DESTINY DISRUPTED. A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes – Tamim Ansary.

How, on the eve of 9/11, could anyone have failed to consider Islam a major player at the table of world history!

Has the “Islamic world” not been a considerable geographical fact throughout its many centuries? Does it not remain one to this day, straddling the Asian-African landmass and forming an enormous buffer between Europe and East Asia?

In the United States the presumption holds that world history leads to the birth of its founding ideals of liberty and equality and to its resultant rise as a superpower leading the planet into the future.

My aim is to convey what Muslims think happened, because that’s what has motivated Muslims over the ages and what makes their role in world history intelligible.

The Western narrative of world history largely omits a whole civilization. Destiny Disrupted tells the history of the world from the Islamic point of view, and restores the centrality of the Muslim perspective, ignored for a thousand years.

In Destiny Disrupted, Tamim Ansary tells the rich story of world history as it looks from a new perspective: with the evolution of the Muslim community at the center. His story moves from the lifetime of Mohammed through a succession of farflung empires, to the tangle of modern conflicts that culminated in the events of 9/11. He introduces the key people, events, ideas, legends, religious disputes, and turning points of world history, imparting not only what happened but how it is understood from the Muslim perspective.

He clarifies why two great civilizations, Western and Muslim, grew up oblivious to each other, what happened when they intersected, and how the Islamic world was affected by its slow recognition that Europe, a place it long perceived as primitive, had somehow hijacked destiny.

With storytelling brio, humor, and evenhanded sympathy to all sides of the story, Ansary illuminates a fascinating parallel to the world narrative usually heard in the West. Destiny Disrupted offers a vital perspective on world conflicts many now find so puzzling.

The Islamic world today.


Growing up as I did in Muslim Afghanistan, I was exposed early on to a narrative of world history quite different from the one that schoolchildren in Europe and the Americas routinely hear. At the time, however, it didn’t shape my thinking, because I read history for fun, and in Farsi there wasn’t much to read except boring textbooks. At my reading level, all the good stuff was in English.

My earliest favorite was the highly entertaining Child’s History of the World by a man named V.V. Hillyer. It wasn’t till I reread that book as an adult, many years later, that I realized how shockingly Eurocentric it was, how riddled with casual racism. I failed to notice these features as a child because Hillyer told a good story.

When I was nine or ten, the historian Arnold Toynbee passed through our tiny town of Lashkargah on a journey, and someone told him of a history-loving little bookworm of an Afghan kid living there. Toynbee was interested and invited me to tea, so I sat with the florid, old British gentleman, giving shy, monosyllabic answers to his kindly questions. The only thing I noticed about the great historian was his curious habit of keeping his handkerchief in his sleeve.

When we parted, however, Toynbee gave me a gift: Hendrick Willem Van Loon’s The Story of Mankind. The title alone thrilled me, the idea that all of “mankind” had a single story. Why, I was part of “mankind” myself, so this might be my story, in a sense, or at least might situate me in the one big story shared by all! I gulped that book down and loved it, and the Western narrative of world history became my framework ever after. All the history and historical fiction I read from then on just added flesh to those bones. I still studied the pedantic Farsi history texts assigned to us in school but read them only to pass tests and forgot them soon after.

Faint echoes of the other narrative must have lingered in me, however, because forty years later, in the fall of 2000, when I was working as a textbook editor in the United States, it welled back up. A school publisher in Texas had hired me to develop a new high school world-history textbook from scratch, and my first task was to draw up a table of contents, which entailed formulating an opinion about the overall shape of human history. The only given was the structure of the book. To fit the rhythm of the school year, the publisher ordained that it be divided into ten units, each consisting of three chapters.

But into what ten (or thirty) parts does all of time naturally divide? World history, after all, is not a chronological list of every damn thing that ever happened; it’s a chain of only the most consequential events, selected and arranged to reveal the arc of the story, it’s the arc that counts.

I tied into this intellectual puzzle with gusto, but my decisions had to pass through a phalanx of advisors: curriculum specialists, history teachers, sales executives, state education officials, professional scholars, and other such worthies. This is quite normal in elementary and high school textbook publishing, and quite proper I think, because the function of these books is to convey, not challenge, society’s most up-to-date consensus of what’s true. A chorus of advisors empanelled to second-guess a development editor’s decisions helps to ensure that the finished product reflects the current curriculum, absent which the book will not even be saleable.

