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The Legacy of Muslim Societies in Global Modernity | 4. Panel 2: Re-Framing the Narratives of Muslim Societies in World History Literature
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4. Panel 2: Re-Framing the Narratives of Muslim Societies in World History Literature

Edmund Burke, III, University of California, Berkeley

John Voll, Georgetown University

Jerry Bentley, University of Hawaii, Manoa

Patrick Manning, University of Pittsburgh

Richard Bulliet, Columbia University

Edmund Burke, III Presentation Summary

Is the modern Mediterranean one place with a common history? Or several places, riven by colonialism and culture? Although classical scholars had no problem considering the ancient Mediterranean to be a single historical stage, most scholars of the modern Mediterranean (1450-1914) have tended to view the Inner Sea as a space bifurcated by civilizational forces. With the exception of Fernand Braudel, they held that the Muslim Mediterranean was fated to remain traditional. Despite the findings of the New World History, this myth has continued to shape popular understanding of the lands of Islam. Historians of the Middle East and Islam have been developing a number of strategies to question this approach.

For Edmund Burke III, rethinking the history of the post-1450 Mediterranean begins with locating it in its world historical perspective. [See his article here] In this lecture he deploys three strategies. First, he argues that viewed from East Asia the Mediterranean is a single world space, marked by the legacy of monotheism, Greek Thought, and the heritage of ancient empires. Greek Thought provoked continuous debate within Islam over the role of reason and revelation just as it did within Judaism and Christianity. All three faiths were riven by debate over the limits of prophetic monotheism and the state. And all were durably marked by the legacy of Roman law.

In the early modern period (1450-1750) Burke argues that the Mediterranean region was structured by the same world historical forces, to which its societies responded in largely similar ways. These forces profoundly undermined the capacity of the region to preserve its centrality. While Europe, China and India grew demographically by leaps and bounds in this period, the population of the Mediterranean stagnated. This was due to long-term processes of change (the irreversible decline of ancient agriculture), the persistence of epidemic disease, and climate changes that accompanied the Little Ice Age. In this period the emergence of new systems of economic exchange centered upon the Indian Ocean and (somewhat later) the Atlantic rendered the Mediterranean region increasingly semi-peripheral to the emerging world economy.

In response to the challenge, Mediterranean witnessed the emergence of the Spanish and Ottoman empires alongside smaller states and principalities across the region c. 1500. But continual warfare between the Spanish and Ottoman empires along with its smaller population and weakened economic base had by the end of the century undermined its ability to respond to the emerging states of northwestern Europe. By placing the Mediterranean in a world historical framework Burke argues, we can see the region’s problems were general, a mix of global environmental, political and economic changes. Not only the lands of Islam became underdeveloped. Thus it was that on the eve of modernity (c. 1750), the Mediterranean was plagued by weak state structures, delayed or muffled class formation, agrarian backwardness and the persistence of pastoralism.

Burke locates the onset of modernity in the region over the long nineteenth century (1750-1914) in a regional and global context. In response to its shared problems, he observes that Mediterranean states pursued similar strategies of modernization. Thus both the Iberians and the Ottomans adopted French political and economic reforms and both sought to impose them upon their subject populations. The diffusion of new progress-oriented ideas fueled by the industrial revolution and the French revolution set off internal struggles across the whole region. Everywhere reform-minded elites clashed with the defenders of the old order, and religious authorities, military and bureaucratic elites were all forced to take sides. Radical political ideas, both Left (anarchism) and Right (religious revivalism and neo-traditionalism), vied for influence over elites and non-elites. The debates over the Ottoman tanzimat were in this context just one instance of the larger struggle over French liberal reforms within the region. By 1914, when the historical music changed drastically, Mediterranean liberal elites shared common lifestyles and assumptions about the future, even as nationalism increasingly divided them.

How this context should we understand the coming of colonialism? Burke begins by pointing out that Northern European elites viewed the Mediterranean through orientalist spectacles, as a space of exoticism and backwardness, the better to carry out projects of modernization that deprived peasants and artisans of voice in debating their futures. Settler colonialism was thus but one instance of this broader trend. In conclusion, Burke suggests that a world historical approach to the transformation of the Muslim Mediterranean can provide a real alternative to the familiar civilizational framework.

