we know them today under the Abbasid caliphs – seven centuries before their genesis in western Europe.

Whipple Museum of the History of Science in Cambridge (photo:  Andrew Dunn )
Civilizational competition: Islamic astronomy had a significant influence and Western astronomy, but during the Age of Industrialization century Europe gained superiority in the field of scientific innovation: 18th century Persian astrolabe

He shows how Muslim inventors were on the verge of many discoveries – and yet did not come up with the idea of “putting a steam drive into machines that would make it possible to manufacture consumer goods on a mass scale”.

In a society with millions of craftsmen, an abundance of products and efficient networks, Muslims would have seen no need for industrialisation, writes Ansary. Mercantilism, reformation, individualism, and the drive to make new discoveries played into European hands. They were simply the right conditions.

“Trade is the opposite of war”

And then the two worlds met again. After the crusades, which Ansary describes as far less dangerous for Islam than the subsequent attacks by the Mongols, the Europeans came as traders. The author stresses that this was never a clash of civilizations: “Trade, after all, is the opposite of war.”

In the U.S. Ansary gained notoriety with an e-mail in September 2001, sent initially only to friends, in which he addressed the Bush government’s plans to bomb Afghanistan back to the Stone Age. (“The problem is, Afghanistan is already in the Stone Age.”)

Ansary writes in his book that the West wants to defend freedom and democracy in the Hindu Kush and Iraq, but that the militant Islamists’ rhetoric is not targeted at a free democratic form of government, it is targeted at moral decay. They said: “You are decadent!” and the West replied: “We are free!”

These two positions are, quite simply, talking at cross purposes. In Ansary’s opinion they are symptomatic of many things in the relationship between the Islamic world and the West. “Each side recognizes the other only as a character in its own narrative,” as he puts it. With his “History of the World through Islamic Eyes” the author opens the eyes of both sides to the other’s point of view – so that they can at least see clearly what it is they are talking about.

Klaus Heymach

Translated from the German by Charlotte Collins

Editor: Lewis Gropp/Qantara.de

Tamim Ansary: “Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World through Islamic Eyes”, PublicAffairs, 2009, 416 pp.


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