Last night, I viewed Part 1 of the new documentary from Niall Ferguson on PBS, titled “Civilization: The West and the Rest“. I have previously enjoyed books by Ferguson, so I was looking forward to this documentary. Before I provide my opinion on the program, I will given you a brief overview of his thesis.
Ferguson is attempting to explain why Western Civilization has dominated the world over the last 500 years, when compared to the other two “competitors”, China and the Muslim world. He posits that there are six concepts that set the West apart from the two “eastern” cultures, including Competition, Science, Property, Modern Medicine, Consumerism and Work Ethic. In Part 1, he covered the first three of these. He compared Europe to China on the subject of political and economic competition. On the subject of science, he compared 17th century Europe to the Ottoman empire of the same period. And for property, he didn’t compare to the east at all, but compared the development of British and Spanish colonies in the New World and how the differences in private property and political freedom led to the supremacy of North America when compared to Latin America.
Now, I don’t disagree with Ferguson’s basic premise and even decision to break down the reasons to cover just six concepts – arguably, Modern Medicine is derivative of the utilization of Science, so I would really call it five items. Also, the Work Ethic could be argued to be derivative of Competition, but as I haven’t seen Part 2 yet, I will give him the benefit of the doubt for now.
However, I think he glosses over a few key points on the development of each culture and civilization that are critical to understand the reasons why the Muslim world was dominant in the 11-12th centuries, China in the 14-15th centuries and the European west from the 16th century onward.
First, the Islamic world was dominant in the years around 1000 primarily because of the solidarity of the Arab conquest of the Middle East, North Africa and Spain. Early Muslim scholars pursued the concept of ijtihad, where the pursuit of scientific knowledge and assessment of the world around them was viewed positively and even as a holy activity. Muslim scholars from Baghdad to Cordoba published many books on mathematics (the words algebra and algorithm come from the works and name of al-Khwārizmī) and transmitted the Indian concept of place value and zero to Europe. They also preserved the classical Greek scientific works that in many cases had been lost in Europe. They had philosophers such as Ibn Sina and Ibn Rushd who argued that reason and rational thought (Aristotelian philosophy) had a place in Islamic life and worked to reconcile these ideas with Islamic theology. However, they were resisted by other philosophers such as Al Ghazali who argued that reason had no place in Islam and that ijtihad was not a valid pursuit. Slowly, much of the Islamic world moved away from ijtihad to taqlid, or blind obedience and repetition of what had been decided before.
While these philosophical debates could have gone on for centuries in the Muslim world, as they later did in Europe, I believe they were disrupted by other events. In the 13th century, the Mongols, under Genghis Khan and his followers moved out of Central Asia, and sacked one Muslim city after the other, Bukhara, Samarkand, Qom and finally Baghdad, Aleppo and Damascus before being stopped at Ayn Jalut by the Mamelukes of Egypt. The destruction of the House of Wisdom in Baghdad and the use of psychological warfare by the Mongols marked a key change in the views of the Muslim world. Additionally, the movement of peoples out of Central Asia resulted in the transition of political power in the Middle East from Arab to Turk.
After 1258, the pre-enlightenment ideas of thinkers like Ibn Sina and Ibn Rushd vanish from the Muslim world. Thinkers in Europe, such as Aquinas, Spinoza and others were clearly influenced by their works as the Enlightenment took hold. But they disappeared in the Muslim world.
Ferguson touches on these issues when he talks about the banning of printing in the Ottoman empire until the late 18th Century and the lack of scientific thinking. But I feel he could have covered this more concisely.
The excellent work by Timur Kuran, “The Long Divergence“, does an excellent job of explaining how Islamic law held back the Muslim world from a competitive position, due to inheritance laws and no concept of incorporation. This links nicely with Ferguson’s assessment on the lack of competition – but he never really touches on it. Had he touched on this it would have added to the substance of his case.
On the subject of China’s decline, I think it would have been useful to explain more of the history of China. The idea of being a monolithic state was almost 1700 years old by the time of the Ming Dynasty. The Han dynasty had unified much of China and even though there had been unrest and regime change – the unity of China was never really at question. Ferguson leaves the impression than the Ming Dynasty was the pinnacle of Chinese culture, although one could argue the Tang Dynasty was similar in scope and advancement (albeit centuries eariler).
Ferguson also did not spend enough time on the reasons why China turned inwards in the 15th century after the death of the Yongle emperor. He alludes to Confucianism, economics and political intrigue without explaining any of them. Frustrating.
Finally, his selection of comparing the British and Spanish property rights developments in the new World didn’t really explain the difference between the West and the Rest. Reference to Kuran’s thesis would have provided a better example, comparing British / American property concepts to those of the Muslim world might have been a better example.
I await next week’s episode. I sense foreshadowing regarding how some of the failings of the Ottoman and Ming dynasties are repeating themselves in the West today and how the Decline of Western Civilization may be occurring again (where is Gibbon’s sequel???)
- Civilization: The West and the Rest (worldhistoryreview.org)
- Niall Ferguson: These 6 Questions Will Determine The Balance Of Power Between The East And The West (businessinsider.com)