Edmund Burke III and Robert Mankin, eds., Islam and World History: The Ventures of Marshall Hodgson (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2018).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you edit this book?
Edmund Burke III (EB): I have long been a fan of Marshall G. S. Hodgson, who, in my view, was not only a major figure in devising the conceptual framework and major questions that inform Islamic history today, but was also the author of one of the chief alternatives to the still dominant civilizational history approach to world history.
Islam and World History: The Ventures of Marshall Hodgson is the fruit of a 2012 Paris conference. It is the first book of critical essays on the work of Hodgson, an Islamic and world historian who died in 1968 at the age of forty six. Hodgson is primarily known as the author of the three volume textbook, The Venture of Islam: Conscience and History in a World Civilization (1974). There are many reasons why Hodgson remains of interest. This book is an important step in bringing Hodgson’s legacy to the attention of a new generation of scholars.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
EB: Islam and World History brings together essays by American, European, and international scholars at various stages in their careers concerned with both the intellectual legacy and the enduring relevance of Hodgson’s vision.
The essays in this book constitute a kind of necessary stock-taking that allow us to grasp Hodgson’s brilliance and originality, as well as the extent to which his thought was still shaped by the ideas and presuppositions of his time.
By locating the history of Islamic societies in a global perspective, Hodgson provided an alternative to orientalist paradigms that had stunted the development of Islamic studies, while also putting forward an alternative approach to world history. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he understood the necessity of grounding the history of Islamic civilization in the context of all of human history.
Several important themes emerge from a reading of this book. One is to give us renewed respect for the immensity of Hodgson’s accomplishment as an Islamicist fifty years ago. While the field has grown in complexity and sophistication in the intervening years, it still finds itself based in many respects upon Hodgson’s conceptual structure, including its periodization, its revaluation of the middle periods (945-1500 C.E.), its categorization of religious and cultural institutions, and its grounding in the heritage of earlier civilizations.
Recent scholarship on the origins of Islam, while not in agreement as to the dosage of the different elements, agrees on the deep roots of Islam in extra-Arabian (as well as Arabian) histories. Hodgson was one of the first to argue that Shiism was not a heretical branch of Islam as opposed to Sunnism. Rather, he insisted that it was an equally valid take on the founding sources and that its history was as complex and variegated as that of Sunnism. Finally, Hodgson’s attention to Sufism was original in its time, and his categorizations within the vast world of Sufism remain useful.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
EB: My interest in the work of Hodgson (whom I never met, just to clear that up) followed from the review of The Venture of Islam for the International Journal of Middle East Studies (1979). At the time, I had become frustrated with the then current textbook, The Middle East: A History by S. N. Fisher. Little did I know I would go on to write two more books and numerous articles on Hodgson, his life, and works. A mini-cottage industry was begun!
Probably the most important of my works on Hodgson is my edition of a selection of his writings, Rethinking World History: Essays on Europe, Islam and World History (Cambridge University Press, 1993), which is still in print, and has been translated into Turkish. A somewhat different collection of Hodgson’s essays edited by Moroccan historian Abdesselam Cheddadi was translated into French and Arabic.
Over the course of my career, I have worked on a variety of topics, returning to them periodically. They include social movements in the Middle East and North Africa, orientalism and empire, world history and environmental history, and more recently the Mediterranean in the making of the modern world. I am currently finishing up a book that traces the history of the French sociology of Islam from the Enlightenment to Algerian independence. These works have mostly been informed by my interest in the work of Marshall Hodgson.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
EB: Islam and World History introduces the reader to the range and complexity of Hodgson’s thought, the daring of his ideas, and the necessity of situating Islam in the history of humankind. Among the themes treated are Islam and world history, gender in Islam, and the problem of Muslim universality.
I want to especially single out Jocelyne Dakhlia’s chapter in the book. Simply put, Dakhlia’s “Harems and Cathedrals: The Question of Gender and Sexuality in the Work of Marshall Hodgson” is a revelation of the amazing way in which Hodgson’s approach to gender in Islam anticipates the work of contemporary gender studies scholars working on Muslim societies. As always, reading Hodgson is a challenge, for he was a systematic thinker of great depth and analytical astuteness, given to abstract thinking original for its time, yet in many respects still current today. Dakhlia brings the whole package in her piece. It is a must read.
