The main idea of this book is presented in introduction as an attempt to provide western reader with a narrative of Islam both as religion and as civilization from point of view of a Muslim born and raised in Afghanistan, who is well versed in traditions and history of this civilization, but, nevertheless, spent most if his adult live as teacher in American university becoming well familiar with people and ideas of the West. The point is made that Islam as so big and rich culturally, religiously, and historically it deserves to be taken seriously.
Chapter 1 – The Middle World: THE MIDDLE WORLD BEFORE ISLAM
Here author reviews somewhat unusual look at geographical and cultural history of humanity as parallel history of Mediterranean world of Greece and Romans that produced Western civilization based on sea going trade and Middle world of landmass to the East based on caravan roads that produced Islamic world. This chapter deals with pre-Islam history that occurred on this landmass.
Chapter 2 – The Hijra
This is history of Muhammad and his creation of Islam religion that proved to be capable unify Arab tribes, stop internecine warfare, and create highly effective military-ideological entity capable to conquer not only weaker tribes nearby, but also incorporate massive remnants of the empires of the past. The beginning of this entity is considered startup year or Hijra (0 AH) – the year when Muhammad ran away from Mecca to Medina to avoid suppression by local tribes and find the place to consolidate his military-religious community designed to bring the world into submission. The expansion started with return back to Mecca in AH6 and its complete conquest in 8 AH.
Chapter 3 – Birth of the Khalifate
THE FIRST KHALIFA (12 – 14 AH)
This chapter is about history after Muhammad’s death. It begins with fight over inheritance between Abu Bakr, older and richer member of community, Omar more militaristic leader, and Ali, Muhammad’s adapted son and son in law. Abu Bakr was given preference over Ali due to his age and overall respect that he enjoyed in community. The key however was not selection of Abu Bakr, but his attempt to establish unity of Islam as social project inseparable from religion complete unification of religious and secular roles of top leader – Khalifa. This was enforced by strict ban on leaving Islam with death being the punishment for apostasy.
THE SECOND KHALIFA: 14 – 24 AH
Just two years after Muhammad Abu Bakr died with Omar taking over new Islamic entity and initiating successful war of conquest over nearby Byzantine and Sassanid Empires that were so existed by fights between themselves that they were not capable to resist newcomer with huge religious zeal and attractive ideology that elevated burden of taxes and pretty much left people alone in their believes, however creating significant enticements for conversion to Islam. By the time of Omar’s death Islamic community – Umma was in possession of significant and growing territory.
Chapter 4 – Schism
THE THIRD KHALIFA (22-34 AH, 642-656 CE)
This one – Othman was another relative of Muhammad, the rich man who became austere after conversion. Once again Ali was passed over. Othman lift ban for Muslims on buying land in conquered countries and appointed his cousin Mua’wiya who start typical regime of exploitation, all of this resulting in riot, killing of Othman and installment of Ali as fourth Khalifa.
THE FOURTH KHALIFA (35-41 AH, 656 – 661 CE)
This resulted in civil war in which Ali lost and was eventually assassinated with Mua’wiya coming to power as 4th Khalifa after settling with Ali’s son Hassan with monetary bailout. This pretty much ended religious period and started Umayyads Empire.
Chapter 5 – Empire of the Umayyads (40-120 AH)
Despite Hassan’s settlement, his brother Hussein and his supporters considered him true Khalifa so eventually civil war continues until Hussein and his supporters were massacred at Karbala. This initiated Islam division into Shi’a and Sunni with majority Sunnis considering Muhammad just a messenger so his bloodline was irrelevant for selection of leader. The only important thing in addition to message he delivered (Koran) was example of living (Sunna recorded in Hadith), while for Shi’a there is always one and only Imam who carries mystical substance passed from Allah to Muhammad and then to each current Imam. For Sunnis their own live is the only thing that counts in achieving the bliss, for Shi’a own effort is not enough, the road to bliss goes through submission to leadership of current Imam. Umayyads took in Islam as ideological / religious foundation and build empire with normal state of perpetual war.
