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.

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Keep your fingers crossed.

Thinking About the (American) Civil War

Even though it's "not my field", I've been thinking about the American Civil War a lot recently. (Actually, I've been thinking about England's Civil War, too, but that's a different story.)

Those of you who don't hang out in Popular History Land may not have gotten the word, but 2011 is the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. Re-enactment groups, historical societies, and national parks are gearing up.  For the next four years, you're going to have a wide choice of articles, television programs, exhibits, lectures, recreations and other events commemorating the war.   (Here's a great list of 150th anniversary events and resources to keep your eye on.)  In fact, you've already missed some.

I'm not a full-scale Civil War buff, but I'll doubtless visit an exhibit or two.  Maybe re-visit Wilson's Creek Battlefield when I go home this summer.  As a writer, I've already produced three pieces related to the war this year.  (That's compared to one Civil War article in the past five years.  Did I mention that I'm not a Civil War buff?)  I expect I'll write a few more.

There are lots of ways to think about the Civil War. (You don't believe me?  Look on the shelves of your local library.) The one that I've been chewing on lately is the idea that it's the first modern war.

When you read about the Civil War, the details feel familiar in a way that the American Revolution does not. The technology of telegraph and railroad transport . (Not modern, but was still in use in World War II).   Reports from the field on the front pages of Harper's Weekly. The grimness of Mathew Brady's photographs. Hometown efforts to collect comforts for the troops.

In fact, all of those elements made their first appearance in two earlier, smaller wars.  The Crimean War (1854-56) saw the first use of the telegraph, the first war photography (sorry Mr. Brady but Roger Fenton got there first), the first true war correspondents, and the birth of modern nursing (Clara Barton would be the first to acknowledge her debt to the redoubtable Miss Nightingale.) Railroads played a critical role in Indian Mutiny of 1857.

Ultimately, the Civil War earned its claim to modernity in terms of its devastation and the role played by the relative industrial capacity of the two sides.

Welcome to the modern war.