Historical Disruption

19 August 2009


I‘ve written here a couple of times on Tamim Ansary’s book Destiny Disrupted, in An Alternative View of History and The Unfinished World. I’m now nearing the end of this book (I’m on disk 12 of 14 total CDs) and have a few more reflections on it.

Overall, I really enjoy Ansary’s exposition and I have learned a lot from it. This is the kind of book that one could easily listen to several times over and learn something new every time. The straight-forward historical sections are sufficiently interesting that one’s attention doesn’t drift (too far). More interesting for me, however, were the interpretative sections.

A good history will challenge the reader (or the listener) with an interpretation that departs from trite generalities. Even if the generalities are true, there is always much in the details to surprise us, and sometimes a careful consideration of these details will cause a new and distinct picture to emerge. This hermeneutical aspect of history is for me the most interesting part.

I almost groaned when Ansary began an exposition of nationalism and how it affected the Islamic world, as I expected the worst, but I ended up enjoying this almost more than any other section of the book. It was superb. I will probably listen to it again, taking notes.

I was less enthusiastic, however, about his treatment of how industrialization came to and affected the Islamic world. I did not disagree with everything, but I disagreed with a lot that he said about industrialization. I won’t go into details now, though it would be a worthwhile intellectual exercise (even if done for one’s own benefit in the spirit of self-clarification, subsequently abandoned to the gnawing criticism of mice) to make a detailed criticism of Ansary’s version of Islamic industrialization.

Industrialization in Arab lands centered around the oil extraction industry.

Industrialization in Arab lands centered around the oil extraction industry.

I agree with Ansary that it is not merely an invention that makes a difference, but that a given social context is needed for an invention to take hold in a society. I would frame this in my own formulation by saying that the set of social practices needed to fully exploit a mechanical innovation constitute a social technology, and that social technologies are integral with mechanical technologies. An industrial revolution emerges from the synthesis of mechanical and social technologies, or, if you prefer, from machines and the techniques used to run machines.

Taqi al-Din, Muslim polymath

Taqi al-Din, Muslim polymath

Ansary uses the example if Taqi al-Din’s steam turbine as an example of the invention of the steam engine long before James Watt’s steam engine, but this is deceptive. It is not quite the same steam engine as James Watt. Taqi al-Din was obviously a gifted engineer and inventor, but a steam turbine in a chimney is a rather different machine than an internal combustion steam engine.

A rudimentary turbine similar to that described by Taqi al-Din.

A rudimentary turbine similar to that described by Taqi al-Din.

This discussion in Ansary drove home a particular lesson to me, both in terms of my agreement and my disagreement with his exposition of Islamic industrialization: technology evolves. This is significant in this context because the evolution of technology places it in an historical continuum that includes antecedents and consequences. The evolutionary developments in English engineering that led to James Watt’s steam engine were very different from the evolutionary developments that led to Taqi al-Din’s steam turbine. And because the antecedents are distinct, the consequences are distinct. Perhaps this is a general principle. I will have to think about it.

Watt steam engine

James Watt's steam engine of 1763.

There is a famous description of a steam turbine from antiquity credited to Hero of Alexandria. This appears in many textbooks and there have been reconstructions of it. Should we say that Hero of Alexandria as the inventor of the steam turbine? He was, in a sense, but the ancients no more exploited this potential source of power for industry any more than Islamic civilization exploited Taqi Al-Din’s steam turbines for industry.

Hero's Steam Turbine

Hero's Steam Turbine

I remember when I went to the Archaeological Museum in Madrid, most famous for the Dama de Elche, how impressed I was with an ancient Roman water pump, which showed not just ingenuity but also a sophisticated degree of mechanical and industrial engineering. The famous Antikythera mechanism, more technically sophisticated yet, probably dates from a few hundred years before the water pump in Madrid. The point here is that antiquity developed industrial engineering technology but experienced no industrial revolution. Antiquity too had distinct antecedents to its mechanical inventions, and so it experienced distinct consequences.

