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The Legacy of Muslim Societies in Global Modernity | Browse Items
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Question 1 : In what ways has the paradigm of golden age and decline dominated the historiography of Muslim regions in the period from 1300-1900 CE, and how has this paradigm been detrimental?


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.


I have taught Islamic civilization to California undergraduate History majors for 40 years. I have used the Marshall Hodgson’s 3 volume Venture of Islam, lately supplemented with Ira Lapidus’ History of Islamic Societies. Like Hodgson, I am also a world historian. Once I encountered Hodgson’s opus, I realized instinctively the correctness of his approach: any history worthy of the name must give equal wait to all periods of Islamic history, and must also consistently seek to locate it in the larger Eurasian contexts of which it was a part. Hodgson’s 100 page methodological introduction to Vol. 1 of The Venture remains essential reading.

I would add that we need to be aware of the connections between the Golden Age paradigm and the “Rise of the West” paradigm, according to which the course of Western history can be seen as a continually upward sloping line linking the Greeks the Renaissance and Modern Times. For Hodgson, this line is an optical elusion. The way forward, he suggests, lies in inserting both the history of the West and of the lands of Islam in their world historical contexts.


As an historian of the early modern Ottoman Empire, the paradigm of golden age and decline has a doubly complex and contradictory effect on the conceptualization of my field of research. On the one hand, within the grand narrative of “Islamic civilization,” the period 1300-1900 has traditionally held the place of “the dark ages,” the antithesis of the golden age during which political fragmentation, intellectual stagnation, and eventually foreign occupation were the defining elements of Muslim historical experience. Since these centuries are virtually coterminous with the history of the Ottoman state, this has had the effect of equating the entire trajectory of Ottoman history with decline, and – at least until very recently—has relegated the field of Ottoman history to a marginal position within the larger field of Islamic studies.

On the other hand, within the more restricted confines of Ottoman history we are confronted with another version of the same problem: The sixteenth century—which is the subject of my own research—has long held the status of an Ottoman ‘golden age,’ while subsequent centuries have been defined as a period of inexorable decline. Recently, Ottomanists have devoted a great deal of energy to the project of deconstructing this periodization. And yet, it remains true that the scholarly literature on the sixteenth century is comparatively quite developed, while many subfields of Ottoman history relating to the seventeenth, and particularly the eighteenth centuries are still in their infancy. This imbalance makes it extremely difficult to construct a compelling narrative of Ottoman history as a whole that can replace the story of “golden age” and “decline” that we are so eager to transcend.

Of course, all of this also needs to be understood within an even larger framework: the grand narrative of the “Rise of the West,” which continues to define the ways in which we make sense of history as a discipline, as well as the manner in which we conceptualize, organize and combine all of its constituent parts. According to this narrative paradigm, the historical experience of Europe during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries is equated with ‘modernity,’ and the establishment of European political, economic, and cultural hegemony over the rest of the world during at this time is understood as the ‘end game’ of history. Within this framework, societies defined as ‘non-Western’ can only have historical relevance to the extent that they are able either to contribute to, mimic, or resist the relentless rise of the West—and those periods in which they are able to accomplish one of those three things are typically identified as “golden ages” (to be followed inevitably by decline and, eventually, historical oblivion).


This is a paradigm, which is principally associated with the historiography of the Ottoman Empire. For a long period it seemed to be a preoccupation of Ottoman historians. Scholars who specialize in the study of other empires, Muslim or non-Muslim have always, been interested in such questions, but not to the extent that it concerns or has concerned Ottoman specialists. Safavid historians study an empire that was never as powerful as the Ottomans or as wealthy as the Mughals. In the Iranian case scholars have been more preoccupied with the survival of a fragile, impoverished state and perhaps even more so with the themes of Iranian identity and the rise of Shi‘i Islam, which becomes associated with Iranian identity. Mughal or Timurid-Mughal historians have also been preoccupied with other issues such as Hindu-Muslim relations and the colonial occupation of the subcontinent in the waning days of the Empire.

If one wishes to discuss this paradigm, it is important to emphasize that both golden age and decline can both be discussed from different perspectives: the attitude of rulers, the perception of an empire’s intellectuals, scholars or bureaucrats or religious scholars or the later interpretation of twenty-first century historians. If one wants to return to the traditional question of golden ages and decline then at least it is important to be precise about the criteria of the debate and the identity and perspective of those who discuss it. The idea of Golden Ages has different meaning for different individuals or classes.

