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.
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.
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.
As a historian of early Islam, I try to avoid the notions of golden age and decline and focus on human interactions as changing but shared experiences across cultural, political, and religious divides. I look for similarities rather than differences, shared experiences as well as peculiarities of human acts to erase some of the damages the decline narrative has imprinted in our consciousness. In my work on messianic beliefs imperial politics, I attempt to show how early ninth-century societies and individuals in the Abbasid world reacted to messianic beliefs across religious, cultural, and economic divides. While the modern master narrative sees the early Abbasid era as a golden age, contemporaries had a totally different perceptions of their own time, which cannot be forced into either “decline” or “golden age” paradigms. In a sense, my research shows how societies defy such “lump sum” generalizations about their constituent parts, which are by their very nature always interacting, shifting, and changing. So it is appropriate to question in this context, the observer rather than the observed as the question of decline is squarely about the former.
One of the most important effects of the decline paradigm has been its power in shaping our approach to the history of “Muslim regions.” It is essentialist, binary, and normative. It urges us to divide history into qualitatively and morally preferential periods, sort out what it deems substantial from the ephemeral, the authentic from the borrowed, the genuine from the fake, and the correct from the wrong. It reduces all aspects of history to “religion” as the core of “Muslim regions” and favors Arabic, the Middle East, and Umayyad-Abbasid caliphates as the essence of “Islamic history,” beyond and after which one can only observe decline and syncretism until European modernity comes to rescue this long in sleep civilization from the ruins of the middle ages. At the end, even when it praises the “golden age” the decline paradigm undermines “Islam” and “Muslim” as exotic, incomplete, and irreparably flawed. While “Islam” is depicted as the other, the alter ego which the “West” is not and should not be, the “West” emerges as the model against which we judge the others.