Friday, April 30, 2010

Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes by Tamim Ansary

This is one of the most informative, stimulating and relevant books that you will encounter. It provides us with a thorough history of the religious and cultural evolution of what might be called the "Muslim world" from the time of the prophet Mohammed to the present day. The author provides sufficient detail to grasp the complexity of this history without deadening the senses. His writing style is clear and easy to follow, and the occasional flashes of humor add to the enjoyment. The story he tells fills in many gaps in our knowledge of Islam and its history but, perhaps, the author’s most important contribution is to stop the narrative at various points and remind us that at that time the state of the world looked quite different depending on whether it was seen through Muslim eyes or Western eyes. This combination of increased knowledge and improved understanding should allow the reader to produce better informed opinions on topics ranging from freedom of religion to the war in Afghanistan. Some of the particularly interesting topics discussed by the author are presented below.

The Success of Islam as a Religion

Islam began in the seventh century with one man in the Arabian Peninsula who claimed he was God’s messenger. Within 100 years it had overwhelmed the Byzantine and Sassanid Empires and its religious and political reach extended from Spain, across northern Africa, throughout the Middle East and into western Asia. What was it about Islam that made it so successful? According to the author it was a combination of a number of factors.

It of course starts with Mohammed, his character, and his message. Mohammed established what are called the five pillars of Islam. All one had to do to become a Muslim was to attest that there is only one God and Mohammed is his messenger, perform a certain prayer ritual five times each day, give a certain fraction of one’s wealth to the poor each year, fast from dawn to dusk during the month of Ramadan each year, make a pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in a lifetime, if possible.

The author points out that, at least on the face of it, this is more a prescription for how to live your life rather than a complicated or demanding belief system. The goal of these requirements was to provide a more perfect community of believers. Islam was a path to a better social system. This concept of society must have been attractive to the peoples who encountered it, easing the acceptance of the new religion.

The military successes seem to have benefited from a convergence of factors. The Muslims had on their side the fervor of recent converts, the lure of plunder from conquered lands, and surprisingly adept military leaders. The timing of the Islamic emergence was also favorable. It came at a time when the surrounding empires were in decline. The Muslims were surprised by their military success. It inspired in them even greater religious fervor for surely it proved that God was on their side. They even formulated a justification for the militant spread of Islam.

"...the idea that the world was divided into the mutually exclusive realms of Dar al-Islam and Dar al-Harb, ‘the realm of peace’ and ‘the realm of war.’ This schema depicted Islam as an oasis of brotherhood and peace surrounded by a universe of chaos and hatred. Anything one did to expand Dar al-Islam constituted action in the cause of peace, even fighting and bloodshed, because it shrank the realm of war."

Surely a major factor in the successful spread of Islam was the wisdom and relative benevolence with which they ruled the conquered peoples.

"Omar’s treatment of Jerusalem set the pattern for elations between Muslims and the people they conquered. Christians found that under Muslim rule they would be subject to a special poll tax called the jizya. That was the bad news. The good news: the jizya would generally be less than the taxes they had been paying to their Byzantine overlords—who did interfere with their religious practices.....The idea of lower taxes and greater religious freedom struck Christians as a pretty good deal, and so Muslims faced little or no local resistance in former Byzantine territory. In fact, Jews and Christians sometimes joined them in fighting the Byzantines."

"Conquest led the surge but conquest was kept separate from conversion. There was no ‘conversion by the sword.’ Muslims insisted on holding political power but not on their subjects being Muslims."

This description may come as a surprise to those used to hearing the current shouts of "death to the infidels." The history of Islam is complex and one needs a book such as this to lead one from these beginnings to the state of the Islamic world today.

Islam and Fundamentalism

One must understand the origins and the history of the Muslim peoples in order to appreciate the tendency towards what we would call fundamentalism: an unswerving dependence on revelation to determine all aspects of a believer’s life. Consider the path of Christianity. Christ was on the public scene for a few years and never had a large following. His sayings are transmitted to our times through translations from multiple languages by authors of unknown identity with unknowable accuracy. The Catholic branch of Christianity resolves uncertainty by allowing the Pope to provide the appropriate interpretation of Christ’s intentions, thereby avoiding the threat posed by ambiguity. The Protestant branch has bifurcated. One path views the Christian Bible as a generally correct guide to what they should believe and how they should live their lives, but it is viewed as a vehicle subject to interpretation. Only the Fundamentalist Protestant path tends toward a view of the Bible as the literal truth, an attitude that is much in the same spirit as the Muslim community and its acceptance of the Qur’an.

