Rise and fall of civilisations

Ever since Ibn-e-Khaldun laid the foundations, rise & fall of civilisations has been favourite theme among historians

Dr Asad Zaman November 20, 2016
The writer is vice-chancellor of the Pakistan Institute of Development Economics. He holds a PhD in Economics from Stanford University and blogs at http://bit.do/az786

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 Muqaddimah was “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.

Published in The Express Tribune, November 21st, 2016.

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Rex Minor | 4 years ago | Reply 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. And who sir, is responsible for such an act, certainly not the European civilistaion? Civilisations have come and gone and enriched the humanty as a whole, it matters very little about the origin or source of the knowledge. All human knowledge emanates from the scriptures, the function of the philosophers has been to philosophise whereas the function of the science has been to explain it in a palatble manner. Historians have simply provided the consensed explanation of the times. Thank you for your opined position on knowledge. Rex Minor
Uzair | 4 years ago | Reply Very insightful piece. Obviously, the eurocentric theories prevail the mainstream academia right now, but there is an entire wealth of knowledge outside of the western civilization. I want to argue that the fall of Western civilization will come from its moral degradation, but that theory holds for the entire globe right now.
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