Chapter 6 – The Abbasid Age (120 – 350 AH)
At 120 AH new revolution and civil war swept away Umayyads and clan Banu Hashim established the new dynasty that started with Khalifa Abbas – Abbasid. They build Bagdad as the new trade, cultural, and administrative center. Abbasids were very supportive to trade and tolerant to diversity of people so they achieved relative long-term prosperity.
Chapter 7 – Scholars, Philosophers, and Sufis
This chapter is about ideological development of Islam with its 3 directions that fight between themselves for supremacy with Scholars or more precise Clerics winning and consequently stopping development of Islam into religion consistent with contemporary civilization. This unfortunate development pretty much cut off possibility of coexistence with religions and ideologies of other people, leave alone space for existence of individual believes within Islam dominated countries.
These are community of religious specialists (Ulama) who are self selected through diligent study of texts and acceptance by other clerics. As one would expect they are fully dedicated to sanctity of the text and reject reality if it contradicts texts. Moreover they happily use force against anybody who they consider out of compliance with the text.
This somewhat parallel to Western enlightenment attempt to open way for science, which unlike its western counterpart was completely defeated by clerics around 200 AH.
This is mainly mystical movement within Islam in search of happiness through unity with god. Probably the most outstanding thinker in this movement was Ghazali who managed accommodate Sufism with ulama and then in alliance with ulama was able to completely defeat philosophers.
Chapter 8 – Enter the Turks
This chapter is about Turkish invasion. Turks came from Central Asia and took over Islamic world severely weakened by continuing struggle between Fatimid Khalifate in Cairo and Abbasid Khalifate in Baghdad. Seljuk empire established by Turks by the end of millennium was covering significant parts of Islamic population, but universal community of Islam was divided into Shia, Sunni, and all kinds of other sects with some quite weird such as Assassins who pursued political goals via murder as a standard method. Then came catastrophic evens of invasions.
Chapter 9 – Havoc
ASSAULT FROM THE WEST
Author defines crusades as a relatively small catastrophe that limited geographically and was really not that significant for Islamic world.
ASSAULT FROM THE EAST
Much more significant was Mongol invasion when Chengez Khan sacked Baghdad and practically took over all areas with Muslim population suppressing resistance with extreme cruelty. However, similarly to China and other areas of Mongol conquest, they were susceptible to accepting religions and norms of conquered societies so starting in 1257 CE they slowly converted to Islam.
Chapter 10 – Rebirth
The Mongolian onslaught caused difficult theological questions since Allah should guarantee victory to members of one and only true religion, but he let them fail. Syrian lawyer Ibn Taymiyah founder of Salafism provided the answer: Muslims deviated from strict Islamic traditions, accepted too many innovations, and failed to wage jihad against infidels with sufficient zealotry. The correct way for the future is to go back to 7 century, Koran, Sharia, and perpetual war against non-Muslims. Another response came from Sufism with its brotherhoods and mysticism.
THE OTTOMANS (ABOUT 700 TO 1341 AH)
Here author provides brief history of Ottomans with their struggle against Byzantine and attacks against Europe. Eventually they took Constantinople ending 1000 years of Roman Empire, but failed to conquer Christian Europe beyond this. Correspondingly Safavids stopped their eastern expansion.
THE SAFAVIDS (906-1138 AH)
Safavids were continuation of Persian Empire ideologically based on Shi’a Islam.
THE MOGHULS (ROUGHLY 900 TO 1273 AH)
Even further to the east in India was Moghuls Empire that was inherently weak because it had significant share of population Hindu not easily convertible to Islam. However at high point around 1600 CE it achieved status of one of the biggest empires in the world.
Chapter 11 – Meanwhile in Europe (689-1008 AH or 1291 – 1600 CE)
While Islamic world rejected innovation and development, Christian Europe embraced it and here author looks at history of Reformation, discovery of new world, expansion of maritime trade, and initial steps of industrial and scientific revolutions.
