Jerry H. Bentley
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.