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.
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.
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.
“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)