THE ISLAMIC WORLD TODAY
Growing up as I did in Muslim Afghanistan, I was exposed early on to a narrative of world history quite different from the one that schoolchildren in Europe and the Americas routinely hear. At the time, however, it didn’t shape my thinking, because I read history for fun, and in Farsi there wasn’t much to read except boring textbooks. At my reading level, all the good stuff was in English.
My earliest favorite was the highly entertaining Child’s History of the World by a man named V. V. Hillyer. It wasn’t till I reread that book as an adult, many years later, that I realized how shockingly Eurocentric it was, how riddled with casual racism. I failed to notice these features as a child because Hillyer told a good story.
When I was nine or ten, the historian Arnold Toynbee passed through our tiny town of Lashkargah on a journey, and someone told him of a history-loving little bookworm of an Afghan kid living there. Toynbee was interested and invited me to tea, so I sat with the florid, old British gentleman, giving shy, monosyllabic answers to his kindly questions. The only thing I noticed about the great historian was his curious habit of keeping his handkerchief in his sleeve.
When we parted, however, Toynbee gave me a gift: Hendrick Willem Van Loon’s The Story of Mankind. The title alone thrilled me—the idea that all of “mankind” had a single story. Why, I was part of “mankind” myself, so this might be my story, in a sense, or at least might situate me in the one big story shared by all! I gulped that book down and loved it, and the Western narrative of world history became my framework ever after. All the history and historical fiction I read from then on just added flesh to those bones. I still studied the pedantic Farsi history texts assigned to us in school but read them only to pass tests and forgot them soon after.
Faint echoes of the other narrative must have lingered in me, however, because forty years later, in the fall of 2000, when I was working as a textbook editor in the United States, it welled back up. A school publisher in Texas had hired me to develop a new high school world-history textbook from scratch, and my first task was to draw up a table of contents, which entailed formulating an opinion about the overall shape of human history. The only given was the structure of the book. To fit the rhythm of the school year, the publisher ordained that it be divided into ten units, each consisting of three chapters.
But into what ten (or thirty) parts does all of time naturally divide? World history, after all, is not a chronological list of every damn thing that ever happened; it’s a chain of only the most consequential events, selected and arranged to reveal the arc of the story—it’s the arc that counts.
I tied into this intellectual puzzle with gusto, but my decisions had to pass through a phalanx of advisors: curriculum specialists, history teachers, sales executives, state education officials, professional scholars, and other such worthies. This is quite normal in elementary and high school textbook publishing, and quite proper I think, because the function of these books is to convey, not challenge, society’s most up-to-date consensus of what’s true. A chorus of advisors empanelled to second-guess a development editor’s decisions helps to ensure that the finished product reflects the current curriculum, absent which the book will not even be saleable.
As we went through the process, however, I noticed an interesting tug and pull between my advisors and me. We agreed on almost everything except—I kept wanting to give more coverage to Islam in world history, and they kept wanting to pull it back, scale it down, parse it out as side-bars in units devoted mainly to other topics. None of us was speaking out of parochial loyalty to “our own civilization.” No one was saying Islam was better or worse than “the West.” All of us were simply expressing our best sense of which events had been most consequential in the story of humankind.
Mine was so much the minority opinion that it was indistinguishable from error, so we ended up with a table of contents in which Islam constituted the central topic of just one out of thirty chapters. The other two chapters in that unit were “Pre-Columbian Civilizations of the Americas” and “Ancient Empires of Africa.”
Even this, incidentally, represented expanded coverage. The best-selling world history program of the previous textbook cycle, the 1997 edition of Perspectives on the Past, addressed Islam in just one chapter out of thirty-seven, and half of that chapter (part of a unit called “The Middle Ages”) was given over to the Byzantine Empire.
In short, less than a year before September 11, 2001, the consensus of expert opinion was telling me that Islam was a relatively minor phenomenon whose impact had ended long before the Renaissance. If you went strictly by our table of contents, you would never guess Islam still existed.
At the time, I accepted that my judgment might be skewed. After all, I had a personal preoccupation with Islam that was part of sorting out my own identity. Not only had I grown up in a Muslim country, but I was born into a family whose one-time high social status in Afghanistan was based entirely on our reputed piety and religious learning. Our last name indicates our supposed descent from the Ansars, “the Helpers,” those first Muslim converts of Medina who helped the Prophet Mohammed escape assassination in Mecca and thereby ensured the survival of his mission.
More recently, my grandfather’s great-grandfather was a locally revered Muslim mystic whose tomb remains a shrine for hundreds of his devotees to this day, and his legacy percolated down to my father’s time, instilling in our clan a generalized sense of obligation to know this stuff better than the average guy. Growing up, I heard the buzz of Muslim anecdotes, commentary, and speculation in my environment and some of it sank in, even though my own temperament somehow turned resolutely secular.
And it remained secular after I moved to the United States; yet I found myself more interested in Islam here than I ever had been while living in the Muslim world. My interest deepened after 1979, when my brother embraced “fundamentalist” Islam. I began delving into the philosophy of Islam through writers such as Fazlur Rahman and Syed Hussein Nasr as well as its history through academics such as Ernst Grunebaum and Albert Hourani, just trying to fathom what my brother and I were coming from, or in his case, moving toward.
