This book is an absolute must-read.
This book is essentially world history for the perspective of Islam. This is a book that is seriously needed, because from my experience, we either ignore Islamic culture as so much historical backwater, or treat it as a caricature hyped up after events of 9/11. As usual, the story is not so simple.
Probably mirroring the experience of many Americans, Islam wasn’t really on my radar until the dreaded experience of 9/11. I remember someone calling my mom, my mom turned on the TV, and we watched as the second plane hit the tower. I was ten, and I knew it was something big, but I didn’t know what to do with it. It seemed so distant, so far away. I felt bad, and I tried to feel super patriotic when we said the pledge of allegiance at school. I remember hearing stories on the news over time about finding weapons of mass destruction, seeing a statue of Saddam Hussein being torn down, and eventually witnessing the excitement when Osama bin Laden had finally been killed. If anything, Islam was a bad guy that likely didn’t deserve any sympathy.
In my high school English class, I get one challenge to that narrative when we read the book Kite Runner by Afghan-American author Khaled Hosseini. This bildungsroman and story of redemption of a young Sunni Muslim Amir brought the lived experience of Muslims in a setting unfamiliar to me. It showed how beautiful life was in this city of Kabul, but how terribly the war shook things apart. You saw lessons in faith that were good and beautiful. I like the line from Amir’s father who teaches him that every sin is ultimately some iteration of stealing. The haunting line There is a way to be good again still gets me. While this book brought empathy, it still seemed largely a foreign world.
I hadn’t met many Muslims yet, but that changed when I served a mission to Germany. Germany has a whole Turkish sub-culture originating ultimately back to the alliance of the Turks and the Germans during WWI. Every area in each mission boasted its own favorite Doener shop, the gyro-like fast food that is ubiquitous in Germany. Supposedly, the closer you are to Berlin, the better the Doener. As a missionary, I also taught a few Muslims, or at least had a few gospel discussions with them. Most were students. We would door large student complexes going from door to door. Muslims were often the most friendly and would invite us in, even if they didn’t want to meet again afterwards. The connection point that we always quickly made with Muslims was the need of a prophet. The moment we claimed to have a living prophet that speaks today, then things got dicey. One companion of mine claimed at one point that maybe Mohammed had actually been a true prophet with his own dispensation, but that Islam had since lost its way and fallen into another apostasy. I remember another man asking, “But what actual good did this Joseph Smith bring into the world?” When we proffered the Book of Mormon, he answered, “But that’s just so many words. What Islam brings is an actual blueprint of a perfect society. No other religion offers that.” At the time, I didn’t even think to connect Joseph Smith’s idea of Zion and a United Order, but it would have been interesting to argue over its merits. We also had a Muslim convert in a ward I served in. She had hidden her conversion and baptism from her parents, but she was one of my favorite members in the ward. There was always a little uncertainty whether we were able to baptize Muslims or even teach them because of potential conflicts with their families. I would occasionally also get some comments from worried Germans. One man claimed that Muslims were trying to take over Germany from the inside-out: not by invasion, but by moving in, having lots of kids, and outdoing the Germans in terms of population. Probably the same energy that fed into recent Pegida protests and the formation of the party Alternative fuer Deutschland.
Since that time, I have been reading a little here and there about Muslim history. In 2015, I read The Raj by Lawrence James. Islam isn’t the central topic, but I did learn about the conflicts between Muslims and Hindus in India and how it led to the modern state of Pakistan. In God’s Crucible: Islam and the Making of Europe and Dogs of God: Columbus, the Inquisition, and the Defeat of the Moors, I read about both the rise and fall of the Muslim Spain, a fascinating side story. Islam as a faith has often showed up in not the most favorable light in Christian apologists like Chesterton and Belloc. Often referring to Muslims as Mohammedans, it comes off very condescending. Belloc paints Islam as Christianity lite, unoriginal and heretical:
Mohammedanism was a heresy: that is the essential point to grasp before going any further. It began as a heresy, not as a new religion. It was not a pagan contrast with the Church; it was not an alien enemy. It was a perversion of Christian doctrine. Its vitality and endurance soon gave it the appearance of a new religion, but those who were contemporary with its rise saw it for what it was—not a denial, but an adaptation and a misuse, of the Christian thing. It differed from most (not from all) heresies in this, that it did not arise within the bounds of the Christian Church. The chief heresiarch, Mohammed himself, was not, like most heresiarchs, a man of Catholic birth and doctrine to begin with. He sprang from pagans. But that which he taught was in the main Catholic doctrine, oversimplified.
Looking East to West: World history from Islam’s point of view
The main thesis of Ansary is that the history of the Muslim world is not, as often perceived by Westerners, a stunted version of the West, developing toward the same endpoint, but less effectually. It is a culture of its own with as much to be proud of, but just is usually not told because it doesn’t fit into the Western narrative. Ansary tells how the idea for the book came from some exchanges with publishers when he was writing a history textbook for students in the US. In fact, Muslims viewed their culture as the cradle of civilization, not the other way around. We were a bunch of barbarian hordes in Europe, we were the backwater. The experience of Egypt during the Napoleonic wars is just one example:
But what about the Egyptians? Who were they? What part did they play? Did they welcome Napoleon? Help him? Did he have to conquer them? Did they play any part in the battle between France and Britain? Who did they side with? What happened after the Europeans left? Western histories don’t address these questions much, focusing mainly on the clash of Britain and France. It’s almost as if the Egyptians weren’t there.