The revolutionary cosmopolitanism of Hodgson’s ideas has brought him the attention of a growing number of readers over the last several decades. This is because of his exacting intellect, as well as his insistence that we locate the history of Islam in the context of other world civilizations. In a present moment dominated by political and moral obtuseness, the breadth of Hodgson’s historical vision and his commitment to moral clarity speak across the years to the post-9/11 reader and scholar, whatever their specialization.
In our current post-9/11 moment, while the field of Islamic history has gone from strength to strength, it seems important to heed Hodgson’s example. So, my wish is that this book sparks an interest in the work of this remarkable scholar. His moral conscience and respect for Islam, as well as his far-ranging intellect and take-no-prisoners insistence upon sincere debate over things that matter, have never been needed as much as they are now.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
EB: I am currently completing a book on “France and the Sociology of Islam” (not a title, that’s what marketing departments are for!). It derives from my work on French colonial ethnography (about which I have written ten or so essays). My edited book (with David Prochaska), Genealogies of Orientalism constitutes an important step in the direction of my current project.
I am also working on a book on “The Mediterranean in Making of the Modern World,” a trial balloon for which appeared in the Journal of World History vol. 4 no. 4 (2013), 907-938.
J: Why is Hodgson’s work important to us today?
EB: While acutely conscious of how the current scholarly context has advanced from that of his lifetime (it is easy, after all, to point his flaws when one is standing on his shoulders), I think one can make three points.
Even though we know so much more empirically about Islamic societies, Hodgson, the methodologist and conceptual thinker, continues to be good to think. His impatience with the weaknesses of the civilizations approach to world history (with its implicit eurocentrism), and his alternative model based upon his insistence on the unity of world history and the interrelations of societies in history, also continue to inspire.
Mostly, however, in this moment of high Islamophobia, Hodgson’s Quaker perspective, moral and ethical commitments, and impatience with the shibboleths of Western orientalism make him an attractive alternative. Those attracted to his life and work must decide how they want to incorporate his example into their own practice.
Excerpt from Abdesselam Cheddadi, “Islamic History and World History: A Double Enterprise”
Hodgson’s vision broke with the traditional approaches to the study of Islam in three major ways: conceptual, geographical, and chronological. The conceptual break was marked by the critique of orientalism forms of knowledge, and more generally of European presuppositions about world history. As a confirmed professional orientalist Hodgson undertook a radical critique of his own discipline. Those writing in the scholarly tradition of the nineteenth and early twentieth century believed that civilizations derived from unchanging essences, often tied to their languages, which could be in turn derived from their major texts. Expanding the field of investigation to the most varied materials, including making a major place for archeology, Hodgson sought to question not just the texts but the contexts in which they existed in order to uncover the interplay of other cultures. Hodgson preached a method grounded in empathy and the respect of the subject in an effort to understand it from the inside, to more fully enter into its own perspective. Here he can be seen as following in the footsteps of the French orientalist Louis Massignon, although he eschewed the latter’s mysticism. On this, both scholars were under the influence of Carl Jung and Wilhelm Dilthey, upon whose principle of verstehen they based their works.
A second determining aspect of Hodgson’s approach was of an ethical order. Filled with pacifist and philanthropic convictions due to his Quaker faith, Hodgson had an abiding faith in the fraternity and equality of all people. The human species as a whole appeared to him as the only field of discourse for any humanly defensible research. The epigram of John Woolman, a Quaker pacificist and antislavery advocate of the eighteenth century, with which he begins The Venture of Islam is highly significant of his anti-Eurocentric attitude: “To consider mankind other than brethren, to think that favours are peculiar to one nation and exclude others, plainly supposes a darkness in the understanding.” These premises allow him to engage the history of Islam differently. Forging his own terminology, putting to work his own critical historical and geographic concepts, he sought to study Islamic civilization as a part of universal human heritage and to demonstrate its importance in the context of a world history recentered upon Asia, the birthplace of agrarianate-citied life. In order to orient his analyses, he proposed reliance upon an ensemble of ideal types associated with the major phases of this civilization (on which he espoused a methodology similar to that identified with the sociologist/historian Max Weber).
The second break with previous studies of Islam that marks Hodgson’s approach was geographic. It resulted in an expansion of the field of Islamic history to incorporate the entire space touched by Islam, while displacing the center of gravity from the Arab Middle East to Irano-Turkish Asia. One of the chief obstacles that had prevented earlier scholars from understanding Islamic history in its entirety, he observes, was what he called is “Arabistic bias.” Both European and Arab scholars had the tendency to focus upon the original centers of Islam and to stop with the Arab phase of Islamic history. Another tendency with unfortunate consequences for Islamic studies lay in admitting Islam into world history only when it was in collision with Europe.