Mohammed was a known religious figure for about 20 years. As the messenger from God he defined Islam as a religion. However, he was also a political and social leader.

"Once Mohammed became the leader of Medina, people came to him for guidance and judgments about every sort of life question, big or little: how to discipline to wash one’s hands...what to consider fair in a contract...what should be done with a thief...the list goes on. Questions that in many other communities would be decided by a phalanx of separate specialists, such as judges, legislators, political leaders, doctors, teachers, generals, and others, were all in the Prophet’s bailiwick here."

Mohammed preached that not only was he God’s messenger, he was God’s last messenger. There would be no further revelations. When Mohammed died, his successors had to decide what to do. They had become used to depending on the word of the Prophet on all matters. It was decided that it was necessary to continue along that path.

"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."

Given that Mohammed is God’s messenger and that his preaching and sayings are assumed to be documented, one is left with little wiggle room. Islam is inherently a religion of fundamentalism. All questions are to be referenced to a pronouncement of the Prophet. That, of course, becomes harder to do as the world evolves and new circumstances appear. The next step was to attempt to decide what the Prophet would have decided by looking for analogous situations to apply, but that becomes more uncertain and subject to interpretation. The result is that one ends up with factions that passionately believe they are following the revealed truth but arriving at different conclusions. The situation becomes explosive when one factors in a decision by Mohammed’s immediate successor.

"But Abu Bakr responded to the crisis by declaring secession to be treason. The Prophet had said ‘No compulsion in religion,’ and Abu Bakr did not deny that principle. People were free to accept or reject Islam as they pleased; but once they were in, he asserted, they were in for good. In response to a political crisis, Abu Bakr established a religious principle that haunts Islam to this day—the equation of apostasy with treason."

This provides some explanation for why Sunnis and Shiites get along better with Christians and Jews than with each other.

To understand how this relatively benign religion developed the radical strains that bedevil the world today requires some knowledge of Muslim history. This the author provides. To make a long story short, the Muslim world suffered two major classes of catastrophe. The first might be referred to as invasions by barbarians. The first wave consisted of Turks moving down from their ancestral homelands (the central Asian steppes north of Iran and Afghanistan).

"Rude Turks came trickling south in ever growing numbers: tough warriors, newly converted to Islam and brutal in their simplistic fanaticism. Accustomed to plunder as a way of life, they ruined cities and laid waste to crops. The highways grew unsafe, small-time banditry became rife, trade declined, poverty spread. Turkish mamluks fought bitterly with Turkish nomads—it was Turks in power everywhere."

The actions of the ruling Turks would help induce the next wave of assaults.

"At this time the Muslim world knew as little of Western Europe as Europeans later knew about the African interior. To Muslims, everything between Byzantium and Andalusia was a more or less primeval forest inhabited by men so primitive that they still ate pig flesh. When Muslims said ‘Christians,’ they meant the Byzantine church or the various smaller churches operating in Muslim controlled territory. They knew that an advanced civilization had once flourished further west: a person could still make out traces of it in Italy and parts of the Mediterranean coast, which Muslims regularly raided; but it had crumbled during the Time of Ignorance, before Islam entered the world, and was now little more than a memory."

"Then the Seljuk Turks wrested control of Palestine away from the tolerant Fatimids and the indolent Abbasids. As new converts, these Turks tended towards zealotry. They weren’t zealous about sobriety, modesty, charity, and the like, but they ceded second place to none when it came to expressing chauvinistic disdain toward followers of other religions, especially those from faraway and more primitive lands...Christian pilgrims began to find themselves treated rather shabbily in the Holy Lands. It wasn’t that they were beaten, tortured or killed—nothing like that. It was more that they were subjected to constant little humiliations and harassments designed to make them feel second-class."

Reports of such treatment made their way back west and contributed to the notion of a crusade to regain control of the Holy Lands. The result was about 200 years of sporadic, but bloody battles that further disturbed the Muslim regions and pushed them yet further from their goal of the ideal society.

"Some modern-day Islamic radicals (and a smattering of Western pundits) describe the crusades as a great clash of civilizations foreshadowing the troubles of today. They trace the roots of modern Muslim rage to that era and those events. But reports from the Arab side don’t show Muslims of the time thinking this way, at least at the start. No one seemed to cast the wars as an epic struggle between Islam and Christendom—that was the story line the Crusaders saw. Instead of a clash between two civilizations, Muslims saw simply a calamity falling upon...civilization. For when they looked at the Franj (crusaders), they saw no evidence of civilization."

Eventually the crusades petered out and a far worse tragedy befell the Muslim world. This time the invaders were the Mongols coming from the east under the leadership of Genghis Khan.