John Voll Presentation Summary

Prof. Voll’s approach in this presentation differs from the holistic approach. He started with identifying two questions that should not need to be dealt with. In looking at the golden age & decline narrative as it shaped the historiography of the period from 1300-1900, the most popular question is “What Went Wrong”—not a very profitable question, since the answer is “Nothing went wrong.” Rather, what took place was a broad movement of global historical change which has very unproductively been identified as something “going wrong” for Muslims. One might just as easily ask the question, “What went wrong with Roman polytheism?” in which the classical world converted to an eastern religion.

The second question relates to whether or not the tensions of this period reflect a “Clash of Civilizations”? It may be useful to have a concept of civilization as a piece of territory on a map; up to about the 15th century “empire” is also a useful historical concept, as a politically independent, discrete territory with a distinctive culture. “Civilizations, in contrast, are not separate culturally independent entities interacting like billiard balls or fighting wars of conquest. Empires and states fight wars, civilizations do not. Voll proposed that civilizations cease to be viable analytical constructs because of their increasingly intensive interactions in the era from 1300-1900.

In contrast, Voll stated that the two questions to think about are: (1) Where does the era 1300-1900 fit into world history, and (2) Where does the Islamic world fit into this world-historical era 1300-1900. Voll then surveyed world history from the emergence of homo sapiens to the present in 3-4 minutes to describe how this period fits into the larger pattern of world history. Taking as a narrative theme, that human beings in groups live in distinctive lifestyles, there have been four distinctive human lifestyles. Hunting and gathering, farming and herding( at first in small-scale agricultural communities). Then, large-scale urban-agricultural societes developed as cities became major centers of human life. The fourth lifestyle is modern industrial society. Throughout history, humans living in these lifes styles have interacted, with the gathering-hunting and small scale agricultural societies gradually being absorbed by the large urban-agricultural societies.

In our period of 1300-1900, all of the groups were there (with modern industrial societies emerging in the final century), but they were undergoing change. For Muslims in this pattern, there were many pastoral and peasant communities. The most visible players were the really big agricultural communities, namely the Safavid, Ottoman, Mughal empires, as well as Aceh in Southeast Asia, and Songhay in W. Africa. One of the important dynamics of the period was that small-scale nomadic societies no longer had the ability to gain control over large-scale agricultural communities. Using the problematic terminology of “early modern,” this period was characterized by a distinctive mode emerging in which large-scale urban agricultural societies were becoming involved in developing new modes of economic, political, and social institutions.. Coffeehouses as an institution illustrate the impact of this trend. From Ethiopia to Java, coffee drinking transformed the Javanese economy—a matter unrelated to its status regarding Islam. The consumption revolution in coffee, tea, sugar, and potatoes meant that the common life of people had many similar things in common, and popular culture began to involve many new kinds of linkages both outside of and within the structures of the historic empires. This period involved a distinctive mode or phase in the history of large-scale urban agricultural societies. They became increasingly globalized, commodified, and linked in new ways and in new global spaces.

The period was also quite distinctive in religious history. In the broad span of religious traditions within the worldviews developed in the axial period, Islam emerged within the axial traditions that defined the traditions in monotheistic terms. Axial religions went through phases—a prophetic/imaginary (initial) phase, a conversion and expansion phase, a phase of consolidation and definition of orthodoxies, in which neo-axialisms emerged as authoritative and comprehensive articulations of the traditions. Examples are Neo-Confucianism, the reassertion of neo-monotheism by al-Ghazali and Maimonides, and the consolidation of Thomas Acquinas. During the 1300-1900 era, there were many responses to the neo-axialisms, like the Protestant Reformation or renewal movements in a number of societies. Such figures, like Martin Luther or Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab,, were neither medieval nor modern.

