World History Looks Different When Seen Through Islamic Eyes





Afghan-American writer, lecturer, and teacher Tamim Ansary is man ideally placed to help Westerners see the history of our world through another set of eyes. Growing up in Afghanistan as a young history buff, Ansary had an opportunity to read and learn about the world from dual perspectives. A decade ago, when he was working as a textbook editor, a publisher in Texas hired him to develop a new world history textbook for high school students....

Ansary begins with two lists of the pivotal periods in human history – as seen both through Western eyes and through Islamic eyes. For both, it is the year 3500 BC (before Christ in the Western calendar) – or 3500 BCE (before the Common Era, as it’s known in both Muslim and Jewish traditions). “The first traces of what you might call ‘civilization’ emerged along the Tigris and Euphrates River and a little later in Egypt,” Ansary said. “Writing is part of it; cities are part of it; irrigation systems and inventions like the wheel.”...

In terms of cultural identity, the most critical historical period for Muslims is the birth of Islam – specifically the Hijra, the flight of the Prophet Mohammed from Mecca to Medina in 622 CE. “About 610," Ansary recounts, “the Prophet went to a cave and meditated. And he felt he had been visited by the angel Gabriel, who told him he was the messenger of Allah. That message was that there is only one God. You shouldn’t worship idols. This one God has given humanity freedom of choice, but will hold them responsible for their choices. Time will end and there will be a day of judgment, and people will be sorted into those who have done good, who will go to heaven, and those who have done evil, who will go to hell – for eternity.”

“When the Prophet fled to Medina because he was being persecuted in Mecca,” Ansary said, “he became not only a preacher but also the leader of a political community, the Muslim community, and that marks the turning point of history.”...

By the end of the 11th century of the Common Era, the dream of a universal Muslim community at the political level had failed, according to Ansary. “It crumbled because the Caliphate got too big. The technology of the time was not sufficient to have one capital administering a realm that stretched from India to Spain,” he said....

The next major period from an Islamic perspective was that of the three great empires. Of these, the Ottoman Empire was the largest. “It encompassed North Africa, Asia Minor to the edge of what is now Iran, and it spilled over into Eastern Europe,” Ansary said. The Persian Safavid Empire in Central Asia was a bit larger than modern-day Iran. And the Moghul Empire in South Asia included what are now India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and part of Afghanistan....

“When the West came to the East, the East was at the peak of its power, in terms of how it felt about itself, so the Muslims didn’t perceive the Western traders as a threat,” Ansary said. Throughout this period, when the West was becoming dominant in the East, he suggests, that domination was not primarily in terms of military conflict. “In fact, the wars that were going on were generally those between different Muslim powers,” he explains....

The rise of secular modernists in the Islamic world – such as Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in Turkey, Mohammed Ali Jinnah in Pakistan, and Gamal Abdul Nasser in Egypt – is a 20th century phenomenon. Ansary describes Ataturk as a “radical extremist” in the Islamic context. “In many ways he overthrew the idea of a traditional Islamic society in favor of a secular Western idea. He said that Turks could practice Islam as a religion, but it had nothing to do with the government,” Ansary explained. And in Turkey, he noted, it became the job of the army to guarantee the secularism of the government....

“I’m not suggesting that books like mine should be part of the curriculum in the schools of the West,” Ansary said. “But I do think it is supplementary reading, and that could also encompass Indian and Chinese and other histories,” Ansary suggested.



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