2009, 357 p. plus notes.
I haven’t read a book like this before. It certainly goes some way towards filling a gaping hole in my knowledge of the world. Night after night I watch the television news with Shi’a and Sunni hostilities. I am aware of Muslim groups in Africa, Indonesia, Central Asia, ex-Soviet Republics and the Middle East without knowing how they fit in with each other. I know about Mohammad (without really knowing when he lived); I know about the man who built the Taj Mahal (without really knowing when he lived, either). How do the Sultans fit in? And the Mongols? I’m only vaguely aware of dates where the Muslim and European worlds intersected- the 7th century and the Crusades (and do I really know when they were?) I lack a chronology: I lack an overarching narrative. And this is where this book comes in.
The book starts by decentralizing us geographically. There is not ‘East’ and ‘West’. Instead there is the Mediterranean World, linked by sea routes and the Middle World, an overland kingdom situated between the Mediterranean to the west and the Chinese World to the east. Each world had more interaction internally with itself than with the other, and each had good reason to think that it was at the centre of human history. And, as he points out, the intersection between these two worlds, along what we now call the Middle East, has been a fault line then and now.
Next we are decentralized chronologically as well: the book starts at Year Zero (622 CE), not with the birth of Mohammad, but with the Hirja- the emigration of Mohammad and the Muslim community from Mecca to Medina. This, in Islam, is the turning point of their fortunes, dividing all of time into before the Hirja (BH) and after the Hirja (AH).
The European world is largely absent in the first half of this book. The expansion into Spain is just a sideshow on the edge of the Islamic world; the Crusades, for all their brutality, do not actually change anything once they come to an end. What does change the Middle World is the brief explosion of the Mongol holocaust around 614AH (1218 CE) and yet even here, the Muslims ended up reconquering them not through territory or warfare, but through conversion. In the next four hundred years there is a rebirth of Islamic culture, with the three Islamic empires – the Ottoman Empire, the Safavid Empire and the Moghul Empire- displaying diverse local customs and a variety of languages- but united by common elements as well into a single, coherent civilization.
It is only at Chapter 11, and halfway through the book that the narrative picks up “meanwhile in Europe” and brings the Western and Middle World narratives together. Although the Muslim world was at a peak, the Western world had been fundamentally transformed by the emphasis on the individual fostered by the Protestant Reformation, science and mercantilism. It was not a clash of civilizations, but the gradual infiltration of traders, business advisors and technical consultants. Reform movements erupted within Islam itself, bifurcating into wahhabism and fundamentalism on the one hand, and secular and islamic modernism on the other. Overlaid by industrialism, constitutionalism and nationalism, Islamic countries found themselves as the playpieces of wider diplomatic tensions during the World and Cold Wars. On Sept 11, the two world histories crashed together, but it was not as Francis Fukiyama famously claimed, the end of history.
Ansary closes his book by observing that
Islam can be seen as one world history among many that are unfolding simultaneously, each in some way incorporating all the others. Considered in this light, Islam is a vast narrative moving through time, anchored by the birth of that community in Mecca and Medina fourteen centuries ago. The story includes many characters who are not Muslim and many events that are not religious. Jews and Christians and Hindus are part of this story. Industrialization is an element of the plot, and so is the steam engine and the discovery of oil. When you look at it this way, Islam is a vast complex of communal purposes moving through time, driven by its own internally coherent assumptions (p. 357)
In the preface the Afghan- born author (now resident in US), Tamim Ansary explains that he is not a scholar or a historian, and that his book is neither a textbook nor a scholarly thesis. He emphasizes the “story”, and he writes in a colloquial style with minimal footnoting. He admits that he has devoted what might seem like an inordinate amount of time to the career of Prophet Mohammed and his first four successors, but
I recount this story as an intimate human drama,because this is the way that Muslims know it. Academics approach this story more skeptically, crediting non-Muslim sources above supposedly less-objective Muslim accounts, because they are mainly concerned to dig up what “really happened”. My aim is 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 (p.xxi)
As a reader, I felt as if the author was leading me confidently and forthrightly through a history that spills out of current day national boundaries and which is studded with confusing and unfamiliar names.There were maps almost exactly at the point where I found myself thinking “Gee, I could use a map here”, and if he signposted that there were three groups that he was going to examine, then there they were 1,2,3. I don’t know enough to detect whether there were inaccuracies or not, and although some critics were disconcerted by the colloquial tone, I found it a relief that at no point did the narrative bog down.
I’m really pleased that I read this book, and I can’t remember how long it’s been since I read a book that I learned so much.
Some reviews if you’re interested:
My rating: 9.5/10 (I do like to leave a little bit of rating up my sleeve!)
Accessed from: La Trobe University Library
Read because: My internet friend SuLu reviewed it on her blog here.