March 31, 2010

BOOKS: Destiny Disrupted, Tamim Ansary (2009)

World history is always the story of how "we" got to the here and now, so the shape of the narrative inherently depends on who we mean by "we" and what we mean by "here and now." Western world history traditionally presumes that here and now is democratic industrial (and postindustrial) civilization.

But what if we assumed a different "we" and a different "here and now"? That's what Ansary does in Destiny Disrupted, which presents world history from the point of view of the Islamic world. A brief prologue sets the scene for Ansary's beginning point, the founding of Islam in the early 7th century and Mohammed's journey from Mecca to Medina. He follows the first several generations of the Islamic community very closely, as it is here that we find many of the doctrinal differences that lead to today's often-clashing branches of Islam (Sunnis and Shi'as and Sufis and ...).

As Ansary acknowledges, we don't have firm documentary evidence of the events of these years, certainly nothing firm enough to make the average academic happy. For these early events, Ansary says his goal is "mainly to convey what Muslims think happened, because that's what has motivated Muslims over the ages and what makes their role in world history intelligible."

He's a fine storyteller, and the first half of the book is particularly entertaining reading. I found that things got a bit sluggish and began to feel bogged down in names and dates -- as I often do when reading history -- around the time of the Crusades, which arrive about halfway through the book. And by the time Ansary is detailing the post-WWII founding of Israel, Palestine, Syria, Trans-Jordan, and the other countries of the region, I really found myself missing the less academic prose of the early chapters. Even here, though, it's eye-opening to see these events from a non-European/American perspective, and to see just how badly things were bungled during those years.

I surely won't remember as many of the details as well as I'd like to, but I do feel I have a better understanding of this part of the world, and I'm happy to know that Ansary's book is there when I feel the need for a refresher course.

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