If You Only Read One Book on Islamic History…

I’ve been studying Islamic history for a long time now.  (Stops to count on her fingers. Thirty years??  Really??  Counts again. Dang. )

Last year I discovered the best general book on Islamic history I’ve ever read:  Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes by Tanim Ansary.  I underlined as I read.  I annotated.  I put little Post-It tabs at critical points, the durable ones so I could go back to key arguments in the future.  In short, I had a conversation with that book.

An Afghani-American who grew up in Afghanistan reading English-language history for fun, Ansary argues that Islamic history is not a sub-set of a shared world history but an alternate world history that runs parallel to world history as taught in the West.  In Ansary’s account, the two visions of world history begin in the same place: the cradle of civilization nestled between the Tigris and the Euphrates.  They end up at the same place: a world in which the West and the Islamic world are major and often opposing players.  But the paths they take to the modern world, or more accurately the narratives that explain how “we” got to the modern world, are very different.  Ansary’s book unfolds those two narratives side by side in clear, lively, and often amusing prose.  I found his conclusions compelling.

If you’re only going to read one book on Islamic history, do yourself a favor:  chose Destiny Disrupted. Then let me know what you think about it.


  1. Karen S. Elliott on June 10, 2011 at 11:13 am

    I’ve read some online docs on Islam and Iraq and Afghanistan (for a book I’m working on), and it can be very confusing – politics, conflict, and so on. Is there an indication of how old the writer is? Is he now in the U.S.? I would certainly like a book to make it all a little more clear … a point of view that could make it more personal for me so it’s easier to write about characters from those two places.

    • pamela on June 10, 2011 at 2:42 pm

      Karen: Ansary is in his early 60s and currently lives in the US. he wrote a memoir about growing up with one foot in each culture: West of Kabul, East of New York I haven’t read it yet, but it’s definitely on my list.

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