This 1300-1900 period fits into world history as a distinctive time at the end of large-scale urban agricultural societies and at the beginning of modern industrial societies. The Muslim regions were a very important part of this period, a region that reflected commodification, religious change, and the use of gunpowder. The answers to the two questions of how does the period fit into world history and how does Islamic history fit into the history of the period help to confirm that questions about “what went wrong” or “clash of civilizations are not relevant to the task of understanding the dynamics of world history in 1300-1900.

Jerry Bentley Presentation Summary

Prof. Bentley noted that the previous two panelists expressed very interesting takes on the forum questions, complementing each other, but he would take on the problem from a different path. Prof. Bentley based his talk on the experience of China as a field of study that has had to extricate itself from a similar narrative. He traced how understanding of China has been transformed over the past generation or so, through such comparative historical “games,” and suggested that understanding the success of that undertaking may be useful to pursuit of a similar project in the case of Islam. As for the second question, Bentley would attempt to sketch an answer toward re-framing the questions.

He noted that some of the groundwork for re-framing is in place, but it takes a lot of groundwork to persuasively re-frame the field out of the assumptions having to do with “modernity.” In doing that for Chinese history, a destructive phase, a phase of myth-busting was necessary, in which the grand assumptions—many Weberian—had to be discarded, in order to clear the ground for more constructive approaches.

Myth-busting in the case of China meant debunking the notions of Oriental despotism, Asiatic mode of production, the ideas that Chinese were incurious, risk-averse, and supposedly hostile to trade. Adam Smith said that the Chinese “hold foreign commerce in the utmost contempt.” This is in the Wealth of Nations. It is remarkable that he could be so wrong, yet it took a generation of empirical scholarship for historians to pull the rug out from under these myths.

On the topic of Islam, there are many received ideas, apart from generalized notions of Oriental despotism, that would benefit from myth-busting. Everyone here knows these points well, but go 50 to 100 yards away from here and it is a different story. One myth is that al-Ghazali made rational thought in Islam impossible, leaving no oxygen for rational thinking. Ahmed Rahim will bust that myth later in this Forum. Another myth is the notion that madrasas didn’t accommodate teaching of science or rational thought—this myth figures prominently in Toby Huff’s book on Intellectual Curiosity and the Scientific Revolution (2010). I’m pretty sure that there is a problem with Huff’s reading of the madrasas. If accurate information on points like these is confined to the group of people in this room, that’s great for us, but not for understanding the Islamic world in the larger society.

Alongside the destructive phase of the project there needs to be a constructive phase involving basic research and the accumulation of empirical information that makes it possible to build better ways of thinking, and eliminates the possibility of such myths’ return. Some straws are already in the wind, such as Stephen Dale’s work on Indian Merchants and Eurasian Trade, where we have an actual example of a family firm—not the EIC or VOC, but active agents conducting trade out in the world, and there were many others, totally undermining the old notion that the magical three empires cared nothing about trade. Dale talks about one merchant living in Moscow who contemplated opening a branch on the Baltic—clearly an impressive organizer with a vision. Another straw in the wind in the way of positive empirical studies is Giancarlo Casale’s great new book on The Ottoman Age of Exploration. Does his work suggest that when we find something akin to European experience it must be the same? No. But we find people utilizing intellectual and technological resources for their own purposes. This becomes a part of a package for thinking about the world in a different way. One further straw in the wind: Jacob Burkhardt thought the development of the individual was the beginning of the Modern Subject and the cause of European modernity. Just this morning Prof. Necipoglu mentioned Sinan’s autobiography and evidence of global thinking and self-conscious creativity, showing that individualism was neither inherently nor temporally unique to Europe.

As to the results of the effort to re-frame Chinese history, the provisional synthesis was Ken Pomeranz’ book The Great Divergence -- probably not the last word, but fascinating for its disciplined analysis of China and Europe in a balanced, comparative way with regard to industrial potential. He finds a world of surprising similarities. It would be nice if we also gave attention to unsurprising differences, and beyond that, to the crucial connections and interactions between them. This kind of approach could enable the re-framing of Muslim societies’ history.

