[Book Review] Destiny Disrupted

Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes by Tamin Ansary is written for an audience that knows nothing about Islamic history. It is among my favorite history books. If you grew up on Eurocentric world history then Destiny Disrupted is like an speculative alternate history of the world that really happened. There is tons of cool stuff in it, like the world’s first assassins.

In Persia, Sabbah developed his own power base. He took control of a fortress called Alamut (“the eagle’s nest”), situated high in the Elburz mountains of northern Iran. No one could touch him there because the only approach to the fortress was a footpath too narrow to accommodate an army. How Sabbah conquered it, no one knows. Some legends say trickery was involved, some that he used supernatural means, some that he converted the staff of the fortress and then simply bought the place from its master for a small sum. Whatever the case, there at Alamut, Sabbah got busy organizing the Assassins.

Did his cult adopt this name because they were devoted to political murder? Quite the opposite: political murder is now called assassination because it was a tactic practiced by this cult….

Sabbah was the archetypal prototerrorist, using murder largely for its propaganda value. Since he lacked the resources and troops to fight battles or conquer cities, he sent individuals, or at most small groups, to assassinate carefully targeted figures chosen for the shock their death would spark. The Assassins plotted their killings for months or even years, sometimes contriving to make friends with the victim or enter his service and work their way up to a position of trust.

The Assassins were organized as the ultimate secret society. Out in the world, they gave no indication of their identity or their real beliefs. No one knew, therefore, how many Assassins there were or which of the people in the bazaar, or the mosque, or anywhere else was actually an Assassin. Recruits went through intensive indoctrination and training, but once accepted into the sect, each member had a rank reflecting his level of knowledge. Initiates moved from stage to stage as they presumably plumbed ever deeper levels of meaning in the Qur’an, until they reached the foundation upon which all was built, whereupon they were admitted to Sabbah’s innermost circle.

Although they crafted their plots in utmost secrecy, the Assassins killed with utmost publicity: their object was not really to remove this or that person from power but to make people throughout the civilized world believe that the Assassins could kill any person, anytime, anywhere. Sabbah wanted people to worry that anyone they knew—their best friend, their most trusted servant, even their spouse—might actually be an Assassin. In this way, he hoped to control the policies of men who, unlike himself, did hold territory, did possess resources, and did command troops.

The agents who did the murders for him were called Fedayeen, which means “sacrificers.” When they plotted a public assassination, they knew they would be caught and killed within moments of completing their deed, but they made no effort to evade this outcome. Indeed, dying was a key element of the ritual they were enacting: they were suicide knifers. By embracing death, they let the authorities know that not even the threat of execution could intimidate them.

The Assassins announced themselves with a series of ever more spectacular assassinations. They killed Seljuk officials and well-known Sunni clerics. They killed two of the khalifas. As often as possible, they carried out their assassination in the biggest mosques during Friday prayer, when they could be sure of an audience.

My favorite part of the whole book was the story of Mohammad. If I could go back in time and talk to one person it would be him.


Mohammad was a merchant and a mystic.


[Mohammad] built quite a successful personal and business life. He acquired a reputation for his diplomatic skills, and quarreling parties often called upon him to act as an arbiter.

For an orphan in 6th century Arabia to end up running a caravan business you have to be exceptionally street-smart. Mohammad eventually expanded into religion, war, government and law.


He developed a habit of retreating periodically to a cave in the mountains to meditate. There, one day, he had a momentous experience, the exact nature of which remains mysterious, since various accounts survive, possibly reflecting various descriptions by Mohammed himself. Tradition has settled on calling the experience a visitation from the angel Gabriel. In one account, Mohammed spoke of “a silken cloth on which was some writing” brought to him while he was asleep. In the main, however, it was apparently an oral and personal interaction, which started when Mohammed, meditating in the utter darkness of the cave, sensed an overwhelming and terrifying presence: someone else was in the cave with him. Suddenly he felt himself gripped from behind so hard he could not breathe.

Mohammed came down from the mountain sick with fear, thinking he might have been possessed by a jinn, an evil spirit. Outside, he felt a presence filling the world to every horizon. According to some accounts, he saw a light with something like a human shape within it, which was only more thunderous and terrifying. At home, he told Khadija what had happened, and she assured him that he was perfectly sane, that his visitor had really been an angel, and that he was being called into service by God. “I believe in you,” she said, thus becoming Mohammed’s first follower, the first Muslim.

