Civilization : Susan Buck-Morss

Rand McNally and Company / The Histomap / 1931

Muslims have traditionally divided the world into Dar al-Islam and Dar al-Harb (the Abode of Peace and the Abode of War), a binary division that might appear to resemble the European Enlightenment conception of civilization – whereas Davutoglu’s understanding of civilizations seems based on the Western comparative model. With this difference: What Western-centric historians have viewed critically as the “unchanging East,” Davutoglu praises as the remarkable consistency of Islamic ontology, whereby both Muslim scholars and the Muslim masses have “inherited a really very impressive, consistent, and balanced civilizational experience.” (It is not clear to me if, for Davutoglu, the meanings of Weltanschauung and civilization are synonymous; and whether in this context, it is the singular elements of Islam or the synthesis of its varying elements that, for him, provides the authentically Muslim civilizational experience.)5

The issue, however, is more complicated. The “bi-compartmentalization” (Davutoglu) between Dar al-Islam and Dar al-Harb, not a part of the Qur’ân, was established by Muslim jurists “in order to specify the territories, dependent on the realization of political power, within which this juridic scheme could be applied.”6 It presumes as the Islamic collective the ummah, the total community of believers in Islam. In contrast, the term civilization (umrān in Arabic) refers to a sequence of state forms within the Muslim world.7 This was its meaning in the work of the famous fourteenth century historian Ibn Khaldûn. To complicate matters further, it is worth noting that Ibn Khaldûn’s writing on universal history was decisive for Toynbee’s own understanding of the term civilization. Toynbee described Ibn Khaldûn’s Muqaddimah, or Prolegomena to the study of history, as “undoubtedly the greatest work of its kind that has ever yet been created by any mind in any time or place.”8

Davutoglu is less concerned with these differences (or similarities) than with the “eternal norms” that remain strikingly constant despite the empirical history of multiple state forms.9 His argument is that precisely because of its traditions of tolerance for other cultures, religions and ethnicities, Islamic civilization provides a model for the world today. When we consider one of the most politically contentious cases, Europe’s treatment of Jews compared with their treatment in the Islamic world, the best of historical scholarship would seem to support his claim. Mark R. Cohen’s highly respected scholarship in the book, Under Crescent and Cross, compares with great thoroughness the actual practices in Europe and the Muslim world over multiple centuries, and concludes: “Whether their persecution is measured in terms of expulsion, murder, assault on property, or forced conversion, the Jews of Islam did not experience physical violence on a scale remotely approaching Jewish suffering in Western Christendom.”10

But is this empirical fact best explained by the concept of dichotomous civilizations based on religious differences, or are other factors in play? For instance, might the greater tolerance have to do with the cosmopolitan and multi-ethnic populations that are characteristic of trading societies (not only Islamic but, for example, Norman-Catholic Sicily in the eleventh-thirteenth centuries), when compared with the feudal, territorial, and more provincial societies of medieval Europe? Significantly, historians themselves have begun to question the validity of presuming separate civilizations as the most fruitful way to deal with such questions. The concept of giant civilizations, contiguous in space and continuous over time, precludes the fact that in the person-to person exchange of ideas, it is often precisely those overlooked spaces between such imagined giants that provide the true incubators of social and cultural creativity. Indeed, civilizational spaces may be so over-determined by interpenetrating cultural influences that it is an unjustifiable act of appropriation for any so-called civilization to claim these human creations as its own.

The framework of comparative civilizations led to a burgeoning of the discipline of history-writing. This continued throughout the twentieth century, not just interpreting political chronicles or sacred texts, but reading culture in all of its aspects. I am myself a product of this tradition. And it is precisely this training in history, the changing and contingent kaleidoscope of human affairs, that makes me suspect of philosophy’s ontological claims because they reify the world, presuming essences and authenticities where mixing and multiplicities exist. Fascinating in the work of contemporary historians is the fact that, even when they start out to tell the story of civilizational differences, their very investigation tends to undermine that assumption. Already by the 1960s, the experts were aware of the problem. Historian of Islamic civilization Marshall G.S. Hodgson wrote:

We must force ourselves to realize what it means to say that the West is not the modern world, gradually assimilating backward areas to itself, but rather a catalyst, creating new conditions for other forces to work under. . . . The great modern Transmutation presupposed numerous inventions and discoveries originating in all the several cited people of the Eastern Hemisphere, discoveries of which any of the earlier basic ones were not made in Europe. . . . At least as important was the very existence of the vast world market, constituted by the Afro-Eurasian commercial network, which had cumulatively come into being, largely under Muslim auspices, by the middle of the second millennium. . . . Without the cumulative history of the whole Afro-Eurasian Oikoumene, of which the Occident had been an integral part, the Western Transmutation would be almost unthinkable . . . [for only therein] European fortunes could be made and European imaginations exercised.11

Against their intent, the facts blur clear lines of demarcation. The deeper the historical knowledge, the greater the material evidence, the more the concept of discrete civilizations dissipates. Some recent examples are particularly relevant to the alleged dichotomy between Islam and the West.12

5. Ahmet Davutoglu, Alternative Paradigms: The Impact of Islamic and Western Weltanschauungs on Political Theory (Lanham: University Press of America, 1994), 195. Davutoglu’s typology of civilizational ideal-types, based on the nature of 5 different prototypes of “self perception,” is expressly indebted to the Norwegian sociologist John Galtung. At the same time, as with Western social sciences, the relativism of the comparative method operates here in a way not incompatible with a claim of superiority.

6. Ahmet Davutoglu, Alternative Paradigms, 186. The ummah is a “belief-oriented socio-political unity” not synonymous with Western “state-centered and nation-oriented life” (179).

7. See Aziz Al-Azmeh, Ibn Khaldûn: An Essay in Reinterpretation (Budapest: Central European University Press, 2003).

8. Arnold Toynbee, A Study of History (London, Oxford University Press, 1935), 322 cited in the translator’s introduction to Ibn Khaldûn, The Muqaddimah: An Introduction to History, trans. Franz Rosenthal (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1967), xxxv.

9. Ahmet Davutoglu, Alternative Paradigms, 126-127 and passim. He asserts that “Ibn Khaldûn, too . . . preserved this stability of the systematization of the paradigm” (76).

10. Mark R. Cohen, Under Crescent and Cross: The Jews in the Middle Ages (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998), 169. Cohen was a student of Shelomo Dov Goitein, whose pioneering work on the Genisa documents first grounded the objective history of this politically controversial issue.

11. Excerpts from Marshall G.S. Hodgson, Rethinking World History: Essays on Europe, Islam, and World History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993) cited in Andre Gunder Frank, ReOrient: Global Economy in the Asian Age (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), 22-23.

12. Sakai questions the whole idea of “the West” that regulates the production of knowledge, particularly in the humanities: “I do not believe that the West is either a geographic territory with an affiliated population, or a unified cultural and social formation. It remains always a putative unity; its unity is preordained regardless of its inherent fragmentation and dispersal. It is in fact a mythic unity.” Naoki Sakai, “The West – A Dialogic Prescription or Proscription?,” Social Identities 11:3 (2005): 180.

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