History books are frequently dry and factual, even when not written as textbooks, and when they're not, they tend to reveal the author's biases or axes to grind. Tamim Ansary, however, sets out to tell the history of Islam through Islamic eyes, not as an apologetic for Islam that ignores its less edifying historical episodes and its troubled present, nor as a Westerner viewing Islam as, at best, an exotically misunderstood Oriental tradition, and at worst, the religion of terrorists and women-in-burkas.
Tamim Ansary, an Afghan-American, suggests that Islam and the West have for much of history existed in two parallel worlds, only rarely intersecting until the violent last few decades. The Dar-al-Islam, or the entire region that Ansary calls the "Middle World," between the European-dominated West and the Chinese-dominated East, grew, expanded, experienced theological and political revolutions, technological and scientific and literary evolution, and several foreign invasions much more significant than those Crusades that everyone today thinks were the most significant East-West interaction before the modern day.
The vast majority of Muslims, even during the height of the Crusades, simply didn't notice the West, which for most of Islam's early history, was an impoverished backwater land of savage, squabbling kingdoms while the Middle East and North Africa was full of wealth and education and glorious cosmopolitan cities. The Crusaders seized some cities and killed a bunch of people and certainly left some profound historical legacies, but never really materially affected the Islamic world nearly as much as they think they did.
The Mongols, on the other hand... they messed the Islamic world up.
Before listening to this, I vaguely remembered the Ummayads, the Abbasids, the Ottomans, the various Caliphates and Sultanates and Emirates that rose and fell from immediately after Mohammad's death until the 20th century when Muslim nation states began to congeal into more or less their present forms. But Destiny Disrupted tells the entire sweeping epic with a historian's accuracy but a storyteller's verve. You will actually get caught up in the rise and fall of dynasties and the shifting epicenters of Islamic scholarship and Arab-African-and-Persian power, the changes in Islam as it goes from populist movement to institutional social paradigm to bureaucratic theocracy. Islam is a complicated religion, like Christianity, with its sects and schisms and interactions with the power of the state. Yes, to Muslims, religion has never been a separate entity from the state, as it came to be in the West, but still, Islam served the interests of rulers, got coopted by those in power, brought down those in power, caused fragmentation and changes in government according to different factions' understanding of how a proper Islamic state should be run, and so conflicts between clerics and kings did play out in their own way in the Middle East too.
If you want to have more than a superficial understanding of how Sunnis and Shias split off from each other, and why India has been the location of so much Hindu-Muslim conflict, and of course, how the United States went from a modern nation Muslims admired and respected in the early 20th century to the Great Satan it is today (yes, a big part of the reason is Israel, but that's not the whole story, and most of the rest of the reason is oil, but that's still not the whole story), then you will get it here, but as the title indicates, this is a history of the world through Muslim eyes, and so the West really only comes into the picture towards the end. There is a huge amount of history that took place between Europe and China that most Westerners know little or nothing about, and this book will not only tell you about it, but make it interesting.
The author's style is a great asset to this narrative. Ansary is not above tossing in wry commentary now and then, neither sparing Westerners nor Muslims from apt observations about historical hypocrisy and inconvenient truths. Ansary does not take a religious position — he obviously grew up as a Muslim in Afghanistan, but it's not even clear from his website whether he is a practicing Muslim today. So he doesn't try to "sell" Islam (and specifically calls out the historical revisionism of those liberal Muslims who today insist that "jihad" has never "properly" meant violent struggle against infidels — Ansary points out that yes it has, many times in history), but neither will he satisfy those of an anti-Islamic bent who insist that Islam is fundamentally and inherently a religion of violence and oppression and intolerance of unbelievers. Those who say that Muslims are incapable of peaceful, heterogeneous coexistence in societies that value reason and democratic principles ignore the fact that such Muslim societies existed for centuries.
If you are a history buff and are interested in this little-served area of history, then I think you could hardly do better than Destiny Disrupted. You will be truly educated about fourteen centuries of history spanning a huge chunk of the world. It's a really good read.
If you're looking for answers addressing contemporary issues - how Israel came to be and why it's an unending canker sore to Muslims worldwide, the origins of Wahabbism (Osama Bin Laden's brand of Islamic fundamentalism), the roots of the Taliban, how the West came to become the "Great Satan" and what Iran's problem is (and what Afghanistan's problem is, and what Syria's problem is, and what Iraq's problem is, and what Egypt's problem is....) then you'll find those here, mostly in the last few chapters, but this is not primarily a book dissecting modern Islam/Western issues. It's about the whole history of the world that happened before the West was important.