If you come from a tradition like mainstream Islam, Christianity, Judaism, etc. then Mohammad’s and Khadija’s account may seem mysterious, magical or even fake. If you belong to a lineage with an living mystical tradition (i.e. you are familiar with the kind of meditation designed to produce mystical experiences) then nothing about Mohammad’s mystical experiences is unusually exceptional.

Merchant and Yogi

Yogis travel far away from civilization for long periods of time so they can meditate. Traders thrive in the bustling centers of trade. Caravan traders tend not to be yogis and vice versa. It is hard to be both.

Yogis tend to have extremely powerful conviction…but not to do much with it. Merchants and warlords tend to do lots of things involving people…with less moral conviction than a monk. Mohammad led people with the moral conviction of a monk.

I find Mohammad fascinating because didn’t amass power for selfish aims nor did he sit around philosophizing. Mohammad got to work.

6th Century Arabia

In this part of the world, small-scale warfare was endemic, as it seems to be in any area populated by many small nomadic tribes among whom trading blends into raiding (such as North America’s eastern woodlands before Columbus arrived, or the Great Plains shortly after). Add the Arabian tradition of blood feuds lasting for generations, add also the tapestry of fragile tribal alliances that marked the peninsula at this time, and you have a world seething with constant, ubiquitous violence.

It is difficult for someone living in the modern First World to comprehend the mercilessness of pre-Islamic Arabia. Primitive technology tends to increase violence. Tribal politics tend to increase violence. Pastorialism tends to increase violence. Pastoralism near cities tends to increase violence even more. 6th century Arabia had all of them.

Mohammed was born around the year 570. The exact date is unknown because no one was paying much attention to him at the time. His father was a poor man who died when Mohammed was still in the womb, leaving Mohammed’s mother virtually penniless. Then, when Mohammed was only six, his mother died too. Although Mohammed was a member of the Quraysh, the most powerful tribe in Mecca, he got no status out of it because he belonged to one of the tribe’s poorer clans, the Banu (“clan” or “house of ”) Hashim. One gets the feeling that this boy grew up feeling quite keenly his uncertain status as an orphan. He was not abandoned, however; his close relatives took him in. He lived with his grandfather until the old man died and then with his uncle Abu Talib, who raised him like a son—yet the fact remained that he was a nobody in his culture, and outside his uncle’s home he probably tasted the disdain and disrespect that was an orphan’s lot. His childhood planted in him a lifelong concern for the plight of widows and orphans.

If you want to help widows and orphans in 6th century Arabia then one way to do it is to give money to the widows and orphans. But this only solves the problem for your lifetime. Setting up a tax-sheltered foundation was not an option.

If you wanted to break the cycle of violence then the only way to do it was to crush your enemies through fire and blood. Murdering your way to world peace is counterproductive. Even if everything goes right, it solves the problem for the lifetime of your dynasty.

Mohammad didn’t just want to save a few widows and orphans. He didn’t want to murder his enemies. He wanted to end the use of violence to murder one’s enemies. And he succeeded, by establishing the Umma.

Some religions mark their founder’s birthday as their point of origin; some, the day he died; and still others, the moment of their prophet’s enlightenment or his key interaction with God. In Buddhism, for example, the religion begins with Siddhartha Gautama’s achievement of enlightenment under the bodhi tree. Christianity attributes key religious significance to Christ’s death and resurrection (as well as his birth.) Islam, however, pays little attention to Mohammed’s birthday. Growing up as a Muslim, I didn’t know when he was born, because nothing special happened that day in Afghanistan. Some countries, such as Egypt, commemorate the day more elaborately, but still, there’s no analog to Christmas in Islam, no “Mohammedmas.”

The revelation in the cave is commemorated as the most sacred night in Muslim devotions: it is the Night of Power, Lailut al-Qadr, which falls on or near the twenty-seventh day of Ramadan, the month of fasting. But in the Muslim calendar of history, that event occurred ten years before the really crucial turning point: the Hijra.

