Rise & Fall of Civilizations

from Express Tribune: Nov 20, 2016

Ever since Ibn-e-Khaldun laid the foundations, the rise and fall of civilisations has been a favourite theme among historians. British Historian Arnold Toynbee, stated that Ibn-e-Khaldun’s Muqaddimahwas “a philosophy of history which is undoubtedly the greatest work of its kind that has ever yet been created.” Since then, countless authors, including Toynbee, have written volumes presenting their theories about the rise and fall of nations. Just like human beings, nations too have life-cycles, passing from youth to maturity to old age and death. Among these authors, the analysis of sociologist Giovanni Arrighi appears especially pertinent today. Arrighi identifies systematic cycles of accumulation of wealth associated with different hegemonic centres of civilisation. These hegemons last for about a century and then collapse, leading to the emergence of a new hegemon. Arrighi forecast the collapse of the latest hegemon (the USA in the post-war period), and emergence of a new hegemony cantered on Asia and led by China. Given that the last four hegemons have been of European origin, this would be a radical shift. The election of Trump is just one among myriad manifest symptoms of a civilisation in decline. We may live to see the fulfilment of Arrighi’s predictions of the end of Western hegemony.

Toynbee, one of world’s most widely read, translated and discussed scholars, studied the rise and fall of 26 civilisations in his monumental multi-volume Study of History. The most recent and youngest among these is the Western civilisation that dominates the world today. As usual, Eurocentric historians have sung countless paeans to the never-ending list of the unique glories of the Western civilisation. A whole library of books attributes the rise of the West to the intelligence, character, race, scientific talents, creativity, imagination, work ethics, courage, as well as good governance, democracy, and other social and political virtues. Naturally, these Eurocentric accounts portray the East as the diametric opposite, lacking all of these virtues. The book Eight Eurocentric Historians by James Blaut debunks more than 30 such self-congratulatory explanations of the rise of Europe. The task of constructing a non-Eurocentric history remains the need of the time. In this essay, we offer an initial rough sketch.

Far from being unique, the rise of Europe repeats an age old pattern of young, energetic but poor and primitive tribes on the periphery, overcoming old decaying and rich civilisations. From a long term historical perspective, the past three centuries of European ascendance are just a flash in the pan. For comparison, Muslims ruled Andalus for more than six centuries, and created an extremely rich culture, based on tolerance for all religions and respect for all types of learning. In all dimensions of life, France was primitive compared to contemporary civilisations in China and the Islamic world. Charlemagne’s emissaries were dazzled by the splendour of Haroun al Rashid’s court, and the gifts they brought back were avidly imitated, and became models of Carolingian art.

Whereas civilisations over the globe in China, Persia, Turkey, India, Africa and Latin America had substantial amounts of peaceful contacts, with trade and transfer of knowledge, the European city-states were in a constant state of war with each other. These hostilities spilled over in the form of the crusades against their Muslim neighbours. The conquest of Jerusalem repeats the standard patterns of energetic, poor and primitive outsiders looting rich, luxurious and decadent centres of civilisation. When they took Jerusalem, the European victors indulged in a bloodbath, killing all men, women and children so that their horses were up to their knees in blood. In contrast, when Saladin took Jerusalem back, he provided ships to take European prisoners back to their home countries.

Historian Henri Pirenne noted that “Europe” was created by Islam; a collection of warring nations with different languages and cultures was ‘united’ only in their opposition to Islam. Despite these hostilities, Europeans were able to learn much from the advanced science, technology, and culture of the Muslims. However, an unfortunate outcome of this hostility was the complete suppression of the debt to the Muslims in European accounts. As Andalus lapsed into decadence and degeneration, the re-conquest of Islamic Spain handed to the Europeans a treasure trove of knowledge and technology far beyond their wildest imaginations. The Cordoba library was a wonder of the world, containing advanced knowledge of medicine, chemistry, physics, astronomy and mathematics from around the globe, and from all civilisations. However the Catholic Church created a huge barrier to deriving benefits from this treasure. They forced all remaining Muslims to convert to Christianity, on pain of torture and death, and created the Spanish Inquisition to root out all remnants of Islamic thought and philosophies. Borrowing from Islamic sources was considered heresy, and was a deadly offence. Among the many prosecuted for heresy, Alexander Scultetus was a close friend of Copernicus. Even though the heliocentric hypothesis of Copernicus is available from many previous sources, and his mathematical model is a carbon copy of one exposited by Ibn Shatir, Copernicus became known as a revolutionary because he could not openly acknowledge his tainted sources. A Byzantine Greek translation of Ibn Shatir’s work was available in the Vatican library, and Copernicus knew Greek. Many contemporaries of Copernicus were familiar with various Arabic astronomy texts; they imported them and read them directly from Arabic. Mercator was arrested by the Inquisition, and in grave danger of being tortured to death in a painful way. The famous “Mercator projection” was already used in Chinese star maps of the 10th century. The construction of Mercator’s map, critical to European navigation, needed precise trigonometric values—readily available from India. Fearful of the Inquisition, Mercator hid his pagan sources. Similarly, high officials of the church made other such “independent rediscoveries” by hiding their real sources.

This unfortunate concealment and suppression of sources of the European Enlightenment has had grave consequences. Knowledge apparently sprang full blown, like Athena from the forehead of Zeus, into Europe. Even careful historians like Max Weber were deceived into believing that Europeans were uniquely capable of rational and scientific thought. This myth about European knowledge is at the root of a thousand other myths we have swallowed as parts and parcels of a Eurocentric history.

More articles on this theme: Eurocentric History

  1. Just a few points. First to underline something of which I’m certain you are aware, Muslim scholars had access to translations of ancient Greek mathematics and science works. In that sense Muslim scholars borrowed from the West in these areas. Second, Muslim scholars also borrowed in these areas from China. Neither of these facts diminishes in my view the great contributions of Muslim scholars and Muslim societies in these areas. Third, I suggest you expand your view of science. Elite science, the kind you discuss was based on the science of ordinary people. Such as craftsmen, farmers, armorers, blacksmiths, sailors, and priests. These were ahead of their elite colleagues in both Europe and the Muslim lands. Finally, I agree the Catholic Church was a barrier to the spread and use of Muslim science in Europe. But the Church’s reach was limited. It’s suppression of Muslim science, art, literature, etc. had less impact in Great Britain than in mainland Europe. Also, at least parts of this science, art, etc. was brought back and some integrated into life in the UK and Europe by ordinary soldiers and craftsmen returning from the Crusades. This was particularly the case with practical items such as irrigation, metallurgy, and stone work. The Inquisition was aimed at these things as much as scientists and scholars. Otherwise, I concur with all you say here. Particularly, the remarks about Ibn-e-Khaldun’s Muqaddimah. A remarkable work. One that western society needs to acknowledge. A story about that suggestion. As a graduate student in history one of my professors included reading assignments from the Muqaddimah. The requirement created a lot of negative push back. This was Texas 1973. Not much has changed in Texas since that time.

  2. David Chester said:

    Toynbee was completely wrong about the Jews. He is a racist who claimed that the Jewish civilization had died out. It may not be very big but it is still alive and strangely enough considering its small size, it is getting a lot of attention. So you don’t have to believe all that this historian of civilizations writes.

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