News / USA

World History Looks Different When Seen Through Islamic Eyes

Afghan-American writer, lecturer, and teacher Tamim Ansary is man ideally placed to help Westerners see the history of our world through another set of eyes.  Growing up in Afghanistan as a young history buff, Ansary had an opportunity to read and learn about the world from dual perspectives.  A decade ago, when he was working as a textbook editor, a publisher in Texas hired him to develop a new world history textbook for high school students.

“What that meant was that I had to select and arrange the most consequential events to reveal the arc of history, not a chronological list of every damn thing that ever happened,” Ansary said.   What emerged was a narrative of civilization that included both “the West” and “Islam.”  From his textbook, Ansary went on to write another book, this time for adults – Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World through Islamic Eyes.  That book is about to be re-published in paperback edition.

World History Looks Different When Seen Through Islamic Eyes
World History Looks Different When Seen Through Islamic Eyes



Ancient Times – Mesopotamia and Persia

Ansary begins with two lists of the pivotal periods in human history – as seen both through Western eyes and through Islamic eyes.  For both, it is the year 3500 BC (before Christ in the Western calendar) – or 3500 BCE (before the Common Era, as it’s known in both Muslim and Jewish traditions).   “The first traces of what you might call ‘civilization’ emerged along the Tigris and Euphrates River and a little later in Egypt,” Ansary said.  “Writing is part of it; cities are part of it; irrigation systems and inventions like the wheel.”

In the Middle East, a pattern recurred again and again, Ansary explains.  “A city would be built up; the nomads would take over that city and become the civilized people.  They would expand the empire the city had once ruled; then, new nomads would come and expand the empire again.  That process came to a climax with the Persian Empire, which ruled a realm stretching from the Indus River to Egypt.”  In the Mediterranean region, Ansary notes, this period roughly overlaps the Western civilization of Greece and Rome.

Birth of Islam

In terms of cultural identity, the most critical historical period for Muslims is the birth of Islam – specifically the Hijra, the flight of the Prophet Mohammed from Mecca to Medina in 622 CE.  “About 610," Ansary recounts, “the Prophet went to a cave and meditated.  And he felt he had been visited by the angel Gabriel, who told him he was the messenger of Allah. That message was that there is only one God.  You shouldn’t worship idols.  This one God has given humanity freedom of choice, but will hold them responsible for their choices.  Time will end and there will be a day of judgment, and people will be sorted into those who have done good, who will go to heaven, and those who have done evil, who will go to hell – for eternity.”

“When the Prophet fled to Medina because he was being persecuted in Mecca,” Ansary said, “he became not only a preacher but also the leader of a political community, the Muslim community, and that marks the turning point of history.”

Caliphate – Quest for Unity

About the same time as the rise of Christianity in the West and its subsequent “Dark Ages,” Ansary noted, Islam was experiencing a quest for unity, represented by the Caliphate.  “At that time, the Muslim empire was the civilized empire that was in its Golden Age,” he said.

The core of the religious conflict, Ansary explains, was the division between Sunni Islam and Shi’a Islam.   “Many different ethnic groups had come under the umbrella of Islam, and a question arose as to how they should all be integrated into  one community whose fundamental premise was the brotherhood and equality of all.”

Age of the Sultanates – Fragmentation

By the end of the 11th century of the Common Era, the dream of a universal Muslim community at the political level had failed, according to Ansary.  “It crumbled because the Caliphate got too big.  The technology of the time was not sufficient to have one capital administering a realm that stretched from India to Spain,” he said.

As the Caliphate fragmented, a similar thing that had happened to the Roman Empire in the West, happened to the Muslim world, Ansary suggests.  “The Seljuk Turks were the first of the nomadic tribes from the north to enter the Muslim realm,” he explained.  “They were very mobile, and they set up something different from the Caliphate,” he said.   “But, most important, the culture of the Islamic world changed after that invasion,” Ansary noted.

Catastrophe – Crusaders from the West and Mongols from the East


Then came a period of about three centuries in which the Islamic world was attacked by Crusaders from the west and by Mongols from the east, Ansary said.  The Crusaders came to the eastern Mediterranean and set up three small Crusader kingdoms.  “Although the Crusader destruction was not so widespread, within that area the destruction was at times horrifying.  For example, the conquest of Jerusalem was quite a slaughter,” Ansary said.

“But by far the greater catastrophe was when the Mongols came and destroyed whole cities, such as the ancient Afghan city of Balkh and the city of Baghdad [in present-day Iraq] – with its libraries and archives,” Ansary notes.  
 
Three Great Empires – Rebirth

The next major period from an Islamic perspective was that of the three great empires.  Of these, the Ottoman Empire was the largest.  “It encompassed North Africa, Asia Minor to the edge of what is now Iran, and it spilled over into Eastern Europe,” Ansary said.   The Persian Safavid Empire in Central Asia was a bit larger than modern-day Iran.  And the Moghul Empire in South Asia included what are now India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and part of Afghanistan.

