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Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes [Paperback]

Tamim Ansary
4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
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Book Description

April 27 2010
We in the west share a common narrative of world history. But our story largely omits a whole civilization whose citizens shared an entirely different narrative for a thousand years.

In Destiny Disrupted, Tamim Ansary tells the rich story of world history as the Islamic world saw it, from the time of Mohammed to the fall of the Ottoman Empire and beyond. He clarifies why our civilizations grew up oblivious to each other, what happened when they intersected, and how the Islamic world was affected by its slow recognition that Europe—a place it long perceived as primitive and disorganized—had somehow hijacked destiny.


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Review

Baptist Standard
“Reading [Tom] Friedman, I was motivated to learn more about the Muslim view of world history. I found a remarkable guide in Tamim Ansary’s Destiny Disrupted.”
General Anthony C. Zinni, USMC (Ret)
"Tamim Ansary has written a truely superb history of the Islamic world.  His excellent analysis provides the reader with an insightful understanding of how that world and its people were shaped by events.  This is a must read for all those who want to understand the evolution of a significant global society and how it has interacted with the rest of the world.'

Khaled Hosseini, author of The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns
“Ansary has written an informative and thoroughly engaging look at the past, present and future of Islam. With his seamless and charming prose, he challenges conventional wisdom and appeals for a fuller understanding of how Islam and the world at large have shaped each other. And that makes this book, in this uneasy, contentious post 9/11 world, a must-read.”

Dave Eggers, TheRumpus.net
“I’m in the middle of Tamim Ansary’s Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World through Islamic Eyes, and it’s incredibly illuminating. Ansary pretty much covers the entire history of Islam in an incredibly readable and lucid way. I’ve been recommending this book to everyone I know. Especially when people are looking for a comprehensive-but-approachable way to look at world history through the lens of Islam, there’s no better book.”

San Francisco Chronicle
"A must-read for anyone who wants to learn more about the history of the Islamic world. But the book is more than just a litany of past events. It is also an indispensable guide to understanding the political debates and conflicts of today, from 9/11 to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, from the Somali pirates to the Palestinian/Israeli conflict. As Ansary writes in his conclusion, "The conflict wracking the modern world is not, I think, best understood as a 'clash of civilizations.' ... It's better understood as the friction generated by two mismatched world histories intersecting." 

Portland Oregonian
“Never apologist in tone, meticulously researched and balanced, often amusing but never glib, Destiny Disrupted is ultimately a gripping drama that pulls the reader into great, seminal events of world history, a book which offers a wealth of knowledge and insight to any reader who wants to understand the movements and events behind the modern-day hostilities wracking Western and Islamic societies.” 

St. Louis Post-Dispatch
“If you want to put today's headlines about jihadist suicide bombings into the much larger context of history, you'd be well advised to settle in with Destiny Disrupted. It's the story of a civilization that suddenly found itself upended by strangers and now wants to put itself right. And if author Ansary stops short of calling the result a clash of civilizations, he feels free to call it two one-sided views of world history. His book is a valuable tool for opening up a view of the other side.” 

Shelf Awareness
“A lively, thorough and accessible survey of the history of Islam (both the religion and its political dimension) that explores many of the disconnects between Islam and the West.”
 
DAWN.com (Pakistan)</I>, August 15, 2010
“Tamim Ansary’s Destiny Disrupted: A history of the world through Islamic eyes is an important work for understanding both past and present issues surrounding the Middle East and the West — Europe and North America — and world history more generally… Ansary’s highly approachable writing style makes the very dense subject of Middle Eastern history easy to digest.” 

David Frum’s FrumForum, August 16, 2010
“An amusing and anecdotal survey of Islamic history”

San Francisco Chronicle, January 4, 2011
“[The fire] was roaring nicely, and I was seated not far from it, reading "Destiny Disrupted" by Tamim Ansary, which is the perfect book for someone who knows hardly anything about the history of the Muslim world and feels that, really, what with things the way they are, a little more attention to detail would be useful. It's one of those "fascinating new fact every paragraph" books. Would you like to know how the Shiite-Sunni schism happened? It's all here. Rumi the poet? He's here. Empires, sultanates, wars, atrocities, cities of great beauty now lost forever, the whole deal. Even the chapters on theology are enjoyable, and I'm not big on the minutiae of belief systems.”