"Then he marched on Khorasan and Persia, and here the Mongols attempted genocide. No other word really seems appropriate.....When the Arab geographer Yaqut al-Hamawi wrote a description of western Iran, northern Afghanistan, and the republics north of the Oxus River a few years before the Mongol invasion, he described a fertile, flourishing province. A few years after the invasion, it was a desert. It still is."

This sequence of disasters provoked a theological crisis in the Muslim world.

"The crisis was rooted in the fact that Muslim theologians and scholars, and indeed Muslims in general, had long felt that Islam’s military successes proved its revelations true. Well, if victory meant revelations were true, what did defeat mean?....Another major Muslim historian speculated that the coming of the Mongols portended the end of the world. According to yet another, the Mongol victories showed that God had abandoned Muslims."

It was at this point that the first hints of what we would today identify as "radical Islamic fundamentalism" began to emerge. The thoughts taking root were that these tragedies did not indicate any failure in their religion, but in their practice of the religion. The defeats could be blamed on the Muslims themselves for having drifted away from the practice of "true Islam." The meaning of the word "jihad" also began to acquire a new meaning. The author said the word is most directly translated with the meaning of "struggle," and in the early days of Islam it was associated with the struggle of the religion to survive and spread. Now the word was beginning to be used to include armed struggle against enemies of Islam, a category that included non-Muslims, heretics, apostates and schismatics. According to Ansary, this world-view did not take hold initially but never died away either. It was left to ferment across several hundred more years of Muslim humiliation.

The second catastrophe that befell the Muslim world was the economic and technical domination by the Western nations that yet continues. The invasion in this case was not military but economic. The invaders were merchants, flush with money, looking to buy and sell things. This influx of cash into the relatively simple and, by Western standards, backward economies of the Muslim nations caused severe dislocations to which the local citizens were not able to effectively respond. The net result was that the individual regions became beholden to that Western wealth, and subservient to those who controlled it. The exact path to subservience, or colonization, was different in different regions. The author’s description of the effect on India is representative.

"Around 1600, three gigantic national versions of that first corporation were created in Europe: they were the British, the Dutch, and the French ‘East India Companies.’... Each was chartered by its national government, and in each case the government in question gave its company a national monopoly on doing business with the Islamic east. The actual entities jockeying for advantage in Persia, India, and Southeast Asia, then, were these corporations."

"In Bengal, where the British elbowed out all other Europeans, the East India Company pretty much destroyed the Bengali crafts industry, but hardly noticed itself doing so. It was simply buying up lots of raw material at very good prices. People found more profit in selling raw material to the British than in using those materials to make their own goods. As the native economy went bust, indigenous Bengalis became ever more dependent on the British and finally subservient to them....The East India Company enshrined itself as the Bengali government’s ‘advisors’ nothing more. For the sake of efficiency, the company decided to go ahead and collect taxes on behalf of the Moghul government. And again, for efficiency’s sake, they decided to go ahead and spend the money themselves, directly, locally: what was the point of sending it to the capital and having it come back again? Oh, and henceforth the company’s private army would take care of security and maintain law and order. But the company insisted that it was not now governing Bengal: it was just providing needed services for a fee."

The effects of this invasion (colonization) were more subtle than those produced by the Mongols but just as severe and deadly in the long run.

"In practice, this meant the (powerless) "government" was responsible for solving all problems while the (powerful) company was entitled to reap all benefits but disavowed any responsibility for the welfare of the people; after all, it was not the government. Rapacious company officials bled Bengal dry, but those who complained were referred to ‘the government.’ The plundering of the province resulted in a famine that killed about a third of the population in just two years—we’re talking about an estimated 10 million people here."

The entire Muslim world was invaded/colonized in similar fashion. It was generally not until after World War II that this hold was broken. The Muslim world was then left to reform itself along boundaries drawn by the Western governments. This is itself an interesting story, but the point of this discussion was to demonstrate how the groundwork had been laid for a surge in radical Muslim fundamentalism.

The Muslim theological response to all this history was either to demand that Muslims must "shut out Western influence and restore Islam to its pristine, original form," or to demand that Islam be modified or reinterpreted to allow Muslims to better engage in the modern world. The latter approach became the effective winner in the sense that most countries ended up with governments intent on bringing their people to a state where they could compete with the Western countries. The fundamentalist strain persisted, however, and continued to gain adherents.

Wahhabism is the most familiar of the radical fundamentalist movements. It originated with Abdul Wahhab, an Arabian, born around 1703. He preached religious revival through restoration of Islam in its original state.