As we went through the process, however, I noticed an interesting tug and pull between my advisors and me. We agreed on almost everything except, I kept wanting to give more coverage to Islam in world history, and they kept wanting to pull it back, scale it down, parse it out as side-bars in units devoted mainly to other topics. None of us was speaking out of parochial loyalty to “our own civilization.” No one was saying Islam was better or worse than “the West.” All of us were simply expressing our best sense of which events had been most consequential in the story of humankind.

Mine was so much the minority opinion that it was indistinguishable from error, so we ended up with a table of contents in which Islam constituted the central topic of just one out of thirty chapters. The other two chapters in that unit were “Pre-Columbian Civilizations of the Americas” and “Ancient Empires of Africa.”

Even this, incidentally, represented expanded coverage. The best-selling world history program of the previous textbook cycle, the 1997 edition of Perspectives on the Past, addressed Islam in just one chapter out of thirty-seven, and half of that chapter (part of a unit called “The MiddIe Ages”) was given over to the Byzantine Empire.

In short, less than a year before September 11, 2001, the consensus of expert opinion was telling me that Islam was a relatively minor phenomenon whose impact had ended long before the Renaissance. If you went strictly by our table of contents, you would never guess Islam still existed.

At the time, I accepted that my judgment might be skewed. After all, I had a personal preoccupation with Islam that was part of sorting out my own identity. Not only had I grown up in a Muslim country, but I was born into a family whose one-time high social status in Afghanistan was based entirely on our reputed piety and religious learning. Our last name indicates our supposed descent from the Ansars, “the Helpers,” those first Muslim converts of Medina who helped the Prophet Mohammed escape assassination in Mecca and thereby ensured the survival of his mission.

More recently, my grandfather’s great-grandfather was a locally revered Muslim mystic whose tomb remains a shrine for hundreds of his devotees to this day, and his legacy percolated down to my father’s time, instilling in our clan a generalized sense of obligation to know this stuff better than the average guy. Growing up, I heard the buzz of Muslim anecdotes, commentary, and speculation in my environment and some of it sank in, even though my own temperament somehow turned resolutely secular.

And it remained secular after I moved to the United States; yet I found myself more interested in Islam here than I ever had been whiIe living in the Muslim world. My interest deepened after 1979, when my brother embraced “fundamentalist” Islam. I began delving into the philosophy of Islam through writers such as Fazlur Rahman and Syed Hussein Nasr as well as its history through academics such as Ernst Grunebaum and Albert Hourani, just trying to fathom what my brother and I were coming from, or in his case, moving toward.


Given my personal stake, I could concede that I might be overestimating the importance of Islam. And yet . . . a niggling doubt remained. Was my assessment wholly without objective basis? Take a look at these six maps, snapshots of the Islamic world at six different dates:

When I say “Islamic world,” I mean societies with Muslim majorities and/or Muslim rulers. There are, of course, Muslims in England, France, the United States, and nearly every other part of the globe, but it would be misleading, on that basis, to call London or Paris or New York a part of the Islamic world. Even by my limited definition, however, has the “Islamic world” not been a considerable geographical fact throughout its many centuries? Does it not remain one to this day, straddling the Asian-African landmass and forming an enormous buffer between Europe and East Asia? Physically, it spans more space than Europe and the United States combined. In the past, it has been a single political entity, and notions of its singleness and political unity resonate among some Muslims even now. Looking at these six maps, I still have to wonder how, on the eve of 9/11, anyone could have failed to consider Islam a major player at the table of world history!

After 9/11, perceptions changed. Non-Muslims in the West began to ask what Islam was all about, who these people were, and what was going on over there. The same questions began to bombinate with new urgency for me too. That year, visiting Pakistan and Afghanistan for the first time in thirty-eight years, I took along a book that I had found in a used bookstore in London, Islam in Modern History by the late Wilfred Cantwell Smith, a professor of religion at McGill and Harvard. Smith published his book in 1957, so the “modern history” of which he spoke had ended more than forty years earlier, and yet his analyses struck me as remarkably, in fact disturbingly pertinent to the history unfolding in 2002.

Smith shone new light on the information I possessed from childhood and from later reading. For example, during my school days in Kabul, I was quite aware of a man named Sayyid Jamaluddin-i-Afghan. Like “everyone,” I knew he was a towering figure in modern Islamic history; but frankly I never fathomed how he had earned his acclaim, beyond the fact that he espoused “pan-Islamism,” which seemed like mere pallid Muslim chauvinism to me. Now, reading Smith, I realized that the basic tenets of “Islamism,” the political ideology making such a clatter around us in 2001, had been hammered out a hundred-plus years earlier by this intellectual Karl Marx of “Islamism.” How could his very name be unknown to most non Muslims?