In conclusion, Bentley offered a concept of early modernity that can be useful for purposes of this period. Nelly Hanna’s problems with this phrase are well founded, as are Jack Goldstone’s. He cited his own article on “Early Modern Europe and the Early Modern World” as one characterizing the early modern world as a messy place where several large-scale processes were in play, with different effects in different places. Just because the outcomes were not the same does not mean that they were not part of early modernity. Here we can pick up on John Voll’s perspective and try to understand the Islamic world , Europe, the Americas, China, and elsewhere as part of an era of human history in which there were literally global interactions and processes that touched everyone.

Patrick Manning Presentation Summary

Offering advice on re-framing the period, Prof. Manning referred to his recently published book on the African Diaspora from 1400 to 2000 CE, and how it relates to the process of modernity. His chronology was rather like the second question Voll is answering. There were two periods: 1200-1650 CE, an “era of global interactions,” dominated by the Mongols at the beginning and ending with the mariners encircling the global oceans. Between the 14th and 17th centuries, the total world population may actually have declined due to the black death, while losses of population in the Americas later in that period on were immense. There were some declines in the Old World after the discovery of the Americas.

The second period, 1650-1850 CE might be called the “era of a world system (without a hyphen), drawing on some of Wallersteinan divisions. Increases in trade, including the tremendous growth in slavery. The period ends with the Great Divergence, the time of the uprising in India and the Tanzimat in the Ottoman Empire.

As to the first period, the Mongols established a steppe-based empire and seized expanding wealth being produced in Eurasia. As an interesting link, Manning mentioned the empire of Mali which arose with the gold trade at the same time as the Mongol conquests linked the Silk Roads from China in a hemispheric stretch of trade. In Southeast Asia, Srivijaya came to an end, the sea routes were invaded by Kublai Khan, and the Majpahit dominated for some time in the South China Sea in the eastern reaches of the Indian Ocean. For the period around 1350 CE, the time of the Black Death, research is pouring in on the movement of the Black Death, so that it is now understood that the Middle East, South Asia, and according to scattered research, the Red Sea coast and African savannah were hit by this disease due to the huge amount of interconnection, but its impact adversely affected that interaction.

Manning moved to consider the period 1350-1500 CE, characterized by post-Mongol states, with the Timurids, the Golden Horde in a strong position, the beginning of the Ming dynasty, and the expansion of the Ottoman state. The Safavid state formed, Russia expanded, and the Mughal state formed as well. Prof. Manning conjured the image of Timur and Ibn Khaldun conversing outside the walls of Damascus in 1400 CE.

Moving the timeframe a bit later 1450 -1550 CE, more people were living under the sway of empires than at any time earlier in history. Even the Sultanate of Malacca and Songhay 1400-1590s can be included in this sweep. The rise and collapse of that state was important for Muslim history, but especially significant for African history. This period overlaps with the increase in oceanic exchanges during this period, beginning with the 15th century Chinese voyages, the Malay and Iberian mariners linking the oceans. One aspect of Manning’s framework is to link interconnections on land with those at sea. Contact with the Americas resulted in exploitation of wealth and the region’s drastic population decline. Selecting the date 1571 used by Flynn and Giraldez with respect to the flow of silver from America to Asia completes the circuit and marks the beginning of the global silver trade as the first global currency flow.

Manning drew attention to political events, but noted cultural and spiritual changes included in the global shake-up. Challenges to authority of the Catholic Church, to the Islamic ulama’, to Jewish rabbis provided a global framework in that sphere. Mysticism, arising from the need to contact God directly, was arguably connected to the shake-up in the world, a sense that may have been enhanced by the knowledge of the physical limits of the world. He noted that the religions that expand are Christianity and Islam and no longer the others. The Council of Trent, the Ottomans strengthening their hold on the Hejaz, and assuming leadership in the hajj are significant parallels at this time. Dramatic changes in warfare, remarkable expansions in literacy, elite classes at once created and restrained in their spheres of action. Cultural change took place due to exchanges that bring potatoes and other new food crops and commodities.

