A good friend actually turned me on to this book, six months ago or more. I bought it but in spite of liking the intro, put it down for other things. So I nominated it for the nonfiction group I'm in and when it was chosen started reading it seriously.
I really liked this book and I think I'd like the author. He's lived in the US for a long time and understands American history, politics and public opinion. He's not religious himself and has a great command of English as well as a considerable sense of proportion--and of humor.
He divides the world into 3 parts: The West (Western Europe and the Americas), the East (Asia and the Pacific Islands) and what he calls "The Middle World", the part of the world that includes the what we'd call the middle east, north Africa, the southwestern ex-Soviet republics, to India (under the Moghuls).
The first part of the book is a history of the Muslim world (the Middle World), from Mohammed through the Khalifates and beyond. It focuses almost exclusively on that part of the world, but beginning with the Crusades, Ansary incorporates incorporates the interface between the Middle World and the West (only though when Europe becomes reasonably civilized since initially it was just a huge expanse of barbarian territories). And when West meets Middle, he reports history from the Middle (Muslim) point of view. The book culminates with the three great Muslim Empires which coexisted and lasted (at least one of them did) until WWI: the Ottoman, the Safavid (Persian) and Moghul (Indian). Increasingly as the book comes closer to our own time--he stops basically at 911--he articulates the attitudes, opinions and prejudices of the Muslims, but the fact that he understandsIran the corresponding attitudes, opinions and prejudices of the West is critical. He's particularly interested in the various secular modernist reformers, seeing in their efforts a desire to incorporate industrialiam and the industrial goods of the West without considering the role of the social structure of Western Europe in the technology they created.
The various schisms of Islam are explained. (I finally understood who the Pakistani pilgrims were with whom we shared a small hotel in the Khan al Khaili area of Cairo. They were Shi'ite pilgrims to the Hussein Mosque and Hussein was the grandson of Ali (the 4th Khalif) who was descended from Mohammed's "favorite wife" Fatima. The difference between Sunnis and Shi'ites became clearer and it also became clear that there were many varieties of each. There were interesting tidbits like the Sikhs whose religion was originally an attempt to amalgamate Islam and Hinduism and the various Sufi sects that were offshoots of Shi'ism. The rise of Wahibism was interesting too--the first Ibn Saud embraced Wahibism in the 18th century, long before the family became powerful and organized the Arabian peninsula as Saudi Arabia.
As the history becomes more modern Ansary focuses on 20th century history from the point of view, for example, of Iran (the US overthrow of Mosadeq and restoration of the Shah), of Egypt (Suez Canal crisis) and of Palestine (Israel emergence as a state)--to name a few instances. In the early part of the book we were learning the history of the Muslim world, isolated as it was, but as the story progresses we're beginning to understand our own history as seen in the Middle World.
This is a very readable book. I recommend it highly.