John Voll

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For understanding the role of Muslim political systems, economic networks, and religious frameworks in the era from 1300-1900, it is most efficient to utilize a vocabulary that does not tie the discussion to “modernity” as it is usually defined. Muslims played a significant role in the dynamics of the “global convergences” in this era.

Muslim imperial systems, especially the Ottoman, were influential in the evolution of the centralized “gunpowder empires” of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The effectiveness of the centralized administrative bureaucracy and the power of the well-trained standing army (with the Janissaries at its core) impressed diplomats and travelers from both Europe and Asia. Similarly, Muslim production and distribution networks were important parts of global trade, as reflected in the development during the seventeenth century of cotton textile production in India and the emergence of important coffee exporters in Southeast Asia. In religious terms, Muslim movements of renewal and revival influenced not just the developments of culture and society in the Middle East but also in India and Africa, and had some significance in shaping non-Han communal identities in China.

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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.

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One of the major features of the era from 1300 to 1900 in world history is the increasingly intense nature of networks of interaction that transcend local, regional, and societal boundaries. The different levels are not exclusive polarities – dynamics are not either/ or but rather are inclusive. Seeing “global” and “local” as being opposites, for example, obscures the increasing importance of “global” elements in shaping distinctive “local” cultures/ societies, and also the contributions of “local” elements to the definitions of seemingly “global” phenomena. A useful example of the productivity of seeing “global” and “local” as interacting and not necessarily competing dimensions of any given society’s history is Donald R. Wright, The World and a Very Small Place in Africa (London: Sharpe, 1997). Wright uses the global system conceptualizations of Richard Eaton (Islamic History as Global History) and Voll in his very “local” history of Niumi in the Gambia River valley. (See pages 18-19, and note 7, page 33.)

In this reconceptualization, a useful concept is “cosmopolitanism” as discussed, for example, in the special issue of the Journal of World History 21, No. 3 (September 2010) on “Cosmopolitanism in World History.”

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Some of my scholarship aims at redefining the basic units of analysis. Many of the existing narratives of Muslim and world history in the period are built on analyses that frame narratives as histories of “civilizations.” The “civilizational narrative” presents a misleadingly segmented vision of the Muslim world. In many discussions, the global group of Muslim societies are called “Islamic civilization,” a label that ignores the fact that the Muslim world is multi-civilizational. Significant Muslim communities are historically parts of Middle Eastern, Indian, Chinese, African, and now even Western civilizations. My efforts to provide a critique of the civilization-based narrative and to redefine the units of analysis are illustrated by the following essays:

“Islam as a Community of Discourse and a World-System,” in The Sage Handbook of Islamic Studies, ed. Akbar Ahmed and Tamara Sonn (London: Sage, 2010)

“’Southernization’ as a Construct in Post-Civilizational Narrative,” in The New World History: A Teacher’s Companion, ed. By Ross E. Dunn (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2000).

“The End of Civilization is Not So Bad,” [MESA Presidential Address] Middle East Studies Association Bulletin 28, No. 1 (July 1994).

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The “Long Decline Paradigm” (“LDP” for purposes of this discussion) is one that has shaped not only the study of Muslim societies but also the study of all non-European societies in this era. The LDP is part of the Europe-centered vision of world history that interprets world history primarily as it relates to Western European history. Since the basic narrative of Europe-centered world historiography is the rise to global dominance of Western Europe in the 19th century, the narrative for other major global societies gets dominated by asking the question: “What went wrong?”—which basically is asking the question of why did not Chinese, South Asian, and Muslim societies have the same history as Western Europe? “Success” in the LDP is defined by viewing a non-European society in terms of how close its experiences were to that of Western Europe: did it have a “Renaissance,” did it have a religious “Reformation” that went beyond medieval theological-institutional formulations, did it have an “Enlightenment,” or an “Industrial Revolution”?

In recent years, the concept of “multiple modernities” has been developed by scholars like S. N. Eisenstadt. This conceptualization recognizes the broad range of ways that socio-cultural identities can be both distinctive and “modern.” Societies in the era from 1300-1900 reflect a similar duality of sharing a common experience of major changes as a result of increasingly intense networks of hemispheric and global interactions and, at the same time, developing distinctive responses to those new conditions. The major city-based societies of the era were strong and dynamic, not declining and failing. For example, China under the Qing dynasty in the 17th/18th centuries reached its largest territorial expansion in Chinese history.

In the Muslim world, the era from 1300-1500 was a time of major expansion of the number of believers and of important Muslim political systems. The result was that by the 16th century, the world of Islam was virtually twice the size that it had been in the era of the “Golden Age” of the Caliphs (7th-10th centuries CE). Political power was expressed in dynamically expansive states ranging from the Songhay state in West Africa through the great imperial sultanates of the Ottomans, Mughals, and Safavids and the entrepreneurial amirs and sultans of South East Asia.

The LDP ignores these developments and gives a misleading sense of centrality to Western European experience. This means that not only is the history of Muslim societies distorted but also the history of Western Europe is clearly misunderstood. It means, to note a very specific example, that the history of the Industrial Revolution ignores very important elements: if, as many scholars think, the development of the cotton industry in Lancashire is important in the Industrial Revolution, it is a distortion of understanding that development to ignore the role of imported cotton cloth from India (which dominated the global market in cotton cloth at the beginning of the 18th century) as an incentive to create local British cotton cloth production.

The LDP, in other words, provides an extremely misleading narrative for understanding world history in 1300-1900, for understanding the history of Muslim regions in that era, and even for understanding the history of Western Europe.

Voll, John Obert, “Islam as a Community of Discourse and a World System,” in The Sage Handbook of Islamic Studies, ed. Akbar Ahmed and Tamara Sonn. London: Sage, 2010. (Download pdf here)



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