As a world historian who is also a historian of the modern Middle East, I confront the Golden Age paradigm (and its reciprocal, the Rise of the West paradigm) continually. Only by continually applying a world historical perspective (that is by inserting the history of both the lands of Islam and the so-called West in all of human history) can we correct for the in-built biases these paradigms convey.
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 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.
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.
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.
A central goal of my work is to try to get away from the idea that history is a zero sum game, or in other words, the idea that the Rise of the West necessarily implies the decline of everyone else.
To this end, the particular focus of my research is the history of Ottoman expansion in the Indian Ocean during the sixteenth century—a period of history that corresponds with the European ‘Age of Exploration.’ In most of the existing literature on this subject, the Ottomans are depicted as being somehow part of a pre-existing “Islamic civilization” of maritime Asia, and therefore as victims of the Portuguese, who used superior Western forms of technology, ideology, and economic organization to displace the Ottomans and establish the first European seaborne empire. Instead, what I tried to show is that the Ottomans did not become involved in the Indian Ocean until after the Portuguese were already there, and that in fact the Portuguese presence in maritime Asia was a necessary precondition for this involvement.
The process, as I see it, worked something like this: Before the sixteenth century, the Indian Ocean region was unified commercially but fragmented politically, crisscrossed by long-distance trade routes dominated by Muslim merchants but without any single political power—Muslim or otherwise—that claimed political authority over the sea per se. This, however, changed radically with the arrival of the Portuguese, who injected a new kind of politics into the Indian Ocean by making unprecedented claims to being “lords of the navigation and commerce” of all of maritime Asia. And crucially, the way that the Portuguese enforced these claims was by using their heavily armed ships to prevent Muslim merchants from traveling freely between the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea, meaning that for the first time in history a non-Muslim maritime power was actively devoted to blocking Muslim access to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina.
Shortly thereafter, the Ottomans conquered Egypt and gained their own foothold in the Indian Ocean region for the first time. In the process, they also became associated with the twin titles of “Caliph” and “Protector of the Holy Cities”— two titles that had previously been almost empty of political connotations, but which many Indian Ocean Muslims now increasingly saw as bearing a sovereign responsibility to keep the trade and pilgrimage routes between the Red Sea with the rest of maritime Asia open and safe./ In this way, the arrival of the Portuguese in the Indian Ocean presented the Ottomans with both a daunting challenge and an unprecedented opportunity: On the one hand, as “Caliph” and “Protector of the Holy Cities” the Ottoman sultan was now responsible for the safety of Muslim merchants and pilgrims throughout the Indian Ocean, meaning that his legitimacy could be undermined by Portuguese depredations even if they took place in areas thousands of miles beyond the physical borders of his empire. On the other hand, if the sultan could in fact provide these merchants and pilgrims with some measure of protection, then in return he could expect to be recognized by them as a transcendent “universal sovereign,” deserving of some measure of loyalty and obedience from Muslims throughout maritime Asia, regardless of whether or not they actually lived within the borders of the Ottoman empire.
The bulk of my recently and mercifully completed book, The Ottoman Age of Exploration, is dedicated to documenting the various ways in which the Ottomans took up this challenge. As I tried to show, over the course of the sixteenth century the Ottomans developed an increasingly sophisticated combination of strategies to confront the Portuguese and protect the interests of Indian Ocean Muslims. By the second half of the century, these strategies had proven so successful that the Portuguese had lifted their anti-Muslim blockade, the volume of trade through the Red Sea and Persian Gulf outstripped the rival Portuguese trade around the Cape of Good Hope, and the Ottoman sultan’s name was read in the khutba of congregational mosques in communities as remote from one another and from the Ottoman capital as Calicut, Sumatra, and the Maldives./ The essential point to all of this, however, is not simply that the Ottomans were ‘successful,’ but rather that their success was predicated on a productively adversarial relationship with the Portuguese. Had the Portuguese not introduced a new kind of politics in the Indian Ocean, and provided a foil against which the Ottomans could develop their own ideological, diplomatic and political response, it would have been inconceivable for the Ottomans to become so deeply and extensively involved in maritime Asia—and in so many innovative and unprecedented ways—as in fact they did. And indeed, once the Portuguese threat to Muslim shipping was removed—in large measure because of the Ottomans’ own actions—the Ottomans themselves were unable to maintain their imperial presence in the Indian Ocean.
All of this suggests at least one way to begin re-conceptualizing the history of global modernity: rather than seeing it as something to which the non-Western world is simply subjected to (and expected either to resist or to succumb), modernity can instead be understood as an interactive process, as the product of a series of dialectical relationships between different and competing state systems, ideologies, technologies, cultural formations, economies and geographies that are inexorably drawn into ever closer and more productive dialogue with one another. From this perspective, rather than presenting the Portuguese as harbingers of modernity and the Ottomans as its victims (or vice versa), we can instead find the most important engine of modernity in the locus of interaction between the two.
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).
2. My own work does not focus on this issue, although I discuss it in my recent
book on Muslim Empires. First, since all three empires, Ottoman, Safavid and Mughal, had rulers who brought their states to new heights of territorial control, wealth and cultural florescence it is a natural subject to discuss. These rulers were, respectively: Suleyman the Magnificent, Shah ‘Abbas I and Shah Jahan. Whatever later historians think of these rulers, they and or their historians often had high opinions of their rule. As indicated above, the critical issue is the identity and perspective of the person who conceives of golden ages. Decline is a different matter, but since all three empires disappeared, it is natural to ask why and to look for both internal and external measures of decline, such as decline of personal dynamism, loss of territory, economic malaise, cultural decay and relative loss of power relative to internal groups or other states.
My work has challenged this paradigm in the following ways. Generally speaking, I have tried to look for 17th and 18th century sources for developments in the 19th century. Thus not all modern developments were attributable to European influence. On the contrary I find that many important developments had their sources before European penetration.
In my forthcoming publication Artisan Entrepreneurs (Syracuse UP), for instance, I show how in the 17th and especially in the 18th centuries, some guilds (especially those producing export goods) were influenced by international trade conditions and adapted their structures in important ways to meet new challenges. My book, In Praise of Books (Syracuse UP, 2003), focuses on a group of persons, educated but functioning outside the religious establishment, and setting up new norms for writing, some of which were picked up in the 19th century. Finally, my Making Big Money in 1600 (Syracuse UP, 1998) which follows the life of a prominent merchant shows there was a dynamic economy, it had its structures, and it worked.
My work on the African diaspora gives substantial attention to large portions of the Islamic world: portions of sub-Saharan Africa, the Maghrib, the Middle East, South Asia, the Indian Ocean, and Europe. The work raises questions about the movement of numerous people of sub-Saharan African ancestry, in slavery in freedom, throughout the Islamic world. It posits the possibility of substantial cultural continuity and innovation spread by this African diaspora. It raises questions about how and when racialized visions of black people developed (for instance, I suspect that there were links in the rise of racial ideology among Europeans and Middle Easterners, as reflected for instance in the expanding slave army of Mulay Isma’il in Morocco). It speaks to the possible specific roles of African-descended people in the colonial and post-colonial struggles of North Africa and the Middle East.
Secondly, my work on migration suggests that there is much to be learned through systematic study of migrations of various sorts in the Muslim Empires and adjoining areas. I have worked on migration and on regional population estimates for all of Africa back to 1600, and find both that the magnitude of migration has been significant and that the levels of population were quite a bit higher than is now usually thought. I favor more systematic estimates of population in the period 1300-1900 for all areas of the world and—in this context—specifically for the Middle East, Central Asia, South and Southeast Asia.