As the reader becomes acquainted with pre-Islamic history, like the rise of Babylon and Syria, then the founding of Islam by Mohammed, and the rule of the Caliphate, you already start to get a better idea of where Muslims are coming from. Look at this little aside by Ansary from the days of the third Caliph, Omar, from the 7th century:
People have proven time and again that they will attack extraordinary obstacles and endure tremendous hardships if they think the effort will impart meaning to their lives. The human hunger for meaning is a craving as fundamental as food and drink. Everyday life gives people little opportunity for this sort of nourishment, which is one reason why people get swept along by narratives that cast them as key players in apocalyptic dramas.
This isn’t an outright apology of Islam, because it doesn’t hide Islam’s ugly parts either. What it does though is it humanizes the main players. It doesn’t paint that as nobodies in history relegated to a perfunctory single chapter in a textbook, buffoons that didn’t know what hit them when they encountered the might of Western technology and individualism. And it doesn’t paint them as the villains either.
You get all the important insights that motivate today’s conflicts. What really is at stake between Sunnis and Shias? Why do Israelis and Jews make such a big deal about a plot of land? This is the context you need.
Legitimate complaints: The West as bad guy
The other side of the coin is: oftentimes in the story of Islam we are the bad guy. And not in some America is Satan extremist sort of way. We were really the bad guy. The west did a lot of shady stuff. I have several notes in the book where I just mark Ooooooh, shade. Here are a few:
Ansary points out that the lower status of women actually derived from practices of the Byzantine empire. Women actually could do quite a lot in the heydey of Islam:
Clearly, these women were not shut out of public life, public recognition, and public consequence. The practice of relegating women to an unseen private realm derived, it seems, from Byzantine and Sassanid practices. Among the upper classes of those societies, women were sequestered as a mark of high status. Aristocratic Arab families adopted the same customs as a way of appropriating their predecessors’ status.
This one simultaneously highlights the condescension of Islamic culture in its heydey with that of modern-day American democracy:
Muslims, and Jews lived in fairly amicable harmony in this empire with the caveat that Muslims wielded ultimate political power and probably radiated an attitude of superiority, stemming from certainty that their culture and society represented the highest stage of civilization, much as Americans and western Europeans now tend to do vis-à-vis people of third world countries.
Ansary minimizes the significance of the Crusades. He suggests it was experienced more like a natural disaster than a clash of civilizations. Afterwards, the West still didn’t show up on their radar. Here he simultaneously shows the ineffectiveness of the Crusades and how it lost any real moral force:
After this Third Crusade nothing of much significance happened, unless you count the Fourth Crusade of 1206 in which the Crusaders never even made it to the Holy Land because along the way they got preoccupied with conquering and sacking Constantinople and defiling its churches.
That, and the fact that the Crusaders resorted to cannibalism when they got to Jerusalem.
Origins of modern conflicts
There are three parts near the end that neatly summarize the background for modern conflicts in the Middle East. The first has to do with the birth of the state of Israel. I won’t quote the whole thing here for you, because I want you to read the book. But Ansary does a very good job at showing the point of view from people on the ground.
Britain and the Allies did a horrible job after WWI in regards to Palestine:
Recap: Britain essentially promised the same territory to the Hashimites, the Saudis, and the Zionists of Europe, territory actually inhabited by still another Arab people with rapidly developing nationalist aspirations of their own—while in fact Britain and France had already secretly agreed to carve up the whole promised territory between themselves. Despite the many quibbles, qualifiers, and disclaimers offered over the years about who agreed to what and what was promised to whom, that’s the gist of the situation, and it guaranteed an explosion in the future.
The second is the results of the Six-Day War, when Israel proactively invaded and claimed Palestinian land:
On the other side of the ledger, the war radicalized and “Palestinianized” the PLO, empowered the Ba’ath party, and energized the Muslim Brotherhood, which spawned Jihadist splinters as the years went by, ever more extremist zealots who mounted increasingly horrific attacks not just at innocent bystanders who got in the way—a tragic byproduct of virtually all wars—but against anyone who could be gotten and the more innocent the better, the distinctive genre of violence known today as terrorism. In short, the Six Day war was a crushing setback for world peace, a disaster for the Muslim world, and not much good in the end even for Israel.
The final event is the turning point where the Muslim Middle East no long looked on America as a beacon of democracy and fairness and more like just another colonial power replacing the role Britain had played. This time in Iran:
With high hopes, then, Iranians went to the polls and voted a secular modernist named Mohammad Mosaddeq into power as their prime minister. Mosaddeq had pledged to recover total control of the country’s most precious resource, its oil, and accordingly upon taking office he canceled the lease with British Petroleum and announced that he was nationalizing the Iranian oil industry.
The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency immediately moved to stop “this madman Mosaddeq” (as U.S. secretary of state John Foster Dulles called him). In late August of 1953, a faction of the Iranian military carried out a bloody CIA-funded coup that left thousands dead in the streets and put Iran’s most popular political figure under house arrest from which he never emerged. In his place, the CIA restored the son of Reza Shah Pahlavi (also called Reza Shah Pahlavi) as the country’s king. The young shah signed a treaty with the United States giving an international consortium of oil corporations the job of “managing” Iran’s oil. It would be hard to overstate the feeling of betrayal this coup embedded in Iran or the shudder of anger it sent through the Muslim world.
History is written by the winners, and we, the West, have written our own narrative. We don’t often see counter-narratives, and this is an important one. Many of the same events are there, but with different significance and different roles.