Some years ago, before 9/11 and 2008 and the crisis of the West, the eminent public intellectual Fareed Zakaria gave a speech in which he attempted to answer the question: is globalization Americanization?
Zakaria answered in the affirmative, although arguably the more significant point made was that there is no clear consensus on what globalization means exactly.
To some, the word means a gradual intellectual convergence. (This is the definition I choose for this article, in which case, the current global age dates back to the Age of Discovery.) To others, it is synonymous with free trade and free flows of capital. And to yet another group, the word is inextricably bound with the technological revolution of the past two decades. This is not an exhaustive list.
In reality, there have been multiple waves of globalization through history, even within the same era, such as the global spread of communism at the same time as Americanization.
What’s interesting, though, is that if you google the terms globalization and Islam together, the resulting hits always pit the two against each other.
Surely, the age of Islam was the last major age of globalization. Call it by another name if you will, since “globalization” is recently coined.
Think about it: a disruptive, dynamic idea spreading from a metropolis (the Caliphate) to peripheral cities in Europe, Asia and Africa, with intricate trade networks facilitating its movement.
The idea proffered universalism, much like the secular humanism of the Enlightenment and, later, the promise of economic development for all, made by the neoliberals at the World Bank and the IMF.
So, instead of positioning Islam as a parochialism standing up to globalism, perhaps it’s more accurate to say that we are witnessing the clash between an earlier wave of globalization and the current one.
There are some pertinent lessons to be drawn from that earlier age.
The beneficiaries of globalization, then as today, live in the cities. Many a historian has characterized Islam as an urban religion. During its golden age, intellectuals and merchants alike flocked to cities like Baghdad and Basra, much like New York and London today.
In these cosmopolitan centres, people from vastly different cultures and backgrounds debated and discussed their way to common ground through the lingua franca of Arabic, the English of the day.
It was in the cities too, that most of the wealth was spent—on building spectacular landmarks, great centres of learning, trade infrastructure and so on.
And as in today’s centres of learning, the cosmopolitan intellectuals of Islam tended to take a more rationalist view of the world.
It is noteworthy that Mu’tazalism—a school of thought that subscribed to the view that the analysis of all religious texts and doctrines should be based on logic and reason—thrived at the Dar Al-Hikma, a great centre of learning in the Abbasid period. Its most enthusiastic adherents were the non-native Persianate groups. They in turn begat their own anti-science backlash: The Incoherence of the Philosophers, a highly popular treatise by the Arabic theologian Al Ghazali.
The aforementioned Dar Al-Hikma was the site of an enormous translation project, where scholars worked day and night to translate the great scientific works of ancient Greece, India and China into Arabic. But, as the scholar S. Frederick Starr has pointed out, the translators focused on works that they considered to be of practical and utilitarian value, while ignoring the great tragedians and historians.
As Starr speculates, “Reading Herodotus, the Arabs might have better appreciated the actual fragility of such seemingly all-powerful leaders as Croesus or Midas, while from Thucydides they could have studied the terrible consequences for states that are organized around their armies and war…”1
Apparently, they, like us, thought that they were spearheading a new era of enlightenment and well-being, and that the lessons from the past did not apply to their venture.
Predictably, this Islamicate globalism eventually came up against tribalism. The lower classes of Central Asia felt that their cosmopolitan, Arab-speaking rulers had turned their backs on their cultural patrimony and were more interested in impressing distant Arab overlords than in ruling their own kingdoms. Revolts arose from the remotest rural areas.
It all sounds strangely familiar, doesn’t it?