I plowed back into Islamic history, no longer in a quest for personal identity, but in an effort to make sense of the alarming developments among Muslims of my time, the horror stories in Afghanistan; the tumult in Iran, the insurgencies in Algeria, the Philippines, and elsewhere; the hijackings and suicide bombings in the Middle East, the hardening extremism of political Islam; and now the emergence of the Taliban. Surely, a close look at history would reveal how on Earth it had come to this.

And gradually, I came to realize how it had come to this. I came to perceive that, unlike the history of France or Malta or South America, the history of the Islamic lands “over there” was not a subset of some single world history shared by all. It was more like a whole alternative world history unto itself, competing with and mirroring the one I had tried to create for that Texas publisher, or the one published by McDougall-Littell, for which I had written “the Islam chapters.”

The two histories had begun in the same place, between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers of ancient Iraq, and they had come to the same place, this global struggle in which the West and the Islamic world seemed to be the major players. In between, however, they had passed through different-and yet strangely parallel! landscapes.

Yes, strangely parallel: looking back, for example, from within the Western world-historical framework, one sees a single big empire towering above all others back there in ancient times: it is Home, where the dream of a universal political state was born.

Looking back from anywhere in the Islamic world, one also sees a single definitive empire looming back there, embodying the vision of a universal state, but it isn’t Rome. It is the khalifate of early Islam.

In both histories, the great early empire fragments because it simply grows too big. The decaying empire is then attacked by nomadic barbarians from the north, but in the Islamic world, “the north” refers to the steppes of Central Asia and in that world the nomadic barbarians are not the Germans but the Turks. In both, the invaders dismember the big state into a patchwork of smaller kingdoms permeated throughout by a single, unifying religious orthodoxy: Catholicism in the West, Sunni Islam in the East.

World history is always the story of how “we” got to the here and now, so the shape of the narrative inherently depends on who we mean by “we” and what we mean by “here and now.” Western world history traditionally presumes that here and now is democratic industrial (and postindustrial) civilization. In the United States the further presumption holds that world history leads to the birth of its founding ideals of liberty and equality and to its resultant rise as a superpower leading the planet into the future. This premise establishes a direction for history and places the endpoint somewhere down the road we’re traveling now. It renders us vulnerable to the supposition that all people are moving in this same direction, though some are not quite so far along, either because they started late, or because they’re moving more slowly, for which reason we call their nations “developing countries.”

When the ideal future envisioned by postindustrialized, Western democratic society is taken as the endpoint of history, the shape of the narrative leading to here-and-now features something like the following stages:

  1. Birth of civilization (Egypt and Mesopotamia)
  2. Classical age (Greece and Rome)
  3. The Dark Ages (rise of Christianity)
  4. The Rebirth: Renaissance and Reformation
  5. The Enlightenment (exploration and science)
  6. The Revolutions (democratic, industrial, technological)
  7. Rise of Nation-States: The Struggle for Empire
  8. World Wars I and II.
  9. The Cold War
  10. The Triumph of Democratic Capitalism

But what if we look at world history through Islamic eyes? Are we apt to regard ourselves as stunted versions of the West, developing toward the same endpoint, but less effectually? I think not. For one thing, we would see a different threshold dividing all of time into “before” and “after”: the year zero for us would be the year of Prophet Mohammed’s migration from Mecca to Medina, his Hijra, which gave birth to the Muslim community. For us, this community would embody the meaning of “civilized,” and perfecting this ideal would look like the impulse that had given history its shape and direction.

But in recent centuries, we would feel that something had gone awry with the flow. We would know the community had stopped expanding, had grown confused, had found itself permeated by a disruptive crosscurrent, a competing historical direction. As heirs to Muslim tradition, we would be forced to look for the meaning of history in defeat instead of triumph. We would feel conflicted between two impulses: changing our notion of “civilized” to align with the flow of history or fighting the flow of history to realign it with our notion of “civilized.”