"...the local ruler Mohammed ibn Saud welcomed him warmly. Ibn Saud was a minor tribal chieftain with very big ambitions: to ‘unite’ the Arabian Peninsula. By ‘unite,’ of course, he meant ‘conquer.’ In the single-minded preacher Abdul Wahhab he saw just the ally he needed; Wahhab saw the same when he looked at ibn Saud. The two men made a pact. The chieftain agreed to recognize Wahhab as the top religious authority of the Muslim community and do all he could to implement his vision; the preacher, for his part, agreed to recognize ibn Saud as the political head of the Muslim community, its amir, and to instruct his followers to fight for him....The pact produced fruit. Over the next few decades, these two men ‘united’ all the bedouin tribes of the Arabian Peninsula under Saudi-Wahhabi rule."

This tie between the Saudi family and this extreme fundamentalism continued. In fact, the definition of Wahhabism today owes as much to Saudi implementation as to Wahhab’s preaching. The prime change to Islamic theology, according to Wahhabism, is the specification of jihad, the struggle to defeat the enemies of Islam, as a fundamental obligation of a Muslim.

"And who were the enemies of Islam?...According to Wahhab’s doctrines those who did not believe in Islam were, of course, potential enemies but not the most crucial offenders. If they agreed to live peacefully under Muslim rule, they could be tolerated. The enemies of real concern were slackards, apostates, hypocrites, and innovators."

Thus, what was originally a tolerant religion had, in this manifestation, morphed into an intolerant and potentially violent form. The tie to the Saudi family continues to this day. Saudi Arabia is the font for Wahhabism. It has allowed the country’s immense oil income to be used to support the spread of this form of Islam. A millennium of defeat and humiliation helps produce enough converts to make it a force in the world today.

This book leaves one optimistic about the eventual reciprocal accommodation of Western and Islamic-dominated governments. However, the followers of Wahhabism may not reside in a universe where such accommodation is possible. For example, if the Taliban in Afghanistan are truly Wahhabists, then they have to look around and see that Pakistan, Iran, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan must be the next to go.

The Role of Women in Islamic Societies

The author points out that the role of women provides the most striking example of incompatibility between the societies of the Islamic world and that of the West. He revisits this issue several times as Islam evolves. It would appear that the practice of restricting women’s rights and role in society developed gradually over time and is more a result of cultural and traditional imperatives rather than religious edict. In the time of Mohammed the Arabian culture did not accord women the same rights as men, but they were allowed to participate broadly in society, including running businesses, participating in religious discussions and even going to war. Education was compulsory for both boys and girls. The early religious leaders did dictate that men and women should be separated during prayer in order to avoid sexual distractions. One could foresee this attitude evolving into an ever more restricted role for women. In addition, the Muslims encountered societies in which it was popular for wealthy men to keep their women hidden from view as a mark of their prestige. This practice apparently was gradually adopted by Islamic men for much the same reason.

Ansary seems to view this issue as an unfortunate idiosyncrasy of Islam rather than a tragedy of epic proportions.

"Well meaning folk on both sides believe that no human beings should be oppressed. This is not to deny that women suffer grievously from oppressive laws in many Muslim countries. It is only to say that the principle on which Muslims stand is not the "right" to oppress women. Rather, what the Muslim world has reified over the course of history is the idea that society should be divided into a men’s and a women’s realm and that the point of connection between the two should be in the private arena, so that sexuality can be eliminated as a factor in the public life of the community."

The author quotes a fellow named Ghazali, who is described as an influential early Muslim scholar, in order to indicate what these separate "realms" came to mean. A woman should


"remain in the inner sanctum of her house and tend to her spinning; she should not enter or exit excessively; she should speak infrequently with her neighbors and visit them only when the situation requires it; she should safeguard her husband in his absence and in his presence; she should seek his pleasure in all affairs...She should not leave his home without his permission: if she goes out with his permission, she should conceal herself in worn out clothes....being careful that no stranger hear her voice or recognize her personally....She ready at all times for (her husband) to enjoy her whenever he wishes."

This does not look like a sincere attempt to manage sexuality in society. This appears more like male chauvinism gone berserk. The two realms described are those of master and slave. The whole notion that "separate but equal" can be made to work is inconsistent with everything we learn from history. A recent news broadcast pointed out that the major cause of death for women between the ages of 19 and 44, world wide, was violence inflicted by men. This, of course, includes civil wars, genocides, and other catastrophes. However, this report also pointed out that violence against women is endemic in some societies and stated that 80% of women in Afghanistan are victims of domestic violence. The source for this claim was not given but, knowing how prevalent domestic violence is in open societies where women are allowed to display their bruises and broken bones, one would have to be a little suspicious of men who want to hide their women from view.

