by Jehad Al-Omari
For the last six months or so, I have been engaged in a mammoth reading project which is the biggest one I have ever undertaken. Prior to this current one, one of my reading projects was to re-read all of John Le Carré’s novels in which George Smiley was the central character. I was fascinated by this enigmatic, secret-world figure and his relationship with his wife and how John Le Carré developed this character over the years but never really told his full story. With every new novel, John Le Carre added more snippets but with all he told us about George Smiley many aspects of his life and complex character remained a mystery even after I read all of the Smiley series. I believe with a lot of research and imagination it is possible to write a whole new novel on George Smiley. It is certainly a project that I plan to save for my retirement.
Anyway, my current project has involved reading the three-volume ‘The Venture of Islam: Conscience and History in a World Civilization’, by the late Marshall Hodgson, a professor at the University of Chicago. His book is almost 1,600 pages of historical philosophy. It has been the hardest reading I have ever undertaken. Normally when I read books in English, I average about 30-40 pages a day; more than that if I am on holiday. With The Venture of Islam I barely managed 10 pages a day and there were many occasions when I had to re-read what I had read the previous day. Although it is a book on the history of Islam from its rise in the seventh century AD till the 20th century, it is not like any other history book I have read. To start with, Hodgson was not interested in simply relaying the history of Islam in a simple chronological order. Instead, his many digressions and commentaries on historical events, people, sciences and arts make it a complex and difficult piece of work to absorb.
The first thing that caught my attention was the title. What does he mean by “Venture”? And could a religion of Islam’s magnitude and importance be referred to as a venture? Indeed, as I was reviewing the book on social media and sharing certain extracts of it on Facebook, many of my friends either objected to the term ‘venture’ or asked me to clarify what he meant by it. I had to wait till the last few pages to realize what he meant. In a nutshell, Hodgson believed that whilst Christianity was born out of Judaism as a venture in Love and Redemption, Islam was a venture in Equality and Justice. On the other hand, one can imagine that writing about Islam was Hodgson’s own venture in preparation for writing about World History, a book denied us by his death in 1968 aged just 46.
After I finished the three volumes by Hodgson, I embarked on a book consisting of many articles by historians and academics commentating on The Venture of Islam and its author’s life, tribulations and ambitions. This book on Hodgson was published in 2018 whereas The Venture of Islam was published in 1974 posthumously. This 50-year gap between the death of Hodgson and the renewed interest is in itself telling of the book, its importance and the changed world we live in, particularly when it comes to how we view history.
As an Arab, the first thing that struck me about Hodgson’s book is his uncompromising stance in decentralizing the Arab world in the study of Islam. From the beginning, he makes it clear that the Islamic civilization is both Arabic and Persian simultaneously. Without admitting the Persian elements in Islamic civilization, we would never begin to understand its significance, breadth, impact on world history and its spread. This decentralization of Arabia in the study of Islamic history has its roots in Hodgson’s central philosophy on world history and not a pure fascination with Persian history and poetry as I initially thought, as will become more apparent later in this article.
As fascinating as the book may be to those interested in history, Hodgson’s personal life, academic endeavours and pains are just as interesting. To start with, Hodgson was a Quaker, and this played a central role in his views and fascination with Islam, especially Sufism or mysticism. As a Quaker, he could identify with Islam’s stance on the relationship between the Muslim and his Creator, where intermediaries such as clergymen are not necessary. Moreover, the universality of Sufism in Islam in encompassing all other creeds and religions, together with its focus on the inner individual, appears to have touched many chords in Hodgson’s own belief system. Another dimension of Hodgson’s Quaker beliefs was his opposition to World War II and the fact that he was a conscientious objector. He was interned for over a year as a result. It appears that the eruption of World War II made him what was called then an “internationalist objector”, and a fierce one at that, believing, as he did, in non-violence. Hodgson’s objection to the war seems to have shaped his international outlook. It led him to try and rethink US America’s role in the world as a rising power that should not be isolationist. He began to think more in terms of world history and away from the Eurocentrism which dominated historical scholarship in both Europe and the USA.
In viewing world history, Hodgson had two preoccupations. First, he stressed that Western and Islamic civilizations are quintessentially twins and are extensions of the Persio-Semitic Graeco-Roman cultures and monotheistic traditions of Western Asia. Secondly, this means we can’t consider that Western civilization is a European product. Rather, it would not have occurred had it not been for cumulative Eurasian and African traditions. Hence, Hodgson argued, the belief that there is a straight line from Western civilization back to Ancient Greek civilization is nothing but an illusion.
Hodgson’s world view and universalism in the Sixties perhaps makes him amongst the first global thinkers. His views on Europe were certainly years ahead of Edward Said and his most famous thesis on “Orientalism” and subsequent work on “Culture and Imperialism”. All of this raises the question as to why Hodgson’s work did not receive the attention it deserved in the Seventies, whereas today we are witnessing a revival of interest in his work. We can find two main reasons. First, that historians at that time were more preoccupied with the Cold War as opposed to world history. Secondly, and to use Hodgson’s term, there was a ‘technicalistic’ approach to viewing history in terms of hard facts, whereas today we are supposedly more interested in culture and the softer aspects of history.
In my opinion, all the preceding makes Hodgson a pioneering globalist thinker and historian who didn’t just follow in the footsteps of Arnold Toynbee and Oswald Spengler but exceeded them in rejecting Eurocentrism and Western hegemony.
However, this raises a new question. What would Hodgson make of today’s Globalization? We will never know. But writing as someone who spent almost a quarter of a century teaching and preaching to international managers, mostly from Western countries, the value to all economies and people of multiculturalism and globalization, I do not see that much benefit has accrued to those societies and cultures on the receiving end of Western capitalism. All that multiculturalism has achieved is to strengthen the hands of global Western companies in doing business around the world. They have given very little back to under-developed economies.