Question 3 : How can this period be re-conceptualized in order to more accurately portray important features of the history of global modernity?


“Global modernity” is an interesting term. What might it mean? For that matter, what does “modernity” mean? And what does modernity pertain to – a nation, a cultural region, the entire world?

Many historians have spoken of modernity as though it refers to a historical destination – a state of affairs characterized by certain traits, such as science, industry, urbanization, and the nation-state form of political organization. By this standard, the label modernity is only applicable to those lands that acquire the traits associated with modernity.

In recent decades, others have spoken of “alternative modernities” or “multiple modernities.” Their guiding thought is that modernity might have one form in Europe or North America but quite different forms in other societies. Social, economic, and political organization might take different forms in China or India than in Great Britain or the USA and yet still be modern.
While recognizing the appeal of both these approaches – modernity as historical destination and the notion that alternative modernities are conceivable – I personally find it useful to think of modernity as a historical process. In a world of states and societies constantly engaged in cross-cultural interaction and exchange, large-scale historical developments will almost certainly play out differently in different parts of the world.

If there is industrial development in one region, for example, there will likely be repercussions and very different economic developments in other regions. The earliest European industrialists had no domestic source of cotton fiber or natural rubber, both of which were essential elements of the early industrial order. So they had to obtain cotton from India, Egypt, and the American South, while they turned to the Amazon River basin, central Africa, and Malaya for rubber. India, Egypt, the American South, the Amazon River basin, central Africa, and Malaya did not industrialize their economies, at least not for a century or more, but all were essential regions for the development of industrial modernity. They participated just as much as Europe in the development of industrial modernity, but their experiences in doing so were radically different from European experiences.

There are very good reasons to focus historical analysis on developments internal to any given society. At the same time, it is essential to focus historical analysis on relations between different societies in order to understand how large-scale historical processes work their effects differentially in different lands. Personally, I would say that “global modernity” is a useful term and that it draws attention to networks of cross-cultural interaction, influence, and exchange that work their effects in very different ways from one land to another.


I am a bit leery of the concept of global modernity, even if (or because) it is currently fashionable. The concept itself is insufficiently grounded in the history of all of humanity, with the result that it tends to be modernocentric. Thus it holds to a version of the “European miracle” approach, even if it is for some scholars, a dystopic one. Although I would agree that all humans are “modern” I would see this as deriving primarily from the fact that humanity as a whole is no longer governed by the Malthusian scissors of the solar energy regime. Currently humans live under the fossil fuel energetic regime. As a result the pre-existing solar energy regime limits on growth are no longer in place. This, more than the Enlightenment, modern science or other cultural determinants have enabled our species to flourish (some groups and individuals more than others, depending upon geographical and class locations).


I am of course biased by the chronologies and geographies of my own research, but I believe that one of the keys to taking the history of global modernity in a new and more meaningful direction lies in tackling much more systematically the question of the “early modern” in the narrative of world history. Here I should begin by saying that I am in general sympathetic to the aims of post-colonial studies, and in particular to the project of “Provincializing Europe”—a project dedicated to the idea that ‘modernity’ as such is an all-encompassing and variegated phenomenon that transcends the historical experience of the West. One problem I have with this approach, however, is that in their enthusiasm to demonstrate the modernity of the non-Western world, post-colonial historians have become extremely limited in their chronological perspective, rarely if ever venturing back earlier in time than the nineteenth century—when the Enlightenment, the industrial revolution, international capitalism, and European imperialism are considered to have created the conditions necessary for a truly universal modernity.

I believe this fixation on the nineteenth and twentieth centuries is a serious limitation, because it leaves unexplored the question of if, how, and to what extent the world was already on a path towards a shared experience of modernity during the centuries before the final establishment of global Western hegemony. I am firmly convinced that it is through the study of this earlier period (roughly 1350-1750) that we have the best chance of radically reconceptualizing the narrative of world history. But to do so requires that scholars who study the Ottoman Empire, or the Mughal Empire, or for that matter the Spanish Empire or the Kingdom of Monomotapa, must all start to think of themselves as “early modernists” rather than simply “Ottomanists,” “Iberianists,” and so on—and to really think hard about what this means in comparative, world-historical terms.