About the Author

Tamim Ansary is the author of the memoir West of Kabul, East of New York, co-author with Farah Ahmadi of the New York Times bestseller The Other Side of the Sky, and has been a major contributing writer to several secondary school history textbooks. Ansary is director of the San Francisco Writers Workshop.

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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index | Back Cover
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Customer Reviews

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Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
This is a well-written book which broadens the perspective of those of us who have grown up immersed in world history as taught from the Western perspective. A must read for those who want to better understand current events in the Muslim world or conflicts in which Islamic groups are involved.
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3.0 out of 5 stars Good book but not without historical errors Feb. 6 2014
By Farhad
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
A very good overview on a long history, unfortunately there are errors with regards to events in Iran, for example attributing Tobacco Boycott to Jamaludin Asadabadi, which is not correct and it was Mirzai Shirazi who lead the tobacco boycott
Also the terror of Naseredin Shah was instigated by Jamaludin Asadabadi, and was carried out by Mirzai Kermani
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5.0 out of 5 stars Simply brilliant Oct. 22 2013
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
A very well-written book that doesn't go into the details and yet tells you so much about the subject. Must read.
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5.0 out of 5 stars A complex story well told July 1 2013
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
I had borrowed this book from the library, and decided to purchase my own copy so I could read it aloud to my wife.

The story of the Muslim world was one that I was only very dimly aware of. The story of the Middle World from the time of Mohammed until the present is a very complex one. Ansary manages not only to untangle all the threads, but to do it in a way that is as compelling as novel.

It was very interesting to see what I thought I knew European history reinterpreted from an Islamic perspective.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Amazon.com: 4.3 out of 5 stars  160 reviews
106 of 119 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A wise, funny, compassionate history May 16 2009
By Michael Chorost - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
I could not stop reading this book. I loved the grand sweep of it and the author's wise, gently humorous voice.

He has the right background to speak about, and to, both cultures: Born in Afghanistan to an Afghan father and an American mother, Ansary emigrated to the U.S. in his teens and went to Reed College in Portland, Oregon. He has lived in the U.S. ever since, with trips back to Afghanistan and the Middle East.

I was fascinated by the book's discussion of Islam's early years in the 7th century, the discussion of Islamic reform movements in the 19th and 20th centuries, and the compassionate overview of the conflict between the Arabs and the Jews in the Middle East.

For that long-running disaster Ansary assigns blame and plenty to everyone involved, and I mean everyone -- including the British, the Americans, the Russians, and the Saudis. And that's just for starters.

His evaluation of the Six Day War in 1967 is eye-opening; he argues that it was a military triumph in the short term but did more harm than good to Israel in the long term.

I was hungry for a longer discussion of the meaning and impact of 9/11 from an Islamic perspective, and I hope the author will do that in some other publication. That aside, this is the perfect book for readers wanting a readable, friendly, big-picture story of how Islam came to be and the religious and cultural frameworks that shape its view of world history.

We desperately need more informed, compassionate, and wise writing of this nature from Mr. Ansary, who has lived in both worlds and can help each understand the other.
40 of 44 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An Alternate "Outline of History" July 22 2009
By Giordano Bruno - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Tamim Ansary's 'History of the World through Islamic Eyes' is purposefully reminiscent of H.G. Wells's 'Outline of History' or of Will Durant's many volumes, or of any high school textbook of Western Civilization, meaning implicitly everything worth recording. Ansary declares as much in his preface. He intends to write a universal history from the point of view of the 'Middle World', in which Europe will be peripheral until the final chapters. No, not Jung Gwo, the "Middle Realm" of China! In fact, China will be even more peripheral than Europe in Ansary's textbook. His Middle World will be Islam, as a culture and a civilization, and his middle point in geography, Mecca, will also be his starting point in time.