If the stunted present experienced by Islamic society is taken as the here-and-now to be explained by the narrative of world history, then the story might break down to something like the following stages:

  1. Ancient Times: Mesopotamia and Persia.
  2. Birth of Islam
  3. The Khalifate: Quest for Universal Unity.
  4. Fragmentation: Age of the Sultanates
  5. Catastrophe: Crusaders and Mongols
  6. Rebirth: The Three-Empires Era
  7. Permeation of East by West
  8. The Reform Movements
  9. Triumph of the Secular Modernists
  10. The lslamist Reaction

Literary critic Edward Said has argued that over the centuries, the West has constructed an “Orientalist” fantasy of the Islamic world, in which a sinister sense of “otherness” is mingled with envious images of decadent opulence. Well, yes, to the extent that Islam has entered the Western imagination, that has more or less been the depiction.

But more intriguing to me is the relative absence of any depictions at all. In Shakespeare’s day, for example, preeminent world power was centered in three Islamic empires. Where are all the Muslims in his canon? Missing. If you didn’t know Moors were Muslims, you wouldn’t learn it from Othello.

Here are two enormous worlds side by side; what’s remarkable is how little notice they have taken of each other. If the Western and Islamic worlds were two individual human beings, we might see symptoms of repression here. We might ask, “What happened between these two? Were they lovers once? Is there some history of abuse?”

But there is, I think, another less sensational explanation. Throughout much of history, the West and the core of what is now the Islamic world have been like two separate universes, each preoccupied with its own internal affairs, each assuming itself to be the center of human history, each living out a different narrative, until the late seventeenth century when the two narratives began to intersect. At that point, one or the other had to give way because the two narratives were crosscurrents to each other. The West being more powerful, its current prevailed and churned the other one under.

But the superseded history never really ended. It kept on flowing beneath the surface, like a riptide, and it is flowing down there still. When you chart the hot spots of the world, Kashmir, Iraq, Chechnya, the Balkans, Israel and Palestine, Iraq, you’re staking out the borders of some entity that has vanished from the maps but still thrashes and flails in its effort not to die.

This is the story I tell in the pages that follow, and I emphasize “story.” Destiny Disrupted is neither a textbook nor a scholarly thesis. It’s more like what I’d tell you if we met in a coffeehouse and you said, “What’s all this about a parallel world history?” The argument I make can be found in numerous books now on the shelves of university libraries. Read it there if you don’t mind academic language and footnotes.

Read it here if you want the story arc. Although I am not a scholar, I have drawn on the work of scholars who sift the raw material of history to draw conclusions and of academics who sifted the work of scholarly researchers to draw meta-conclusions.

In a history spanning several thousand years, I devote what may seem like inordinate space to a brief half century long ago, but I linger here because this period spans the career of Prophet Mohammed and his first four successors, the founding narrative of Islam. I recount this story as an intimate human drama, because this is the way that Muslims know it. Academics approach this story more skeptically, crediting non-Muslim sources above supposedly less objective Muslim accounts, because they are mainly concerned to dig up what “really happened.” My aim is mainly to convey what Muslims think happened, because that’s what has motivated Muslims over the ages and what makes their role in world history intelligible.

I will, however, assert one caveat here about the origins of Islam. Unlike older religions, such as Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, even Christianity, Muslims began to collect, memorize, recite, and preserve their history as soon as it happened, and they didn’t just preserve it but embedded each anecdote in a nest of sources, naming witnesses to each event and listing all persons who transmitted the account down through time to the one who first wrote it down, references that function like the chain of custody validating a piece of evidence in a court case.

This implies only that the core Muslim stories cannot best be approached as parables. With a parable, we don’t ask for proof that the events occurred; that’s not the point. We don’t care if the story is true; we want the lesson to be true. The Muslim stories don’t encapsulate lessons of that sort: they’re not stories about ideal people in an ideal realm. They come to us, rather, as accounts of real people wrestling with practical issues in the mud and murk of actual history, and we take from them what lessons we will.

Which is not to deny that the Muslim stories are allegorical, nor that some were invented, nor that many or even all were modified by tellers along the way to suit agendas of the person or moment. It is only to say that the Muslims have transmitted their foundational narrative in the same spirit as historical accounts, and we know about these people and events in much the same way that we know what happened between Sulla and Marius in ancient Rome. These tales lie somewhere between history and myth, and telling them stripped of human drama falsifies the meaning they have had for Muslims, rendering less intelligible the things Muslims have done over the centuries. This then is how I plan to tell the story, and if you’re on board with me, buckle in and let’s begin.

Chapter 1

The Middle World

LONG BEFORE ISLAM was born, two worlds took shape between the Atlantic Ocean and the Bay of Bengal. Each coalesced around a different network of trade and travel routes; one of them, mainly sea routes; the other, land routes.