I do not know what “global modernity” means, although I believe it is a Eurocentric concept. I do not think it is a good idea to try to re-conceptualize the history of these empires by focusing on what I assume to be developments which first occurred in Europe, such as industrial capitalism, rise of experimental science, secular education and even nationalism.


One way to do this might be to consider some of the global trends of the period 1300-1800 and to find where the Islamic world falls in. This would encourage a comparative approach. Peter Gran’s recent book, The Rise of the Rich offers one alternative to the rise of the West.


Most basically, by dethroning the dichotomy of rise and decline of putatively self-contained societies from its primacy in the interpretation of history. Instead, a focus on interactions within and among social groups and regions envisioned at various scales can provide a richer view of the past. Attention to the hajj and its importance as an institution and as a symbol of commonality may suggest that it has been a forerunner of modern-day interconnection.


I think the period is ripe for a re-think but ‘global modernity’ may not be the only, or even the best, ‘end-point’ of that process. Do we want to postulate that ‘end-point’ in advance of this re-think and thereby risk predetermining the processes of our research so as to guarantee the answer.

That said, however, there are certain questions that might be kept in mind as one proceeds and these might include ‘internationalisation’. There were ‘global’ networks in place over this period, and before. These were not only trade and commercial networks but also ‘networks of the mind’, encompassing cross-border discourse in art and architectural, literature and even spiritual matters/religion, for example.

Are we all agreed on what constitutes ‘global modernity’? ‘Globalisation’ is not a late 20th/early 21st century phenomenon although the forms and balance of relationships that characterize its present-day configuration are certainly historically specific. Of all the centuries encompassed by the 1300 to 1900 period, are not the ‘signs’ of global modernity as we might conceive of them as relating especially to such ‘modern’ phenomena as colonialism and imperialism, in their physical and non-physical manifestations, therefore only visible from the mid- to-late 19th century?


I believe if we take global modernity as the almost exponential increase in mobility and focus on both physical mobility as in Cemal Kafadar’s Ottoman merchant, who died in Venice, or Giancarlo Casale’s Ottomans, who reached Sumatra, and also social mobility as in some of the economically powerful Ottoman subjects who entered the ruling group of their society in this period, we would see that the Ottomans were as modern as anyone else – actually Sir Henry Blount asserted back in 1634 that the Ottomans were the “only modern people” of his time.

So a focus on increasing socio-economic mobility as a key feature of this period might also help us in re-writing the history of global modernity.


One of the major features of the era from 1300 to 1900 in world history is the increasingly intense nature of networks of interaction that transcend local, regional, and societal boundaries. The different levels are not exclusive polarities – dynamics are not either/ or but rather are inclusive. Seeing “global” and “local” as being opposites, for example, obscures the increasing importance of “global” elements in shaping distinctive “local” cultures/ societies, and also the contributions of “local” elements to the definitions of seemingly “global” phenomena. A useful example of the productivity of seeing “global” and “local” as interacting and not necessarily competing dimensions of any given society’s history is Donald R. Wright, The World and a Very Small Place in Africa (London: Sharpe, 1997). Wright uses the global system conceptualizations of Richard Eaton (Islamic History as Global History) and Voll in his very “local” history of Niumi in the Gambia River valley. (See pages 18-19, and note 7, page 33.)

In this reconceptualization, a useful concept is “cosmopolitanism” as discussed, for example, in the special issue of the Journal of World History 21, No. 3 (September 2010) on “Cosmopolitanism in World History.”


A quick glance at textbook-world-histories will show what is wrong with the current historiography of world history. Even in the narratives dealing with earlier eras, the textbook-world-history is constructed in such a way that the reader is made to anticipate the “rise of the west.” Therefore, a serious thought should be given to the ways in which we assess the agency of non-western societies in world-history beyond making gestures towards their importance but not really engaging the effort of decentralizing world-historical narrative. The aim should not be provincializing Europe to create yet another center, but really decentralizing all and dismantling long standing continental, linguistic, cultural, and religious frameworks, which we used to work with to understand the past.

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