Destinies Disrupted, Muslim and Western

Book review of "Destiny Disrupted - A History of the World through Islamic Eyes" by Tamin Ansary

When we encounter a book which has a lot to say but which doesn't get the publicity we feel it deserves, we try to talk about it.  In that spirit, we found Destiny Disrupted - A History of the World through Islamic Eyes by Tamin Ansary to be most enlightening.

The Middle World

Prof. Ansary grew up in Afghanistan where he was exposed to a view of world history which is utterly different from the Western narrative.  He locates Islam in the "Middle World" which lies between the "Mediterranean World" of the Roman empire and the "Asian World" of China and India.

Because the Roman Empire surrounded the Mediterranean Sea, most high-volume trade went by sea in Roman times.  Middle World trade went mostly by land routes which linked what is now Israel, Iran, Turkey, Afghanistan, India, and China.

European and Muslim powers had little to do with one another after the Roman empire collapsed.  Europe was too fragmented to care about the Middle East and the Muslim powers were busy conquering their way to India.

Around 622, the prophet Mohammad had a revelation from which he founded the religion of Islam.  His message was simple - Allah is the one and only God, and we must all submit to his will.  Over time, he elaborated the message into the Koran, the Muslim Bible.

Many of the businessmen in Medina made their living from religious tourism.  If the "one God" idea took hold, devotees of all the other gods would stop visiting and their businesses would be damaged.  Their opposition forced Mohammad to flee to Medina.

As he gained converts in Medina, Islam grew to the point that the Meccans decided to raise an army and go to Medina to stamp out this job-killing idea.  There were several battles in which the greatly-outnumbered Islamic forces defeated their rivals.  This led credence to Mohammed's claim of "manifest destiny" - Allah wanted Muslims to conquer the whole world so that everyone alive would be Muslim.

At its peak, the Muslim empire ruled more area than America and Europe combined, but Europeans hardly noticed because land travel was so difficult.

Destiny Disrupted

As European governments became more centralized and more powerful, it was inevitable that they would come into conflict with the Muslim powers.  Ferdinand and Isabella, the venture capitalists who funded Columbus' expedition to discover America, united Spain by driving Muslims out of Spain in 1492.

The high water mark of Islam came when Islamic forces besieged Vienna in 1683.  Contrary to their "manifest destiny" ideology, the Europeans defeated them.  From then on, a series of defeats forced Islamic forces to cede more and more territory to the Europeans.  Loss of territory culminated with Istanbul being occupied by British soldiers after WW I.

Many Muslim rulers believed that the Europeans gained power simply through the use of modern technology and bought European guns, machinery, mercenaries, and training services.  They did not adopt commercial ideas such as long-term joint stock companies and stock markets which help raise large sums of capital to make modern weapons for themselves.

The Industrial Revolution which started in England and spread to the rest of the Christian world destroyed the Western social fabric based on feudalism.  This social restructuring never took place in the Islamic world.

The traditional Islamic social structure was based on a top leader who had to consult with various charitable religious and secular brotherhoods holding commercial monopolies.  It was sort of like the Methodists having a monopoly on weaving, the Lutherans doing all the metalworking, Episcopalians having the only license for construction, and so on.

This commercial structure, where powerful merchant guilds were coupled with religion, made it more difficult for Muslim nations to adopt the social changes required for the industrial revolution.  In England, in contrast, Queen Elizabeth had enough power all by herself in 1600 to charter the East India Company to look for trade overseas, and also to block the use of automatic knitting machines in 1589.

The consensus-based Muslim governments could not made decisions nearly that crisply and any new idea would be opposed by one or the other of the special interest groups.  Unwillingness to adapt to industrialization forced Muslim nations further and further behind the Western world in terms of individual wealth and military power.  To this day, Muslim economic power comes from resource extraction, specifically Middle Eastern oil; while individual sheiks and princes can buy any fancy Western toys they please, from yachts to fighter jets, they don't build their own and never have.

If only!

Destiny Demanded

Muslim history since 1700 is the story of generations of Muslim scholars groping to explain why they haven't been able to achieve their destiny of uniting the entire world under a caliphate loyal to Allah.  Why are European powers ascendant?  Has Allah abandoned us?  The Jews asked the same question of prophets like Ezekiel after they were dragged off to Babylon.

One of the basic differences between the Bible and the Koran is that although both books claim to be the literal Word of God, the Koran also claims to be completely sufficient.  The Bible states that men are to "subdue the earth" which implies an obligation to figure out the best ways to make use of what the earth provides; the Bible provides no details.  For devout Christians, this is a logical and God-endorsed reason to pursue scientific investigation and to disseminate the knowledge.

In contrast, since the Koran claims to contain all knowledge needed for a virtuous life, there is no need to study physics, electronics, or any other form of technology.  This doesn't mean that Muslims can't do science - they're as smart as anyone else - but that as long as they believe in the tenets of their religion, as a society they choose not to.