If you look at ancient sea traffic, the Mediterranean emerges as the obvious center of world history, for it was here that the Mycenaeans, Cretans, Phoenicians, Lydians, Greeks, Romans, and so many other vigorous early cultures met and mingled. People who lived within striking distance of the Mediterranean could easily hear about and interact with anyone else who lived within striking distance of the Mediterranean, and so this great sea itseIf became an organizing force drawing diverse people into one another’s narratives and weaving their destinies together to form the germ of a world history, and out of this came “Western civilization.”

If you look at ancient overland traffic, however, the Grand Central Station of the world was the nexus of roads and routes connecting the Indian subcontinent, Central Asia, the Iranian highlands, Mesopotamia, and Egypt, roads that ran within a territory ringed by rivers and seas,the Persian Gulf, the Indus and Oxus rivers; the Aral, Caspian, and Black seas; the Mediterranean, the Nile, and the Red Sea. This eventually became the Islamic world.

THE MEDITERRANEAN (Defined by Sea Routes)

THE MIDDLE WORLD (Defined by Land Routes)

Unfortunately, common usage assigns no single label to this second area. A portion of it is typically called the Middle East, but giving one part of it a name obscures the connectedness of the whole, and besides, the phrase Middle East assumes that one is standing in western Europe, if you’re standing in the Persian highlands, for example, the so-called Middle East is actually the Middle West. Therefore, I prefer to call this whole area from the Indus to Istanbul the Middle World, because it lies between the Mediterranean world and the Chinese world.

The Chinese world was, of course, its own universe and had little to do with the other two; and that’s to be expected on the basis of geography alone. China was cut off from the Mediterranean world by sheer distance and from the Middle World by the Himalayas, the Gobi Desert, and the jungles of southeast Asia, a nearly impenetrable barrier, which is why China and its satellites and rivals barely enter the “world history” centered in the Middle World, and why they come in for rare mention in this book. The same is true of sub-Saharan Africa, cut off from the rest of Eurasia by the world’s biggest desert. For that matter, the Americas formed yet another distinct universe with a world history of its own, which is for geographic reasons even more to be expected.

Geography, however, did not separate the Mediterranean and Middle worlds as radically as it isolated China or the Americas. These two regions coalesced as different worlds because they were what historian Philip D. Curtin has called “intercommunicating zones”: each had more interaction internally than it had with the other. From anywhere near the Mediterranean coast, it was easier to get to some other place near the Mediterranean coast than to Persepolis or the Indus River. Similarly, caravans on the overland routes crisscrossing the Middle World in ancient times could strike off in any direction at any intersection, there were many such intersections. As they traveled west, however, into Asia Minor (what we now call Turkey), the very shape of the land gradually funneled them down into the world’s narrowest bottleneck, the bridge (if there happened to be one at the given time) across the Bosporus Strait. This tended to choke overland traffic down to a trickle and turn the caravans back toward the center or south along the Mediterranean coast.

Gossip, stories, jokes, rumors, historical impressions, religious mythologies, products, and other detritus of culture flow along with traders, travelers, and conquerors. Trade and travel routes thus function like capillaries, carrying civilizational blood. Societies permeated by a network of such capillaries are apt to become characters in one another’s narratives, even if they disagree about who the good guys and the bad guys are.

Thus it was that the Mediterranean and Middle worlds developed somewhat distinct narratives of world history. People living around the Mediterranean had good reason to think of themselves at the center of human history, but people living in the Middle World had equally good reason to think they were situated at the heart of it all.

These two world histories overlapped, however, in the strip of territory where you now find Israel, where you now find Lebanon, where you now find Syria and Jordan-where you now, in short, find so much trouble.

This was the eastern edge of the world defined by sea-lanes and the western edge of the world defined by land routes. From the Mediterranean perspective, this area has always been part of the world history that has the Mediterranean as its seed and core. From the other perspective, it has always been part of the Middle World that has Mesopotamia and Persia at its core. Is there not now and has there not often been some intractable argument about this patch of land: whose world is this a part of?

The Dome of the Rock on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.


The first civilizations emerged along the banks of various big slow-moving rivers subject to annual floods. The Huang Ho valley in China, the Indus River valley in India, the Nile Valley in Africa, these are places where, some six thousand years ago or more, nomadic hunters and herders settled down, built villages, and became farmers.

