Islam and World History: Towards a New Periodization

Among the greatest problems met with in historical work generally is the frequent inability of the historian to liberate himself/herself from his/her own immediate background and environment and to cultivate a sense of detachment. Yet such detachment is necessary, for even if it will not lead to true objectivity, it will at least help produce more accurate results. Unfortunately, this detachment is the most difficult to achieve in precisely those areas of the biggest, most familiar, and hence most important assumptions. When these are skewed from the beginning, the entire thought process becomes skewed as well, with the result that all subsequent work is affected.

This lack of detachment is outstandingly demonstrated by the ubiquitous Western loyalty to a Eurocentric categorization and subdivision of world history that informs virtually all Western historical thought. Dividing all of human history into ancient, medieval, and modern periods revolving around Western Europe, this schematization is promoted as if it were the final, fair, and objective system for explaining all of history. It is then applied with the thoroughness one associates with state ideologies. All American students are taught the tripartite ancient - medieval -modern scheme in high school. It is also the basis for most history courses at the university level. Professorial appointments depend on it and thus do not encourage their holders to rebel against it. Textbook companies resist changing it because books holding to this scheme are demanded by schools, colleges, and universities. Even the ultraconservative American secretary of education, William Bennett, in 1988 promoted this Western historical scheme and bemoaned its supposed decline. The Western schematization of world history is, in short, a hallowed tradition which it is difficult to ignore and still harder to break away from.

That the Western scheme of history has proven itself so durable should hardly be surprising in view of its long history. In fact, its underlying concept goes back in an unbroken chain to Saint Augustine (354-430 CE), the major Christian thinker and philosopher of history who, in the City of God, combined the parochial historical traditions of the Greeks, Romans, and Jews, along with a few references to other traditions,’ into a single ideological scheme claiming universal validity. Already implicit in Augustine’s scheme was a division of history into “ancient” and “medieval” at the watershed of the appearance of Christianity. Later, the division of the ancient from the medieval period was often made at the reign of the Roman emperor Constantine (306-37 CE), precisely because Christianity became the established religion of the state at that time. More recently, the idea of separating the medieval Christian world from the modem post-Christian world was tacked on to the existing scheme in order to emphasize the supersession of Christianity by modern materialist philosophy. Therefore, in its basic essentials, the ancient medieval-modern schematization of history may be said to represent the successive dominance of Graeco-Roman and Judaic thought, then Christian thought, and then materialist ideology in the minds of Westerners.

Even a cursory examination of Western works used in teaching history will reveal the extent to which the Eurocentric scheme is used in courses purporting to teach a universal world history. This same Eurocentric view is equally pervasive in such allied fields as art history, where the same paradigm is in use. If any modification at all is made in the scheme, it is usually only to lump medieval together with ancient history, thereby creating a binary before-and-after scheme which highlights the distinctive superiority of modern Western civilization against all else. This is even true of self-critical Marxist based histories, for these too inflate Western hubris by showing how much greater - and therefore more relevant - are the problems of modern Western societies. This naturally goes back to Marx’s essential belief in progress, which makes the bourgeois Western society superior to its predecessors, in spite of its oppressiveness, specifically because it is farther along the path of development.

Even attempts to break out of the traditional Western explanation usually only result in a reassertion of the Western thesis with some decoration added from outside the Western tradition. Thus in a work like F. Roy Willis’s World Civilizations, although much non-Western material is included, the concentration on the West is still palpable. Non-Western societies, including Islam, are portrayed as the passive and unwilling victims of Western expansion rather than as actors in their own right. This is despite the efforts of the author to be more balanced than his predecessors: established assumptions are hard to overcome, it seems. And the same author has to pander directly to the stereotypical Western model of history in his Western Civilization: An Urban Perspective, a work likely to have a far wider currency than his World Civilizations, as Western civilization, or “world civilization” in the traditional mold, remains a subject in far greater demand at American colleges and universities than any broader examination of the world‘s past which would include the Islamic world, India, China, Japan, Africa, and the Native Americans in any but subordinate roles. However, despite this apparent present consensus, the contemporary Western periodization of history centered on Europe is too parochial to be an adequate scheme of world history.

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