| Introductory Essay from Cemil Aydin

Introductory Essay from Cemil Aydin


Goals of NEH Project on the Golden Age and Decline

Through the partnership between George Mason University and the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, this NEH- sponsored scholarly forum and program development workshop aims to reshape dominant thinking about the impact of Muslim societies in the formation of modern world, with focus on political, cultural, artistic, economic and social achievements between 1300 and 1900, an era still commonly described by the words “decline” and “stagnation” in popular culture. By illuminating recent scholarship on the dynamic legacy of this period, our program aims to document and disseminate various alternatives to the narrative of the golden age and decline that scholars have long discredited, but which continues to color public knowledge and discourse on non-Western civilizations and world history. This gap between scholarly and public knowledge essentially relegates six hundred years of recent history in a large world region to insignificance and irrelevance in the emergence of the modern era.

Scholarly research on the post-1300 history of Muslim societies during the last four decades points toward an alternative narrative, and stimulates a necessary revision to social science literature on global modernity and tradition, universalism and cosmopolitanism. Moreover, the new scholarship necessitates a more complex understanding of the encounter between the imagined geography of the West and Muslim societies during the past seven centuries.

It is true that the paradigm of the golden ages of non-Western societies has made inroads against public perceptions of autonomous Western development of modern science and technology during the past few decades. Western audiences—some for the first time—are being exposed to the historical contributions of non-Western societies, including those of Muslims. Knowledge of Muslim advances in algebra, astronomy and medical studies and their transmission to European scientific communities—known to scholars for two centuries—have recently become more widely known. These achievements, however, are still viewed as products of a distant Muslim golden age that ended with the decline of thought and invention, giving way to Europe’s Renaissance and subsequent global dominance. The perception is widespread, that the pathways across the eastern hemisphere which bore these contributions ceased to carry any new ideas in that direction as soon as Europeans encircled the globe in the sixteenth century. In short, while awareness of Muslim achievements in science before the 13th century may increase respect for this Muslim heritage, it creates a dichotomy between “good” Muslims of the golden age and the “degenerate” Muslims of the past six centuries—who are seen as resistant to modernizing influences and even to the use of reason.

The narrative of European dominance has made it seem as though the long period in which Europe received goods, technologies and ideas came to an abrupt end around 1300, after which Europeans reversed the flow of influence in every area. Such views were colored by the hindsight of commanding European economic, military, and political dominance, and the tremendous and highly visible effects of western artistic and other cultural influences in the late 19th century.

Overcoming the “Othering” of Muslims

The encounter between European and Muslim societies was a complex and contradictory process. On one hand, scholarly study of Islam and Muslim history has increased and deepened during the past two centuries, from the study of classical languages such as Arabic, Persian and Urdu, to examination of manuscripts and archives, study of the arts and archaeological finds, and the subsequent creation of academic departments devoted to the study of Muslim regions and cultures. On the other hand, Eurocentric narratives about the world and its varied cultures distorted the perception of non-Western societies after the encounter with Europeans, creating the view that Western civilization was the sole source of positive globalizing and modernizing influence.

Perhaps the most damaging form of “othering” was that the contemporary Muslim societies which Europeans encountered on their commercial voyages and later ruled as colonies were decadent and stagnant. However vibrant and productive the ancient and medieval past of those lands might have been, Europeans were certain that they were no longer so, and many indigenous scholars came to share this view. Terms such as “backward” were commonly applied to rulers and commoners alike throughout the colonial period, as shorthand for the gap between the self-perception of the colonizer and his or her perception of what the colonized society was supposed to become. This trope of decline became one of the most significant themes of dehumanizing the Muslims, because a society with six centuries of stagnation and decline is a society without a contemporary history. This ahistoricity of Muslim societies placed them in historical limbo, outside the emerging modern world, and portrayed them as resistant to the point of exhibiting reactionary behavior with regard to novel ideas.