Perhaps the most dynamic petri dish of early human culture was that fertile wedge of land between the Tigris and Euphrates known as Mesopotamia, which means, in fact, “between the rivers.” Incidentally, the narrow strip of land flanked by these two rivers almost exactly bisects the modern-day nation of Iraq. When we speak of “the fertile crescent” as “the cradle of civilization,” we’re talking about Iraq, this is where it all began.

One key geographical feature sets Mesopotamia apart from some of the other early hotbeds of culture. Its two defining rivers flow through flat, habitable plains and can be approached from any direction. Geography provides no natural defenses to the people living here, unlike the Nile, for example, which is flanked by marshes on its eastern side, by the uninhabitable Sahara on the west, and by rugged cliffs at its upper end. Geography gave Egypt continuity but also reduced its interactions with other cultures, giving it a certain stasis.

Not so, Mesopotamia. Here, early on, a pattern took hold that was repeated many times over the course of a thousand-plus years, a complex struggle between nomads and city dwellers, which kept spawning bigger empires. The pattern went like this:

Settled farmers would build irrigation systems supporting prosperous villages and towns. Eventually some tough guy, some well-organized priest, or some alliance of the two would bring a number of these urban centers under the rule of a single power, thereby forging a larger political unit, a confederation, a kingdom, an empire. Then a tribe of hardy nomads would come along, conquer the monarch of the moment, seize all his holdings, and in the process expand their empire. Eventually the hardy nomads would become soft, luxury-loving city dwellers, exactly the sort of people they had conquered, at which point another tribe of hardy nomads would come along, conquer them, and take over their empire.

Conquest, consolidation, expansion, degeneration, conquest, this was the pattern. It was codified in the fourteenth century by the great Muslim historian Ibn Khaldun, based on his observations of the world he lived in. Ibn Khaldun felt that in this pattern he had discovered the underlying pulse of history.

At any given time, this process was happening in more than one place, one empire developing here, another sprouting there, both empires expanding until they bumped up against each other, at which point one would conquer the other, forging a single new and bigger empire.

About fifty-five hundred years ago, a dozen or so cities along the Euphrates coalesced into a single network called Sumer. Here, writing was invented, the wheel, the cart, the potter’s wheel, and an early number system. Then the Akkadians, rougher fellows from upriver, conquered Sumer. Their leader, Sargon, was the first notable conqueror known to history by name, a ferocious fellow by all accounts and the ultimate self-made man, for he started out poor and unknown but left records of his deeds in the form of clay documents stamped with cuneiform, which basically said, “This one rose up and I smote him; that one rose up and I smote him.”

Sargon led his armies so far south they were able to wash their weapons in the sea. There he said, “Now, any king who wants to call himself my equal, wherever I went, let him go!” meaning, “Let’s just see anyone else conquer as much as I have.” His empire was smaller than New Jersey.

In time, a fresh wave of nomadic ruffians from the highlands came down and conquered Akkad, and they were conquered by others, and they by others, Guttians, Kassites, Hurrians, Amorites, the pattern kept repeating. Look closely and you’ll see new rulers presiding over basically the same territory, but always more of it.

The Amorites clocked a crucial moment in this cycle when they built the famous city of Babylon and from this capital ruled the (first) Babylonian Empire. The Babylonians gave way to the Assyrians, who ruled from the even bigger and grander city of Nineveh. Their empire stretched from Iraq to Egypt, and you can imagine how enormous such a realm must have seemed at a time when the fastest way to get from one place to another was by horse. The Assyrians acquired a nasty reputation in history as merciless tyrants. It’s hard to say if they were really worse than others of their time, but they did practice a strategy Stalin made infamous in the twentieth century: they uprooted whole populations and moved them to other places, on the theory that people who had lost their homes and lived among strangers, cut off from familiar resources, would be too confused and unhappy to organize rebellion.

It worked for a while, but not forever. The Assyrians fell at last to one of their subject peoples, the Chaldeans, who rebuilt Babylon and won a lustrous place in history for their intellectual achievements in astronomy, medicine, and mathematics. They used a base-12 system (as opposed to our base-1O system) and were pioneers in the measurement and division of time, which is why the year has twelve months, the hour has sixty minutes (five times twelve), and the minute has sixty seconds. They were terrific urban planners and architects, it was a Chaldean king who built those Hanging Gardens of Babylon, which the ancients ranked among the seven wonders of the world.

But the Chaldeans followed the Assyrian strategy of uprooting whole populations in order to divide and rule. Their king Nebuchadnezzar was the one who first smashed Jerusalem and dragged the Hebrews into captivity. It was also a Chaldean king of Babylonia, Balshazzar, who, while feasting in his palace one night, saw a disembodied hand write on his wall in letters of fire, “Mene mene tekel upharsin.”

