By Eric Walberg
Those of us lucky/unlucky enough to live in the West see the rest of the world revolving around us, like Europe’s 17th century sun, which, of course, orbited around the earth. So goes the western narrative: pre-Greece, Greece/Rome, Christianity, renaissance/ reformation, enlightenment, industrial revolution, nation-states/empire, WWI&II, cold war, democratic capitalism, end-of-history.
But Galileo tried a counterfactual: what would things look like, if I were standing on that blazing sun? Well, the rest-is-history. Maybe we aren’t the centre of the world. What if I were born and learned history as a Muslim?
This is Tamim Ansary’s project in Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes (2009). Born Muslim in Afghanistan, he arrived in the US in the 1960s and jumped right into western life, seeing his new home through both his and the countercultural eyes of his new age young friends, so he knows the value of changing skins and seeing things anew.
In a nutshell, the Islamic narrative: pre-Islam, Islam, caliphate (quest for universal unity), fragmentation, catastrophe (crusades, Mongols), three empires (Safavid, Ottoman, Moghul), western occupation, reform movements, secular modernists, Islamist reaction. The two narratives overlap in Palestine-Israel, their core Mesopotamia and Persia-Iran.
The first thing that hits the western ego in this counterfactual journey is just how insignificant Europe seems, let alone America. Apart from the barbaric 11–12th century Crusades, Europe doesn’t even merit a footnote until the 16th century, being on the edge of the known world, a motley collection of squabbling, illiterate fiefdoms. Similarly, remote China, which if any civilization has a claim on being the centre of the world, it’s the one.
Mired as we are today in what looks, from a western point of view, as humanity’s endgame, war and environmental apocalypse hovering on the horizon, the end of the end-of-history, the Islamic view is salutary. Its basic theme is: Islamic civilization is the House of Peace, vs the non-Muslim world as the House of War. (1)
This explains the miraculous spread of Islam from the founding of the first Muslim community in 620, which, within 3 decades, encompassed most of the known world (China excepted). There are no miracles in the life of the Prophet, apart from the Quran and, if you like, the astonishing conquest and spread of Islam.
The Prophet’s 60 years, and the Rightly Guided Caliphs in the quarter century following his death in 632, form the core religious allegory of Islam, paralleling the birth, miracles, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus, and the Apostles. Unlike the Christian and Judaic narratives, the Muslim one was carefully documented, with parables (hadiths) and the life of the Prophet (sunna) and the caliphs as guideposts through the subsequent 17 centuries.
House of Peace
How did this happen? If the world Islamic hegemony (empire is a misnomer) is even acknowledged in the western narrative, this bona fide miracle is dismissed as the work of savages on horseback with swords, terrifying one and all, looting and pillaging.
The truth is the opposite. The House of War Persian Sassanids and Greek Byzantines had just exhausted themselves fighting in the early 7th century, which made the spread of the House of Peace easier. Suddenly Muhammad and his mission to literally ‘save the world’ went viral. What attracted people was that this latest ‘invasion’ was bringing peace when it arrived (yes, on horseback with swords, but universally welcomed). ‘There is no force in religion’ is a basic Islamic creed.
As everywhere in history, empires mean oppression, exploitation. The Muslims became known as ‘good’ hegemons. Only the now unemployed ruling class lost out in the switchover. And the spoils of war were evenly divided, one-fifth going to Mecca. No one had to convert, just pay a tax as acknowledgment of Islamic rule, which meant peace and order.
Their non-Machiavellian guiding principle was to expand the House of Peace, the ‘house’ ruled by Islam, voluntarily or if threatened, ‘by the sword’, toppling the warlike imperialists, letting the locals get on with their lives without the threat of genocide. Genocide and theft are the principles of the House of War. ‘Fighting for peace’, jihad (literally, struggle) is the ruling principle of Islamic politics.
The narrative is gripping, an inspiration to the always growing community of believers, attracting converts to peace (salam) today, as it has done for 16 centuries. The Muslim social project proliferated along the ancient trade routes by seas, rivers and lands, brought primarily by merchants, and continues today, when most Muslims live and work in the House of War, their own lands under its control.
The spread of Christianity was very different. For Arabs in the 7th century, Christianity was the religion of the Roman and Byzantine empires, dominated by monasticism and gaudy rituals, saint worship, onerous tithes to feed opulent bishops. It held little attraction to the Arabs, though Christians were generally seen as nice guys, not so conspiratorial and insular as the Jews, who did their best to scuttle the fledgling Muslim community. For Christians the world is corrupt but you can escape it. So if you are pious, you can overlook the corruption of the church/ society and retreat to a monastery.
