MEI Visiting Research Professor Peter Sluglett's near-completed atlas of Islamic history provided the context for his recent discussion on "the end of Islamic history." The full house event, held at Traders Hotel Singapore, was co-organized by MEI and MUIS (the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore).
Sluglett contends that it was no longer possible to map historical events in Asia and Africa in terms of "Islamic history" by the First World War. The atlas, which comprises 43 maps covering the history of the spread of Islam throughout the world, thus ends before 1914, with the final map depicting Islamic reform and movements of resistance to colonialism in the Muslim world in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
The notion of a monolithic "Islamic world" had, according to Sluglett, largely disappeared "except in the minds of Western political scientists intent on regarding the contemporary 'Islamic' and 'Christian' worlds as forever locked in a 'clash of civilizations.'" In line with efforts to counter such negative images of Islam and the Middle East, he presented alternative accounts, including Donald Quataert's recent work on Ottoman industry that shows that the major pre-modern industry of the Middle East was textiles. This meant that it was not the Middle East failing to industrialize per se, but failing to industrialize "according to a pattern prescribed from outside."
Other factors that hindered rapid modernization in the Middle East, such as the region's poor natural resource base and the unequal terms of Ottoman-European commercial treaties of the 1830s and 1840s, led Sluglett to conclude that rather than attributing the lack of modernization to "any innate predisposition of a people or a group, either in a positive or negative direction," a myriad of factors—economic, ethnic, geopolitical, international, political and social—need to be considered in order to provide a more nuanced history of the Islamic world.