It behooves us to ask why colonial era discourses on declined and stagnant Muslims (as the Other of a rational and dynamic West) somehow survived a century-long period through the process of decolonization, nationalism and Cold War. These widespread misperceptions of Muslims persist somewhat unconsciously (in addition to being promoted very consciously by active political groups), exerting influence on attitudes alongside the admitted lack of knowledge about Islam and Muslims among members of the public. Together, they illustrate the obstacles to “humanizing” Muslims and understanding their societies in the minds of Americans. Nor are these perceptions innocuous or confined to an optional area of life where ideas about cultures are mere niceties. To the contrary, such attitudes affect public opinion on justifications for war, and policies toward those with whom the nation is at war. They affect attitudes toward immigrants and citizens of different backgrounds, as well as neighbors who follow different habits of dress, customs of social interaction and worship.(1)

What to do with the Empires?

Our project’s focus on the period after 1300 will necessarily require re-consideration of the history of three major regional empires, namely the Ottomans, Safavids and Mughals, which ruled large Muslim and non-Muslim populations from Eastern Europe, Anatolia and Iran to India and Central Asia. The military and administrative achievements of these empires challenge the notion of a decline, yet the decline paradigm has produced a different set of assumptions to deal with its contradictions. Perceptions of Ottoman rule in Eastern Europe were dominated by the notion of a military threat of Islam toward Europe, reinforcing the legend of eternal conflict between Islam and the West.

On the other hand, respect for the Ottoman, Safavid and Mughal Empires has played a part in the nationalist historiographies of Turkey, Iran and South Asia (with varying interpretations in Indian and Pakistani versions). Meanwhile, Arab nationalist and Islamist visions of history have often taken a negative view of the three empires as a deviation from the normative evolution of Islamic history, or as aberrations in the post-Mongolian gunpowder era that were themselves responsible for the “decline” of “Islamic civilization”.

Understanding these empires is central because of their long period of deep influence upon their societies, which extended into surrounding regions. These three empires were affected by global developments of trade and state building, and they impacted global events on political, military, intellectual, religious, artistic and commercial levels. Despite their longevity, a simplistic view of these empires has translated into a caricature in the realm of public knowledge, even supplying many of the common motifs used in advertising and popular entertainment. In contrast, there is little awareness of the vibrant economic and social life that took place beyond the palace walls, whose products and styles became part and parcel of international trade and worldwide consumption patterns. Even in the political realm, the influence of these empires in law and governance has been ignored or denigrated, despite the extensive influence they exercised in colonial administration and in European political thought.

Our focus in this forum on the Ottoman, Safavid and Mughal empires should allow us to discuss questions of Muslim cosmopolitanism and universalism during this period and their impact on the formation of modern ideas of cosmopolitan universalism. The workshop should provide avenues for relating the findings of scholarship to the fabric of modern global culture.

Main Questions of the Forum and Workshop

The forum and workshop will highlight scholarly findings on the issue of the golden age and decline model, but this is not a conference on esoteric theories of history. To the contrary, the scholars were selected for their vibrant work in the fields of Ottoman, Mughal, and Safavid studies, which will bring to light the contributions and lasting influences of these regional societies. Other scholars have been selected for their experience in placing these advances in research within a world historical framework. Numerous scholars have produced impressive new research results that challenge old conventions and reveal new insights. The forum will address three missing elements:

(1) There has been insufficient dialogue among scholars of the Ottoman, Safavid and Mughal empires, and world historians.

(2) Their new insights have not been sufficiently incorporated into the social science literature, which still theorizes based on the experience of a narrow geographic and cultural subset of humanity that mostly resides in Western Europe and America.

(3) Although the golden age/decline paradigm has been challenged by many eminent scholars, there has not emerged a dominant framework that offers an alternative, broader narrative about the transformation of Muslim societies in relation to the narratives of European history and world history.

The practitioners who will attend the forum and participate in the workshop were selected for their knowledge and experience in developing and implementing public programs across the spectrum of the humanities, civic life and education. Their role will be to develop programs to help bridge these gaps. We see the metaphor of “bridging” as meaningful in multiple contexts.

1. Bridging Academic Scholarship and Public Knowledge

We do realize that none of our colleagues seriously argues the thesis of golden age and decline. With so many important research publications during the last half century, our scholarship is already in the post-decline paradigm period. The scholars of Muslim societies have advanced to the higher stage of offering a new framework of interpretation to rewrite the world historical importance of the human experience in predominantly Muslim societies in the last seven hundred years. Yet, general public discourse on Muslim societies is still dominated by golden age and decline paradigm, as well as all the associated narratives of a modern west versus a hidebound, traditional Muslim world. Why is there such a gap between scholarly wisdom and public discourse on the history of Muslim societies? If scholars working in the humanities have already challenged the “modern west and traditional muslims” paradigm in all of its core arguments, why does it survive as a powerful myth in public discourse?