“If you take these empires together, you have a span of civilization that would have seemed pretty familiar to a traveler who could start in Morocco, moving through North Africa and Egypt, across Asia Minor and Iran, all the way to the eastern parts of India,” Ansary explains.  Travelers, for example, would find calligraphy, mosques with domes, minarets, and mosaics, and people who were familiar with the foundational stories of Islam.  “It was somewhat similar to the continuity of Western civilization now – traveling from the United States, to Britain, to France, to Germany, and onward – where people will share your most basic premises,” he notes.

Permeation of the East by the West

Meanwhile, the Western world was also experiencing a rebirth – a renaissance in the arts and a reformation in religion.  This period involved considerable interaction between the Muslim and Christian worlds, especially in trade.  “The West was dominant by sea, and the Islamic people were dominant on land,” Ansary observes.

“When the West came to the East, the East was at the peak of its power, in terms of how it felt about itself, so the Muslims didn’t perceive the Western traders as a threat,” Ansary said. Throughout this period, when the West was becoming dominant in the East, he suggests, that domination was not primarily in terms of military conflict.  “In fact, the wars that were going on were generally those between different Muslim powers,” he explains.

Islamic Reform Movements

From the early 18th century CE through the end of World War I, a number of reform movements arose in the Muslim world – for example, the Wahhabis in the Arabian Peninsula and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.  “This major era of reform movements occurred in the context of Muslims becoming aware of the fact that they had come to be dominated by another culture, so the movements of religious reform also had to address imperialism,” Ansary notes.

“Wahhabism was one of the reform movements whose answer to the decline of Muslim power was, we must go back to the way of life that was practiced in the original community,” Ansary said.  In some ways, it was similar to the Protestant Reformation in Christendom, he said.  However, at the other extreme were reform movements in Islam that said, “The West may really have something, and maybe we should think of Islam as an ethical system and eliminate the supernatural elements in it.”
 
Yet another Islamic reform movement suggested that “The West has something important in the realm of science, but it is completely wrong in terms of its social system,” Ansary said.  “And this movement ended up being the ancestor of the Muslim Brotherhood, and it became a nationalistic, pan-Islamic idea,” according to Ansary.

Secular Modernists

The rise of secular modernists in the Islamic world – such as Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in Turkey, Mohammed Ali Jinnah in Pakistan, and Gamal Abdul Nasser in Egypt – is a 20th century phenomenon.   Ansary describes Ataturk as a “radical extremist” in the Islamic context.  “In many ways he overthrew the idea of a traditional Islamic society in favor of a secular Western idea. He said that Turks could practice Islam as a religion, but it had nothing to do with the government,” Ansary explained.  And in Turkey, he noted, it became the job of the army to guarantee the secularism of the government.
 
Political Islam – Reaction

Some modern-day examples of political Islam include the Islamic Republic of Iran, the Taliban in Afghanistan, and the Justice and Development Party in Turkey.  “But I think political Islam is still in a very ambiguous state in terms of whether it will succeed in governing the societies it has taken over,” Ansary cautioned.  “Taliban-ism in Afghanistan is a powerful movement so long as it is in opposition to a foreign force that is seen as occupying the country.”  

However, administering a country involves a “whole new set of problems,” Ansary said.  For example, the Revolutionary Guard in Iran is a military organization.  “It has the power to rally people to battle, but whether it has the ability to govern a society is still open to question,” Ansary said.

Other Histories

 “I’m not suggesting that books like mine should be part of the curriculum in the schools of the West,” Ansary said.  “But I do think it is supplementary reading, and that could also encompass Indian and Chinese and other histories,” Ansary suggested.

“If we take the premise that history is the story of how we got to here and now, and if that means moving towards a universal civilization, then the history that leads to this here and now will differ from all these particular histories,” Ansary said.   “But our situation right now demands an understanding of world history from an Islamic perspective,” he urges.

Other books available by Tamim Ansary:
West of Kabul, East of New York (a novel)
The Widow’s Husband (a historical epic set during the first Afghan-British War)
 



















You May Like

Video Positive Messaging Helps Revamp Ethiopia's Image

In country once connected with war, poverty, famine, headlines now focus on fast-growing economy, diplomatic reputation More

Russian Activist Thinks Kremlin Ordered Nemtsov's Death

Alexei Navalny says comments of Russian liberals who think government wasn't involved are 'nonsense.' More

Video Land Disputes Rise Amid Uganda Oil Boom

Investors appear to be cashing in by selling parcels of land to multiple buyers More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Positive Messaging Transforms Ethiopia's Imagei
X
Marthe van der Wolf
March 03, 2015 9:03 PM
Ethiopia was once known for famine and droughts. Now, headlines more often point to its fast-growing economy and its emergence as a regional peacemaker. How has Addis Ababa changed the narrative? VOA's Marthe van der Wolf reports.
Video

Video Positive Messaging Transforms Ethiopia's Image

Ethiopia was once known for famine and droughts. Now, headlines more often point to its fast-growing economy and its emergence as a regional peacemaker. How has Addis Ababa changed the narrative? VOA's Marthe van der Wolf reports.
Video