The period 1650-1850 CE was one of vast expansion in commerce, with silver as a lubricant of commerce in the world. Growing production in textiles such as cotton and linen, production of ceramics in multiple centers and employing new styles and technologies, and the expansion to new classes of consumers of the luxury trade in spices and coffee, all characterized the period. Accordingly, there was an expanded labor demand, and by the mid-17th century this labor demand was largely filled by means of slavery, not just from Africa, but in the Bay of Bengal and the Ganges Valley. Enslavement expanded in Morocco, when Mulay Ismail enslaved Black Moroccans to form his army, introducing a racial dimension to the slavery as never before. The 17th century was a time in which other major states undertook political reforms, realizing the need to systematize in order to control their societies effectively. The Tokugawa regime and the Qing in China are examples of this tendency. Dutch and English constitutionalism hoped to balance land and commercial elites, while French and Russian attempts to control of aristocrats and merchants represent similar trends, many of which succeeded for a period. Spain and the Ottomans, were less successful examples.

As a final summary, Manning described the effort to craft a narrative with emphasis on the whole Islamic world as a parallel and alternative, rather than as substitution for the old paradigm. The effort to take in the entire Islamic world and integrate it into a whole world view is an approach that relies heavily on chronology.

Richard Bulliet Presentation Summary

 Building upon Terry Burke’s comments, I would like to see the Sahara Desert treated in the same way as he describes the Mediterranean. The Sahara is also a connecting geographic feature, and there was a pulse into the adjacent lands. Looking at the Sahara in a world historical manner, we might use the 25-degree North latitude parallel mentioned earlier as a useful division, which cuts straight through the Sahara.

Secondly, to me the most important topic that has not yet been studied in a world historical context over time is the story of the hajj. There is nothing like it anywhere else in the world—fourteen centuries of devotion, of going to one place at a given time—which has been viewed as a constant. To the contrary, profound changes to the hajj took place at around 1200 CE, around the time of Salahuddin. It is my contention that the hajj replaced the caliphate as a leading concept, especially in the Muslim south. Soraya Faruqi’s book on the Ottomans & the hajj is helpful, in addition to the survey of the hajj by F.E. Peters on the later period. Before 1100 CE, Makkah had a population of about 5000; people came, made hajj and left, since Makkah lacked the capacity to host large crowds. Symbolizing this is the fact that I have not been unable to find anyone before 1300 CE who was given the honorific “Hajji” as an epithet in the biographical dictionaries. After that, in contrast, it becomes ubiquitous in the biographical dictionaries.

Building on what John Voll said about the consumption revolution of the 16th century, the history of cotton in the medieval period utterly transformed the Muslim world. Cotton went from being almost nonexistent to being almost everywhere in the Muslim world. Italy developed a cotton business in the late 14th and 15th centuries that borrowed heavily from the Middle East. Rice was another transformative commodity.

To address Pat Manning’s periodization, especially regarding slavery and the African Diaspora, it highlights the importance of the Sahara as a connecting zone. As for the Mongol conquests in contrast to the history of the New World under European colonization and domination, we have to factor in the Great Dying; Europeans entered into a post-apocalyptic situation, building upon an ongoing disaster. It has been proved that the Mongols expanded into the Middle East under similar circumstances, in that a climate shift in the 11th century had utterly devastated the economies of Iran, a shift that was parallel to the simultaneous medieval cold period in Northern Europe. The Mongols were not simply the world’s best warriors; they moved into a landscape that had been devastated for a century before their conquest.

Finally, there is the question of a major change in the nature of the Muslim state at some point. I believe that it begins for a complex of reasons in the 12th century, and all of the other Muslim states (except Iran), do not fundamentally revolve around the question of Imamate, or the issue of who is the rightful successor. The question of the successor to the caliphate moves to the side, while the question of who rules has more to do with usurpation or adoption of the title Khadim al-Haramain [Servant of the Two Holy Places]. Salahuddin took this on, and introduced the concept of the Imamate al-Khidma. Not the rightly ordained ruler was paramount after that, but the one who took on the function of protecting the holy places and serving the needs of the Ummah related to them.

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