Genius Denied and Reclaimed: A 40-Year Retrospect on Marshall G.S. Hodgson’s The Venture of Islam – By Bruce B. Lawrence

Bruce B. Lawrence celebrates Hodgson’s moral vision

Marshall Hodgson was both a genius and a visionary. While he may have seemed to be just another university professor, at once restless, innovative, and genial, he was also an academic Übermensch with a global agenda. He wanted to change the world by changing the way we saw, understood, and engaged Islam within world history. Born in 1922, he was drafted but as a Quaker refused to fight in World War II. After serving five years in detention camp, he returned to school, graduating from the University of Chicago with a PhD in the early 1950s. He had been teaching from the notes that became The Venture of Islam for over a decade before his demise in 1968. Forty-six years after his death, and 40 years since the posthumous publication of his magnum opus, his legacy remains puzzling. Was he ahead of his time, or has he been overtaken by the Cold War and its aftermath, including the horror of 9/11, along with its own, persistent aftermath?

Hodgson was informed, above all, by a moral vision of world history. He thought that Islam mattered because it righted the intellectually wrong yet emotively triumphalist notions of Eurocentric domination in world history. Hodgson began by expanding the backdrop for Islam to include the emergence of all historically documented societies. He stressed the formative features of world civilization dating from 3 millennia before the Common Era. By 1500 BCE, there had emerged four core cultural areas: Mediterranean, Nile-to-Oxus, Indian, and Chinese. It was two rivers, the Nile to the south and Oxus to the north, which provided the map markers etching the core area of what became Islamicate civilization. There was no Middle East or Near East, since in each case these qualifiers presumed an absent center: middle to where? near from where? east of where? Instead, it was these two major waterways, the Nile and the Oxus, which framed major developments characterizing the earliest three phases of Islamicate civilization. They are best viewed in alliterative or assonant pairs.

The first phase Hodgson called Formation and Orientation (500-634), which ends after the death of the Prophet Muhammad and his initial successor, Abu Bakr. The second is a phase of Conversion and Crystallization (634-870). Though Islamic rule comes to prevail, there are not yet Muslim majorities in all regions under Islamic rule. The third phase is Fragmentation and Florescence (970-1041), as Muslim polities splinter while Islam itself emerges as a major civilizational force for the first time.

What follows is no less important but not as easily summarized as those first centuries of Islamic expansion and rule. A fourth phase, Migration and Renewal (1041-1405), carries us through the early Mongol invasions and the aftermath of Tamerlane. It is followed by a fifth phase of Consolidation and Expansion (1405-1683); Hodgson ends this period with a glance at Indian Ocean Islam after reviewing the three land-based empires, Ottoman, Safavid, and Mughal (or Indo-Timuri). Finally, there crystallizes the sixth phase of Reform, Dependency, and Recovery (1683-present); completed after Hodgson’s death, it includes a postlude from WW II to the present,titled “Islam and Globalization: the Age of Mobility”. [See “the Islamic World”, an epitome by Hodgson’s former student, Marilyn Waldman, along with Malika Zeghal, in Encyclopaedia Britannica online.]

Here in nuce is what Hodgson argued about the importance of seeing Islam over the timeframe of 1500 years but with an emplotment that was closer to 3000 years. The interaction of the known world is crucial. The Nile-to-Oxus, the future core of Islamdom, was the least cohesive and the most complicated of the four cultural core areas. Whereas each of the other regions developed a single language of high culture — Greek, Sanskrit, and Chinese, respectively — the Nile-to-Oxus region was a linguistic palimpsest of Irano-Semitic languages of several sorts: Aramaic, Syriac (eastern or Iranian Aramaic), and Middle Persian (the language of eastern Iran). The Nile-to-Oxus region, of course, became conjoined with the Arabian Peninsula through the expansion of early Muslim rule to neighboring regions, but the nature of the society, culture, and religion that evolved was bi-directional. Though the Arabs conquered, the people, the institutions, and the societies they conquered challenged and changed them. The crucial period is 800-200 BCE, known as the Axial Age because the world’s first religions of salvation developed in each of the four core areas, and from these traditions — for example, Judaism, Mazdeism, Buddhism, and Confucianism — derived all later forms of high religion, including Christianity and Islam.