Video Cyber War Rages Between Iran, US

A newly published report indicates Iran and the United States have increased their cyber attacks on each other, even as their top diplomats are working toward an agreement to guarantee Iran does not develop a nuclear weapon and to free Iran from international sanctions. The development is part of a growing global trend. VOA’s Al Pessin reports from London.
Video

Video Answers Elude Families of MH370 Passengers

For the families on board Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, an airline official’s statement nearly one year ago that the plane had lost contact with air traffic control at 2:40 AM is the only thing that remains confirmed. William Ide reports.
Video

Video Land Disputes Arise Amid Uganda Oil Boom

Ugandan police say there has been a sharp increase in land disputes, with 10 new cases being reported each day. The claims come amid an oil boom as investors appear to be cashing in by selling parcels of land to multiple buyers. Meanwhile, the people who have been living on the land for decades are chased away, sometimes with a heavy hand. VOA's Serginho Roosblad reports.
Video

Video In Russia, Many Doubt Opposition Leader's Killer Will Be Found

The funeral has been held in Moscow for Boris Nemtsov, the opposition leader who was assassinated late Friday just meters from the Kremlin. Nemtsov joins a growing list of outspoken critics of Russia under the leadership of President Vladimir Putin who are believed to have been murdered for their work. VOA’s Daniel Schearf reports from Moscow.
Video

Video Simulated Astronauts Get Taste of Mars, in Hawaii

For generations, people have dreamed of traveling to Mars to explore Earth's closest planetary neighbor. VOA's Mike O'Sullivan reports that while space agencies like NASA are planning manned missions to the planet, some volunteers in Hawaii are learning how humans will cope with months in isolation on a Mars base.
Video

Video Destruction of Iraq Artifacts Shocks Archaeologists

The city of Mosul was once one of the most culturally rich and religiously diverse cities in Iraq. That tradition is under attack by members of the Islamic State who have made Mosul their capital city. The Mosul Museum is the latest target of the group’s campaign of terror and destruction, and is of grave concern to archaeologists around the world. VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports.
Video

Video Smartphones May Help in Diagnosing HIV

Diagnosing infections such as HIV requires expensive clinical tests, making the procedure too costly for many poor patients or those living in remote areas. But a new technology called lab-on-a-chip may make the tests more accessible to many. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Afghan Refugees Complain of Harassment in Pakistan

Afghan officials have expressed concern over reports of a crackdown on Afghan refugees in Pakistan following the Peshawar school attack in December. Reports of mass arrests and police harassment coupled with fear of an uncertain future are making life difficult for a population that fled its homeland to escape war. VOA’s Ayesha Tanzeem reports from Islamabad.
Video

Video Ukrainian Volunteers Prepare to Defend Mariupol

Despite the ongoing ceasefire in Ukraine, soldiers in the city of Mariupol fear that pro-Russian separatists may be getting ready to attack. The separatists must take or encircle the city if they wish to gain land access to Crimea, which was annexed by Russia early last year. But Ukrainian forces, many of them volunteers, say they are determined to defend it. Patrick Wells reports from Mariupol.
Video

Video Moscow Restaurants Suffer in Bad Economy, Look for Opportunity

As low oil prices and Western sanctions force Russia's economy into recession, thousands of Moscow restaurants are expected to close their doors. Restaurant owners face rents tied to foreign currency, while rising food prices mean Russians are spending less when they dine out. One entrepreneur in Moscow has started a dinner kit delivery service for those who want to cook at home to save money but not skimp on quality. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports.
Video

Video Presidential Hopefuls Battle for Conservative Hearts and Minds

One after another, presumptive Republican presidential contenders auditioned for conservative support this week at the Conservative Political Action Conference held outside Washington. The rhetoric was tough as a large field of potential candidates tried to woo conservative support with red-meat attacks on President Barack Obama and Democrats in Congress. VOA Political Columnist Jim Malone takes a look.
Video

Video Southern US Cities Preserve Civil Rights Heritage to Boost Tourism

There has been a surge of interest in the American civil rights movement of the 1950s and '60s, thanks in part to the Hollywood motion picture "Selma." Five decades later, communities in the South are embracing the dark chapters of their past with hopes of luring tourism dollars. VOA's Chris Simkins reports.
Video

Video Deep Under Antarctic Ice Sheet, Life!

With the end of summer in the Southern hemisphere, the Antarctic research season is over. Scientists from Northern Illinois University are back in their laboratory after a 3-month expedition on the Ross Ice Shelf, the world’s largest floating ice sheet. As VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports, they hope to find clues to explain the dynamics of the rapidly melting ice and its impact on sea level rise.

All About America

Circumventing Censorship

An Internet Primer for Healthy Web Habits

As surveillance and censoring technologies advance, so, too, do new tools for your computer or mobile device that help protect your privacy and break through Internet censorship.
More