Thursday, December 1, 2011

A History of the World through Islamic Eyes

Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes
By Tamim Ansary
Rating: 4.0/5.0
Publisher: PublicAffairs

In light of ongoing events across North Africa and the Middle East - and everything said about those vast regions at the moment must be in light of the surprising, sometimes shocking and sometimes inspirational occurrences happening there now - a book like Afghan-American author Tamim Ansary's Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes only accumulates esteem. The broad survey, already a sorely needed English-language entry nearly alone among the vacuum of popular histories covering Islam and the cultures it has defined, takes on even greater importance as a keystone for every clued-in or clueless American hoping to rightly comprehend what's happening in the southern and eastern Mediterranean beyond its being, in the parlance of the times, "on fire."

For those familiar with but not completely versed in the intricacies of the Islamic world from Muhammad's life onward - or those whose in-depth knowledge of that history extends only as far as a single 14-page paper his second year of college on the interplay between politics and literature in the Muslim "golden age" - an overview like Ansary's is necessary because it relates the disparate parts, geographically remote lineages and contemporary events perhaps most known to the curious English-speaking reader in a way that provides a pan-Islamic picture without becoming mired in too many minute historical details. So, finally those discrete facts and figures like Sufi poet-mystic Rumi, the Sassanid dynasty, Nasserism, Moorish Spain, Suleiman the Magnificent and "the sick man of Europe," the Battle of Talas, Moghul-era India and the basic tenets of the Muslim faith are carefully pieced together. And more than that, that knowledge is extended by the book's historical breadth, and added to the pock-marked puzzle are the lesser-known necessities: the life story of the Prophet Muhammad, the theological underpinnings of Shi'a Islam, Muslim accounts of the West's many internecine conflicts and, finally, the reasons behind what the laughably provincial call "the clash of civilizations" but is more akin to simply the newest incarnation of a stormy eternal bond.

And even if you aren't the type of person with at least a working knowledge of the ever-changing, highly dynamic Muslim multiverse because you've never had the opportunity; or even if, like a certain famous Vulpus vulgaris, you had no interest in the world outside your own until 9/11, Destiny Disrupted gives a thorough rundown from inception to modernity of the diverse and storied regions which Islam, the fastest growing religion on Earth, has spread its message to. Today, Islam stretches from Morocco to Malaysia, from Dakar, Senegal to Urumqi, China, and arguably even further than that given the broad spread of Muslims living in virtually all parts of the planet today.

Put simply: though at times the book skips too lightly through some epochs and certain events are left off the chalkboard entirely, there aren't enough overviews of this variety available to readers in the language, fewer still which offer a balanced history of the religion, and even fewer yet which contain prose as breezy and easy to pick through as Ansary's. For those desiring such a survey, uninterested in either the paternalistically dilettantish or obsessively academic accounts, it fills a void. In a way similar to in sense yet opposite in syntax, the paucity of English language works covering the pan-Islamic world increases our mistaken beliefs about it, just as the educational and cultural saturation of Anglo-America's most revered and celebrated (and embellished) figures and eras, like Elizabethan England, the world wars, the American Founders and Jesus, grows myopia and mythos around them.

More than ever ours is a shared history; while the gulf of cultural solipsism and pretended-at differences may have divided us disingenuously before, through the common pursuit of peace and affluence (in other words, trade) our destinies have again become thrust together, in the way which they have always been but which we, sleepily, had forgotten. Ansary, author also of the memoir West of Kabul, East of New York and himself a product of the blurred abutment between the false dichotomy of Occident and Orient, knows this too well, and ultimately it is the retelling of this Eurasian seed-dream history's forgotten half that is Destiny Disrupted's greatest success.


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