Venture of Islam 3 vols
Marshall G.S. Hodgson, The Venture of Islam: Conscience and History in a World Civilization, 3 vols., University of Chicago Press, 1974, 1633 pp., $105

To begin to understand Hodgson the man or to appreciate his legacy, one must begin where he began: with a moral vision that accommodates civilizational continuity and change. At the World Council of Middle East Studies Conference in 2014, one of Hodgson’s most distinguished students, Huricihan Islamoglu, epitomized that vision with four essential points: All of us are in this together and there is a shared history more significant than the differences and conflicts that separate us; the individual matters in a pragmatic, economic context; all human action is historically contingent, subject to an ebb and flow that can only be understood retrospectively and with constant self-criticism; and finally, the individual counts not just as contingent subject but also as empowered agent of change.

There is only world civilization and Islam is a part of it, not apart from it.

Hodgson had precursors, including the 14th century polymath Ibn Khaldun. Ibn Khaldun had argued that history was about social organization and civilizational patterns, and that religion mattered less for its heroes than for the patterns of social exchange they promoted. In a similar vein, Hodgson locates Islam not as an outsider but an insider to world history, with more than religion at stake. Islam was so broad, its influence so pervasive, it defies categorization as Muslim or Islamic, belonging only to Muslim actors and practices, creeds, rituals, or structures. Instead, for Hodgson, there is a vibrant, moving, resilient tradition that is best understood as Islamicate. The –ate is much more than an added syllable: it is a stark challenge to rethink all that is meant by Muslim and Islam. It is the social and cultural palette that emerged from Islamic rule, encompassing and influencing non-Muslims as well as Muslims. Islamicate, with the ate tacked on to the end, adds oddity and resonance to what becomes the heritage of Islam for world civilization.

Underlying this central argument is an even larger premise: there is only world civilization and Islam is a part of it, not apart from it. Islamicate tradition encompasses but also projects all the elements of Islamic thought that came from pre-Islamic resources — Persian, Hebrew, Greek, Latin, by language; Magian, Jewish, and Christian by religion; Byzantine, Sassanian, Mongol by imperial domains. Islam — or, more accurately, Islamicate civilization — in turn, becomes part and parcel of the emergent West in developments that unfolded after 1800.

The Hodgsonian project did not end with his death. It is ongoing. In 2014 Islam and Muslims are still struggling to be part of world history on a global plane. The so-called clash of civilizations debate, linked to both Bernard Lewis and Samuel Huntington, as well as one of Huntington’s former students, Frances Fukuyama, only highlights Euro-centrism and Western hegemony by other means, with old arguments recycled under new rubrics. Beyond the several critiques of civilizational theory one must locate an alternative path connecting pre-modern to modern history. To rethink the Afro-Asian ecumene (the known world before 1500 CE) as a cosmopolitan vision of polycentric nodes requires attention, above all, to metacities, and to networks that link disparate metropoles from Asia to America, from the Pacific and Indian Oceans to the Mediterranean and Atlantic.

Among all world historians of the 20th and now 21st century, only Hodgson has accented Islamicate civilization as itself the locus of modern history: without developments in Islamdom (the counterpart to Christendom in historical reckoning), the so-called rise of the West would never have happened. The Venture of Islam corrects the fallacy that the defining arc of global civilization is centered in the West, with not just the Muslim world but also the so-called Third World and the larger Afro-Asian ecumene deemed to be parochial, traditional, and underdeveloped

Without developments in Islamdom (the counterpart to Christendom in historical reckoning), the so-called rise of the West would never have happened. The Venture of Islam corrects the fallacy that the defining arc of global civilization is centered in the West.

