Friday, June 10, 2016
Destiny Disrupted by Tamim Ansary (Book Review #25 of 2016)
Tamim Ansary: Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes (4.5 stars)
I found this book to be incredibly readable, insightful, and important. It is ultimately a history of civilization through a modern Muslim worldview.
With 4.5 stars, I recommend it in conjunction with and ahead of a host of books I read consecutively (list at the bottom of the post). Destiny Disrupted is excellent. The author is an Afghan-American who is countering Western textbooks which relegate Islam to a relatively unimportant status. His premise is correct, the best schools in America teach courses explaining where we come from, where our Constitution and basis for liberty developed from the Greeks through Christianity through European philosophers to today. Bypassed along the way is the East, including the Middle East-- or, the "Middle World" that the author defines as "the space between Istanbul and China." He hails from an Afghan heritage that prizes itself on its geneology and its Islamic scholarship. He seems to be most familiar with Shiia and Sufi Islam relative to Sunni traditions. Apparently, his own brother became a radical Islamic fundamentalist of some form, and he challenges readers of all stripes to develop a framework with which to address that mindset.
Ansary makes the important point that modern Islamic jihad (Muslim Brotherhood, Al Qaeda, ISIS, etc.) sees the battle as theological-- whether there is one God or many gods. The West, meanwhile, sees these wars primarily in terms of scarcity-- people frustrated with their political and economic conditions. He rejects the "clash of civilizations" cliche arguing rather that it is "two histories" that are crashing. He critiques both sides' purported views and raises the question of how to create a central, shared history that he sees as essential to co-existence.
Many books focus on the early first centuries of Islam's rapid expansion, or the history of the Ottoman Empire, or Central Asia, but Ansary weaves all of the history and geography together over almost two millenia. I learned much from this book and took several pages of notes, too much to provide my usually full summary. I write a more detailed review of my notes on the first half and only summarize the second half below.
The author begins with Zoroastrianism, the struggle between light and dark that never ends and has no predestination. The spread of the Parthians in the 3rd century AD led to a revival of Zoroastrianism (and its off-shoots like Manicheasm later confronted by Augustine of Hippo). Ansary recounts the birth of Islam and the first Calipha. "Islam is more about building community than individual salvation," although salvation is earned by proper interaction with the community. Early battles were relatively small but ascribed in the Quran with theological significance.
Ansary recounts the early struggle between Abu Bakr and Ali, noting that both Ali and Muhammad were raised by the same father. He describes the second Caliph, Omar (583-684 AD), as a "benevolent reformer" who was pious and made an impact on Islamic doctrine and governance as well as was a brilliant military strategist. In 636 AD, Omar's forces routed the main Byzantine army at the Battle of Yarmouk. Perhaps overlooked by Ansary and other authors is that Omar's forces were also fighting Christian Arabs aiding the Byzantines. As the Byzantines weakened, Arab Muslim invaders filled the void as far as Armenia and eventually conquered Sassanid Persia, where Umar was assassinated. Ansary looks at the few writings available in this period to note that "jihad" had begun to be used as a military term in regards to offense, and not just defense as is sometimes claimed by Muslims today. This was justified by the "house of war, house of Islam" line of thought, which supposedly wasn't introduced until the Umayyad Caliphate in 732. Nonetheless, Omar was tolerant of Christians and Jews, allowing Jews to return to Jerusalem and giving his blessing. His taxes were less than Byzantine taxes, which helped encourage conversions. Omar forbid the temporary marriages during the hajj (that still exist today for men to release their urges) even while blaming women for men's ills.
The next period covered is 642-661, beginning with Uthman. Uthman was a wealthy merchant who married Muhammad's daughter and governed from 644-656. He organized and compiled the Quran and engaged in economic reform that enriched the Umayyads at the expense of other parties. His tax policies created unrest in Egypt and Uthman was eventually murdered. (Apparently there is some debate among scholars on the source of unrest.) Aisha, Muhammad's formerly young wife, did not get along with Uthman but also spoke against Ali when he was unable to bring justice to the murderers of Uthman. Ali and Aisha's forces fought in 656, one of the first Muslim civil wars. Aisha's forces were defeated and Ali became Caliph from 656-661. Umayya struggled to gain power, refusing to recognize Ali's legitimacy. Muawiyah declared himself Caliph after Ali's assassination in 661 and fought with Hasan for the title, returning the Caliphate to the Ummayad clan of Uthman and firmly establishing the Umayyad Dynasty.
