Empire in Asia

A New Global History

Rethinking World History

Book Cover

Book Title

Rethinking World History: Essays on Europe, Islam and World History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993


Hodgson, Marshall G.S. and Edmund Burke III (eds.)


The book consists largely of Hodgson's essays from which the ideas are extracted and form the framework of a new way of looking at world history. Hodgson saw Islamic history as a strategic point from which to undertake a critique of the discourse of Western civilization. The roots of Islamic civilization arguably lay in the same basic Irano-Semitic religious and cultural values, crossed with the ambiguous legacy of the West Asian imperium. Islam at that time was the vastly richer and more successful Other against which the West defined itself. Most importantly, the spillover of Islamic civilization over conventional regional boundaries allowed Islam to be an assertive presence throughout Afro-Eurasia, forming a more global, pluralistic and interactional image of society. What Hodgson aims to see is a world history without placing the West at the centre, but an interregional hemispheric approach to history as the more logical approach.

Part One examines specifically the place of both Europe and of modernity in world history, through works zooming in on the interrelations of societies in history and the idea of nations seeing themselves as the hub of history. This results in a controversial contribution to the current debate on Eurocentrism and multiculturalism. In Part Two, Hodgson seeks to locate Islamic civilization in a world historical framework. Thus, the Part Three that follows represent the point when Hodgson arrives at the conclusion that in the end there is but one history - global history - and that all accounts must be resituated in a world historical context. An introduction and a conclusion by the editor, Edmund Burke, III, is well-placed to contextualize Hodgson's contribution to world history and Islamic history.

The writing of world history undergoes changes since the collapse of the sense of moral exceptionalism which had privileged the West above the rest of humanity, thus highlighting a new sense of global interdependence.

Scope (Topics Covered, Time Period)

Hodgson's focus was on the "Middle Periods" of Islamic history, since this was the period from the decline of the Abbasid caliphate as a centralized bureaucratic empire (c. A.D. 945) until the rise of the gunpowder empires of the sixteenth century. Arab was not the only bringers of Islamic language of culture, but from A.D. 945 Persian and Turkish played major roles in the elaboration of a cosmopolitan Islamic culture. This provides the key to grasping the hemisphere-wide role of Islam in China, India, South and Southeast Asia, as well as the Balkans and the Maghrib. This forms a reinvention of how Islamic civilization might be conceived; not as a truncated version of Europe, but in a world historical context and on its own terms.

The problem of modernity, and how one may situate it historically - as a global process rooted in Europe or as a specifically European manifestation - is broached in "The Great Western Transmutation". The essay "Cultural Patterning in Islamdom and the Occident" presents a sustained comparison of Islamic civilization and Western European civilization. Lastly, Part Three features an essay "The Unity of Later Islamic History" argues the underlying unity to post-Mongol Islamic history, challenging the established scholarly orthodoxy of the day. Particularly, the book ends with Burke's essay which argues that Islamic history as World History has always been the consistent framework that Hodgson had worked with.

Argument (Methodology, Significance)

The main approach of Hodgson involves focusing on the capacity of the Quranic message to repeatedly inspire men of conscience to confront the dilemmas of their age in response to the challenge in its ideals; not merely the work of great generals, statesmen and builders of empires. Since most of the essays were rather centered on some of the main ideas of Hodgson, the sources of these essays are often extracts of letters, scattered articles or essays of Hodgson, compiled by Burke. The importance of this work is to highlight the epistemological and conceptual issues of doing world history.
Arguably, the Renaissance did not inaugurate modernity for the rest of the world, since it was still an insignificant outlier of mainland Asia. Thus, Hodgson interprets this as the assimilation carried out by Europe of the advances of the other Asian civilizations, since civilizations could achieve a rough parity with one another when cultural innovations diffused throughout. Yet, for Hodgson, Western civilization as a discourse is predicated upon a deeply rooted sense of the moral as well as cultural superiority of Western Europe to the rest of humanity. Essentialism remained the conceptual framework of the day: the history of the West as freedom and rationality against the history of the East as the story of despotism and cultural stasis. In this way, his views of modernity remains bound to the old problems of Western exceptionalism.

In sum, Hodgson's effort to situate the rise of the West in a global context had a mixed result: the focus was largely upon culture; the civilizational approach favored by Hodgson only has a tenuous grasp on the crucially important long-ranging demographic, economic, social transformations which accompanied the onset of the modern age.

Annotated by Michelle Djong