One of the striking omissions in the discussion of imperial rise and decline has been the failure to engage the single indigenous Middle Eastern/Islamic model of the rise and fall of states, albeit tribal ones. This is Ibn Khaldun’s famous dialectical theory, which he advances in the Muqaddimah, which, while, like most models, it does not exactly fit the case of any of the so-called early modern Muslim empires, it still raises fundamental questions about the political, social and psychological changes that occurs in any state over the course of its existence. Some Ottoman historians worried about the implications of Ibn Khaldun’s cyclical model for the Ottoman Empire, but most modern historians have ignored Ibn Khaldun’s social, political and psychological insights about the cycles of dynasties. If we are to focus on the question of the rise and fall of empires, why not begin with Ibn Khaldun’s model.


It has created its method of periodization with 1800 as a cutting line, a before and an after, contact with the west. The centuries prior to 1800 were associated with decline while the period starting with 1800 was associated with an awakening due to contact with the west. The ‘before’ has sometimes been studied in ahistorical ways. This approach was also usually lacking in the economic aspects of history, and with a heavy concentration on cultural and religious aspects. It has also meant that all the sources for modernity were from the west. As a result for a long time earlier centuries were under studied.


The paradigm separates the period 1300-1900 from the times before and after it; it defines the Islamic world in terms of Middle Eastern empires rather than its larger and expanding frontiers; it contrasts a declining Islamic world to a rising European world; it focuses history on imperial conflict and assumes an underlying religious hostility as the motive force for this history.


The ‘decline paradigm’ has long been associated with discussions of both the Ottoman system but also with the larger Muslim project in the aftermath of 1258. From at least the work of the well-known Persianist E G Browne (d. 1926) in the early part of the last century ‘decline’ also has dominated discussions of the Safavid period in Iran, a period conventionally given the dates 1501 to 1722. In the Safavid case, ‘decline’ has been most often deployed with respect to the trajectory of the 17th century. Most Western-language commentators on 17th century Safavid Iran have viewed the period as having begun with a burst of cultural and intellectual achievement, in an atmosphere of military, political, and economic stability, due largely to the policies undertaken by Shah `Abbas I (r. 1588-1629), only to end in the darkness of fanatical religious orthodoxy amid military, political, and economic chaos. Most commentators cite the changing behavior and interests of important Twelver Shi`i `ulama over the 17th century as a key factor in Safavid ‘decline’: where the `ulama of the early 17th century have been characterized as interested primarily in philosophy and mysticism, and, as averse to, or having refrained from, entanglements in secular affairs. Western-language scholars have portrayed the majority of the late 17th century Iranian `ulama as intolerant, orthodox clerics who crushed the philosophical renaissance of the earlier half of the century and whose growing political influence inhibited an adequate response by the Safavid court to the political and military crises enveloping it, with the result that, in 1722, the Afghans sacked the Safavid capital of Esfahan.

A key body of material cited in support of aspects of ‘Safavid decline’ comprises, first, Persian-language sources, especially including chronicles, many completed many years after the 1722 fall of Esfahan to the Afghans, the event conventionally heralded as marking the dynasty’s end, and, secondly, the accounts of foreign travelers to and residents in Safavid Iran. The ‘agenda’ of the authors of these sources is all too seldom subjected to critical analysis.

As a result of recent activity scholars and lay persons interested in Safavid Iran today have at their disposal a much vaster array of primary and secondary sources, composed in a myriad of languages than was available prior to Iran’s 1979 Revolution. A myriad of sub-fields now may also now be said to exist within ‘Safavid Studies’. But, scholars in these ‘new’ sub-disciplines continue to take this model of the decline and fall of the Safavid ‘state’ as given and to privilege identification of signs of ‘decay’ in the ‘life’ of their sub-discipline over signs of ‘vitality’.


As Bentley observes in his response, a narrative with a beginning, middle, and end is very attractive to present complicated developments to a large audience. Obviously, this paradigm’s domination of the historiography of the Islamic World in this period is also related to Orientalism as Said showed to everyone more than thirty years ago. It is not too difficult to see that making decline the focus of analysis has led for many significant developments in the Islamic World of this period to be overlooked.

However, among the professionals of Islamic history, the decline paradigm has been challenged for quite a while now – if we take Roger Owen’s piece in Review of Middle East Studies as a starting point, since 1975. Yet an alternative narrative that is as attractive to non-specialists as the decline has been does not seem to have emerged – otherwise this forum would not be necessary. So perhaps focusing on the critique of the decline paradigm is not necessarily the best thing to do to appeal to our colleagues outside our field, or to the public at large. We need to come up with an alternative narrative.

