Beyond Golden Age and Decline: Muslim Societies in Global Modernity, 1300-1900 is a project funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) as part of the Bridging Cultures Initiative on the Muslim World and the Humanities. The Ali Vural Ak Center for Global Islamic Studies at George Mason University hosted two events in partnership with the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities. A Scholars’ Forum was convened from March 13-15, 2011 at George Mason University, featuring more than 20 specialists on the Ottoman, Safavid and Mughal Empires representing various disciplines, together with five prominent world historians. The scholars discussed prevailing paradigms in their fields and highlighted their own recent research and its contributions to a fresh look at these fields. World historians placed the region in the perspective of changing global narratives of the early modern period and revisions of traditional views on other regions.
This project 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, we aim to document and disseminate 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. The new scholarship fosters a more complex understanding of the encounter between western and Muslim societies during the past seven centuries, and the concept that modernity grew out of this complex encounter among peoples whose histories became deeply connected, and remain so today.
The NEH Bridging Cultures Initiative has a strong public outreach component. Beyond advancing knowledge among academics, the initiative supports increasing public knowledge and changing perceptions of Islam and Muslim societies. Thus, in conjunction with the Forum, the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities hosted a Program Development Workshop in Charlottesville, Virginia from March 16-17, 2011. A group of thirty practitioners in public programs—representing museums, libraries, non-profit public policy and grant-making organizations, media outlets, filmmakers, artists, and educators—convened to reflect on the content of the Scholars’ Forum and to devise ways to bring these ideas alive in public programs. This event was held in conjunction with the annual Festival of the Book, and several scholars from the Forum presented talks on their work in two well-attended panel discussions. This website provides links to the Bridging Cultures Bookshelf, a project funded by the Carnegie Corporation of New York that brings together the National Endowment for the Humanities and the American Library Association to choose a list of books and provide them to 1000 libraries across the United States. Two centers at George Mason University, the Ali Vural Ak Center for Global Islamic Studies and the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media are collaborating to create the online platform for disseminating this bookshelf on literature from Muslim societies and supporting the project’s scholarly and public dimensions.
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