Chapter five chronicles the Umayyad period of 661-737 AD. Muawiyah appointed his son Yazid as successor Caliph, but he was rivaled by Hussein ibn Ali, Muhammad's grandson who contested the right to be Caliph. Yazid defeated Hussein's forces at Karbala in 680 and Hussein was killed, thus creating the Sunni-Shiia rift that exists today. The Sunni believe in following the Sunna-- Muhammad's example-- for salvation. The Shia believe in following an Imam, a psiritual figure that is to follow. "Instructions (Sunna) are not enough." The Shia Imam is a "bestower of grace." Belief in Hussein is necessary for a Shia to get into heaven, which is anathema to Sunnis. (I wonder if this is all exactly accurate or a summation of the author's belief or understanding.)
Yazid reigned only from 680-683 and the the Umayyad's consolidated power by fortifying Muslim cities which were growing and prosperous. The Umayyad economy favored the landed classes, Arabic became the official language of government as well as religion, leading to greater Arabization of the conquered territories. That spread eastward into Central Asia and Westward through the Maghreb and into Spain.
The next period, Chapter Six, is 737-963 AD. Ansary introduces the purist Kharijites that modern-day ISIS have been compared to. A Khariji assassinated Ali during the First Fitna, or civil war, these rejected the Ummayad Caliphate. Kharijis rebelled against the Abbasid Caliphate in the late 800s. ISIS apparently rejects the comparison; the Kharijites died out eventually. There were also the Hashemites, descendants of Muhammad's daughter Fatima, from Iraq who were anti-Arab and anti-Umayyad. Al Abbas was an uncle of Muhammad from whom the Hashemites/Abbasids claimed their heritage. A Third Fitna, civil war, happened in 744 over a dispute over succession after Caliph al-Walid II was overthrown in 744. In 747, Abu Muslim led the Hashimite forces against the Umayyads, flying black banners. While Abu Muslim was really in charge, Abu al-Abbas was declared Caliph in 749 and the Abbasid armies pushed out from Iraq and defeated the Ummayads, finally. Abu Muslim was murdered in 755 over fear of his power as the Abbasids consolidated. The Abbasids supposedly included Persians, Jews, and Nestorian Christians in their governance. Al-Mansur founded Baghdad as the Abbasid capital in 762.
Ansary looks at the development of Islam and culture from 632-1111 AD. He explains the origins of the Five Pillars, the issues dealing with all of the 700,000 Hadiths and controversies, the concept of Ejtihad, the four schools of Sunni legal thought, and more. The Abbasids took great interest in Greek thought, translating (and thus preserving) Greek texts into Arabic. Of interest to me was Abu Yusuf al-Kindi (801-873), who was a philosopher and polymath scholar of the Greek arts. Al Kindi is who is thought of when looking at Arabic contributions to astronomy, mathematics, medicine, etc. Al Kindi dealt with logic. Other authors I have read have noted the battle of Western logic having been lost as conservative forces pushed against scholars like Al Kindi. Ibn Hanbal was another influential Iraqi who collected and studied hadiths, compiling an encyclopedia. He founded the Hanbali school of Islamic law which is prominent in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states today. Ibn Hanbal was imprisoned for his refusal to bow to Caliph al-Ma'mun's demand that he recant his belief that the Quran was uncreated and eternal. al-Ma'mun subscribed to an applied form of rationalism to Islam, the Mu'tazila. This dealt with the problem of evil, predestination, and other issues that were being wrestled with both in Greek thought and in Christianity as well. Ibn Hanbal's refusal led to his imprisonment, but the empowerment of this doctrine such that a couple of Caliph's later, it apparently became official orthodox doctrine that the Quran was uncreated. Ibn Hanbal had rejected the use of logic and reason in approaching the Quran and Islam and that would ultimately win the day.