Another important question to consider is what people in the Islamic World think about this paradigm of golden age and decline. What had struck me within the first few years of my graduate school experience in the US was the disjunction between the strong critique of Ottoman decline among the Middle East specialists of the US academe (Cemal Kafadar’s article on the subject was an inspiring exception to me) and the continuing relevance of the concept in Turkey. Obviously, there is a whole set of reasons for this disjunction such as the internalization of Orientalism by the modernizing elite of Turkey. Yet, it is also difficult to argue that the Ottoman Empire did not decline in its global significance or that it did not become relatively poorer: just take a twenty minute walk in Istanbul from the Topkapi Palace, where William Harborne, the ambassador of Queen Elizabeth, sought the alliance of the Ottomans against the Spanish in the 1580s, to the Istanbul High School the building of which used to be occupied by the Ottoman Public Debt Administration that was run by Europeans who collected taxes in the Ottoman Empire in order to transfer funds to the empire’s creditors in the 1880s. So perhaps centering our scholarship on the critique of the decline paradigm does not resonate well in the Islamic World where people live in the midst of physical markers of a relative decline.


The “Long Decline Paradigm” (“LDP” for purposes of this discussion) is one that has shaped not only the study of Muslim societies but also the study of all non-European societies in this era. The LDP is part of the Europe-centered vision of world history that interprets world history primarily as it relates to Western European history. Since the basic narrative of Europe-centered world historiography is the rise to global dominance of Western Europe in the 19th century, the narrative for other major global societies gets dominated by asking the question: “What went wrong?”—which basically is asking the question of why did not Chinese, South Asian, and Muslim societies have the same history as Western Europe? “Success” in the LDP is defined by viewing a non-European society in terms of how close its experiences were to that of Western Europe: did it have a “Renaissance,” did it have a religious “Reformation” that went beyond medieval theological-institutional formulations, did it have an “Enlightenment,” or an “Industrial Revolution”?

In recent years, the concept of “multiple modernities” has been developed by scholars like S. N. Eisenstadt. This conceptualization recognizes the broad range of ways that socio-cultural identities can be both distinctive and “modern.” Societies in the era from 1300-1900 reflect a similar duality of sharing a common experience of major changes as a result of increasingly intense networks of hemispheric and global interactions and, at the same time, developing distinctive responses to those new conditions. The major city-based societies of the era were strong and dynamic, not declining and failing. For example, China under the Qing dynasty in the 17th/18th centuries reached its largest territorial expansion in Chinese history.

In the Muslim world, the era from 1300-1500 was a time of major expansion of the number of believers and of important Muslim political systems. The result was that by the 16th century, the world of Islam was virtually twice the size that it had been in the era of the “Golden Age” of the Caliphs (7th-10th centuries CE). Political power was expressed in dynamically expansive states ranging from the Songhay state in West Africa through the great imperial sultanates of the Ottomans, Mughals, and Safavids and the entrepreneurial amirs and sultans of South East Asia.

The LDP ignores these developments and gives a misleading sense of centrality to Western European experience. This means that not only is the history of Muslim societies distorted but also the history of Western Europe is clearly misunderstood. It means, to note a very specific example, that the history of the Industrial Revolution ignores very important elements: if, as many scholars think, the development of the cotton industry in Lancashire is important in the Industrial Revolution, it is a distortion of understanding that development to ignore the role of imported cotton cloth from India (which dominated the global market in cotton cloth at the beginning of the 18th century) as an incentive to create local British cotton cloth production.

The LDP, in other words, provides an extremely misleading narrative for understanding world history in 1300-1900, for understanding the history of Muslim regions in that era, and even for understanding the history of Western Europe.


One of the most important effects of the decline paradigm has been its power in shaping our approach to the history of “Muslim regions.” It is essentialist, binary, and normative. It urges us to divide history into qualitatively and morally preferential periods, sort out what it deems substantial from the ephemeral, the authentic from the borrowed, the genuine from the fake, and the correct from the wrong. It reduces all aspects of history to “religion” as the core of “Muslim regions” and favors Arabic, the Middle East, and Umayyad-Abbasid caliphates as the essence of “Islamic history,” beyond and after which one can only observe decline and syncretism until European modernity comes to rescue this long in sleep civilization from the ruins of the middle ages. At the end, even when it praises the “golden age” the decline paradigm undermines “Islam” and “Muslim” as exotic, incomplete, and irreparably flawed. While “Islam” is depicted as the other, the alter ego which the “West” is not and should not be, the “West” emerges as the model against which we judge the others.

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