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A Scholar Open to the World

[Janet Abu-Lughod's book Before European Hegemony: The World System A.D. 1250-1350] [Janet Abu-Lughod's book Before European Hegemony: The World System A.D. 1250-1350]

Janet Abu-Lughod was a remarkable woman whom I had the privilege of knowing over a long period of time. A person of enormous intellectual curiosity, she approached the task of learning with an openness that was admirable. Throughout her scholarly life, she listened to her interlocutors and wrestled with all the debatable issues. She and I had some disagreements, which will become evident in reading the review I wrote of her most important work (below). But the agreements far outweighed the dissensions. And we could always talk about them in comradely fashion. Her contribution to the debate will be lasting.

Review of Janet L. Abu-Lughod, Before European Hegemony: The World System, 1250-1350 A.D. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989). Appeared in the International Journal of Middle East Studies 24, no. 1 (February 1992), 128-131.

Janet Abu-Lughod's book has very rapidly acquired a well-deserved reputation as a major scholarly work. It is an ambitious effort and an intellectually complex one, which makes it sometimes intricate to follow. In the process she makes three important points. The first is expressed in the subtitle: she postulates the existence of a "world system" between 1250 and 1350 A.D., which stretched from a "European subsystem" in western and southern Europe, through the "Mideast heartland" to China via the Persian Gulf and the "Indian Ocean system" in the south, and via a "northeast passage" as well, thanks to the pax mongolica. The second point is that this "world system" suffered a "fall" that was prerequisite to the "rise" of the West in that it created the necessary sociopolitical space for it. Finally, the "modern" system constructed by Western capitalism "is not the only one conceivable for a world system" (p. 364). I shall discuss each argument in turn.

Most of the book and the evidence amassed in it bears on the first point. The argument is persuasive. Perhaps specialists in each region will pick away at some of the detail, but it will be hard to undermine the synthetic overview. She argues that a large number of economically active zones across a large portion of the Eastern Hemisphere were moving "synergistically" and that their "upturns were the result, at least in part, of the linkages each region managed to forge with other parts of the world system, and feedbacks from that system, in turn, intensified local development" (p. 359). This system, if not yet global, was "substantially larger . . . than the world had previously known" (p. 353).

The system was of course a long-distance trading system between an "archipelago of towns" (p. 348). But in addition to trading with each other, all the units had "begun [italics mine] to reorganize parts of their internal economies to meet the exigencies of the world market" (p. 355). It was perhaps not the first such "world system." Abu-Lughod refers briefly to a possible earlier version some 2,000 years ago linking imperial Rome and Han China, but says that these two imperial powers had only "extremely limited and indirect contact with one another" (p. 366), unlike the more integrated "world system" of 1250-1350 A.D. In her explanation of the emergence of this more recent system, Abu-Lughod places a great deal of emphasis on the key role of the pax mongolica which "created an environment that facilitated land transit with less risk and higher protective rent" (p. 154). But why was this so important? Because it enabled China to link the northern and Indian Ocean trading routes (p. 347). This presumably gave the "world system" a sufficient mass to function. One would want such a hypothesis to be more fully elaborated than it is, but Abu-Lughod has at the very least pointed out the path along which further substantial research should be done.

Finally, there is buried in a footnote what seems to be another key element in her reasoning. It seems that China had to be politically weak enough for this to happen. She refers to Thomas Barfield's argument that, between 209 B.C. and the twentieth century, there has always been a correlation between a strong China and strong empires on the steppes, except in the 13th century. Abu-Lughod then comments, "This exceptionalism helps to explain the rise of the world system in that period, whereas its reversion in the post-Yuan period contributes part of the explanation for why the system broke up in the late fourteenth century" (p. 150, n. 2). I would point out two things about this argument. First, it seems to imply that, when both China and the steppe empires were simultaneously "strong," they did not trade with each other. Is that so, and if so why? Second, it suggests that the creation of the 1250-1350 world system was dependent on a passing historical accident, the non-correlation of the strength of China and the steppe empires, without offering an explanation of the origin of this exception to a correlation that otherwise holds over 2,000 years. This is an unfortunate omission. What we have is a very convincing exposition of the emergence in this period of a very vast trading network without a clear argument that could enable us to decide whether its emergence was structurally inevitable or merely conjuncturally possible or perhaps a pure fluke.

If we do not have a clear picture as to what caused the "rise" of the 1250-1350 system, we do get a clearer picture of what elements went into its "fall." Indeed, Abu-Lughod signals to us that this is a very important issue for her. She says of the system at the height of its functioning that it "seemed only a matter of time . . . before the subsystems would intermingle ever more . . . into a truly interdependent [italics mine] world system. The basic problematic of the book is to understand why this did not happen" (p. 125). One element, mentioned repeatedly, is the Black Death, for an "unintended consequence of unification was the eruption of a pandemic that set back the development of a world system for some 150 years" (p. 170). But this is not all. If the links that completed the chain of the "world system" were the Central Asian steppe empires and China, then the closure of the central Asian route plus "the reversal of China's [economic] position [in the world]" led "to the demise of the world system that had been developing in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries..." (p. 317).

In a sense then, the "fall" of the East is in fact and more specifically the "fall" of China, "the most extensive, populous, and technologically advanced region of the medieval world," where the Arab world "played an important albeit a secondary role," in which south Asia was "part of the semiperiphery," and in which Europe had only "begun to move into the larger arena from her former peripheral status" (p. 317).

