Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes by Tamim Ansary

When I read a history book geared toward general readers, I always try to remember that it is only one author’s perspective. Although I may not notice it, I’m sure it will contain bias.

Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes by Tamim Ansary (published 2009 by Public Affairs) has the bonus of telling us from the subtitle that it is a biased work. I further appreciate the fact that Tamim Ansary, an Afghan-American and practicing Muslim, admits that this is a history “through Islamic eyes,” that is, his own. He’s not trying to show a history of the world according to all of those in Islam: this is simply his own perspective, based on his research and perspective.

Destiny Disrupted, then, is just what I was looking for right now. I must admit that I do not have a firm grasp of Western world history, and yet reading Destiny Disrupted showed me how one-sided the perspective I do have is. The Middle Ages in Europe (which I’d put at 600-1400 CE) were a time of tremendous growth and expansion in the Middle World (i.e., those lands in which Islam thrived).

Ansary begins his volume with an introduction to Islam’s beginnings, focusing on the status of the middle world during the era of the founding of Islam, as well as a chapter on the life of Mohammed and the tenants of Islam. Subsequent chapters explain the schisms that arise, the empire(s) that become established and the impressive flowering of intellectual development that arose in the midst of an Islamic “Renaissance.” Having never studied these years from the Islamic perspective, I was not fully aware of the impact of Islamic scholars’ studies on the later intellectual Renaissance in Europe. For example, it was due to Islamic scholars that Europe “rediscovered” Aristotle and the Greek thinkers.

And then, after a few centuries of intellectual plenty, downfall came to the Islamic empires, from the rising up of the Turks to the Christians arriving in the area for the Crusades to the invasions of the Mongols. In essence, Genghis Khan and the subsequent generations sought to destroy the entire Islamic civilization, leading to the destruction of entire cities over the course of a few centuries, from 1050-1250 CE. Although I’d heard the names somewhere, I hadn’t realized the extent of the conquering in to the Middle World, and I was not familiar with the connection between East and West in these years. The facts shared about the Crusades were likewise necessary to learn for me: my memories of learning about the Middle Ages center around the glamor of knights and the “coat of arms” I had to design. Maybe the knights are not the best thing to focus on from those years….

Ansary, being American, wrote from a perspective I understood and appreciated. He wrote of events in Europe just enough to remind me of what I did study in school so I could put the unfamiliar events in context. But he did not focus on Europe so that it distracted from his focus, which was of course life for those in the Islamic empires. On the other hand, because he is a Muslim who was raised in Afghanistan, he had the perspective of one who learned history from the Islamic perspective first, and as such the tragedies and pleasures in Islamic history were brought to life from his personal perspective.

I had to return the book to the library, and I read the book over the course of a month and a half, about a chapter at a time, one or two chapters a week.  As such, I can’t rehash the entire organization of the book or recall specifics of the volume. But memorizing specific facts was not my goal in reading it. I wanted an overview of Islamic history, a context for the contrasts between the American civilization I live in and the Islamic civilizations around the globe, which seem misunderstood in my country and era. For my purposes, Ansary definitely succeeded.

Because I know this is just one perspective, I look forward to reading more about the history of Islam as well as the various civilizations of the world (including Europe during these eras). I hope that my next book on the history of Islam, Hugh Kennedy’s The Great Arab Conquests: How the Spread of Islam Changed the World We Live In, is likewise as engaging to read and informative for the reader new to the history of civilizations as I am.

Comments

  1. says

    I’d love to read this. I’ve just finished watching a fascinating BBC tv series on the Crusades (it was called The Crusades and it was presented by Dr Thomas Ashbridge – I can recommend it) but there was so much information to take in.

    • says

      Joanne » I think I found the book version of Asbridge’s documentary…it’s on my tbr. This is certainly eye-opening when I realized how one-sided my view of history is from an American/non-Islamic upbringing.

  2. says

    This does sound like a really great book and I’m sure I could benefit from reading it as well. I want to learn more about history like this – full history by seeing it from different eyes.

    • says

      Amy » yes, it was nice that he gave such a huge overview in such a little volume. It is only his take, though, so I must make sure to read more books like it to get a better view.

  3. says

    I have been wanting a book basically exactly like this! Well, what I most wanted was something that talked about the Arab influences on the Renaissance, but it sounds like this book covers that and very much more. Yay!

    • says

      Jenny » Destiny Disrupted certainly touches on Arab influences of the European Renaissance, but it’s certainly not the focus. I have a huge list of Islamic history books to read: sounds like maybe you are looking for something more like Aristotle’s Children which seems to focus on the rediscovery of Greek thought during the Renaissance (something Arabs directly contributed to). I haven’t read it yet, but sounds more like what you mention.

  4. says

    I’ve often marveled at how different the viewpoint on history is between what I learned in school in Canada and friends learned in the US – history is SO not unbiased, no matter who writes it, so we just have to educate ourselves about differing viewpoints.Thanks for the recommendation of this book to aid in said education!

    • says

      Debbie Rodgers » Every time I think “I should go back to school,” I think, nope, I’m enjoying my self-education much better! There are so many viewpoints to study. Thanks for weighing in. I’m curious — for you, was Canadian education full of WORLD history, including Islamic and Asian history, or did it remain Western-history biased as it seemed my American education obviously was?

      • says

        Oh, definitely western-history biased; the most “Asian” we ever got was Marco Polo lol

        I perceive most of the differences to lie in 1) the scope of British history studied and our attitude toward the British Empire, including our view of American Independence 2) our more-or-less lack of exposure to American history – although we did pick up an AWFUL lot of that through the media, popular literature and so on, our ‘culture’ being more-or-less dominated by America; 3) your lack of exposure to Canadian history (I daresay the average Canadian knows a WHOLE LOT more about America and its history that the average American knows of Canada), 4) our view of the role of America in the World Wars and 5) the War of 1812.

        Given all that, and that both educations are still western-centric, I wonder if there is such a thing as objectivity, especially in history. Even in current events, how we perceive the ‘truth’ of an event is determined by our nationality, education (formal and on-going), political bias, the bias of any information source we use, our life experiences, and a myriad of other things.