Jerry H. Bentley


All societies in all continents and all islands participated in the construction of modernity. It is possible to say that some made specific contributions, many of which had their origins long before the era that we conventionally call modernity. Indian mathematicians, for example, used symbols that Muslims called Hindi numerals and that Europeans called Arabic numerals because Europeans learned about them from Arab Muslims. Is it possible to conceive modernity as we conventionally know it in the absence of Hindi/Arabic numerals? Would calculus be possible with Roman numerals?

There are many specific contributions with origins in Muslim societies that were crucial for the development of sustainable agricultural societies that were foundations of modernity. Irrigation technologies and the diffusion of food crops enhanced agriculture across much of the eastern hemisphere. Muslim astronomical observations and reasoning seem to have reached Copernicus and other astronomers of early modern Europe, and to have influenced their views on alternatives to the Ptolemaic universe.

Now let me note that Muslim societies made some decisions that hindered their possibilities of participating in the process of modernity. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, for example, they rejected adoption of two supremely important inventions – the printing press and the telescope. These decisions do not necessarily indicate a lack of intellectual curiosity, as one scholar has recently argued. Rather, my suspicion (as one who is admittedly not expert in the issues) is that the decisions came about as a result of power struggles in which the victors were religious authorities who sought to suppress independent, secular groups that might constitute a challenge to their privileged position in Muslim societies.


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.


“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.


One of the main goals of the new world history that has emerged since the 1960s and especially since the 1980s is to avoid Eurocentric and other kinds of ethnocentric analyses. World historians do not deny the significance of Europe, but they reject the assumption that European standards are universally valid. They find it more instructive to focus analysis on processes of cross-cultural interaction and exchange that linked the fortunes of all societies that took part in networks of interaction and exchange. They recognize that different societies have collectively made different decisions about the investments they make with the human, natural, financial, and other resources available to them.


Human beings respond readily to stories. A narrative with a beginning, middle, and end seems to be a natural way for humans to structure their understanding of the world around them. There are of course many ways in which stories are instructive for purposes of understanding the world. But we must always remember that stories are radical simplifications of reality. The suggestion that a particular society had a difficult (or miraculous) birth followed by a period of power (or prosperity) but later experienced decline (and maybe even collapse) might capture some important dimensions of its existence but totally obscure others that are equally important.

One widely held story holds that the Muslim world enjoyed a golden age at the time of the Abbasid dynasty and entered into a long era of decline after the Turks and Mongols established a series of transregional empires during the period about 1000 to 1300. Some have viewed the entire era from 1300 to 1900 as an age of Muslim decline. That must be a world record for a process of decline. How many societies have been able to decline for six centuries straight?

There are many problems with this story. One is that it measures Muslim “decline” against the yardstick of European “progress.” There is no question that European peoples did remarkable things during the era 1300 to 1900. They built powerful national states and established global maritime empires. They also constructed modern science and carried out an amazing process of industrialization. But there is no reason why Muslim societies should necessarily have followed the same path, even if they could have done so. Since they did not have access to the natural resources of the New World, nor did they enjoy the windfall of energy resources in the form of coal that fueled the process of industrialization in Europe, it would have been very difficult indeed for Muslim societies to duplicate European experience.

Another problem with the story is that it totally overlooks impressive achievements of Muslim societies themselves. One salient example has to do with the remarkable expansion of Ottoman power in the Indian Ocean basin during the sixteenth century. The fascinating new book by Giancarlo Casale, The Ottoman Age of Exploration, brings into view a round of maritime exploration and imperial expansion that paralleled European efforts in the New World.

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