Hodgson uniquely and decisively underscored the pervasive notion of an inclusive, multi-centered world order where Islamicate norms and values informed what have now become cosmopolitan longings and belongings. Constitutions were not just Western inventions but also adaptable, critical instruments, helping to shape an Islamicate cosmopolitanism during the 20th and now 21st century. Legal pluralism predates the 18th century, and Hodgson demonstrated how a hemispheric world history, paying equal attention to all parts as interactive nodes in a single system, requires us to see the multiple ways that Persianate, Turkic, and Indic cultures and societies redefine constitutionally mandated citizenship in accordance with Islamicate norms and values.

I consider Hodgson’s contribution of pivotal importance to the ambiguous yet productive category “Islamicate cosmopolitanism.” This category involves citizenship, cultural identity, class/ gender perspectives, and, of course, network theory, across time and space but always relating to cities. It involves not just Muslims but all those who are engaged by Muslim others, whether in a majority or minority Muslim polity. Despite the screeds of terrorism and Islamophobia, Islamicate pluralism has emerged, and deserves analysis, as the unexpected yet evident consequence of Hodgson’s moral, cosmopolitan vision.

I am an unabashed Hodgsonian, never having known him but having taught The Venture of Islam for over 35 years at several universities. Others have been charier of relating the Hodgsonian legacy to their own work. Consider the caveat of a sympathetic fellow academic, Anouar Majid. In his broad gauged manifesto, Unveiling Traditions: Postcolonial Islam in a Polycentric World (2000), Majid, a Moroccan literary critic teaching in the USA, noted Hodgson’s focus on language: “Islamicate refers not only to the religion of Islam but also ‘to the social and cultural complex historically associated with Islam and the Muslims, both among Muslims themselves and even when found among non-Muslims.’ Although this eminent scholar made a compelling argument for the need to coin new terminology to deal with the history of ‘Islamdom,’ older prejudices continue to determine the questions asked by, and consequently the outcomes of, scholarship on Islam.”

But just how do “older prejudices continue to determine the questions asked by, and consequently the outcomes of, scholarship on Islam?” One has to assess the reception of Hodgson in both the UK and the USA. Some ignore him, others read him selectively, still others have tried to refute him. The British historian Frances Robinson engages with Hodgson’s ideas but not his terminology or frame of argument. He gives full credit to Hodgson for the inspiration and the goad to produce his own Atlas of the Islamic World since 1500 (1982). A luxuriant coffee table text, with more maps than Hodgson and also abundant, evocative pictures, it is dedicated to just the modern period, since 1500. While Robinson’s Atlas sketches the major themes of political, economic, and religious history that define Islam in relation to the West, Islam remains outside the West, the ‘other’ confronting yet also defining the West.

The American historian Ira Lapidus is similarly indebted to Hodgson. Not only does he reproduce maps from The Venture of Islam but he also echoes many of Hodgson’s perspectives in his extensive work, A History of Islamic Societies (1988). Reducing the three-volume Venture of Islam (over 1600 pages) to one volume (a ‘mere’ 1002 pages) is itself an advantage, yet Lapidus goes further: he also telescopes the history of Islam into three phases: Islamic emergence, or the emergence of what he calls Islamic mass societies; the long period of diffusion, including the growth of the major empires; and, most recently, the period of European dominance, relative economic decline, and also post-colonial nationalisms. Lapidus is not so much Hodgson-lite as an alternative way of understanding contemporary Islam, mainly as an urban-oriented cultural phenomenon with broad, often unintended political and social consequences.

While both Robinson and Lapidus applaud without embracing Hodgson, some British scholars openly oppose Hodgson. Christopher Bayly of Cambridge, in his 2013 Humanitas lectures at Oxford now available as a podcast, critiqued Hodgson for his persistent Teutonic essentialism and his clandestine Third Worldism. Bayly argued that Hodgson tried to disguise his own marginal pursuits (he was a vegetarian as well as a pacifist) and to substitute Islam/Islamic world for Third World. Bayly alleged that Hodgson used Muslim persons and cases, along with Islam-specific arguments, in order to buttress his counter-capitalist, quasi-socialist appeal as a world historian.