The European outline of history has always been the westward succession of leadership, from Greece to Rome to northern Europe to America, a viewpoint of manifest destiny that has justified much imperialism and jingoism. An Islamic history, Ansary says, would be an expansion from a center, rather like ripples spreading from the event of the Hijra in 622 AD, an expansion that should have been destined to encompass the whole world. For the first thousand years of this history, it was perfectly plausible for the most educated classes of Islamic societies to maintain such a viewpoint, Ansary maintains. But then that 'destiny' was disrupted by the unforeseen economic and technological revolutions of the rude barbarians of Europe. Such a perception of history, as a calamitous disruption of the proper order of things, underlies the resentment and hostility of Muslims throughout the Middle World toward the West.

Ansary writes very simply. His prose would pass muster for a high school textbook. But his simplicity is eloquent and lucid. Even when events force him to pass harsh judgements on any party to any controversy, his words are never strident. It would be hard to take offense at what he writes unless, of course, the reader is passionately committed to one point of view and intolerant of any other. In short, this is a book that will infuriate bigots and outrage ideologues. All the more reason why it should be widely read!

Roughly the first half of the book, covering the centuries from 600 AD to 1600, ignores Europe and western Christianity entirely. These were the centuries when history followed its proper course, when the triumphs of Islam validated its sense of destiny, when a few losses at distant frontiers such as Andalucia were scarcely significant. Ansary outlines the growth of Islam from the cult of a few Arab clans to a multi-empire civilization stretching from Mauretania to Indonesia, divided by human rivalries but united by a religion that professed the same concept of lawful community. Among his subjects are the fateful schisms between Sunni, Shia, Ishmailis, and Sufis; the impact of Islam on Persia and the Persians on Islam; the arrival and incorporation of the Mongols and Turks; the rise of the Ottoman Empire in all its 'Byzantine' complexity. Unavoidably in a book of such scope, there are simplifications and oversights, as there are in Durant or Wells or any survey text. For an American or European reader, who probably knows almost nothing about the caliphates and sultanates, the point is not to get everything right in the most sophisticated analysis, but rather to get any sense of how an educated Egyptian or Iranian of today might comprehend the world.

The second half of the book depicts the delayed, astonished, dismayed recognition throughout the Middle World that the despised barbarians of the West had stolen history, thwarted destiny, invaded and infiltrated and corrupted - yes! corrupted! - Islamic civilization. Ansary's analyses of European developments will surely seem simplistic and imbalanced to readers with detailed knowledge of their own cultural history, but then perhaps that's how it all looks from another world. More significant for American readers will be his accounts of the evolution of various responses in Islam to the pressures of westernization, ranging from secularism to fanaticism.

I can promise that most readers will finish this book with a broader understanding of the raging conflicts in what we call the "Middle East" and with, hopefully, a little more tolerance in the face of profound differences and irreconcilable values.
71 of 84 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars I did not expect to read this book in 2 days May 4 2009
By bookfan - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
But I did. I liked Ansary's memoir and wanted to understand the East/West relationship. I ended up savoring every page for 2 days straight. Ansary is a great storyteller and a wise soul. It's not like reading academic history. It's like sitting down with a sage and listening to him tell you a terrific story. It's fascinating that the Islamic world has a totally different (yet legitimate) view of history that emphasizes different events. Europe's dark ages were their Renaissance. Western domination after WWII was their humiliation. Yet both sides steal each others' ideas. I don't think I really understood the world until I read this. Interesting fact: we would know nothing about Aristotle if it wasn't for Persians preserving his work.
134 of 174 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Valuable Perspective, Important Admissions, But Still Biased July 9 2010
By growingtrees - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
Overall, this book is well worth reading because of the narrative, fluid way it ties together the arc of Islamic history. I've read all these historical facts before, but it really helped to get that information all together and presented by someone coming from a culture who values that story as their own story.

I also appreciate the honest way that Tamim Ansary approaches Islam's history of offensive violence and jihad, going back all the way to at least the four Rashidun Rightly Guided Caliphs.

That being said, this book is riddled with gross omissions, Islamic chauvinism, a glaring contradiction, and some factual errors.

