Question 5 : Would you say that elements of and contributions to global modernity emerged within Muslim Empires and through interactions with other societies from 1300-1900? What were some of these elements and contributions?


All societies in all continents and all islands participated in the construction of modernity. It is possible to say that some made specific contributions, many of which had their origins long before the era that we conventionally call modernity. Indian mathematicians, for example, used symbols that Muslims called Hindi numerals and that Europeans called Arabic numerals because Europeans learned about them from Arab Muslims. Is it possible to conceive modernity as we conventionally know it in the absence of Hindi/Arabic numerals? Would calculus be possible with Roman numerals?

There are many specific contributions with origins in Muslim societies that were crucial for the development of sustainable agricultural societies that were foundations of modernity. Irrigation technologies and the diffusion of food crops enhanced agriculture across much of the eastern hemisphere. Muslim astronomical observations and reasoning seem to have reached Copernicus and other astronomers of early modern Europe, and to have influenced their views on alternatives to the Ptolemaic universe.

Now let me note that Muslim societies made some decisions that hindered their possibilities of participating in the process of modernity. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, for example, they rejected adoption of two supremely important inventions – the printing press and the telescope. These decisions do not necessarily indicate a lack of intellectual curiosity, as one scholar has recently argued. Rather, my suspicion (as one who is admittedly not expert in the issues) is that the decisions came about as a result of power struggles in which the victors were religious authorities who sought to suppress independent, secular groups that might constitute a challenge to their privileged position in Muslim societies.


I am leery of approaches that seek to identify “contributions” to global modernity, however denotated. For me, humanity is one, and the interconnecting societies of Afroeurasia have continually interacted, sharing, perfecting and forgetting innovations over the centuries while also dealing with a continually changing global environmental and climatic conditions. Among these conditions , unprecedented human population increase from 1400 CE, massive deforestation and the Little Ice Age, rank near the top of the list. Key developments to which I would point include the conquest of the world’s seas and oceans in the period 1400-1800, the full development of the potential of the fiscal/military revolution, and the linking of the world’s regions by sea for the first time. Major consequences include the development of a world economy and a global division of labor as well as the changing location of the Middle East in the topology of global exchange from the Mediterranean/Indian Ocean worlds to the Atlantic. Far-reaching political and technological changes, connected to Europe’s privileged access to coal and colonies did the rest.


I am uncomfortable with the concept of “contributions,” to modernity, for reasons that I have already discussed above. Instead I would go farther: rather than say that interactions between Muslim empires another societies “contributed” to global modernity, I would argue that modernity itself needs to be understood as a product of these (and other) interactions.


If I knew what global modernity meant, I might be better able to say. However, if it means, as I think it does, various aspects of European civilization in the so-called early modern era and later that contributed to European economic and military dominance, I would have to say that these empires made no significant contributions, except that trade with these states employed a lot of Europeans and helped to make some of them very, very wealthy. However it is a mistake to believe that Eurasian trade was a novelty in the age of European maritime expansion. Recent interest in the so-called Silk Road has demonstrated the degree to which commerce flourished between major civilizations and over long distances in the early Common Era, if not eearlier. Certainly in the Ottoman case European culture had a major influence on a small section of Ottoman culture, politics and military affairs. But did the Ottomans, Safavids of Mughal initiate or preside over changes that are associated with “modernity,” whatever that is, I don’t think so. Of course, these empires did build stunningly beautiful monumental structures, patronize lovely art, including calligraphy, and crafts, and encourage some memorable poetry, all of which testified to their wealth and cultural sophistication. But then these achievements do not distinguish them from many ancient empires.


I would think that a lot of work could be done on the economic dimensions. Throughout the period 1300-1800, for instance, textile production in the different parts of the Ottoman world, was a major economic asset. Textiles were exported to many directions (including Asia, the Americas). The know-how (especially in the 18th century) of these textiles was transferred to European workshops. Much more research could be done along this line in order to consider east west technology transfers. Some studies are also considering a multi-focal approach in relation to the emergence of capitalism namely that it may have had many forms, that these forms emerged in different parts of the world. This is another avenue open for more research.


- The rise and fall of large-scale enslavement combined to form one aspect of the transition to global modernity, and it is well represented in Muslim Empires and other parts of the Islamic world.

- The development of expanded imperial government, most notably in the Ottoman, Iranian, and Mughal states--but also in Islamic states of other parts of Africa and Asia--was part of a more general sequence of governmental changes.

- The expansion of European colonial rule from the 18th to the 20th centuries was a significant if commonly negative aspect of the transition to global modernity.

- The place of Muslim Empires in the long-term changes of the global economy warrants further study. The notion of the Great Divergence has now been developed rather fully for East Asia -- the implications of this thinking for Muslim Empires and surrounding areas would benefit from more study.


There are two elements to this question. The first involves defining ‘global modernity’ in such a manner as to distinguish it from earlier forms of globalization/internationalisation. That definition process might usefully encompass more than just a focus on the ‘names and dates’, that is change at the macro/elite levels, but that definition might well also refer to the nature and pace of ‘change’ from ‘pre-modern’ to ‘modern’ among the region’s non-elites. Such a broader remit would facilitate comparative discussions of the changing circumstances of similar/corresponding elements in Europe, Africa, South America, Southeast Asia and the Pacific, for example.

