Question 4 : What new frameworks can be applied to the study of this period in your area of specialization?
One of the most interesting approaches taken by world historians in recent years is a fresh comparative analysis of economic development in early modern times (about 1500 to 1800). In his landmark study entitled The Great Divergence, Kenneth Pomeranz argued persuasively that European and Chinese economies were remarkably similar throughout this period and that the great divergence of economic fortunes came afterwards, when European peoples were able to benefit from a windfall of New World resources as well as a new and powerful source of energy in the form of coal. It would be most helpful to have parallel studies exploring the economic organization of the other large, powerful societies of the eastern hemisphere, and particularly the Islamic “gunpowder empires” –- the Ottoman, Savafid, and Mughal empires –- during the early modern era.
A central theme in my approach has been consistently to locate the Middle East and the so-called West in their larger changing world historical contexts: ecological, political, economic and cultural. Since this is but a brief note, I would refer readers to the World History for Us All website, which I helped to create, for more on the vision of world history I have articulated here.
Following up on some of the themes already introduced above, I think that a focus on the study of empires in comparative context could be a very productive framework for exploring the subject of early modernity. In the same way that the nation-state is the definitive political, social, and economic institution of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, a good case can be made that empires are the definitive institutions of the early modern period—and differentiate this period not only from what came after, but from what had come before. The fact is that if you imagine a political map of the world in, say, the year 1200, you would be looking at a fragmented map without any political formations truly worthy of the name “empire” (China being the only partial exception). But by 1600, the entire midsection of the world was encompassed by a belt of 5 or 6 large imperial states, something that really had no historical precedent in any previous period.
I think this “imperial age” needs to be studied as a phenomenon, and much better integrated into our general understanding of early modern history. In the same way that any narrative of the emergence of a particular nation-state in the modern period needs to take account of the larger global trends associated with modernity, which seem to make some version of the nation-state almost inevitable, we also need to see the empires of the early modern world as products of their times, as formations that respond to a set of economic, social, ideological, and technological realities that transcend particular geographies, cultures, and political traditions—and as entities that evolve in a constant dialogue with one another.
4. I think the history of these empires should be approached by focusing on first, the political and cultural traditions of the founders, their goal in founding their states, the beneficiaries of the conquest, the economic bases of the regime, the religious and intellectual ethos of the population etc. Above all it should be recognized that empires are not charitable or social welfare institutions. They existed, as did European empires, to perpetuate dynasties and profit dominant groups in the population. In any event, if historians in writing about these states are constantly measuring every development by European criteria, they are wasting their time. Let us first understand the goals of members of these dynasties, their principal supporters and the mentalite, as far as it can be determined, of the broader population.
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.
- The framework of broader social and cultural interaction with time.
- The framework of the African diaspora.
- The framework of empire and colonialism might be applied more systematically.
- The framework of the world economy and its links in commerce, production, and social class.
- The framework of population size and migration.
- The framework of ecological change, including the history of health.
The invitation to participate in this forum referred to this as a ‘scholarly forum on Ottoman, Safavid and Mughal Empires’ and, indeed, the term ‘empire’ can be said to be making something of a ‘comeback’ in our field with reference to the Ottomans, Safavids and Mughals, as witness a series of recent publications (Dale, 2010; Matthee, 2010; Streusand, 2011) and scholarly research projects in Europe and the US (‘Empire in the Middle East’, Peter Sluglett (CUP); ‘The Edinburgh History of the Islamic Empires’, Ian Netton (EUP); ‘Eurasian empires’, Jeroen Duindam (Leiden)). But, a term that has been applied to the Romans, the Ottomans, the British and the Americans – to name a few – might not offer a framework of analysis with as much value as may be thought. The terms ‘state’ and ‘early modern/modern’ as applied to date also seem subjective in nature and therefore also problematic.
Interestingly, even Hodgson, I, 1974 – perhaps the ‘godfather’ of the use of ‘empire’ in recent times and with reference to these three polities – applied the term in a rather conservative fashion: was his acceptance of such elements of the post-1258 decline paradigm as the rise of ‘the shari`a’ an acknowledgement of concomitant/associated notions involving the ‘closing of the “bab” of ijtihad”?
An ‘objective’ set of questions posed with reference to each polity would facilitate a comparative discourse with regard to these three. These might include, for example, questions as to the changing economic and socio-political bases of each, but also a focus on evolving forms of cultural expression (art, architecture, literature) and varying spiritual discourse, and necessarily include some discussion of what ‘went before’ in these realms and how these may be seen to have developed over time.
This model would allow for fruitful comparative discussions of other polities, in Europe, Africa, South America, Southeast Asia and the Pacific, for example.
In the process, also, as much attention might be given to approaches offered by the ‘history from below’ or, more recently, the ‘subaltern studies’ paradigms. The latter, especially as it has made its presence felt in Middle Eastern Studies, mainly privileges the period from the mid-19th century on. The former, as on offer in the works of Christopher Hill on 17th c England, for example, encourages attention to religious discourse as a means of locating and identifying the concerns of non-elites in earlier periods.
As it happens, I had very much these questions in mind when I was transforming my dissertation into a book. So my book, The Second Ottoman Empire, is an attempt to provide such a new framework to the study of this period in Ottoman history, my area of specialization. I neither want to repeat what I wrote in response to the second question above nor to talk more about my own book, which is becoming embarrassingly self-promotional (interested parties could skim the introduction and the conclusion of the book which I submitted to the forum administration in a pdf).
One possible new framework that could avoid some of the difficulties of the LDP for understanding the histories of Muslim societies in 1300-1900 is to redefine what is meant by “modern” and “early modern.” If “modernity” is defined as urban-centered industrial society with experimental, empirically-oriented scientific thought as an important component, then “modernity” is not clearly visible anyplace in the world until the nineteenth century. In this definition, the labeling of the period from 1500-1800 as the “early modern period” creates a teleological story that turns the world history of that era into a deterministic advent narrative, of “waiting for modernity.”
If one uses concepts of increasing inter-regional and trans-regional interactions, the analysis can emphasize the main narrative of the period as being intensified trans-regional networking leading to globalization – instead of Renaissance-Reformation-Enlightenment leading to “modernity.” One such reconceptualized periodization is suggested by many of the materials prepared by the National Center for History in the Schools in the University of California, Los Angeles. The Center provides a periodization for the “Big Eras.” “Big Era Six” is the “Great Global Convergence, 1400-1800.”
One possible new framework would be to frame the era as the “Global Convergence Period” and avoid using the terminology of “early modern” for this era. Such a new conceptualization of the periodization could capture the emergent and new nature of world history and distinctive experiences of the Muslim world and other major historical-cultural units without identifying the grand narrative with the history of Western Europe.
We are all aware that the models of global modernity and multiple modernities have come to challenge the older model of European modernity. However, despite their welcome contributions to non-Western histories, I think they still frame human history in European terms and cling to the idea that history has led and is leading to something higher, and perhaps even better. One reason why this is the case is perhaps we got bogged down by our attention to imperial structures but paid much less attention to micro-histories, small-histories, and histories of the little-people. Our chronologies and periodizations still reflect the deeds and aspirations of an astonishingly miniscule minority in history. It is important to recognize that the histories of this minority occupy the largest part of our historiography and exercise tremendously disproportionate influence on how we see history.