What did go wrong?


A few years back, a friend bought me Bernard Lewis’ “What went wrong” and asked me for a review. This is somewhat late – but you might find it interesting.

Lewis’ starting points seem obvious: is the 13th century, Islam was the future. The Islamic centers in Mesopotamia were the peak of civilization. 700 years later, Islamic Mesopotamia is poor and sordid.
He is searching for an answer in culture. That seemed weird to me. Culturally, the east – and especially the Islamic east – was not a lethargic culture.
And I think I have a better explanation now.
Reading material:
Weatherford, Jack (2004). Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World (review). New York: Crown. ISBN 0-609-61062-7.
 
In the 13th Century, Islam is probably the peak of civilization, and the 2 great centers are Persia and the central Asia empires. Both are devastated by the Mongols. The Mongols did not kill that many people, at least not directly. But they wiped out many of the great cities and laid waste to the agricultural countryside. So the great manufacturing centers of the Islamic world were gone. When Kublai Khan takes over china, he does so through slow assimilation, not direct conquest. It’s cities are not sacked, and the countryside is not devastated. And thus China takes the place that the Islamic empires had before – as the largest manufacturing center on the planet, unified under the Mongol rule.
Next, the mongols connect and reorganize Asia as a single economic unit, with an efficient unified transportation system. Guess what happens right after that.
The Plague.
When it hits Europe, it’s already adapted itself to humans, and is less lethal. And it still wipes out 1/3 of the population. It hit the east much harder.
And only then did the east get fragmented into a set of poor, warring, religiously intolerant states, governed by warrior elites who try to govern through religion, because they have nothing else to glue their empire with.
So:
True, we can explain history from culture, but culture can be explained as the outcome of economic and political conditions, and these in turn are the result of history. There’s nothing magical about the decline of the Islamic culture.
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