This brings us to Abu-Lughod's second thesis, and no doubt the one she intended to be central: before the West rose, and as a necessary precondition of its rise, the East fell. And therefore, since "the East had already substantially 'fallen' before the Portuguese men-of-war appeared in the Indian Ocean," then "no special 'virtue' inhered in the conquerors ... " (p. 260). Abu-Lughod is launching an attack on the dominant historiographical myth of the modern world, that the creation of the modern world is the consequence of some special ability, "virtue," or cultural, or ideological advantage of Western civilization (or sometimes even more narrowly, of English culture). She says with some vigor that her book "casts doubt" (p. 372) on all arguments "that only the institutions and culture of the West could have succeeded" (p. 354) in creating the modern world.

Here I am entirely on her side without sharing fully the relevance of all the evidence adduced. She sees the emergence of the capitalist world economy in the 16th century as a "process of tipping the fulcrum of the world system" (p. 108). I am not sure I would describe it that way. It was rather an unfortunate break with the kind of system that Abu-Lughod was describing, a transformation in which the breakdown of the 1250-1350 world system did indeed play a crucial role. Indeed, of course, Abu-Lughod agrees: in describing her 13th-century "world system," she says of it that "no single participant [meaning large geographical sociopolitical unit] . . . dominated the whole, and most participants . . . benefited from co-existence and mutual tolerance" (p. 362). She says further that the system was not hierarchical. "Rather, cores, semiperipheries and peripheries were . . . found at a number of places around the globe" (p. 365). She contrasts this with "the new European approach to trade-cum-plunder that caused a basic transformation in the world system" (p. 361).

I think this picture is basically correct, and would be clearer if the language were changed somewhat. Let me restate Abu-Lughod's observation in my own terms. I would substitute for the concept "world system," meaning an extensive trading system over much of the globe, the concept of "world-system" (with a hyphen), meaning a large system that is a "world," that is, a system that has an integrated production system with cores, semi-peripheries, and peripheries. Then Abu-Lughod's "world system" represents a long-distance trading link-up, on a nonhierarchical basis, of a series of temporally coexistent "world-systems," each of which was internally hierarchical. The inclusion of such a large number of "world-systems" into one trading network was not only difficult to achieve, but was only made possible perhaps by an unusual conjuncture, and in any case did not last long (only a century according to Abu-Lughod's own reckoning); perhaps it could not last longer. Probably, the 1250-1350 A.D. link-up was the most extensive one theretofore, but probably also not the first (as her own reference to the Rome-Han China link-up suggests). How then to express her second point, that the "fall" of the East was a necessary prerequisite to the "rise" of the West? I think she is right again, but in a way she does not spell out. The collapse of medieval Europe, sometimes called the "crisis of feudalism," was one vital element in the creation in Europe of the modern world-system (with a hyphen, this time), but not the only vital element. For the collapse of medieval Europe was nothing special. That kind of collapse had happened regularly over history and around the world. It normally led to conquest by outside forces. Europe's "luck" (if that is what we want to call it) is that, at that very moment there was Abu-Lughod's "fall" of the East, which made it unlikely (impossible?) for some outside force (the Mongols, the Ottomans, some new Arab caliphate?) to pounce upon the marginal European world and impose a new ruling stratum on old principles.

The last constraint on capitalist pathology was thereby removed. We have the "rise" of the West, "the new European approach to trade-cum-plunder." This is why Abu-Lughod can correctly point out that it was not the Portuguese takeover of the Indian Ocean zone that was the important phenomenon but the Spanish incorporation of the New World. She sees this as a "geographical reorientation" (p. 363) of her "world system." I see this as the Portuguese still engaging in egalitarian long-distance trade between "world-systems," whereas the Spanish were involved in constructing a new, capitalist "world-system," of which the Americas were an integral part.

This brings us to Abu-Lughod's third thesis, "the impermanence of all systems" (p. 370). Here again I am on her side as to the conclusion, without sharing all the reasoning. By calling her nonhierarchical link-up of "world-systems" a "world system," she hints that it is a model for a better, future world-system (with hyphen this time). But, if better, her "world system" of 1250-1350 A.D. was still not very good, because the nonhierarchical nature of the (temporary) link-up masked the hierarchical nature of the multiple world-systems that lay at its base. If we move from the kind of "world-system" we now have to the kind of "world system" she is describing for 1250-1350 A.D., we may simply be going from the frying pan into the fire, which neither she nor I nor most of us want.

Her book has the sterling virtue of forcing all these issues to the fore. If it is read carefully, fully, and intelligently, it will further our collective debate considerably. It certainly will force all those whose scholarship deals with the separate world-systems in existence "before European hegemony," for example the readers of this journal, to place them in the larger context of the real world history of which they were an integral part.


I have always thought that Janet’s approach to scholarly issues was the outcome of her early long residence in Cairo. American scholars who live for considerable periods outside the United States tend to have one of two reactions to the experience. Some seem to get reaffirmed in the beliefs and biases they had accumulated in their life before this long non-U.S. residence. And some, probably a smaller group, have their beliefs and biases shaken up. They become open to other ways of looking at the world and its history, often drastically different ways. Janet was clearly one of the latter. This accounts for her unrelenting aversion to Eurocentrism.

But in addition, Janet’s non-U.S. place of residence was Cairo, a city with some distinct characteristics. It is a major city with a highly variegated population and a very long history. It is no accident that, in addition to the nature of the world-system, Janet's other major contribution lay in urban sociology, particularly through her studies of Cairo. Furthermore, Cairo is not merely a large city. It is the capital of Egypt, a country that lays claim to being the fount of one of the two most ancient "civilizations." There is a sense of historical longevity and overwhelming world cultural importance that pervades Egypt's self-image. This clearly had an impact on Janet's scholarship.

To understand Janet's arguments, one has to take into account this personal itinerary. Our itineraries frame the glasses with which we perceive the world.

[This article is part of a series commemorating Janet Abu Lughod. Click here to read the Introduction to the series and view a complete listing of articles included in the series].

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