One of several reasons is perhaps the over-politicization of public knowledge about Muslim societies in the past few decades, which has spread distorted representations of Muslim history and the Islamic faith tradition in the public arena. This has ironically occurred just as the number of experts, good quality books and even good journalism has grown. If we mark the publication of Edward Said’s Orientalism as a turning point in our field, we can look back and note the tremendous achievements of scholarly inquiry during the period since 1978. In many ways, Edward Said’s intervention reflected the broader trend in humanities and social sciences toward overcoming many Eurocentric assumptions that colored study of Muslim societies. Thus, it is not surprising to recognize that key arguments of Said’s book have been well received in academia, so that we can consider our current academic culture as post-Eurocentric. Yet from the moment when Orientalism was published, to the present day, geopolitical developments in the Middle East and the broader Muslim region of the world helped to popularize essentialist notions of Islam, Muslim-ness and the East-West relationship that our post-Eurocentric scholarship has already overcome. A series of events, from the Iranian Revolution in 1979 to September 11, 2001, seemed to provide new evidence to those who utilized the Islam-versus-the-West narrative to explain modern world politics. While the overwhelming majority of the papers presented at the Middle East Studies Association (MESA), American Academy of Religion (AAR) or other professional meetings have consistently demonstrated the obsolescence of a civilizational approach to the relationship between Muslim societies, Europe, and North America, many journalists, politicians, and media commentators continued to popularize these discredited notions of an eternal and inevitable conflict between a modern West and a Muslim world resistant to modernization. This growing chasm between the scholarly communities and larger public becomes more visible each time a controversy erupts in the media, whether the Danish cartoons or the Park 51 Community Center.

The lag between the sophistication and development of scholarly knowledge on Muslim societies in American universities on one hand and the increasingly “uncivil” nature of public discourse on Islam and Muslims on the other hand is in itself worth serious reflection. We hope that our NEH forum and workshop will allow further reflection on this crucial topic, and result in efforts to overcome the gap. Our goal is also to identify specific public programs that can bridge this gap.

2. Bridging Area Studies and the Social Sciences

As historians of diverse Muslim societies extending from Eastern Europe to China, we are concerned with the way our research has been relegated to marginality in comparison with the dominant Eurocentric narratives of world history. We have been offering a better understanding of history for our specific regions, societies or cultural traditions, and in many ways, we have achieved important revisions in the way our current generations of students and readers perceive the human past. The rise of the scholarship and teaching of World History in North American universities and abroad in the last three decades is a major collective achievement. Overcoming the strong tradition of Eurocentrism in the social sciences seems to be taking longer, however, since the foundations of modern social sciences still rely on knowledge about a limited segment of the human community, mostly those of European descent. From Durkheim and Weber to Habermas and Foucault, scholars of the most influential social science theories privileged information and knowledge about the experiences of human beings in Europe or North America. We are still dealing with the legacies of these foundational texts in our understanding of tradition, modernity, individualism, rights, and political values.

Procedurally, there is a need for vigorous conversation between historians and other social scientists working in various disciplines. It is time for our colleagues in law, sociology and political science to incorporate the rich repertoire of knowledge about non-Western societies into their disciplines, and to formulate new theoretical understandings of key issues such as modernity, tradition, ethics, secularism, tolerance, political participation, individualism, literary theory and so on. In our efforts to better integrate our research and teaching into the revisions of Eurocentric world history and social science, we are no different from our colleagues in fields of Chinese, Indian or African history. Yet historians of Muslim societies do have a set of peculiar problems and issues, and many political factors complicate their scholarly mission and public outreach duties. We can use this forum as an opportunity to reflect on the relationship between our scholarship and social science theory.