For Muslims, the world is corrupt and you can change it. Fast forward to Marx: The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point, however, is to change it.
The western view of history jumps from Rome to the 15th century, as if the world was suffering ‘dark ages’ as Christianity spread through Europe. But for Muslims, the 6th–14th centuries were the height of world civilization, the flowering of the House of Peace, when Islam created a world society where war ceased among believers, though it continued in the ‘House of War’.
Though Islamic civilization was crippled in the 13th and 14th centuries by the House of War (Mongols and Timurides), the vision was resilient. When the Mongols and Timur had burned themselves out, Islam revived, as people renewed their ‘quest to build and universalize the community of Allah — only once again to be facing the European and then American House of War under capitalism and imperialism.
Shouldn’t the UN be the House of Peace? In theory, yes. But it contains all who care to sign on, including warmongers. After WWII, it was founded to promote peace. But then so was the League of Nations after WWI. Even the brutal wars of capitalism/ imperialism were not enough to put paid to the House of War types.
What about the western dismissal of Islam as calcified, stuck in the middle ages, full of harsh punishment, requiring an ‘Islamic reformation’, separating politics and religion?
On the contrary, the Catholic church was the one that needed the reformation. And that reform impulse started long before Luther nailed his demands to the Wittenberg church door in 1517. Wycliffe (d. 1384) argued for Scriptures as the authoritative centre of Christianity. He dismissed the claims of the papacy-as-divine as unhistorical, exposed monasticism as corrupt, and priests as morally unworthy.
Islam has no pope, no church, no priesthood, the ulama (scholars) really more like lawyers. Islam is based on direct personal interaction with god, as Luther wanted. When it finally came, the Reformation shattered the unity of the church, from which it never recovered, both Catholicism and Protestantism weakened to the point of insignificance, the church (read: morality) off limits to political life. No Christian House of Peace.
What happened to the Judeo-Christian world in the subsequent five centuries? Well, it’s no longer remotely Judaic or Christian, but more atheistic/ agnostic. All western countries pride themselves on the ‘separation of church and state’, and shrilly cry for an ‘Islamic reformation’, the subtext being to gut Islam of its activist essence, its call for social justice.
It is Judeo-Christian faiths that need an overhaul to make them relevant in today’s world of political and environmental apocalypse. But, as with the communist attempt at creating a secular House of Peace, the flesh may be willing, but the spirit is lacking. The Soviet Union was a kind of secular, socialist House of Peace, but failed. Peace is boring. Only if you really believe, i.e., have faith, i.e., spirituality, can you build such a house.
No getting around it — Islam is political as well as devotional. Ansary’s argument is all the more powerful as he is secular, though born a Sunni Muslim in Afghanistan, and clearly admiring of his heritage.
Ansary smiles ironically at the wiles of the imperialists as they invade(d) the Muslim world.
- When Europeans came to the Islamic world, they brought along goods that were the end products of the industrial revolution. The soldiers with guns protected western merchants and bankers, bringing these flashy goods, gold and alcohol, exactly the same as in the Americas and Africa.
- The new overlords came wrapped in certainty about their way of life and peddling their own ideas of ultimate truth. They didn’t challenge Islam so much as ignore it, unless they were missionaries, in which case they simply tried to convert the Muslims. Let the wild beasts keep their own beliefs. If they noticed Islam, they didn’t bother to debate it (missionaries are not in the debating business) but only smiled at it as one would at the toys of a child or the quaint relics of a more primitive people.
- The new overlords didn’t even set themselves up as rulers. A shah, sultan, nawab, khan, khedive did their dirty work for them. In Iran they came as advisers, Egypt and the Levant as ‘protectors’. How maddening for Muslim cognoscenti! And yet, what could Muslims do about it? (2)
I constantly marvel at Muslims’ patience in a world where their beliefs are disparaged, where they are constantly confronted with the cheap, easy pleasures offered by consumer capitalism, where they are tortured, killed and exiled by their Christian cousins around the world, and their Jewish cousins in their holy city.
Living in the House of War
Europe through a Muslim historian’s eyes was a primitive backwater of petty principalities. Though Christian (people of the book), they were at the centre of the House of War, constantly fighting and pillaging each other. Finally, they united to declare war on the House of Peace, killing and pillaging the Christian Holy sites in Palestine in the 11th-12th centuries.
As the House of Peace suffered Mongol/ Timuride invasions, the European House of War was left unscathed, and eventually became the world leaders, embracing capitalism and the technological forces that capitalism unleashed, occupying the entire World, uniting it under the control of money and capital.
Today’s House of War
In the first place, Palestine-Israel. A close second — India-Pakistan, permanently at war over Kashmir. Both Muslim lands British colonies and then suffering slow-motion destruction for 70 years. A Pyrrhic victory over Islamists in Algeria, in Egypt over the Brotherhood, in Afghanistan over the Taliban.