Ancient Roman water pump, a sophisticated artifact of mechanical engineering.

Ancient Roman water pump, a sophisticated artifact of mechanical engineering.

Ansary’s list of Islamic technological and engineering accomplishments is a little too close to the book Black Athena from a few years back, in which Martin Bernal argued that what we think of as unique and distinctively Greek in ancient civilization can be traced to Asiatic and Africa roots. Well, yes. But a long list of priorities over ancient Greece does not change the character of Greek civilization or its role in the Western tradition. We do not remember the Greeks for any one accomplishment or any cluster of technologies, but for the synthesis they made of the civilization of the mind and the civilization of the hand.

A manuscript illustration of a water pump designed by Taqi al-Din.

A manuscript illustration of a water pump designed by Taqi al-Din.

The list is gratuitous and unnecessary, because every educated person knows at least the outlines of the Islamic contribution to civilization, including its contributions in terms of science, engineering, and technology. To produce such a list not only implies ignorance on the part of others (which I will not deny), but also defensiveness on the part of the partisans of a given tradition.

One minor irritation with the book: throughout Destiny Disrupted Ansary frequently gives dates both in the Islamic calendar and the Western calendar. This is appropriate for a book about Islamic history intended for Western readers. But while explicitly acknowledging the origin of the Islamic calender with the Hijjra, an event of some significance to Muslims, he gives dates in the Western calendar in terms of the awkward “CE,” which is a recent stand-in for “AD.” “CE” stands for “common era” and is used by those who want to use the Western dating system but without the explicitly Christian overtones of a calendar based upon the life of Christ. “AD” is Latin for Anno Domini, which means “the year of our Lord” and indicates a date with the birth of Christ as the origin of the Gregorian calendar. Western civilization is Christian civilization, even if we have secularized it, and I don’t see any benefit to changing our dates from AD to CE. In fact, it irritates me, which, if you are reading this, you can probably tell. As Ansary has written explicitly about Islamic history for a Western audience, acknowledging Islamic history’s debt to the Muslim tradition, it seems a little eccentric to deny the Western debt to our history’s Christian tradition.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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4 Responses to “Historical Disruption”

  1. firdaos chokichoki said

    I like it steampunk… thanks frmuch for discovery

  2. i think you both strive to be objective, …….. on the other hand i believe objectivity is over rated, every one should be able to speak their mind as long as its within the boundaries of cultural respect and common decency…….. i think its safe to say you achieved as much …… oh ya and thank you very much for that wonderful article

    • geopolicraticus said

      Dear Ahmed,

      Thank you for your comments.

      Are you of the opinion that cultural respect and common decency should silence those with something to say (perhaps in the interest of objectivity) that may offend others?

      I ask this question quite sincerely, because I more or less agree with you — I think that the basis of all healthy social relationships is a mutual respect even in the face of disagreement.

      However, I think that many people would interpret this differently than do I. Even in personal relationships, some people become very angry and upset when they are challenged, even when challenged in a respectful way.

      How can we talk to each other, speaking the truth as best as we understand it, without being seen as attacking those with whom we disagree?

      Best wishes,


      • ahmed said

        dearest Nickolas ! it seems we got a 18 century email correspondence going on! … thanks for the reply ,
        you have a point there, but no matter how much we sugar code the truth it still remains offensive to some one in a state of defense!…… what is the truth any ways … that too is a matter of opinion .. most of the times majority backs it up not evidence. . besides i think we should reserve the right to revel personal opinions more often. . every one has something to say about every thing. i think personal opinions are a visible manifestation of ones values, right or wrong…. can we change our values ? no .. that means sometimes we lie to our selves in-order to keep some one happy.. is that a good thing?YES! what do you think?
        and by the way i think you were more than fare in your article.
        and you are talented writer . you have a very settle and mature way in presenting your opinion to other parties.

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