Islam: Science and Scholarship

It is not news that the renaissance era in Europe was nurtured by a reacquaintence with the classic works of Greece and Rome that had been lost to Europeans but salvaged and preserved by the Muslims. Nor is it news that while Europe was going through its dark age, Muslim scholars were making great advances in learning and science. What was surprising was that the author seems to imply that this spurt of learning and research was really theological in nature, and was thus ultimately constrained in what was capable of being learned.

"Muslims were the first intellectuals ever in a position to make direct comparisons between, say Greek and Indian mathematics, or Greek and Indian medicine, or Persian and Chinese cosmologies, or the metaphysics of various cultures. They set to work exploring how these ancient ideas fit in with each other and with the Islamic revelations, how spirituality related to reason, and how heaven and earth could be drawn into a single schema that explained the entire universe."

The author provides two reasons why this quest for knowledge eventually expired. The first is the fundamental conflict between a society based entirely on revelation and unbiased scientific inquiry. The second is the havoc caused by the several catastrophes visited upon Muslim lands.

Islam, Jews and Israel

Ansary provides needed background on this age-old interaction.

"Both the Arabs and Jews were Semitic and traced their descent to Abraham (and through him to Adam). The Arabs saw themselves as the line descended from Abraham’s son Ishmael and his second wife, Hagar. The stories commonly associated with the Old Testament—Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah and his ark, Joseph and Egypt, Moses and the pharaoh, and the rest of them—were part of Arab tradition too. Although most of the Arabs were pagan polytheists at this point (the time of Mohammed) and the Jews had remained resolutely monotheistic, the two groups were more or less indistinguishable in terms of culture and lifestyle: the Jews of this era spoke Arabic, and their tribal structure resembled that of the Arabs."

"Mohammed considered himself a descendent of Abraham and knew all about Abraham’s uncompromising monotheism. Indeed, Mohammed didn’t think he was preaching something new; he believed he was renewing what Abraham (and countless other prophets) had said...."

Throughout the history presented here there is little indication that Jews and Muslims would have difficulty living side-by-side. That began to change in the 20th century when world-wide political turmoil was at its peak and the Jews began to seriously consider the possibility of reestablishing a homeland in Palestine.

"The new European immigrants did not seize land by force; they bought the land they settled; but they bought it mostly from absentee landlords, so they ended up living among landless peasants who felt doubly dispossessed by the aliens crowding in among them. What happened just before and during World War II in Palestine resembled what happened earlier in Algeria when French immigrants bought up much of the land and planted a parallel economy there, rendering the original inhabitants irrelevant. By 1945 the Jewish population of Palestine almost equaled the Arab population. If one were to translate that influx of newcomers to the American context, it would be as if 150 million refugees flooded in within a decade. How could that not lead to turmoil?"

"In the context of the European narrative, the Jews were victims. In the context of the Arab narrative, they were colonizers with much the same attitudes toward the indigenous population as their fellow Europeans.....Arabs who saw the Zionist project as European colonialism in thin disguise were not inventing a fantasy out of whole cloth: Zionists saw the project that way too, or at least represented it as such to the imperialist powers whose support they needed....The seminal Zionist Theodor Herzl wrote that a Jewish state in Palestine would ‘form a portion of the rampart of Europe against Asia, an outpost of civilization as opposed to barbarism.’ In 1914, Chaim Weitzman wrote a letter to the Manchester Guardian stating that if a Jewish settlement could be established in Palestine ‘we could have in twenty to thirty years a million Jews out there....They could develop the country, bring back civilization to it and form a very effective guard for the Suez Canal.’"

The detailed history of what followed is complex and not actually the subject of the author. His interests are in conveying how all this played out in the Muslim psyche.

"Most Arabs had no stake in the actual issue: the birth of Israel would not strip an Iraqi farmer of his land or keep some Moroccan shopkeeper from prospering in his business—yet most Arabs and indeed most Muslims could wax passionate about who got Palestine. Why? Because the emergence of Israel had emblematic meaning for them. It meant that Arabs (and Muslims generally) had no power, that imperialists could take any part of their territory, and that no one outside the Muslim world would side with them against a patent injustice. The existence of Israel signified European dominance over Muslims, Arab and non-Arab, and over the people of Asia and Africa generally. That’s how it looked from almost any point between the Indus and Istanbul."

This book introduced many historical and cultural topics that would be interesting to pursue further. So many books, so little time!

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