Why I chose this book
With the escalations in terrorism and violence directed at Americans over the past decade that have originated in the Middle East, it has been an item on my to-do list for some time to dive into the history of the region. Toward this end, I picked up three distinct volumes concerning the Middle East- the first focused on its comprehensive history from the perspective of the Persian, Turkish, and Arab Muslims starting from the time of Mohammad; the second centered on American involvement in the region as seen from the American point of view from the time of our nation’s founding; the third revealing Middle Eastern history through the eyes of the Eastern Christians (Byzantines) who resided there after the fall of the Roman Empire. Perhaps in time I will also pick up a volume that channels the thoughts of the European powers who were heavily involved in shaping Middle East history. That will just about round out the story from every perspective.
Book recommendation: Buy
This book is a must read for any American who is seeking a solid understanding of the region and its people. In a welcome departure from typical dry historical accounts, Ansary’s book reads like a novel with suspense, high drama, and fast paced action in every chapter. I learned so much about the history of Islam, the ethnic/anthropological background on the Arabs, Persians, and Turks (and even a bit about the Far Eastern groups such as the Mongolians) and the history of the region as a whole, while being thoroughly entertained along the way. I cross checked Ansary’s ‘facts’ against other historical accounts and they hold up as reliable. Among the many Amazon reviews, the only criticism with regards to accuracy is that Ansary glosses over the depth of the slavery the populations he covers were engaged in. So noted and so agreed. Still, this oversight did not serve to fundamentally change my understanding of the region’s history or present a rosier glow on Islam. Ansary fairly documented enough additional atrocities that my opinions on the practical application of Islam were thoroughly cemented even before the horror of enslaving Christians and Hindus were called to my attention by other historical accounts.
Plot Summary: (Spoilers Ahead!)
What we gleam from Ansary’s story is that lofty ideals and visions of peace and unity are quickly dragged into the mud when mankind, holding a corruptive and sinful nature, attempts to put such ideals and visions into practice through sheer will alone. The history of Islam is a history of people who embrace, for the most part, the edicts and commandments of God and his call to service and love, but deny the deity of Christ and reject the Holy Spirit’s presence within them- without which no man can hope to honor God’s edicts and calls. The Muslim story begins with Mohammad who reported that God had directly spoken to him and given him guidance on how to live a more holy life of community. I do not doubt this to be true. It continues over his lifetime as he attempted to witness to others and assemble a group who would voluntarily strive toward God. He strived and strived and while he never dropped into the depths of corruption that later leaders of Islam would, he nevertheless failed to achieve his vision of community holiness in practice. Over the course of time, and throughout the succession of Muslim leaders there has been relentless quibbling within the faith, most notably:
1. Who is the authentic leader of the faith? When Mohammad died a council of elders elected one of his close associates as his successor to lead the community, but his son-in-law felt the role was owed to him. In later generations an entire faction of the faith would take up arms to defend the idea that the line of succession should have passed through Ali (the son-in-law). These are the Shiite Muslims. As the generations passed, more squabbles over who was most qualified to lead ensued, leading to additional separations among subgroups. Today there are several ‘denominations’ of the faith based on the question of leadership. Ansary provides a detailed account of the lives and actions of the Islamic leaders of the most notable Islamic ‘denominations’ over the history of the faith and readers will recoil with disgust in the level of corruption, murder, thievery of public funds and generalized rot exhibited by the succession of these leaders. This is true of even the honorable Muslim men who begin with the most promising character elected to lead the faith and is a solid reminder that no matter how pure the intentions, without God living in our hearts and without us turning over our lives to him and letting our own will die, sin will prevail. We cannot have two masters over our hearts. It is either God, or it is sin.
2. How do we live out our faith in practice and handle sin? Originally Mohammad called for Islam to be purely a voluntary community. Those that wished to take part were welcomed and those that didn’t were tolerated as outsiders. Those that chose to be in the community of faith would be held accountable to living a holy life. What it means to demonstrate a holy life has been redefined repeatedly as new edicts have been added and enforcement levels (along the scale from gentle correction to death penalties) have varied. Over generations the main branch of Islam (Sunni) and the various offshoots have waffled on their position with regard to freedom of faith. At times they’ve held to tolerance (with the exception of apostasy- to be a Muslim and then leave the faith has always been a grave sin and punishable by the community) and at other times they’ve taken up arms and attempted conversion by threat of life and limb (and made good on their threats). The concept of Jihad (holy war) for God has also evolved over the course of Islamic history- changing from a war waged within ourselves against sin to an external war waged against the enemies of God on earth (included other faiths and their adherents).
3. Is Islam just about rules and edicts and the self-will to be holy or is there something more to the community? Something mystic and a way of personal experience/interaction with God? It probably comes as no surprise to Christians that throughout the history of Islam, many adherents have longed for something more than simply a prescription for holy living that they can never attain despite their futile attempts to will themselves toward perfection. They long for an intimate and personal connection to God and an experience of unconditional love and grace. They want to get off the hamster wheel of attempted perfection that is getting them nowhere. Since Islam has no theological basis to facilitate such a connection and experience within its canon (Mohammad claimed to be merely a prophet and not a savior or bridge to God), some adherents and leaders have attempted to inject a mystical and personal element to the faith, promising euphoric connection with a loving God by following certain techniques and praying specific prayers. The mainline faith rejects such lines of thought and action as heretical yet many in the faith get pulled into these fringe groups by the draw of the promise for a personal connection.
In the midst of trying to sort out the questions of their faith, there has always been the additional question of Arab, Persian and Turkish ethnic culture differences and how to manage the impact of those competing outlooks and loyalties.
To further complicate things, eventually waves of successive interlopers from Asia and then Europe (and America as well) got into the thick of things, holding secret (and sometimes not so secret) meetings amongst themselves about how they were going to march in and divide up the region and about how they were going to manage the native residents and resources. In many ways and many times, the European powers behaved atrociously and only managed to exponentially increase the instability and turmoil in the region while doing great harm to entire groups of native Middle Easterners in the name of expanding Western power and ideology.
And how should the Muslim community interact with any overarching political structures within the region? This especially became relevant once the concept of independent nation states took hold and nations such as Iran found shape as European powers withdrew direct control. Religions that are much more focused on the individual (such as Christianity) can thrive in a political environment that makes no official religious endorsement but Ansary argues the entire point of Islam is a focus on the community which is hijacked if no central community can be established and formally backed by the state.
Clearly my perspective on the Middle East is shaped by my faith as a Christian and my identification with American political ideology. As I came to the end of Ansary’s book through my lens of bias, I reasoned that his report of history only further confirms the truth of Christian theology (we are all fallen and a faith lacking a personal connection to God and surrender of our will to Jesus and the Holy Spirit is destined to fall short and leave us bitter and advance the cause of evil in the world). It also confirms the rightness of our American commitment to democracy, free will, and the value of individuals (all of which provide a check and balance on sin and abuse of power).
As many of my blog readers approach life from faith perspectives and national identities that differ from mine, you will no doubt come to different conclusions than I have as you move through Ansary’s historical account. And that’s fine. Whatever the context of your particular bias, the facts of who, what, where and when presented by Ansary will add to your understand of the Middle East and give you the background needed to put today’s news headlines coming out of the region in context.