By Tamim Ansary
Review by Tara Marie Good
In 1940 Walter Benjamin wrote, "To articulate what is past does not mean to recognize ‘how it really was.' It means to take control of a memory, as it flashes in a moment of danger." For the German-Jewish Marxist philosopher that moment of danger was the Nazi march on Europe. The moment of danger that inspired Afghani born Tamim Ansary to articulate Islamic history in Destiny Disrupted was September 11th.
Destiny Disrupted is a historical narrative of the Islamic world addressing the chasm seen to separate Western and Middle Eastern histories. The main thesis presented by Ansary is that the history of Islam and the West are two parallel histories, which overlap at points, but are fundamentally separate. Claiming to represent a general Muslim perception, Ansary charts Middle Eastern history from the ancient world to the western colonial and economic expansion in the modern era.
First, it must be said, the remarkable ambition of consolidating roughly three thousand years into 357 pages is astounding, and still more remarkable is that Ansary does it well. The narrative adeptly crisscrosses the Islamic world, relentlessly weaving together the diverse historical threads that compose the Islamic world, to create a cohesive and highly comprehendible portrait. Without losing sight of development in Europe, Ansary assumes the reader has a rudimentary understanding of western history, which he then continually uses as a backdrop, and almost rhetorical frame, for the central drama of empires, khalifates, and invasions marking the Islamic timeline. Indeed, the scope of the subject matter and the remarkable readability of the work makes this a must read for any novice of Middle Eastern studies.
Asnary achieves concision and readability in Destiny Disrupted by crafting it, not as an academic study of history, but as a reflective narrative. Ansary describes his style in the introduction, "It's more like what I would tell you if we met in a coffee house..." Not surprisingly, much is left out. Ansary gives short shrift to pre-Islamic history, which entirely bypasses the megalithic history of Ancient Egypt, instead focusing on Mesopotamia and Persia. Minorities, such as the Druze, Kurds, and Berbers, are entirely absent from the narrative. Morocco and Libya are sidelined for the history of India/Pakistan and Afghanistan. Such omissions do not detract from the work so much as remind us that all histories are subjective.
Arguably, all histories are written to answer questions about the present. Ansary's history emerges from the political and cultural havoc experienced throughout the world since September 11th. It aims to give an historical explanation as to why our two cultures seem to be at war. It doesn't so much challenge the western timeline-starting with the classical world, jumping to the renaissance, culminating in the triumph of the enlightenment-rather it shows an equal but separate history. These parallel histories fulfill Ansary's larger project: explaining why the Middle East is embroiled in conflict and why the West doesn't understand. Yet a historian might ask, are these two histories as parallel as Ansary describes? Were there not deep crosscurrents of learning, trade, and diplomacy binding Christendom and the Muslim world during all those centuries? Ansary does give a nod to the al-Andalus period is Spain, and spends half a chapter on the crusades, but he does not explore the intercultural significance of these periods for the simple reason that he does not claim to be a historian.
Ansary offers himself as an heir of Islamic history, and as such presents an impeccably researched, yet deeply emotional perspective. In "On the Concept of History" Walter Benjamin described the sadness, the acedia, that accompanies the study of history-that frustrating inability to fully reconstruct the past; the reflecting on missed opportunities at creating a better world; the inevitability of siding with the victor of whom we now benefit. Ansary's history of the Islamic world is permeated with this sadness. He emphasizes that Islam was established not only as a theology but also as a social project: the umma. The umma is the Muslim community in which people live in peace and harmony with one another. According to Islamic tradition Muhammad's community achieved the perfect umma, only to be fractured by schisms following his death. Islamic history is then seen as a long struggle, with foes both in and outside the Muslim world, to return the umma to its original state.
Understanding Islamic history from this deeply emotional perspective does great service to the non-Muslim reader. Rather than claiming the emotional austerity of academic history Ansary allows an empathetic view of facts, providing the reader with insight as to how their Muslim contemporaries view the past. Few would argue with the message contained in Destiny Disrupted: understanding each other's history is the path to sharing each other's future.
Tara Marie Good received her Master's in Performance Studies at NYU; she is the two-time recipient of CLS State Department scholarships to Amman, Jordan and Salalah, Oman.