If you really want to know a thing or a thousand about islam, check out Tamim Ansary. Born in Afghanistan to an American mother and an Afghan father, Ansary is perfectly situated to help bridge the gulf between the western and eastern worlds, the gulf that bedevils us not only today, but has for centuries.

I thought I was at least superficially versed in the Muslim world history, but  how wrong I was. Always the tales I read, both fiction and non-fiction had a western slant. From The Arabian Nights to Disney cartoons, the Muslim east was rendered exotic and unworldly. Except of course when the subject was the Crusades and the missionary zeal with which we went out to “reconquer” the Holy Land. Backstory on that little venture is that the primogeniture system by which family holdings went to the eldest son, left a lot of uneldest sons unemployed. They were trained in war, but had no one left to fight except themselves and the “illegitimate” citizens of Jerusalem and environs became ready made enemies. Thing is, the Christian Warriors supposed they were riding into a primitive and ignorant culture, but were actually encountering one that had been established for centuries. Prevailing image is that of Lawrence of Arabia leading bloodthirsty saracens into battle on camelback. Uh, no.

By the time of the first crusade in the eleventh century, Islamic culture was a highly literate and scientific civilization that prevailed over a huge swath of the world. By the time they conquered Constantinople in mid-15th Century, the Ottomans were the dominant force in literature, architecture, music, and science around most of the mediterranean and eastward. In point of fact, their command of the region effectively severed the legendary silk road, cut off western access to eastern riches, and forced Europeans to sail out looking for new ways into India. That, of course had historic consequences, not the least of which was to eventually raise the price of tea to the point where England tried to tax their colonies to recover some of the costs. And we thought the Boston Tea Party was all our own idea. And lest you think its day is done, disabuse yourself. Islam is the second largest religion in the world and the fastest growing.Muslims form a quarter of the world’s population as opposed to Christianity’s one-third. Well let’s hope “opposed” is the wrong word. Understanding and harmony, despite the crusades and 9/1,  has prevailed most of the time, and can and will in the future.


In the end, besides gaining new and surprising insights into history, reading Destiny Interrupted and  Ansary’s The Invention of Yesterday, gives a sense of how interrelated are all our human endeavors even when we believe they are seemingly isolated and self-contained. If I had to recommend a choice between the two books, I would have to say, read both. If everyone did, the world would be better for it.