Ansary’s single volume history of Islam argues that the Islamic world has its own very entrenched narrative regarding the course of world history, one that revolves around the emergence and evolution of Islam as a religion, a civilization, and a social project. Ansary presents a critical analysis of that narrative that is aimed squarely at the widest possible audience of intelligent general readers. In engaging prose and using everyday language, Ansary presents Islam as having created its own world system, with its own sense of identity and world history. Fundamental points are spelt out very clearly: the life story of the Prophet and the first four generations of Muslims is regarded by Muslims as their founding narrative as well as their base of scripture; the many efforts to develop, define and redefine Islam, as faith, civilization, and social project, all revolve around this first phase of Islamic history; the Islamic narrative of world history sees modernity and the rise of the West as having first disrupted and then derailed what they understand to be the ‘course of world history,’ although this conclusion takes many forms.
Scope (Topics Covered, Time Period)
Ansary’s book is clearly a tract for its time as well as a product of the author’s own experience. An Afghan writer living and working in the USA, Ansary became known for engaging in public discussion regarding the relationship between the Islamic and Western worlds after the 9/11 atrocities of 2001. Ansary’s principal target readership is clearly an interested if uninformed general American and Western public. He does a great service to that readership by presenting a clear and deeply contextualized explanation of how Islam came to be, why it grew and evolved as it did, what caused its great fissures and what were their consequences—and, above all, how did Muslims understand the course of their relationships with the West, over the very long span of time since the life of the Prophet. Ansary redefines periodization by dating events AH, After the Hijra—the flight of the Prophet from Mecca to Medina in 622—and placing this periodization alongside the CE dating calendar. This makes his cardinal point right away: from the Islamic historical vantage point, the course of events, as well as their importance, often looks very different. Stressing the importance of understanding Islam as a social project which focused on building the ideal community here on Earth according to God’s direction as revealed to the Prophet, Ansary historicizes as well as explaining the tenets and evolution of a faith that built a world system ranging from Morocco to Indonesia. Seminal events include the Sunni-Shi’a split, the Mongol invasion, the Industrial Revolution and the discovery of oil, and the rise of such competing forces as salafism, Wahabism, and secular modernism; put in perspective from the Islamic vantage point are the Crusades, the revealing of the New World, and the evolution of ‘nation statism.’ Perhaps the most important point Ansary makes is that there are historical as well as theological reasons for the rise of jihadism and its related expressions, and we must understand them in context in order to understand them today.
Argument (Methodology, Significance)
Ansary explains empires and Islam as having a deeply entwined relationship, despite the theological emphasis on unity within the Islamic world at all levels. The evolution of a near symbiosis between Shi’ism and a distinct Persian sense of difference and identity, plus the emergence of the Turkish defined but deliberately layered Ottoman imperial state as the effective khalifate, defined the political history of the Islamic world just as it began to experience what became comprehensive contact with a volatile and expanding Western civilization. Ansary suggests that the multi-layered nature of imperial polities and societies made a perhaps more ‘natural’ fit with prevailing Islamic understandings of community and identity—especially on the appropriateness of monarchy--than later efforts to carve out national states within the broader Muslim world. In any case, the dominance of empire models in the political history of Muslims AH and before the 20th century CE is so pronounced that they must be seen as an integral part of this world history.
Criticisms can be made. Anything east of India is almost completely ignored, a striking omission in a general study of an Islamic narrative of world history. And Ansary’s effort to explain complicated things in a clear manner to a general readership sometimes results in what scholars would consider essentializing or generalizing to excess. But the dynamic that stands out most clearly in the book is the emphasis Ansary places on how differently the Islamic world has seen the unfolding course of world history, and its relationship with the West in that context. The Crusades were an annoying skirmish with fanatics on the fringe, not some fundamental civilizational challenge that caused lasting animosity. Secular modernity made only limited headway within the Islamic world not only because it cut across some basic tenets of Islam but also came to be seen as the Trojan Horse of Western power exploiting Muslim weakness. There is no clash between civilizations in the apocalyptic sense, but the friction between Islam and the West is produced by some genuine incompatibilities, not just manipulation or misunderstanding. Despite this manifestation of presentism, Ansary succeeds very well in putting across an important argument: close historical study of the global experience of Islam indicates, above all, that Islam has produced its own distinct narrative of world history, one that reflected its construction of a world system—and it is timely to place both narrative and system alongside other narratives and systems, to better understand what it looked like ‘from the other side of the hill.’
Annotated by Brian Farrell