What makes moving from one town to another so momentous? The Hijra takes pride of place among events in Muslim history because it marks the birth of the Muslim community, the Umma, as it is known in Islam. Before the Hijra, Mohammed was a preacher with individual followers. After the Hijra, he was the leader of a community that looked to him for legislation, political direction, and social guidance. The word hijra means “severing of ties.” People who joined the community in Medina renounced tribal bonds and accepted this new group as their transcendent affiliation, and since this community was all about building an alternative to the Mecca of Mohammed’s childhood, it was an epic, devotional social project.

It is difficult for a citizen of a First World nation-state to understand the magnitude of what Mohammad achieved. It puts Mohammad on the power level of Genghis Khan and Qin Shihuang. Except he wasn’t evil.

This social project, which became fully evident in Medina after the Hijra, is a core element of Islam. Quite definitely, Islam is a religion, but right from the start (if “the start” is taken as the Hijra) it was also a political entity. Yes, Islam prescribes a way to be good, and yes, every devoted Muslim hopes to get into heaven by following that way, but instead of focusing on isolated individual salvation, Islam presents a plan for building a righteous community. Individuals earn their place in heaven by participating as members of that community and engaging in the Islamic social project, which is to build a world in which orphans won’t feel abandoned and in which widows won’t ever be homeless, hungry, or afraid.

Once Mohammed became the leader of Medina, people came to him for guidance and judgments about every sort of life question, big or little: how to discipline children . . . how to wash one’s hands . . . what to consider fair in a contract . . . what should be done with a thief . . . the list goes on. Questions that in many other communities would be decided by a phalanx of separate specialists, such as judges, legislators, political leaders, doctors, teachers, generals, and others, were all in the Prophet’s bailiwick here.

Mohammad built a nation-state a thousand years before the French Revolution.

The Arab world didn’t want Mohammad to optimize it. They tried to assassinate him. They sent armies against him. It was necessary to fight non-Muslims to protect the Umma from being annihilated. But Mohammad made it crystal clear he was creating a religion of peace.

Wherever Mohammed took over, he instructed people to live in peace with one another, and the converts did. By no means did he tell Muslims to eschew violence, for this community never hesitated to defend itself. Muslims still engaged in warfare, just not against one another; they expended their aggressive energy fighting the relentless outside threat to their survival. Those who joined the Umma immediately entered Dar al-Islam, which means “the realm of submission (to God)” but also, by implication, “the realm of peace.” Everyone else was living out there in Dar al-Harb, the realm of war. Those who joined the Umma didn’t have to watch their backs anymore, not with their fellow Muslims.

All states insist on a monopolization of the use of force. How was Mohammad’s conquest different from any other empire? He sought out to break the cycle of tribal conflict in a way that that outlived himself. And it worked. When I buy injira or eat halal ramen I don’t get asked for my race or nationality. Muslims ask if I am a fellow Muslim. Universal religions like Islam welcome everyone.

If you wanted to end the cycle of violence in 6th century Arabia then the only viable route was to create a protected space inside your social project while defending your borders with violence.

Over the next two years, tribes all across the Arabian peninsula began accepting Mohammed’s leadership, converting to Islam, and joining the community. One night Mohammed dreamed that he had returned to Mecca and found everyone there worshipping Allah. In the morning, he told his followers to pack for a pilgrimage. He led fourteen hundred Muslims on the two-hundred-mile trek to Mecca. They came unarmed, despite the recent history of hostilities, but no battle broke out. The city closed its gates to the Muslims, but Quraysh elders came out and negotiated a treaty with Mohammed: the Muslims could not enter Mecca this year but could come back and perform their rites of pilgrimage next year. Clearly, the Quraysh knew the game was over.

In year 6 AH, the Muslims came back to Mecca and visited the Ka’ba without violence. Two years later, the elders of Mecca surrendered the city to Mohammed without a fight. As his first act, the Prophet destroyed all the idols in the Ka’ba and declared this cube with the black cornerstone the holiest spot in the world. A few of Mohammed’s former enemies grumbled and muttered threats, but the tide had turned. Virtually all the tribes had united under Mohammed’s banner, and all of Arabia was living in harmony for the first time in reported memory.

Mohammad slayed Moloch with Allah. For a while, at least.