Toward the end of the period, it is clear that regions within these three polities, and others as well, had become integrated into the ‘modern world market system’ as peripheries both as the latter may be said to have encompassed new means of manufacturing and finance. Some elements in these polities encouraged the processes associated with this peripheralisation and others did not, just as this was encouraged/opposed at what was becoming the metropolis itself.

Was there, question two, not also a ‘market of ideas’ involving the production of culture. Does ‘modernity’ also involve, for example, the West-based ‘scientific revolution’? If so, on a positivist note, ‘Western’ medicine may be said to have ‘abstracted’ several processes associated with ‘local’ bodies of medical theory and practice on offer across all three of the polities concerned. Plastic surgery is one such example. Vaccination, and smallpox vaccination in particular, is another. But, on a broader level both may be said to stand as an example of ‘cultural abstraction’ as the building of the Suez Canal or the laying of telegraph lines in Iran let alone, although later, oil, may be said to exemplify/be associated with ‘economic abstraction’. The ‘world market system’ must be defined to include references to both.


Here I would go back to the point of mobility and suggest that as far as the exponential growth of mobility is concerned, Muslim Empires –or at least the Ottoman Empire, which is the one I know best and feel most comfortable talking about– did their share of contributions to global modernity by providing opportunities for both physical and social mobility. One should also note, however, that the contribution of northwestern Europe to the emergence of global modernity has been much more influential in terms of determining the outcome. To underline this point, I make a distinction between the early modern period that is marked by physical and socio-political mobility and the modern one that is shaped more profoundly by capitalism and colonialism. While the Ottomans were as good of participants in the early modern period as anyone else in terms of social mobility, they were not able to mobilize as much capital as the Dutch and the English did during the seventeenth century thanks to their creative transformation of a medieval concept, the corporation, into the joint stock company (the corporation had neither existed in the Byzantine Empire nor the Islamic World).

If one considers the fact that global modernity, especially after the rise of capitalism and colonialism, also includes such experiences as the genocidal destruction of native cultures and populations, plantation slavery, and racism, perhaps the Islamic World did just as well by not contributing as much to the creation of global modernity as did northwestern Europe. As we are pondering the consequences of global warming for our grandchildren, it might actually be instructive to look at the early modern Islamic World and imagine the possibility of a different modernity that would keep its promise for social mobility but not open its doors to unlimited capital accumulation in corporations that are in effect legal persons and yet are devoid of the kind of responsibility that only a human being can carry: the moral one.

Henry Blount, Voyage into the Levant (London, 1634).

Giancarlo Casale, The Ottoman Age of Exploration (New York, 2010).

Cemal Kafadar, “A Death in Venice (1575): Anatolian Muslim Merchants Trading in the Serenissima, Journal of Turkish Studies 10 (1986): 191-218.

Cemal Kafadar, “The Question of Ottoman Decline,” Harvard Middle Eastern and Islamic Review 4 (1997-98): 30-75.

Roger Owen, “The Middle East in the eighteenth century – an ‘Islamic’ Society in Decline? A Critique of Gibb and Bowen’s Islamic Society and the West,” Review of Middle East Studies 1 (1975): 101–12.

Baki Tezcan, The Second Ottoman Empire: Political and Social Transformation in the Early Modern World (New York, 2010) [pdf of Introduction and Conclusion available online].


For understanding the role of Muslim political systems, economic networks, and religious frameworks in the era from 1300-1900, it is most efficient to utilize a vocabulary that does not tie the discussion to “modernity” as it is usually defined. Muslims played a significant role in the dynamics of the “global convergences” in this era.

Muslim imperial systems, especially the Ottoman, were influential in the evolution of the centralized “gunpowder empires” of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The effectiveness of the centralized administrative bureaucracy and the power of the well-trained standing army (with the Janissaries at its core) impressed diplomats and travelers from both Europe and Asia. Similarly, Muslim production and distribution networks were important parts of global trade, as reflected in the development during the seventeenth century of cotton textile production in India and the emergence of important coffee exporters in Southeast Asia. In religious terms, Muslim movements of renewal and revival influenced not just the developments of culture and society in the Middle East but also in India and Africa, and had some significance in shaping non-Han communal identities in China.


For the purposes of this exercise we may use the label “Muslim Empires” to designate empires making a sustained reverence to particular manifestations of Islam ubiquitous among their subject populations, but at the end we must rethink terminologies such as this as they confuse rather than clarify our thoughts. The question is not whether or how “Muslim Empires” contributed to modernity, but how they have constructed and perceived their own modernities, and how their involvement in and perceptions of global interactions changed the way they live and experience life. As every society is the maker of its own modernity with all of its complexity, we cannot pretend to construct a model, European or non-European, and then judge various experiences according to it. We therefore need a dedicated attention to non-European societies on their own terms, not as subjects of European expansion and we need to consciously reject the temptation to view modernity as a stage (similar to a finishing line in a race) in human history that various societies reach after each other.

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