Bayly’s view has been challenged, even within British academia. Faisal Devji of Oxford was invited to give the rejoinder to Bayly. Devji applauded Hodgson’s effort to insinuate Islam between Europe and India, forging a new model of hemispheric history. In particular, he called attention to Hodgson as a moralist on the margins. Since Hodgson wrote but one short monograph, The Secret Order of Assassins (1955), speculated Devji, was not that work in some sense the weathervane for the The Venture of Islam, itself a didactic project turned into a multi-volume book? While Devji overstates the Persianate themes in volume three, heavily edited after Hodgson’s death, he still sees the big frame and the moral thrust of Hodgson’s labor, a refreshing contrast to the narrow diatribes that mark Bayly’s intervention.

What above all characterized Hodgson was openness about scholarly pre-commitments and the continuous, unending need to exercise self-criticism. To cite Huricihan Islamoglu once more, what distinguished Hodgson from his colleagues at the University of Chicago and elsewhere in American academia was his “unconstrained openness about himself, his ambivalences, and his strife. He was a man trying to discover or actualize himself as a man of Enlightenment (not the Enlightenment), a Westerner with all its contradictions. Not constrained by Quakerism or by narrowly defined leftism, he strove to re-cast himself as a universal man with a moral position. It is that quest that permeates Hodgson’s life as also his work.”

And now more than 40 years after Hodgson, we are witnessing an uptick in scholarly use of “Islamicate.” Some recent publications have noted the robust resilience of Islamicate as a qualifier for pre-modern cultural/intellectual engagement across creedal, sectarian, or linguistic borders in Afro-Eurasia. From E.J. Brill in Leiden there is a new journal, Intellectual History of the Islamicate World (since 2013), while another academic collective with inclusive links to all periods and perspectives of world history has launched a website, Society for Contemporary Thought and the Islamicate World (since 2010), with both a book review and debate forum.

Hodgson’s relevance to the 21st century can only be secured through the classroom, and it is over the value of his magnum opus as a teaching text that even the most rigorous and dedicated Islamic studies scholars remain divided. On the cusp of the new millennium Brannon Wheeler, another graduate of the University of Chicago, organized a conference to look at the process of what became the title for his edited book: Teaching Islam (2003). Asked to participate, I had to confess: “I am the first to admit that communicating Persianate and Islamicate nuances to undergraduates is a challenge. One can duck it, but at the risk of oversimplification and reversion to stereotypes. One can take it up, but only with judicious use of sources that have appeared since Hodgson’s The Venture of Islam. One might best begin by assigning the Encylopaedia Britannica (EB) instead of the original text. It was an accomplished historian of premodern Afro-Asian Islam, Marilyn Waldman, who penned the EB entry, ‘The Islamic World.’ Waldman builds on the work of her own teacher, who was none other than Marshall Hodgson. Like the inventor of Islamicate and Persianate accents, Waldman tries to make sense of the actual stages of shift within Islamicate civilization. Her prose not only mirrors Hodgson’s but also simplifies and streamlines some of his major theses.” Over a decade later I still rely on Waldman. It was from her essay that I quoted at the beginning of this essay, and it is to her that belongs the credit for evoking the core themes, as also the salient neologisms, without reproducing all the arguments or ambiguities of the original three volumes published in 1974.

Waldman, like Hodgson, accounts for space, the known world at different moments in time. There are real junctures, defined by multiple forces and also compelling individuals, as well as novel structures. The major areas coalesce as the Afro-Asian ecumene, or in a nod to the ascent of Europe, the Afro-Eurasian ecumene. For the emergence of Islam, there are two crucial forces: the Iranian and Hebrew languages. Hence one needs the term Irano-Semitic, as also later Perso-Arabic. In effect, one cannot think of either Judaism or Islam without Iran. It is another vector, at once competing with and complementing its neighbors. Seamlessly yet effectively, Waldman weaves this distinction along with others into the artful narrative of her Encyclopaedia Britannica epitome of The Venture of Islam. Alas, however, because Waldman’s essay, with the Zeghal codicil, is available only through Encyclopaedia Britannica, it has not received the attention it and Hodgson’s vision merit.