I found Ansary's description of Sufis to be intriguing, similar to what was presented by Reza Aslan's book on Islam. Sufis wrote about devoted love of God, passionate love letters that read more like the Psalms or Song of Solomon than the Quran. Sufis developed at the same time as the work of Arabic philosophers who were both critiquing and revising Greek philosophy, trying to relate science and religion with matters of the heart as in Sufi Islam. Conservative forces have tended to drown out these voices.
The second half of the book deals with the rise of the Turks and the spread Eastward. Chapter Eight begins with 737-1095 AD. The Abbasid's great land mass may have made them ultimately weaker. 1071 saw the Battle of Manzikert between the Seljuks and what remained of Rome. From 1031-1381, the Crusades begin, historians count eight separate ones. It is the Crusaders who massacre fellow Christians in Constantinople, Jews in Jerusalem, and Muslims on the battle field. The Crusaders were able to play the Egyptians off the Seljuks off the Abbasids. While Ansary argues (above) "jihad" was used early in Muslim history as it spread by the sword, the term "jihad" against the Crusaders wasn't used for a long time. Attempts to resurrect the word "fell flat." The author chronicles the rise of various cults and splits, like the 1100s cult of assassins who killed clerics and leaders alike. There is the rise of Saladin, who shoed mercy and promised protection of minorities when liberating Jerusalem from the Crusades.
The Muslim world than deals with threat from the East from the Mongols of Genghis Khan, who takes China in 1211 AD and enters the Central Asian steppe in 1218, quickly confronting the Abbasids and trampling Persia.
The next period is 1263-1600 AD, the "rebirth" under Tamerlane the Cruel and the "Back to Koran" movement of conservatives. Ansary speculates that the insecurity that Muslims feel throughout their history as their territory is faced with division and weakness lead to a conservative backlash. Many historians and sociologists agree with this, look at Tea Party conservative politics in America for a recent example. Drawing on the legacy of Ibn Hanbal, who rejected the use of Greek ideas of logic and reason, others like Ibn al-Salah rejected philosophy and rhetoric as degenerate. Ibn Salah and ibn Taymiyyah are considered the forerunners of the Salafi movement. Taymiyyah emphasized that Islam must return to a "pure" understanding of the "salaf," the first generations of Muslims, which is propogated by Wahabbists today. (It strikes me here that perhaps it is at this junction that "Muslim reformers" like Aslan and Maajid Nawaz can make a case against ISIS' treatment of women and minorities: The earliest Muslims were largely tolerant of minorities as they swept rapidly across their lands, preserving churches in places like Damascus and Jerusalem. Khadija, Muhammad's first wife, was a wealthy woman who was influential in his life. Aisha, according to tradition, played an active role in politics and Islamic teaching after Muhammad's death.)
The author takes a swipe at Christianity's view of sex which is a strawman based on a stereotype of unbiblical doctrine. He chronicles the rise of Sufi orders, particularly in places like Anatolia covering the period of 700-1300 AD. There's Rumi, orders of Ghazi "warrior poets," and others. He deals with Ottoman issues like tax farming and regional governance and dealing with ethnic and religious minorities in the region.
There is a return to the Safavids in Persia, rivals with the Ottomans, and an explanation of the further development of Shiia doctrine, including the concept of the Mahdi (which also exists in Sunni islam to various extents). The Mongols largely embrace Islam which spreads from Burma to Afghanistan. A Sufi blend of Islam is embraced in India as it syncretizes well with local Hindu practices and arts. 1600 brings the "nadir" of the Islamic Empire, which is followed by divisions that eventually pave the way for tribal and ethnic breaks.
Next is 1291-1600 Europe:
Europeans develop their navies to facilitate trade by sea around Muslims. In the 12th century, Europeans discovered Arabic translations and Latin translations of Arabic translations of Aristotle and Plato and other philosophers and then began trying to reconcile it with religious thought while never appreciating the Muslim additions and pondering where they came from. Ansary gives a quick overview of the Reformation and its development. Islam made similar scientific discoveries as Europe, but it did not result in a new scientific worldview-- perhaps because of the rise of the nation-state. The Reformation disarmed the nation-state of its church and state unified nationalism that Islam adheres to. It allowed for uniform government across all people and usually in one language.