Afghanistan actually looked hopeful a century ago, like it had escaped the House of War. Afghan King Amanullah declared full independence in 1919, the only Muslim monarch to win a direct confrontation with a major European power.
However, the British worked with the ISIS of the day, the Wahhabi Deobandi movement, to undermine him as an anti-imperialist revolutionary, a potential Lenin. They gave the Deobandis guns and set Afghanistan ablaze, driving Amanullah into exile. Chaos reined with a bandit, the Water Carrier, imposing ‘pure’ Islamic rule, wrecking the country. Afghans were so sick of chaos, they accepted the British candidate, Nadir Shah, cancelling Amanullah’s reforms. The US repeats the scenario today, as if scripted.
Today’s House of Peace
The challenge to Islam today is not from the other ‘people of the book’, but from a secular, humanistic worldview that evolved out of the Reformation, the melange now often called ‘modernity’. (3)
The most significant event of recent times is centred in Iran. The Iran coup of 1953 by the US-British shook the Muslim world. The old House of War was alive and well. The US was the new imperialist ogre.
That wound never healed, leading to the Islamic revolution in 1979, once again opening the House of Peace, long closed and in tatters, as the various imperial powers continued to carve up the rest of the Muslim world, and tries to dismantle the fledgling House of Peace entirely, making the whole world once again the House of War.
Christianity and Judaism gave in to Mammon, and we are destroying the world, without any real political (moral) authority over our ‘rich’ economies. Renewing Islam, rebuilding the House of Peace, calls Muslims to move again toward the proper endpoint of history: perfecting the community of justice and compassion that flourished in Medina in the original golden moment and enlarging it until it included all the world. (4)
The great reformer is Afghan-Iranian Sayyid Jamaluddin al-Afghani (1839–1897), who brought his political and spiritual talents not only to Afghanistan and Iran, but to the Ottomans and Europeans in the 1890s.
His heirs and legacy including:
- Sayyid Ahmad and the Aligarh educational movement.+
- *The Grand Mufti of Egypt Mohammed Abduh, Egyptian independence leader Saad Zaghlul and Hassan al-Banna, founder of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood.
- He encouraged Muslim leaders to use rivalry among the imperialists to carve out a zone of independence, the core strategy of the post-WWII non-aligned movement, a kind of proto secular House of Peace.
- He supported the 1890 tobacco boycott in Iran, a strategy later taken up in many lands by many other political activists, including Gandhi.++
- He helped Iranians pushing for a constitution monarchy, which succeeded in 1906 and paved the way for the revolution of 1979.
- The Syed Jamaluddin Afghan University was founded in Kabul in 2010, and streets and squares honour him in other cities, including Tehran and Paris.
He was an inspiration for the Muslim embrace of western science, and the use of boycotts in the struggle against apartheid in South Africa and now in Israel. Of course, al-Afghani is ignored in the western discourse, just as the imperialist ignored or dismissed Islam as they invaded Muslim lands. But the secular Soviet ‘House of Peace’ is now anti-imperialist Russia, China, Cuba, Venezuela and other socialist projects. The credo of socialism, like that of Islam, is peace.
Rather than comparing Islam to Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam is more like a class of terms including communism, parliamentary democracy, fascism, and the like, because Islam is a social project, an idea for how politics and the economy ought to be managed, a complete system of civil and criminal law. Or like a class including Chinese, Indian, western civilizations.+++
Ansary wonders how Muslims can live in the West, under the laws and customs of westerns societies. Good question. As for Iran suppressing ideas of reinterpreting sharia without reference to established codes, he wonders if it could only happen in a place where Muslims were struggling with themselves and each other, not with the West. Western ‘human rights’ campaigns are mostly used to victimize those who don’t belong to western ‘civilization’ (which Gandhi quipped ‘would be a very good idea’).
Ansary’s latest book, The Invention of Yesterday: A 50,000-Year History of Human Culture, Conflict, and Connection (2019) is just out, and I’ll be sure to read it, but for those Galileos among us, Destiny Disrupted is a perfect primer for how to extricate ourselves from House of War thinking.
- Dar al-Islam or Dar al-Salam vs Dar al-Harb
- Tamim Ansary, Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes (2009), 249.
- Ibid., 250.
- Ibid., 251.
+Islam is the last revealed religion precisely because it was the beginning of the age of reason-based religions. Morality based on sound fundamental principles, i.e., Islam.
++The tobacco concession was eventually cancelled two years later in 1892, a struggle that had left the country’s activists exhausted. Ibid., 315.