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.