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].
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).
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.
Rather than engaging with the decline paradigm with a view to refute it as a whole, I try to marginalize it by suggesting a different angle to approach the period in question. In my very recently published book, The Second Ottoman Empire, I did this by focusing on political development and suggesting that the arguably most significant development of the period that runs from the late sixteenth century to the early nineteenth is socio-economic and political mobility. It is in this period that one witnesses the gradual development of a monetary economy and the growth of a bourgeoning class of merchants and financiers as well as the political empowerment of this economically privileged class. I also argued that this period witnessed the development of an indigenous model of limited monarchy.
As Bentley observes in his response, a narrative with a beginning, middle, and end is very attractive to present complicated developments to a large audience. Obviously, this paradigm’s domination of the historiography of the Islamic World in this period is also related to Orientalism as Said showed to everyone more than thirty years ago. It is not too difficult to see that making decline the focus of analysis has led for many significant developments in the Islamic World of this period to be overlooked.
However, among the professionals of Islamic history, the decline paradigm has been challenged for quite a while now – if we take Roger Owen’s piece in Review of Middle East Studies as a starting point, since 1975. Yet an alternative narrative that is as attractive to non-specialists as the decline has been does not seem to have emerged – otherwise this forum would not be necessary. So perhaps focusing on the critique of the decline paradigm is not necessarily the best thing to do to appeal to our colleagues outside our field, or to the public at large. We need to come up with an alternative narrative.
Another important question to consider is what people in the Islamic World think about this paradigm of golden age and decline. What had struck me within the first few years of my graduate school experience in the US was the disjunction between the strong critique of Ottoman decline among the Middle East specialists of the US academe (Cemal Kafadar’s article on the subject was an inspiring exception to me) and the continuing relevance of the concept in Turkey. Obviously, there is a whole set of reasons for this disjunction such as the internalization of Orientalism by the modernizing elite of Turkey. Yet, it is also difficult to argue that the Ottoman Empire did not decline in its global significance or that it did not become relatively poorer: just take a twenty minute walk in Istanbul from the Topkapi Palace, where William Harborne, the ambassador of Queen Elizabeth, sought the alliance of the Ottomans against the Spanish in the 1580s, to the Istanbul High School the building of which used to be occupied by the Ottoman Public Debt Administration that was run by Europeans who collected taxes in the Ottoman Empire in order to transfer funds to the empire’s creditors in the 1880s. So perhaps centering our scholarship on the critique of the decline paradigm does not resonate well in the Islamic World where people live in the midst of physical markers of a relative decline.