GROWTH OF ISLAM
Given my personal stake, I could concede that I might be overestimating the importance of Islam. And yet . . . a niggling doubt remained. Was my assessment wholly without objective basis? Take a look at these six maps, snapshots of the Islamic world at six different dates:
When I say “Islamic world,” I mean societies with Muslim majorities and/or Muslim rulers. There are, of course, Muslims in England, France, the United States, and nearly every other part of the globe, but it would be misleading, on that basis, to call London or Paris or New York a part of the Islamic world. Even by my limited definition, however, has the “Islamic world” not been a considerable geographical fact throughout its many centuries? Does it not remain one to this day, straddling the Asian-African landmass and forming an enormous buffer between Europe and East Asia? Physically, it spans more space than Europe and the United States combined. In the past, it has been a single political entity, and notions of its singleness and political unity resonate among some Muslims even now. Looking at these six maps, I still have to wonder how, on the eve of 9/11, anyone could have failed to consider Islam a major player at the table of world history!
After 9/11, perceptions changed. Non-Muslims in the West began to ask what Islam was all about, who these people were, and what was going on over there. The same questions began to bombinate with new urgency for me too. That year, visiting Pakistan and Afghanistan for the first time in thirty-eight years, I took along a book that I had found in a used bookstore in London, Islam in Modern History by the late Wilfred Cantwell Smith, a professor of religion at McGill and Harvard. Smith published his book in 1957, so the “modern history” of which he spoke had ended more than forty years earlier, and yet his analyses struck me as remarkably—in fact disturbingly—pertinent to the history unfolding in 2002.
Smith shone new light on the information I possessed from childhood and from later reading. For example, during my school days in Kabul, I was quite aware of a man named Sayyid Jamaluddin-i-Afghan. Like “everyone,” I knew he was a towering figure in modern Islamic history; but frankly I never fathomed how he had earned his acclaim, beyond the fact that he espoused “pan-Islamism,” which seemed like mere pallid Muslim chauvinism to me. Now, reading Smith, I realized that the basic tenets of “Islamism,” the political ideology making such a clatter around us in 2001, had been hammered out a hundred-plus years earlier by this intellectual Karl Marx of “Islamism.” How could his very name be unknown to most non-Muslims?
I plowed back into Islamic history, no longer in a quest for personal identity, but in an effort to make sense of the alarming developments among Muslims of my time—the horror stories in Afghanistan; the tumult in Iran, the insurgencies in Algeria, the Philippines, and elsewhere; the hijackings and suicide bombings in the Middle East, the hardening extremism of political Islam; and now the emergence of the Taliban. Surely, a close look at history would reveal how on Earth it had come to this.
And gradually, I came to realize how it had come to this. I came to perceive that, unlike the history of France or Malta or South America, the history of the Islamic lands “over there” was not a subset of some single world history shared by all. It was more like a whole alternative world history unto itself, competing with and mirroring the one I had tried to create for that Texas publisher, or the one published by McDougall-Littell, for which I had written “the Islam chapters.”
The two histories had begun in the same place, between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers of ancient Iraq, and they had come to the same place, this global struggle in which the West and the Islamic world seemed to be the major players. In between, however, they had passed through different—and yet strangely parallel!—landscapes.
Yes, strangely parallel: looking back, for example, from within the Western world-historical framework, one sees a single big empire towering above all others back there in ancient times: it is Rome, where the dream of a universal political state was born.
Looking back from anywhere in the Islamic world, one also sees a single definitive empire looming back there, embodying the vision of a universal state, but it isn’t Rome. It is the khalifate of early Islam.
In both histories, the great early empire fragments because it simply grows too big. The decaying empire is then attacked by nomadic barbarians from the north—but in the Islamic world, “the north” refers to the steppes of Central Asia and in that world the nomadic barbarians are not the Germans but the Turks. In both, the invaders dismember the big state into a patchwork of smaller kingdoms permeated throughout by a single, unifying religious orthodoxy: Catholicism in the West, Sunni Islam in the East.
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. In the United States the further presumption holds that world history leads to the birth of its founding ideals of liberty and equality and to its resultant rise as a superpower leading the planet into the future. This premise establishes a direction for history and places the endpoint somewhere down the road we’re traveling now. It renders us vulnerable to the supposition that all people are moving in this same direction, though some are not quite so far along—either because they started late, or because they’re moving more slowly—for which reason we call their nations “developing countries.”
When the ideal future envisioned by postindustrialized, Western democratic society is taken as the endpoint of history, the shape of the narrative leading to here-and-now features something like the following stages:
1. Birth of civilization (Egypt and Mesopotamia)
2. Classical age (Greece and Rome)
3. The Dark Ages (rise of Christianity)
4. The Rebirth: Renaissance and Reformation
5. The Enlightenment (exploration and science)
6. The Revolutions (democratic, industrial, technological)
7. Rise of Nation-States: The Struggle for Empire
8. World Wars I and II.
9. The Cold War
10. The Triumph of Democratic Capitalism
But what if we look at world history through Islamic eyes? Are we apt to regard ourselves as stunted versions of the West, developing toward the same endpoint, but less effectually? I think not. For one thing, we would see a different threshold dividing all of time into “before” and “after”: the year zero for us would be the year of Prophet Mohammed’s migration from Mecca to Medina, his Hijra, which gave birth to the Muslim community. For us, this community would embody the meaning of “civilized,” and perfecting this ideal would look like the impulse that had given history its shape and direction.