Gross Omissions:
1) Nowhere does Tamim Ansary discuss how Muslims treated pagans, Manichaeans, Buddhists or Jains. Why? Because Muslims weren't nearly as kind to them as they were to Christians and Jews. Sometimes Muslims treated Hindus & Zoroastrians as well as Christians & Jews, and of course Ansary highlights those some times while not mentioning the other times Muslims did not treat Hindus or Zoroastrians as relatively kindly as they treated Peoples of the Book.
2) Tamim Ansary goes to great lengths, in a book about "Islamic" history, to mention Christians enslaving Africans, but neglects to discuss the millions of Africans who were enslaved in Mesopotamia in the 8-10th centuries and who rebelled under the Zanj Rebellions. He also doesn't mention Muslims roles in facilitating sales of slaves to Christians, nor in how Muslim inspired Christians to start the colonial slave trade in the first place. Tamim Ansary also loves discussing how colonial Europe treated Muslim societies, but doesn't at all discuss the constant Islamic slave raids on Christians lands all through the Dark Ages that hit Greece, Italy & Spain constantly and that even went as far as Britain & Iceland. Tamim Ansary doesn't discuss ANY of this history of slavery in Islamic societies, except to mention the Janissaries, and of course he put the most positive spin he could on stealing people's children against their will. Can you imagine a modern Australian trying to point out the upward social mobility benefits of putting Aboriginal children in boarding schools? That's the sort of claim Ansary makes about the Janissaries.
3) Tamim Ansary in general hardly mentions the history of Islam in Africa. He never talks about all the pagan African kingdoms violently conquered, their people forcefully converted, by Muslim jihads like the one the Fula waged against the Kaabu Empire.
4) Tamim Ansary also doesn't discuss all the wars that Muslim sultanates fought against the Majapahit Empire and other South and South East Asian societies.

Contradiction:
Ansary discusses (pg 81) the layers of societal stratification in Muslim empires in which non-Muslims were lower than Muslims, and mentions how Akbar the Great was an exception in not oppressing Hindus, and yet elsewhere (pp 78, 135) tries to call these Islamic empires "tolerant." (As an aside, Akbar the Great wasn't actually even Muslim. He made up his own religion with himself as the godhead and was denounced for such heresy by Sufi critics of his time.)

Islamic Chauvinism:
1)When discussing the Mongol invasion in the 13th century (pg 27), Tamim Ansary discusses the "Islamic world" without mentioning that in many places in this "Islamic" world the majority of the population were still non-Muslims being unjustly ruled by Muslims, and many of those non-Muslims (e.g. Nestorians in Iraq & Armenians in Cilicia) welcomed the Mongols as liberators.
2) Despite Ansary's relatively honest discussion of offensive Islamic warfare elsewhere, he (pg 43) says that the Islamic world "fortuitously" produced commanders who conquered Persia & Egypt. In reality, the Persians, Copts, and other ethnic groups unjustly conquered didn't end up viewing that as so fortuitous, and both ended up rebelling against Muslim rule many, many times, a fact that many modern Muslims do their best to downplay.
3) Ansary (pg 230) actually compares Europeans to viruses.

Factual Errors:
The two I noticed (besides the inaccurate depiction of Akbar the Great as a Muslim) are both related. Ansary appears not to have done his research in language classification. He calls the language of the Xiong-Nu "Turkic," even though nobody knows for sure what language family it belonged to, and there's a strong hypothesis that it was Indo-European just like the Tocharian language. And he (pg 289) calls the Armenian language non-European when in fact it is in the Indo-European language family, and its closest relative in the Indo-European language family is Greek.

I guess I shouldn't be surprised by Tamim Ansary ignoring some of the more unsavory parts of Islamic history, while going to great lengths in a book supposedly about "Islamic" history to highlight bad things Christians have done. He's not purporting to write a book from an objective perspective. His book honestly advertises itself as portraying history as modern Muslims perceive it. And that's exactly what we get, because modern Muslims love complaining about the bad things Christians have done while spreading a propagandized white-washed version of their own history. It's important to understand that perspective, because it's unfortunately very common, but Ansary didn't have to perpetuate its chauvinism by writing the book as an almost complete true believer of it.
22 of 28 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Why the disruption? Dec 13 2009
By H. Schneider - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Ansary, an American from Afghanistan, wrote a short and entertaining history about the Muslim world for a Western audience. This `alternative history' has been highly praised by some of my amazon friends. I am mostly with them, but not completely. The concept (tell history from a different angle) is intriguing, but the implementation is not always entirely convincing to me. What we get is a Western perspective on a Muslim perspective of a history of encounters between the Muslim world and the West. There are some new insights for me, so I still rate the book 5 stars, but for some minor but plentiful irritations, I theoretically deduct half a star.

