I am of course biased by the chronologies and geographies of my own research, but I believe that one of the keys to taking the history of global modernity in a new and more meaningful direction lies in tackling much more systematically the question of the “early modern” in the narrative of world history. Here I should begin by saying that I am in general sympathetic to the aims of post-colonial studies, and in particular to the project of “Provincializing Europe”—a project dedicated to the idea that ‘modernity’ as such is an all-encompassing and variegated phenomenon that transcends the historical experience of the West. One problem I have with this approach, however, is that in their enthusiasm to demonstrate the modernity of the non-Western world, post-colonial historians have become extremely limited in their chronological perspective, rarely if ever venturing back earlier in time than the nineteenth century—when the Enlightenment, the industrial revolution, international capitalism, and European imperialism are considered to have created the conditions necessary for a truly universal modernity.
I believe this fixation on the nineteenth and twentieth centuries is a serious limitation, because it leaves unexplored the question of if, how, and to what extent the world was already on a path towards a shared experience of modernity during the centuries before the final establishment of global Western hegemony. I am firmly convinced that it is through the study of this earlier period (roughly 1350-1750) that we have the best chance of radically reconceptualizing the narrative of world history. But to do so requires that scholars who study the Ottoman Empire, or the Mughal Empire, or for that matter the Spanish Empire or the Kingdom of Monomotapa, must all start to think of themselves as “early modernists” rather than simply “Ottomanists,” “Iberianists,” and so on—and to really think hard about what this means in comparative, world-historical terms.