The briefest and most poignant estimate of Hodgson’s legacy must be his impact on the general public. Since 9/11, but arguably since the 1979 Iranian revolution, we have endured the popular, media-stoked cry from the far right about the evil of Islam. While it has echoes in America, as in the recent flap about Bill Maher’s critique of Islam, it is from Europe that we find the strongest fires fanning the notion that Muslims don’t fit in, and don’t belong in, Western societies.

It was early summer 2014. I had visited al-Jazeera’s website for headline stories. One was entitled: “On anti-Semitism and Islamophobia in Europe.” The story’s author, a British sociologist with no political or ethnic axe to grind, starkly noted: “Though immigrants in general are singled out as a social and economic threat to European societies and workers, it is Muslims in particular who have come to epitomize the ‘bad other.’ This has been achieved not only through the xenophobic propaganda of the far right. Actually, conservatives and even liberal and left-wing parties have contributed to the fanfare.”

Hodgson is both so necessary and so perilous as a catalyst for our 21st century engagement with Islam

Muslims as “the bad other” — it was Hodgson’s nightmare, but it has become daily fare in 21st century Euro-America. It does not matter whether Sara Harris, the author of the al-Jazeera essay, is right or wrong in her assessment. From the deep perspective of the Axial Age, Muslims, like Jews, as also Christians and every other human community, will be vindicated by what they have done, not vilified by what has been done to them. Still, in the short term the headlines make it very difficult to turn from immediate crises that fuel the popular media to calmer assessments — at once more productive and more predictive — of historical change. That is why Hodgson is both so necessary and so perilous as a catalyst for our 21st century engagement with Islam.

And so one must conclude that for the general public, we find a focus so obsessively honed on the perceived clash of civilizations and the ongoing war on terror that the subtleties of Hodgson are not just masked but also erased in shrill debates about Islamophobia/Islamophilia. Scholars are partly at fault for this flattening focus. Though unintentionally, Edward Said’s Orientalism has impeded Hodgson’s vision. Said’s elegantly crafted 1978 manifesto reviewed and critiqued Orientalist scholars for their disguised political intent. He heaped scorn on Hodgson’s dissertation director, Gustave von Grunebaum, an Austrian refugee of Nazi Germany, who taught at Chicago in the early 1950s before later moving to Los Angeles and founding the Near East Studies Center named after him at UCLA. Hodgson, however, is absent from the pages of Orientalism. He differed as much from von Grunebaum as he did from his Chicago colleagues. He was in a real sense a pre-Orientalist, post-Orientalist, but because he died before finishing his major book, the storm of protest, like the fawning praise, over Orientalism highlighted Said’s approach rather than Hodgson’s counter-approach. Even though he raised issues about scholarly pre-commitment long before Said’s book appeared on the cusp of the Iranian revolution, and self-doubt began to pervade American academia, Hodgson’s contribution to a broader, more constructive view of Islam across time and space was occluded, first by the Orientalism debate in the 80s and 90s, and then by the war on terror from 2001 until now.

Generational change in tastes also cannot be ignored. To the extent that Hodgson’s legacy has been reduced, it is not just because of his too capacious historical vision or his choice of tongue twisting key terms; it is also because the public at large can no longer see nuance within Islam, or Islam as nuanced within world history, to the degree that was possible for Hodgson back in the mid-60s. Yes, those were terrible times for America: the Cold War, the Vietnam War, the grinding poverty of many, and the turmoil of the Civil Rights movement. But there was room for a moral vision, one that Hodgson provided and one that still beckons.

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