For the time before Islam arose, Ansary uses the term `middle world' in contrast to the Mediterranean world: while `Western civilization' was build around the sea and was largely based on sea lanes, the future Muslim world started out as a region based on land routes and trade connections. This is the region from Turkey and Egypt eastward to Central and South Asia.
I had not been aware how peripheral the crusades were to the Muslim world's perception. Clash of civilizations? Hardly. Where was that civilization of the Franks? And the events really did not penetrate much into the Muslim part of the world, nor into the popular awareness.
I had also not realized how devastating the Mongol attack on the Muslim world had been, not just in terms of mass murder (Ansary uses the term `holocaust'), but also because of the desertification of the Iran/Afghanistan region: the irrigation infrastructure was destroyed!
I definitely need to read more on the Ottoman Empire.

When Europe started its revival after the dark ages, the Muslim world was blooming and busy with itself, so the growth of the rival remained unnoticed for some time. Ansary's theory is that Europe overtook Islam in scientific and economic dimensions because the development of science in Islam was obstructed by the dominance of religious dogma. Europe freed itself of these chains with the reformation and the growth of mercantilist nation states. (While I find this convincing, I am sure some of my catholic friends will protest.)

I have some issues with the book, which may all be minor in the overall reckoning, but they annoy me enough to take away half a star.
There are too many inaccuracies in this edition.

I am a map fetishist. The book has maps. They are instructive, but not all of them are correct and consistent. Start with the one on the present Muslim world, page xvi of the introduction: The Asia version here is just not right. Yes, there is a Muslim majority island in the Philippines, but it isn't Luzon!
And how come Bali and East Timor are painted black? And is Bangladesh really that small? And was Pakistan forgotten?
And then, page 2, map of the `middle world': why does China have to be moved to Siberia?
And then: page 196 has a map showing the 3 Muslim empires of the Ottomans, Safavids, and Moghuls as `Muslim world'; but 5 pages later we get a map showing the sea routes from Europe to the Asian markets, and suddenly the Moghul empire is not part of the Muslim world any more. Inconsistent!
And by the way, the Kingdom of Leon was not `north of Spain'! Unless the author or publisher has redefined Spain, Leon is in the north of Spain. Maybe that is pedantic, but I like books to be made with a professional effort!

Apart from maps, I stumbled over this description of the early years: the Jews in the 6th century Arabia are said to be `resolutely monotheistic'; this may be so, but then Abraham's religion is also later called `resolute monotheism'. I take exception to that. I do not claim to be an expert on the Old Testament, but from my experience with this fascinating and revolting text, I say: no way were the Jews of the Old Testament monotheists! Ansary is making the mistake of confusing `worship one god' with `believe that only one exists'.
More a question to the experts than a complaint: Ansary repeats the myth (?) that Islam saved Aristotle's texts from extinction, via Arabic translations of the Greek, which were then re-translated. I thought the ancient Greek texts had also been preserved in European monasteries. I think that the preservation happened both ways, therefore the claim in the name of Arab science is not compelling.

I found the chapter on the prophet's life shockingly uncritical. Similarly, the caliphas are painted in pink.
A typical sentence reads: the anecdotes are too consistent to dismiss. Really? Actually, this sentence annoys me. Is the author so naïve to believe that tradition would have let any other anecdote survive? Doesn't he know how tradition works and selects?
The prophet was a nice simple kind man, says Ansary. The execution of all Jewish men in town was just par for the course, right?

And as a (former) Lutheran I take exception to the statement that Luther nailed his 95 theses to the Wittenberg church door on Halloween day. That is taking anachronism too far.

Now I am coming back to my headline: which destiny was disrupted and why? I think Ansary has shied away from his implied question: why did the blooming Muslim empires collapse without much of a gasp at the onslaught of European imperialism? Complacency and arrogance are the normal answers in this kind of situation. Could history repeat itself? Personally, I rather hope not.
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