My first thought after reading this book was to be mad at myself for not having read this earlier. As someone who follows world politics very closely, especially the regions whose history is covered in this book (which can broadly be described as “Asia”), knowing the history of this region is essential. There’s no way to understand what’s happening in the world today without understanding “how we got here” – and that’s this book’s #1 contribution and why I think it’s a must-read.
The book starts out with Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt, which is often given as the moment when modernity arrived to the Muslim world. It then talks about India & China, before pivoting to Jamal ad-Din al-Afghani and giving a detailed picture of his life and evolution.
The book then discusses Liang Qichao, a Chinese scholar (I admit I found this part least interesting), before talking about the eventual movements for independence after WW1. There’s a chapter about Rabindranath Tagore before it ends by discussing the postcolonial era, with some focus on the Iranian Revolution of 1979.
There’s also a bibliography which not only lists sources, but also gives a short description of each, which is excellent for readers who would want to use this book as a launching pad to learning more about the topics covered.
Why The Books is Relevant
In addition to al-Afghani, the book touches on Muhammad Iqbal, Akbar Illahabadi, Abd ar-Rahman al-Jabarti, Muhammad Abduh, Rashid Rida, Sayyid Ahmad Khan, Sayyid Qutb, Ali Shariati, and others just among Muslims. And many others from among non-Muslims as well. These writers, politicians, and thinkers struggled to reconcile themselves with the violent colonization and suppression of their lands by the West, which they also looked up to in certain ways for its superior technology and science, and also respect for human rights internally.
The Muslim intellectuals also had a tough time coming to terms with the fact that Islamic civilization had been entirely defeated and conquered by an outside force, something that had not happened before in Islamic history.
Reading this book you get the sense that at the end of the day, no one was able to really come up with good answers to any of these dilemmas and a lot of the issues they struggled with are with us today. Can we imitate the West? What does a modern Muslim state look like? And so on.
In fact it feels like not much has happened since the thinkers this book discusses were around and the Muslim world has been on auto-pilot for the last several decades. Can we name any relevant Muslim political thinkers of the past 30 years? I’m not too sure.
One area where I didn’t like this book’s angle was where it discussed the psychological dimensions of Asians’ response to colonialism. It depicts “bewildered” Asians who were used to a divinely ordered world and the “mysterious workings of fate” struggling to understand the Westerners who used their technology to radically manipulate the world around them.
This reading of history seems somewhat… essentialist? I’m not sure if that’s the right word. Maybe fatalistic? Both premodern Muslims and modern Europeans would want to use technology to manipulate the world around them, and Muslims today still believe in a divinely ordered world. I’m not sure if those observations, even if true, are enough to describe what exactly it was that happened when modernity arrived. However, this is a topic I’ve been thinking a lot about since reading this book and my opinion on it might change.
Another small nitpick I have is that the book often makes assertions about trends and events, some of which are pretty big claims, and doesn’t always cite its sources. Often times you can’t tell if it’s the author’s own interpretation or a widespread view that’s a matter of public record and thus wouldn’t need to be cited. Not having more in-depth knowledge about early modern and modern Islamic and East Asian history can be a detriment here.
This book gives a good introduction to how modernity arrived into Islamic and Far Eastern lands via colonialism and how it was responded to by native intellectuals. As stated above, learning about the history of these regions is enough of a reason to read this book. It certainly gives a lot to think about and I’m sure that if you read it, you’ll be thinking about the people and events described for a long time afterwards.
Photo credit: this website.