Stephen Dale

Dale, Stephen Frederic, "A Safavid Poet in the Heart of Darkness: The Indian Poems of Ashraf Mazandarani," Iranian Studies 36:2, June 2003. (Download pdf here)


If I knew what global modernity meant, I might be better able to say. However, if it means, as I think it does, various aspects of European civilization in the so-called early modern era and later that contributed to European economic and military dominance, I would have to say that these empires made no significant contributions, except that trade with these states employed a lot of Europeans and helped to make some of them very, very wealthy. However it is a mistake to believe that Eurasian trade was a novelty in the age of European maritime expansion. Recent interest in the so-called Silk Road has demonstrated the degree to which commerce flourished between major civilizations and over long distances in the early Common Era, if not eearlier. Certainly in the Ottoman case European culture had a major influence on a small section of Ottoman culture, politics and military affairs. But did the Ottomans, Safavids of Mughal initiate or preside over changes that are associated with “modernity,” whatever that is, I don’t think so. Of course, these empires did build stunningly beautiful monumental structures, patronize lovely art, including calligraphy, and crafts, and encourage some memorable poetry, all of which testified to their wealth and cultural sophistication. But then these achievements do not distinguish them from many ancient empires.


4. I think the history of these empires should be approached by focusing on first, the political and cultural traditions of the founders, their goal in founding their states, the beneficiaries of the conquest, the economic bases of the regime, the religious and intellectual ethos of the population etc. Above all it should be recognized that empires are not charitable or social welfare institutions. They existed, as did European empires, to perpetuate dynasties and profit dominant groups in the population. In any event, if historians in writing about these states are constantly measuring every development by European criteria, they are wasting their time. Let us first understand the goals of members of these dynasties, their principal supporters and the mentalite, as far as it can be determined, of the broader population.


I do not know what “global modernity” means, although I believe it is a Eurocentric concept. I do not think it is a good idea to try to re-conceptualize the history of these empires by focusing on what I assume to be developments which first occurred in Europe, such as industrial capitalism, rise of experimental science, secular education and even nationalism.


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.


This is a paradigm, which is principally associated with the historiography of the Ottoman Empire. For a long period it seemed to be a preoccupation of Ottoman historians. Scholars who specialize in the study of other empires, Muslim or non-Muslim have always, been interested in such questions, but not to the extent that it concerns or has concerned Ottoman specialists. Safavid historians study an empire that was never as powerful as the Ottomans or as wealthy as the Mughals. In the Iranian case scholars have been more preoccupied with the survival of a fragile, impoverished state and perhaps even more so with the themes of Iranian identity and the rise of Shi‘i Islam, which becomes associated with Iranian identity. Mughal or Timurid-Mughal historians have also been preoccupied with other issues such as Hindu-Muslim relations and the colonial occupation of the subcontinent in the waning days of the Empire.

If one wishes to discuss this paradigm, it is important to emphasize that both golden age and decline can both be discussed from different perspectives: the attitude of rulers, the perception of an empire’s intellectuals, scholars or bureaucrats or religious scholars or the later interpretation of twenty-first century historians. If one wants to return to the traditional question of golden ages and decline then at least it is important to be precise about the criteria of the debate and the identity and perspective of those who discuss it. The idea of Golden Ages has different meaning for different individuals or classes.

One of the striking omissions in the discussion of imperial rise and decline has been the failure to engage the single indigenous Middle Eastern/Islamic model of the rise and fall of states, albeit tribal ones. This is Ibn Khaldun’s famous dialectical theory, which he advances in the Muqaddimah, which, while, like most models, it does not exactly fit the case of any of the so-called early modern Muslim empires, it still raises fundamental questions about the political, social and psychological changes that occurs in any state over the course of its existence. Some Ottoman historians worried about the implications of Ibn Khaldun’s cyclical model for the Ottoman Empire, but most modern historians have ignored Ibn Khaldun’s social, political and psychological insights about the cycles of dynasties. If we are to focus on the question of the rise and fall of empires, why not begin with Ibn Khaldun’s model.

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