Moreover, we should ask if there is a connection between the marginality of Muslim societies’ experience in social science theories on modernity, and the reproduction of essentialist discourses on Muslims in the public sphere. In our teaching, we may be able to provide a complex, sophisticated and humanized view of Muslim societies. Yet our students are still exposed to highly essentialized notions of Muslim societies in their social science courses, ranging from political science to sociology, international affairs and psychology. For example, despite the exciting debate on the nature of modernity in the social sciences in the last several decades, we are still far behind what Sudipta Kaviraj calls a new “synthetic theory of modernity” that takes the experience of Muslim societies (as well as Chinese and South Asian societies) into serious consideration and equal status with European societies. We will have a chance to reflect on this gap between expanding knowledge in area studies on Muslim societies and conventional social science literature during our gathering. We also hope to explore its implications and explore ideas for its remediation through public programs in our workshop session.

3. Bridging Multiple Publics

Although the US academic and public arenas are important in shaping our scholarship and teaching, they are not the sole influence on our intellectual life. Most of us are involved in public debates taking place in Muslim societies and other parts of the world, and our research audience is not limited to North American nor English-language readers. We face a different set of historical debates in countries such as Turkey, Iran, Egypt, India or Pakistan, each with different perspectives and sensibilities on world affairs and globalization.

If “overcoming Eurocentrism” was a theme that animated some of the best scholarship on the history of Muslim societies in North American academia, the ideal of rescuing history from the nation, nationalism and the civilizational paradigm characterizes some of the most exciting work in our fields, especially for the various national public spheres. Recent key contributions to Ottoman, Safavid, Mughal (as well as Chinese) imperial histories emerged thanks to this conscious attention to reading the sources free from limitations imposed by post-colonial, nationalist lenses.

Revising world history narratives to give more weight and importance to the experiences of Chinese, Indians, Black Africans or Muslims, has actually been an established and officially sanctioned trend in nationalist public spheres. This does not mean that post-colonial societies already overcame Eurocentrism in the social sciences, although they did revise Eurocentric historical narratives. Rather, some established Islamo-Euro-Centric, Turco-Euro-Centric, or Sino-Euro-centric narratives of world history. Moreover, different publics in non-Western societies upheld Orientalist paradigms of Islam versus the West, or China versus the West, for very different reasons and purposes. A publication by a historian of the Mughal Empire, for example, may need to challenge both the dominant public knowledge in North America and that prevailing in India at the same time. In some ways, we are often expected to be public intellectuals in multiple contexts at the same time.(2) It is in this context that most of our colleagues find the new framework of “connected histories” a useful approach as it challenges the civilizational approach embedded in both Orientalist and post-colonial nationalist narratives. For many of us, the well-intentioned emphasis on “Muslim civilization’s contributions to Western civilization” is a symbol of this civilizational thinking, as it reproduces the dichotomy of Islamic versus Western civilization. We could tell the story of scientific, cultural and economic interactions and exchanges among different communities in Afro-Eurasia without referring to any civilizational units. In short, the recent interest in writing connected histories of diverse populations in Afro-Eurasia seem to be reflecting our desire to bridge the historical sensibilities and questions in multiple public spheres.

The paradigm of connected histories may not only bridge the historiographic debates in different public spheres, it may also offer a healthy corrective to civilizational thinking that dominates global history writing on Muslim societies. Earlier scholarship on the history of Muslim societies relied on a civilizational perspective that was always as crucial as the nationalist one. Although the impact of nationalist thought on the historical consciousness of modern Muslims is undeniable, several key themes and concepts of modern Muslim historical identity and memory were formed from the 1860s to the 1920s, an age of European empires and anti-colonial universalism. In conversation with Orientalist views of Islamic history, Enlightenment thought, and contemporary European intellectual currents such as social Darwinism, a network of Muslim intellectuals created new notions of an Islamic golden age, decline and the hope of modern revival. The notion that an Islamic golden age flourished between the 9th and 12th centuries, associated with the legend of Andalus, and the flowering of philosophy and science is now ubiquitous in all kinds of identity discourses. For many modern Muslims, this notion of a “golden age of Islamic civilization” has almost become a pillar of cultural identity. Many contemporary Muslims reproduce the notion of their decline and so contribute to their own dehumanization by replicating an ahistorical image of Islam and the West. In that sense, our critical scholarship on Muslim societies in the post-Golden age period will be very crucial for the post-colonial and civilizationist identity of Muslim societies. We hope that our scholarly forum will allow us to discuss alternatives to the golden age/decline paradigm, while examining the reasons for its persistence in contemporary Muslim public culture.


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