Prof Ansary describes Islamic leaders who tried to influence Islamic countries towards a western approach to commerce and technology.  These attempts at modernization have all failed, partly because the modernizers used technology and weapons to acquire more concentrated power than any sultan ever dreamed of.  By concentrating power in themselves, Muslim tyrants gave common people no reason to care whether the government survived.  Recent events in the Middle East suggest that most citizens prefer that governments fall, even though they will most likely be replaced by economically incompetent theocracies that will be more tyrannical than the president, king or shah ever was.

The Koran Is All

In a very fundamental way, what Western world sees as modernization is made almost impossible by the completeness ascribed to the Koran.  The Koran is all-knowing, so the simplest explanation for the decline of Islam is that people stopped following the Koran.  Haven't lots of Muslims moved to countries where they aren't killing infidels as commanded in the Koran?  The way to get back on track is to get back to killing infidels.

The jihadists aren't fighting democracy per se; they're fighting decadence.  After all, Westerners let women drive around in cars, get jobs, and listen to music that isn't based on the Koran.

Some see Islam as cutting off heads, cutting off hands, and clamping women into bags.  Although some Islamists do these things, others describe the problem as deciding whether there is one God, many gods, or no god at all.  All would be well on earth, they argue, if only everyone would recognize the singleness of Allah as God and acknowledge Mohammed's role as his prophet.

One problem in the Fight Against Barbarism is that Western leaders think terrorism is caused by conflicts between governments.  All Western wars including the Cold War were between governments.
After 9/11, the Americans looked for the government or governments behind the attacks.  Mr. Bush's "axis of evil" speech tried to identify the governments we had to attack.

The American-led coalition attacked Afghanistan, then identified Saddam Hussein as the mastermind and attacked Iraq.  Now they're claiming that Syria, Somalia, and other countries are sponsoring terror.

The problem is that there is no Islamic government.  Islam doesn't recognize any supreme authority such as the pope.  Individual mullahs gain credibility through leadership skills and by writing compelling sermons, but each individual Muslim can decide which mullah he respects and obeys based on his and their religious fervor.

A leader's power is measured by how many people act on his proclamations.  Occasional mullahs gain the loyalty of enough armed men to set up tyrannical governments as in Iran, but Islam has no institutional mechanism for passing on power when the supreme mullah dies.

This loosely-coupled structure isn't suited to uniting the entire world under the new caliphate as Muslim fundamentalists claim to want.  Unfortunately for the West, it's ideal for waging guerrilla war against a vastly superior enemy because there's nothing for our armies to attack.  What's needed is not divisions of tanks, or even battalions of special forces, but a handful of highly-skilled James Bonds and Lawrences of Arabia - just what the modern West is incapable of producing.

Prof. Ansary does a good job of explaining why Muslims feel a sense of having been robbed of a glorious future that was rightfully theirs and why some of them argue that getting back to killing infidels would put them on track to world domination. He doesn't see how Muslims can live in the Western world or how Westerners can live in Muslim countries, because their world views are so different and inherently conflict.

The book doesn't explore in detail the Islam-inspired killings which have adorned history - the sack of Constantinople in 1452, the sack of Delhi in 1504, the Turkish massacre of the Armenians 1915-1917, or the ongoing Muslim attacks on Christians in Indonesia, India, Iraq, and Pakistan - but they're a clear and logical consequence of the history and religious beliefs Prof. Ansary explains.  To a Muslim who takes the Koran seriously, these acts of willful murder are just what Allah requires of his people - and as long as Allah is their god, they'll keep committing atrocities at his direction. 

We wish that more of our leadership elite would read this book.  At the very least, they would be less sanguine about the threat we face and our ability to hold the conflict to an acceptable cost.

Will Offensicht is a staff writer for and an internationally published author by a different name.  Read other articles by Will Offensicht or other articles on Foreign Affairs.
Reader Comments

The Ottoman Empire became so powerful do to its good treatment of Christians and Jews. Sure Christians and Jews and to pay extra taxes but they were left to rule themselves in all matters not involving relations across religious lines. Medieval Muslims saw Jesus as sent from God to save the gentiles and, unfortunately, someone misquoted him and you have them claiming he's the son of God. In general however Muslims respected Christian beliefs and many Christians preferred Muslim rulers to Christian rulers.

Islamic armies were seen as liberators by many Christians in the Byzantine Empire as the Emperors were iconoclasts(wanted to destroy icons) and very few of the Christians of the time period were. Muslims gave local Christian groups more independence as they were allowed to rule themselves as they desired.

Those Muslims that advocate sharia law against Christians and Jews, or who wish to kill all Christians and Jews do not have historical backing for those beliefs as they are quite new. Mind you, if you're born a Muslim and then convert to another religion that would still place you under sharia law historically.

April 7, 2011 11:56 AM

Here's a blog post about a woman who burned a Koran on You Tube. The videos are interesting.

The Manifesto of an Evil Totalitarian Political System

A young woman in Colorado named Ann Barnhardt watched Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) holding forth on television yesterday about the necessity for rolling back the First Amendment in order not to anger Muslims. This did not sit well with her, and she made a two-part video for YouTube expressing her outrage, and vigorously affirming her right to patriotic dissent.

April 16, 2011 10:44 AM
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