Excellent book, highly recommended, an unreserved 5 stars.
I would also like to single out Tamim Ansary's narration. Usually, an author narrating his own book is not a positive for me. Even great writers are rarely good narrators. But Ansary knows his material and puts all the right humorous and serious tones into his reading, and it really does sound like the author simply sitting there telling you this long historical tale, engagingly and interestingly.
I listened to this book because I have kind of an interest in cryptography and its historical impact. The Zimmerman Telegram is ostensibly about the famous telegram that was the final straw that brought America into the first World War, and how the British decoded it and then made use of it. But that turns out to be only a relatively minor part of the story. Really, most of the book is about the geopolitics of the early 20th century and the personalities of leading American, British, and German officials, diplomats, and military leaders, and how these shaped history as we know it.
The "plot" in a nutshell (and Barbara Tuchman does make this book interesting enough that it reads more like a novel plot moving from one twist to another, rather than the inevitable course of history): in 1917, Britain and the other Allied powers are getting the stuffing beaten out of them by Germany. The European front is hemorrhaging lives. What Britain wants and needs, and what Germany fears, is America entering the war. The only thing keeping Britain alive is her navy, and the German navy thinks they can starve Britain and the rest of the Allies if they commence "unrestricted" submarine warfare: meaning, even neutral ships are fair targets in the war zone. Since this largely means American ships bringing supplies to Britain, letting the U-boats loose means very likely provoking America into declaring war.
Then falls into the hands of British codebreakers, who unbeknownst to the Germans have broken their diplomatic code, a telegram from German Foreign Secretary Arthur Zimmerman to the German ambassador in Mexico. Zimmerman tells the ambassador to offer an alliance between Germany and Mexico should the U.S. enter the war (which they expect will happen since the decision has already been made to begin unrestricted submarine warfare). As part of the deal, Germany offers Mexico a great big slice of the American Southwest (basically everything the U.S. had taken from Mexico in various wars and then some), and also urges them to make an alliance with Japan to get Japan to attack the U.S. West Coast.
This is obviously political dynamite, and the British figure it's just what they need to push the U.S. into declaring war on Germany. The only problems are (1) how to reveal this in a way that will simultaneously not be dismissed by the Americans as a hoax while not revealing to the Germans that their code has been broken; (2) U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, who has been stubbornly persisting in trying to broker peace and keep the U.S. neutral, even as it becomes increasingly obvious that neither will be possible.
As I mentioned, the codebreaking stuff turns out to be a very small piece of the story. I found the characterization of President Wilson much more interesting: at times he seems naive, foolish, stubborn, and understandably his opponents even labeled him cowardly. He was adamantly opposed to entering the war, and was pushing his "peace without victory" plan even after the Germans had all but spit on it. But Tuchman's portrayal does suggest a man who was far from cowardly, and not a fool either. He genuinely wanted peace, and genuinely grieved when his orders resulted in the deaths of American servicemembers. (One might wish some of our more recent Presidents had such a personal investment in the consequences of their orders...) But he was also stubborn and prone to not listening to news and opinions he didn't like.
The other interesting part of the story is just how differently the U.S. was situated then as opposed to now. We Americans tend to think that the U.S. has been a "world power" pretty much since its founding, but really, in 1917, the U.S. was big and had a lot of industrial capacity and manpower, but had yet to really be tested on the world stage. Today we laugh at the idea that Mexico might seriously think they could invade the U.S. and carve off Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico, but it was no joke then, especially if Japan, a growing empire itself, landed troops on the West Coast, which was also a real possibility, or at least the U.S. believed it was.
World War I was when America had to actually prove itself and get bloodied. The other powers wanted America's strength on their side and feared America's strength turned against them, but probably no one had any idea of the global superpower the U.S. would become.
An interesting history full of diplomatic maneuverings and historical context that reminds us that everything leading up to World War I, like most wars, was built on things that had been happening for decades before it. A hundred years later, we mostly only remember the outcome.
This is an entertaining and educational book -- I could have done without all the travails of Kate, the "main character," and the other aspiring sushi chefs, but Corson included a class of students at a California sushi chef school in his narrative, telling us about sushi preparation and the sushi business through them. To me, more interesting was the history of sushi (which, naturally, was originally something very different than what you buy at the supermarket today and which you'd probably consider disgusting), as well as lots of chemistry for food science geeks (you learn all about exactly what chemicals make seafood so delicious, as well as all the ways it can go bad). Learn which fish sushi chefs consider to be true delicacies, and which are the crappy fish Japanese used to consider unworthy of sushi, but which Americans love.
Definitely made me want to go out and eat some sushi.