1500-1850 AD, "The West Comes East" as Suleyman the Magnifienct fails to take Vienna and the Ottoman Empire is finished expanding. The Ottoman economy required constant expansion and extraction, when expansion stopped then things started to stagnate (see Robinson and Acemoğlu's excellent Why Nations Fail). The Great Game ensues as the British Empire encroaches on the Russian Empire's frontier and moves into India. Mohammed Ali comes to power in Egypt.
From 1737-1918 AD there are reform movements. A need for modernism within Islam and the Ottoman Empire is felt. Islamic reforms are related but unrelated to European political and economic reforms and the Reformation. There were three approaches:
1. Wahabbist originalism as seen in Saudi Arabia as Abdul Wahab joins forces with Ibn Saud. This required Mohammed Ali from Egypt to restore Ottoman rule in Saudi Arabia.
2. Syed Ahmad Khan in India called for submission to English rule and colonialism. He believed in a contextualized Quran that needed historical-contextual reading based on Quranic principles. He was clearly opposed by Hindu nationalists and more conservative Muslims. Ahmad Khan promoted Urdu, which is a mixture of Hindi Persian.
3. Sayyid Jamal al-Afghani who believed in Pan-Arabism. Afghani had traveled in the UK and throughout the Ottoman Empire and outside in Afghanistan. After initially being invited to Iran, he is later expelled for preaching against monarch's bowing to Western imperialism and organizing a boycott of English tobacco. al-Afhani embraced Western science but not Western morals, or the perceived lack thereof.
Ansary also highlights other reformers in Iran. The rise of Constitutionalism, Nationalism, Industrialism, and Zionism spelled doom for the Ottoman Empire. 1856 reforms were hailed as the Turkish Sultan increasingly gave way to the increasingly Westward desire found in Istanbul as young Turks studying in Europe for the first time came back and wanted to see reforms and modernization. After lowering of tariffs put Ottoman merchants at a disadvantage against the more advanced British and others, reforms were seen as benefiting primarily Armenians. From 1894-1896, 300,000 Armenians would die. Young Turks and pan-Turkish nationalism rose on the eve of World War I, while the British were promising sovereignty to the Hashemites and the House of Saud in exchange for military support against the Ottomans and later oil. Ansary chronicles the rise of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk and the six pillars of Kemalism.
The author writes that Wahhabism rising in Saudi Arabia was "as just a new innovation as secularism." Sayyid Qutb, jailed in the early 1960s founds the Muslim Brotherhood and sets off a wave of conservative Islamism at the same time that Nasser and Baathist rivals compete for leadership in the realm of Pan Arabism. Ansary notes this period empowered and energized both secular-leaning nationalist Baathists and religious-leaning Muslim Brotherhood. Islamism would take arms against the USSR in Afghanistan, and then return home demanding Islamist reforms. Ansary writes that the modern jihadist sees the fight against the USSR and the United Stateas as similar to the wars against the Byzantines in the days of the Salaf. Ansary makes the important point that modern jihad sees the battle as theological-- whether there is one God or many gods. The West, meanwhile, sees the problem as primarily one of scarcity-- people frustrated with their economic conditions. He rejects the "clash of civilizations" motif arguing rather that it is "two histories crashing." He critiques both sides' purported views and raises the question of how to create a central, shared history that recognizes all of the above. 4.5 stars out of 5.
Other books read concurrently:
In God's Path - The Arab Conquests and the Creation of an Islamic Empire - Hoyland (4 stars)
In the The Shadow of the Sword - Tom Holland (4 stars)
Brief History of the Middle East - Peter Mansfield
History of the Arab Peoples - Albert Hourani
The United States and the Middle East 1914-2001 by Salim Yuqub (Great Courses)
A Very Short Introduction to the Koran - Michael Cook (4.5)
A Very Short Introduction to Islam - Malise Ruthven (3 stars)
Sam Harris and Maajid Nawaz - Islam and the Future of Tolerance (1.5 stars)
Reza Aslan - No god but God - The Origins and Future of Islam (2.5 stars)
Islam Unveiled - Robert Spencer (1 star)
Also recommend: Desperately Seeking Paradise by Ziauddin Sardar (5 stars)