His sycophants couldn’t make heads or tails of these words, probably because they were blind drunk, but also because the words were written in some strange tongue (Aramaic, as it happens.) They sent for the Hebrew captive Daniel, who said the words meant “Your days are numbered; you’ve been weighed and found wanting; your kingdom will be divided.” At least so goes the Old Testament story in the book of Daniel.

Balshazzar barely had time to ponder the prophecy before it came true. A sudden blistering bloodbath was unleashed upon Babylon by the newest gang of ruffians from the highlands, an alliance of Persians and Medes. These two Indo-European tribes put an end to second Babylonia and replaced it with the Persian Empire.

At this point, the recurrent pattern of ever-bigger empires in the heart of the Middle World came to an end or at least to a long pause. For one thing, by the time the Persians were done, there wasn’t much left to conquer. Both “cradles of civilization,” Egypt and Mesopotamia, ended up as part of their realm. Their suzerainty stretched west into Asia Minor, south to the Nile, and east through the Iranian highlands and Afghanistan to the Indus River. The perfumed and polished Persians probably saw no point in further conquest: south of the Indus lay steaming jungles, and north of Afghanistan stretched harsh steppes raked by bitter winds and roamed by Turkish nomads eking out a bare existence with their herds and flocks, who even wanted to rule that? The Persians therefore contented themselves with building a string of forts to keep the barbarians out, so that decent folks might pursue the arts of civilized living on the settled side of the fence.

By the time the Persians took charge, around 550 BCE, a lot of consolidation had already been done: in each region, earlier conquerors had drawn various local tribes and towns into single systems ruled by one monarch from a central capital, whether Elam, Ur, Nineveh, or Babylon. The Persians profited from the work (and bloodshed) of their predecessors.

Yet the Persian Empire stands out for several reasons. First, the Persians were the counter-Assyrians. They developed a completely opposite idea of how to rule a vast realm. Instead of uprooting whole nations, they resettled them. They set the Hebrews free from captivity and helped them get back to Canaan. The Persian emperors pursued a multicultural, many-people-under-one-big-tent strategy. They controlled their enormous realm by letting all the different constituent people live their own lives according to their own folkways and mores, under the rule of their own leaders, provided they paid their taxes and submitted to a few of the emperor’s mandates and demands. The Muslims later picked up on this idea, and it persisted through Ottoman times.

Second, the Persians saw communication as a key to unifying, and thus controlling, their realm. They promulgated a coherent set of tax laws and issued a single currency for their realm, currency being the medium of communication in business. They built a tremendous network of roads and studded it with hostels to make travel easy. They developed an efficient postal system, too, an early version of the Pony Express. That quote you sometimes see associated with the US Postal Service, “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds,” comes from ancient Persia.

The Persians also employed a lot of translators. You couldn’t get away with saying, “But, officer, I didn’t know it was against the law; I don’t speak Persian.” Translators enabled the emperors to broadcast written descriptions of their splendor and greatness in various languages so that all their subjects could admire them. Darius (“the Great”), who brought the Persian Empire to one of its several peaks, had his life story carved into a rock at a place called Behistun. He had it inscribed in three languages: Old Persian, Elamite, and Babylonian, fifteen thousand characters devoted to Darius’s deeds and conquests, detailing the rebels who had tried and failed to topple him and the punishments he had meted out to them, essentially communicating that you did not want to mess with this emperor: he’d cut off your nose, and worse. Nonetheless, citizens of the empire found Persian rule basically benign. The well-oiled imperial machinery kept the peace, which let ordinary folks get on with the business of raising families, growing crops, and making useful goods.

The part of Darius’s Behistun inscription written in Old Persian was decipherable from modern Persian, so after it was rediscovered in the nineteenth century, scholars were able to use it to unlock the other two languages and thus gain access to the cuneiform libraries of ancient Mesopotamia, libraries so extensive that we know more about daily life in this area three thousand years ago than we know about daily life in western Europe twelve hundred years ago.