Finally, Hodgson’s third major point of rupture with prior knowledge concerns his chronology and periodization of Islamic history. A consequence of the two prior points of cleavage, it is perhaps the most important. Hodgson’s division of Islamic history into three parts (formative period, middle period, and the period of gunpowder empires and modern times) allowed him to highlight the fundamental importance both for the history of Islam and for world history of the period extending from the decline of the Abbasid empire as a bureaucratic empire (c. 945 C.E.) until the appearance of the great Turkish, Persian, and Mughal empires of the sixteenth century, which in the orientalist tradition had previously been considered as a period of decadence. In fact it was in the “Middle Periods” (as he called them) that Islam made a crucial leap forward on a hemispheric scale, creating the greatest cosmopolitan society in history, a multilingual society (with the emergence alongside of Arabic of Turkish, Persian, and, later, Urdu as languages of culture), based upon the separation of state and society and the growing importance of a lettered class, as well as on the spread of Sufism. In the process it brought down the walls separating regional civilizations in Afro-Eurasia and gave birth to some of the most celebrated historical figures in culture, science, and art in Islamic civilization (notably Ibn Sina, Ibn al-’Arabi, al-Ghazali, al-Biruni, and al-Ferdowsi).
Hodgson thus accomplished two amazing feats—writing a history of Islam disconnected from the dominant Eurocentrist narrative and adopting a world historical viewpoint. Breaking with the older tradition of privileging the great military generals, statesmen, and empire builders, he introduces the reader to the mental universe of Islamic civilization. This enabled him to give the reader a close-up view of the major cultural, spiritual, social, and political figures of Islamic history, now seen with a certain closeness and familiarity. By attempting to include Islamic civilization in its entirety, he managed in addition to bring to our attention the world system constructed by Islam circa 1200 C.E., a system which in a certain manner prefigures our own while being constructed on radically different principles. While the modern world system is essentially focused on homo economicus, the Islamic system in contrast was constructed around a book, the Qur’an, and its double requirement of establishing a just social order and bringing men closer to their Creator. It found its coherence and solidarity from the common values that it incarnated and maintained from the informal links between merchants, scholars, and saints.
The study of Islamic history freed it from the essentialist conceptions that put forward binary oppositions such as East/West, Tradition/Modernity, and recentered it on the premodern agrarianate-citied system of premodern Eurasia. This allowed Hodgson to make important advances in his conception of world history and to propose a whole series of key postulates: that the history of civilization was Asia-centric and that it was based upon interdependent interregional developments on a hemispheric scale, especially phenomena that crossed regional frontiers, such as the diffusion of Indian forms of monasticism. One of his fundamental axioms was that discoveries in any part of the world eventually diffused throughout the other agrarianate-literate civilizations, thereby transforming the possibilities of human action throughout the world.
In closing, it is worth insisting upon two points at the center of Hodgson’s preoccupations: the place of Europe in world history and the nature of modernity. For Hodgson Islamic civilization was a sister civilization of European civilization and shared with it the same Irano-Semitic roots and the same base in Hellenistic thought, west Asian Prophetic monotheism, and the political system of agrarian bureaucratic empires. In this way The Venture of Islam necessarily provokes a reexamination of European history, which, relocated in the context of world history, cannot but lose its exceptional character.
A second major conclusion of Hodgson’s approach to world history is also clear: viewed through a world historical lens, Europe no longer appears as the inevitable consequence of the working out of its own internal rhythms: “Without the cumulative history of the entire Afro-Eurasian Oikoumene, the transformation of the West would have been almost impossible.” The assertion of a line that connects the ancient Greeks to the Renaissance to modern times is therefore nothing more than an optical illusion, nourished by an overly selective historical imagination. Rather, it was axiomatic for Hodgson that modernity was a global process that affected all parts of the world at the same time, though in different degrees. From this it follows that the globalization about which so much ink is spilled these days is not a recent phenomenon. The prehistory of all of humanity constitutes on the contrary an underlying essential condition of our modernity. If Europe initiated the process of modernization, this was far from predestined. Given the relative equality of agrarianate-literate societies and the tendency for cultural innovations to diffuse around the Oikoumene over a period more or less long, modernity could have arisen elsewhere, in China or the Islamic world. Wherever it arose, modernity would have been a global event.