Andrew J. Newman


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.


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.


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?


Much of my early research on Safavid Iran comprised work on the religious discourse, especially in the 17th century. I have examined debates between key scholars of the period on a variety of issues, including the interpretation of theological and jurisprudential doctrine and practice, clerical service to the established political institution and clerics’ accumulation of authority in the community in the absence of the Hidden Imam. I have also sought to challenge the prevailing understanding of the careers and contributions of late-17th Shi`i scholars by examining material produced by certain of those clerics – to date mainly in the field of medical discourse - to demonstrate their openness and tolerance to non-Shi`i and even non-Muslim traditions.

More broadly, my 2006/2008 Safavid Iran notes that the Safavid period, even if the 1501-1722 dates are accepted, stands as the longest-lasting of Iran’s Islamic period dynasties. Instead of proceeding from the assumption of decline, the volume asks why it was that the dynasty in fact lasted as long as did. The volume also suggests that the dynasty’s ‘end’ is not usefully understood solely with reference to a single military ‘event’ and that, in fact, aspects of the Safavid ‘legacy’ – in politics and religious discourse especially, for example - lived on throughout the 18th century.

My own work, also, sought to query the ‘agenda’ of the domestic and foreign authors of key primary sources on which the field has long depended for its continued recourse to and reliance on ‘decline’. I also am interested in ‘recovering voices’ of hard-to-identify non-elites in Safavid society. There is already some useful material on both: see Brentjes, 2009, and Quinn, 2000.


The ‘decline paradigm’ has long been associated with discussions of both the Ottoman system but also with the larger Muslim project in the aftermath of 1258. From at least the work of the well-known Persianist E G Browne (d. 1926) in the early part of the last century ‘decline’ also has dominated discussions of the Safavid period in Iran, a period conventionally given the dates 1501 to 1722. In the Safavid case, ‘decline’ has been most often deployed with respect to the trajectory of the 17th century. Most Western-language commentators on 17th century Safavid Iran have viewed the period as having begun with a burst of cultural and intellectual achievement, in an atmosphere of military, political, and economic stability, due largely to the policies undertaken by Shah `Abbas I (r. 1588-1629), only to end in the darkness of fanatical religious orthodoxy amid military, political, and economic chaos. Most commentators cite the changing behavior and interests of important Twelver Shi`i `ulama over the 17th century as a key factor in Safavid ‘decline’: where the `ulama of the early 17th century have been characterized as interested primarily in philosophy and mysticism, and, as averse to, or having refrained from, entanglements in secular affairs. Western-language scholars have portrayed the majority of the late 17th century Iranian `ulama as intolerant, orthodox clerics who crushed the philosophical renaissance of the earlier half of the century and whose growing political influence inhibited an adequate response by the Safavid court to the political and military crises enveloping it, with the result that, in 1722, the Afghans sacked the Safavid capital of Esfahan.

A key body of material cited in support of aspects of ‘Safavid decline’ comprises, first, Persian-language sources, especially including chronicles, many completed many years after the 1722 fall of Esfahan to the Afghans, the event conventionally heralded as marking the dynasty’s end, and, secondly, the accounts of foreign travelers to and residents in Safavid Iran. The ‘agenda’ of the authors of these sources is all too seldom subjected to critical analysis.

As a result of recent activity scholars and lay persons interested in Safavid Iran today have at their disposal a much vaster array of primary and secondary sources, composed in a myriad of languages than was available prior to Iran’s 1979 Revolution. A myriad of sub-fields now may also now be said to exist within ‘Safavid Studies’. But, scholars in these ‘new’ sub-disciplines continue to take this model of the decline and fall of the Safavid ‘state’ as given and to privilege identification of signs of ‘decay’ in the ‘life’ of their sub-discipline over signs of ‘vitality’.

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