Religion permeated the Persian world. It wasn’t the million-gods idea of Hinduism, nor was it anything like the Egyptian pantheon of magical creatures with halfhuman and half-animal shapes, nor was it like Greek paganism, which saw every little thing in nature as having its own god, a god who looked human and had human frailties. No, in the Persian universe, Zoroastrianism held pride of place. Zoroaster lived about a thousand years before Christ, perhaps earlier or perhaps later; no one really knows. He hailed from northern Iran, or maybe northern Afghanistan, or maybe somewhere east of that; no one really knows that, either. Zoroaster never claimed to be a prophet or channeler of divine energy, much less a divinity or deity. He considered himself a philosopher and seeker. But his followers considered him a holy man.

Zoroaster preached that the universe was divided between darkness and light, between good and evil, between truth and falsehood, between life and death. The universe split into these opposing camps at the moment of creation, they had been locked in struggle ever since, and the contest would endure to the end of time.

People, said Zoroaster, contain both principles within themselves. They choose freely whether to go this way or that. By choosing good, people promote the forces of light and life. By choosing evil, they give strength to the forces of darkness and death. There is no predestination in the Zoroastrian universe. The outcome of the great contest is always in doubt, and not only is every human being free to make moral choices, but every moral choice affects that cosmic outcome.

Zoroaster saw the drama of the universe vested in two divinities, not one, not thousands, but two. Ahura Mazda embodied the principle of good, Ahriman the principle of evil. Fire served as an iconic representation of Ahura Mazda, which has led some to characterize Zoroastrians as fire worshippers, but what they worship is not fire per se, it’s Ahura Mazda. Zoroaster spoke of an afterlife but suggested that the good go there not as a reward for being good but as a consequence of having chosen that direction. You might say they lift themselves to heaven by the bootstraps of their choices. The Persian Zoroastrians rejected religious statues, imagery, and icons, laying the basis for the hostility toward representation in religious art that reemerged forcefully in Islam.

Sometimes Zoroaster, or at least his followers, called Ahura Mazda “the Wise Lord” and spoke as if he was actually the creator of the entire universe and as if it was he who had divided all of creation into two opposing aspects a short time after the moment of creation. Thus, Zoroaster’s dualism inched toward monotheism, but it never quite arrived there. In the end, for the ancient Persian Zoroastrians, two deities with equal power inhabited the universe, and human beings were the rope in a tug of war between them.

A Zoroastrian priest was called a magus, the plural of which is magi: the three “wise men of the East” who, according to the Christian story, brought myrrh and frankincense to the infant Jesus in his stable were Zoroastrian priests. The word magician also derives from magi. These priests were thought by others (and sometimes themselves claimed) to possess miraculous powers.

In the late days of the empire, the Persians broke into the Mediterranean world and made a brief, big splash in Western world history. Persian emperor Darius sallied west to punish the Greeks. I say “punish,” not “invade” or “conquer,” because from the Persian point of view the so-called Persian Wars were not some seminal clash between two civilizations. The Persians saw the Greeks as the primitive inhabitants of some small cities on the far western edges of the civilized world, cities that implicitly belonged to the Persians, even though they were too far away to rule directly. Emperor Darius wanted the Greeks merely to confirm that they were his subjects by sending him a jar of water and a box of soil in symbolic tribute. The Greeks refused. Darius collected an army to go teach the Greeks a lesson they would never forget, but the very size of his army was as much a liability as an asset: How do you direct so many men at such a distance? How do you keep them supplied? Darius had ignored the first principle of military strategy: never fight a land war in Europe. In the end, it was the Greeks who taught the Persians an unforgettable lesson, a lesson that they quickly forgot, however, for less than one generation later, Darius’s dimwitted son Xerxes decided to avenge his father by repeating and compounding his mistakes. Xerxes, too, came limping home, and that was the end of Persia’s European adventure.

It didn’t end there, however. About 150 years later, Alexander the Great took the battle the other way. We often hear of Alexander the Great conquering the world, but what he really conquered was Persia, which had already conquered “the worId.”

With Alexander, the Mediterranean narrative broke forcefully in upon the Middle World one. Alexander dreamed of blending the two into one: of uniting Europe and Asia. He was planning to locate his capital at Babylon. Alexander cut deep and made a mark. He appears in many Persian myths and stories, which give him an outsize heroic quality, though not an altogether positive one (but not entirely villainous, either). A number of cities in the Muslim world are named after him. Alexandria is the obvious example, but a less obvious one is Kandahar, famous now because the Taliban consider it their capital. Kandahar was originally called “Iskandar,” which is how “Alexander” was pronounced in the east, but the “Is” dropped away, and “Kandar” softened into “Kandahar.”

. . .


Destiny Disrupted. A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes

by Tamim Ansary

get it at


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s