But in recent centuries, we would feel that something had gone awry with the flow. We would know the community had stopped expanding, had grown confused, had found itself permeated by a disruptive crosscurrent, a competing historical direction. As heirs to Muslim tradition, we would be forced to look for the meaning of history in defeat instead of triumph. We would feel conflicted between two impulses: changing our notion of “civilized” to align with the flow of history or fighting the flow of history to realign it with our notion of “civilized.”
If the stunted present experienced by Islamic society is taken as the here-and-now to be explained by the narrative of world history, then the story might break down to something like the following stages:
1. Ancient Times: Mesopotamia and Persia
2. Birth of Islam
3. The Khalifate: Quest for Universal Unity
4. Fragmentation: Age of the Sultanates
5. Catastrophe: Crusaders and Mongols
6. Rebirth: The Three-Empires Era
7. Permeation of East by West
8. The Reform Movements
9. Triumph of the Secular Modernists
10. The Islamist Reaction
Literary critic Edward Said has argued that over the centuries, the West has constructed an “Orientalist” fantasy of the Islamic world, in which a sinister sense of “otherness” is mingled with envious images of decadent opulence. Well, yes, to the extent that Islam has entered the Western imagination, that has more or less been the depiction.
But more intriguing to me is the relative absence of any depictions at all. In Shakespeare’s day, for example, preeminent world power was centered in three Islamic empires. Where are all the Muslims in his canon? Missing. If you didn’t know Moors were Muslims, you wouldn’t learn it fromOthello.
Here are two enormous worlds side by side; what’s remarkable is how little notice they have taken of each other. If the Western and Islamic worlds were two individual human beings, we might see symptoms of repression here. We might ask, “What happened between these two? Were they lovers once? Is there some history of abuse?”
But there is, I think, another less sensational explanation. Throughout much of history, the West and the core of what is now the Islamic world have been like two separate universes, each preoccupied with its own internal affairs, each assuming itself to be the center of human history, each living out a different narrative—until the late seventeenth century when the two narratives began to intersect. At that point, one or the other had to give way because the two narratives were crosscurrents to each other. The West being more powerful, its current prevailed and churned the other one under.
But the superseded history never really ended. It kept on flowing beneath the surface, like a riptide, and it is flowing down there still. When you chart the hot spots of the world—Kashmir, Iraq, Chechnya, the Balkans, Israel and Palestine, Iraq—you’re staking out the borders of some entity that has vanished from the maps but still thrashes and flails in its effort not to die.
This is the story I tell in the pages that follow, and I emphasize “story.” Destiny Disrupted is neither a textbook nor a scholarly thesis. It’s more like what I’d tell you if we met in a coffeehouse and you said, “What’s all this about a parallel world history?” The argument I make can be found in numerous books now on the shelves of university libraries. Read it there if you don’t mind academic language and footnotes. Read it here if you want the story arc.1 Although I am not a scholar, I have drawn on the work of scholars who sift the raw material of history to draw conclusions and of academics who sifted the work of scholarly researchers to draw meta-conclusions.
In a history spanning several thousand years, I devote what may seem like inordinate space to a brief half century long ago, but I linger here because this period spans the career of Prophet Mohammed and his first four successors, the founding narrative of Islam. 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 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.
I will, however, assert one caveat here about the origins of Islam. Unlike older religions—such as Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, even Christianity—Muslims began to collect, memorize, recite, and preserve their history as soon as it happened, and they didn’t just preserve it but embedded each anecdote in a nest of sources, naming witnesses to each event and listing all persons who transmitted the account down through time to the one who first wrote it down, references that function like the chain of custody validating a piece of evidence in a court case.
This implies only that the core Muslim stories cannot best be approached as parables. With a parable, we don’t ask for proof that the events occurred; that’s not the point. We don’t care if the story is true; we want the lesson to be true. The Muslim stories don’t encapsulate lessons of that sort: they’re not stories about ideal people in an ideal realm. They come to us, rather, as accounts of real people wrestling with practical issues in the mud and murk of actual history, and we take from them what lessons we will.
Which is not to deny that the Muslim stories are allegorical, nor that some were invented, nor that many or even all were modified by tellers along the way to suit agendas of the person or moment. It is only to say that the Muslims have transmitted their foundational narrative in the same spirit as historical accounts, and we know about these people and events in much the same way that we know what happened between Sulla and Marius in ancient Rome. These tales lie somewhere between history and myth, and telling them stripped of human drama falsifies the meaning they have had for Muslims, rendering less intelligible the things Muslims have done over the centuries. This then is how I plan to tell the story, and if you’re on board with me, buckle in and let’s begin.