Chapter 12 – West Comes East (905-1266 AH or 1500 – 1850 CE)
This is about colonial expansion of European countries throughout the world crashing or forcing to comply local populations with demand for resources, colonies, and control over trade.
Chapter 13 – The Reform Movements (1737-1918 CE)
Here author discusses parallel with Christianity or more precisely lack thereof since Islam never had anything like Reformation. He believes that it is because reformation was a rebellion against the Church, while Islam does not have such institution. Islam, however has its own movements, but they are completely different than Western. If Christians rebelled against priests and their bureaucracy to go ahead to more freedom and industrial revolution, Muslims rebel against leadership formal or informal like ulama that led to weakness.
Here author looks at Wahhabi movement that could be characterized as “Back to Muhammad, Jihad, and conquest ideas. Supported by alliance with Saudis they quietly maintained their continuing presence.
THE ALIGARH MOVEMENT: SECULAR MODERNISM
This movement linked with Sayyid Ahmad and was mainly directed at accommodating Islam and civilized world with stress on becoming civilized.
This movement was the most popular and linked with Sayyid Jamaluddin. This movement was directed more at modernization rather than civilization with insistence on primacy of Islam.
Chapter 14 – Industry, Constitutions, and Nationalism (1750-1918)
This chapter is about developments preceding WWI when Islamic world picked up ideas of nationalism, progress, and constitution. It eventually led to Arab revolt and dissolution of remnants Ottoman during WWI
Chapter 15 – Rise of the Secular Modernists (1918-1939)
The first ¾ of XX century were time of secular modernists who pretty much took over Islamic world installing diverse secular systems from Ataturk in Turkey to Shah in Iran, and later Nasser in Egypt or Saddam in Iraq. All of them had common feature of accepting at least partially European ideas of National Socialism and promising to build prosperity and power on this bases.
Chapter 16 – The Crisis of Modernity (1939-1966)
However all these secular rulers clearly failed to bring either prosperity or power comparable to the West so they lost any allure for masses. The most damaging was probably repetitive failure of combined Arab forces to massacre Jews in Palestine and even worse establishment of Israel. This conveyed complete impotence of Islamic modernism to assert superiority of Islam and led to massive rejection of modernism in the name of Islam.
Chapter 17 – The Tide Turns (1950-2001)
The latest part of XX century was characterized by increasing substitution of secular regimes with Islamic starting with Iranian mullahs and all the way to current recreation of Caliphate. All this was fed by terrorism as main tool of Islamic reassertion in the world.
Afterword (After 2001)
Author believes that review of this period is too early for history, so it belongs to journalism. However author points out that Western attempt to transplant democracy to Islamic world plainly failed because it implies individualization of society that completely contradicts communal nature of Islam. As communal society Islam combined religion, way of live, and political structures of society. It requires submission and would not tolerate dissent, while western society left religious uniformity behind and celebrates individualism and freedom. These two approaches are not compatible. As example author poses question: how one can reconcile believe that society should be absolutely divided into male and female area, with believe that men and women are individual and independent actors who define for themselves areas and types of activities.
MY TAKE ON IT:
I agree that Islam and its history are not separate, but integral part of human history and that its communal nature is completely incompatible with western individualistic view of the world. This leaves us with little options because while western nature has no problem with toleration of different society, Islam does not allow for toleration, only submission. That means inevitable war the severity of which is completely defined by weakness of Islamic societies. As long as they are weak they will see temporary accommodation or at least non-aggression as necessity and behave relatively peacefully, but as soon as they feel strong enough, their aggression will be inevitable. In my opinion, since preemptive aggression and resolute suppression is inconsistent with western humanitarian values, while submitting to Islam is not possible without civilizational, moral, and intellectual self-destruction, the West has little choice but to deal with it by establishing borders around Islamic world impenetrable for military or any other potentially dangerous technology and leave opening exclusively for people who are willing to leave original Islam behind and join decadent, humanitarian, and individualistic western world. Obviously any attack should be retaliated in such way that attackers and their supporters, either material or inspirational, lost any conceivable ability attack or inspire somebody else to attack again.