Academic journal article Comparative Civilizations Review

Civilizational Analysis and Paths Not Taken, Part II: The Great Divergence

Academic journal article Comparative Civilizations Review

Civilizational Analysis and Paths Not Taken, Part II: The Great Divergence

Article excerpt

In Part I of this essay, I sketched an overview of several contrasting approaches to civilizational analysis. I also pointed out that Europe from the twelfth century onward underwent a revolutionary transformation that set it apart from all other civilizations. The present discussion presents the analysis that follows from that background and the insights of Max Weber's "Preface" to his Collected Essays in the Sociology of Religion (1920). It assumes the plural conception of civilizations pioneered by Durkheim, Mauss, and Benjamin Nelson.1 The intent of the discussion is to show how very different civilizational development turned out in three civilizations, even with the mediating intervention of direct encounters.

The first encounter was between Byzantium (Greek/Roman) civilization and Islamic civilization during the 8th and 9th centuries; the second encounter focuses on the 12th century interaction between Islam and the West; and the third, the 17th century encounter between European missionaries and Chinese scholars, when the Europeans attempted to introduce modern science to China. Because these issues are so large and complex, I can only offer a rough sketch here of the many issues.2

Islamic Civilization: Encounters with Greek and Hellenic Culture

The first encounter, which has often been overlooked, concerns the transmission of cultural resources from Greek and Hellenic civilization to the newly emerging Islamic civilization of the ninth and tenth centuries. The focus here is not on military clashes and conquests but upon what I shall call the axial institutions (Benjamin Nelson's phrase) of the two civilizations. The Islamic crusades or military conquests, fought over territory (although fateful for the peoples displaced), have little to do with the shaping of the fundamental religious and legal institutions that were to pervade Islamic civilization from that time to modern times.

When Islamic civilization was ascending, the main representative of what has come to be known as Western or European civilization was represented by Byzantium, inheritor of both the Roman Empire and Greek philosophy. It was an impressive cultural formation that often awed visitors (in places like Constantinople). For present purposes, I shall only highlight the fact that Byzantium's three central components were the legacy of Greek philosophy, the unsurpassed Roman Civil Law, and the Christian faith.3

While focusing on the transfer of philosophical and scientific knowledge to Islamic civilization, it should be borne in mind that the Emperor Justinian in the sixth century reformed the whole Roman legacy of law in creating what is known as the Corpus Juris Civilis or the Roman Civil Law. This was the most developed legal system in the history of the world (as extravagant as that claim may sound.)4 Justinian made this new legal code the law of the Byzantine empire in 534 A.D. However, because the Western portion of the Roman Empire collapsed in the middle of the 6th century, the Roman legal texts (nearly 4,500 pages in English) were lost for centuries in Western Europe and were not rediscovered until the eleventh century; that rediscovery reinvigorated European legal thought as I discussed earlier.

For us, however, I need to emphasize that the Roman Civil Law was taught in the law schools across the Middle East in the sixth and seventh centuries, and above all, in the leading Roman law school in Beirut on the very eve of the rise of Islam. This is significant because Muslims never paid the slightest attention to Roman Civil Law when Islamic law was being shaped and refined. This was so because Muslims considered everything before Muhammad's message the state of jahiliya, or ignorance and moral confusion. Consequently, Islamic law developed its own roots and its own path of jurisprudence. Only in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries did Islamic rulers and legal scholars realize that there were serious omissions in Islamic law from the point of view of economic development and political administration (among many others). …

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