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Rethinking Europe and the Islamic World in the Age of Exploration

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image of Journal of Early Modern History

Our image of early modern Europe is one of religious wars, intellectual and scientific discoveries, and global explorations that "circumvented" the Islamic world and left it behind in the dust of progress. The Islamic world in the same period is pictured as stagnant and declining, unable or unwilling to adopt technologies or profit from discoveries made by a dynamic Europe. However, the idea of eastern immobility reflects not the reality of the east but the persistence of ancient western stereotypes. This essay describes the growth of those stereotypes, then discusses recent research on conditions in the Islamic world and how its results affect our understanding of relations between east and west. It sees transformations in the Islamic world as similar to those in western Europe, generating an image of two civilizations on parallel rather than opposing tracks. The source of European superiority in the modern period should not be sought in the decline of the east. The idea that while the west progressed the east stood still should be relegated to the horse-and-buggy era as something once believed but no longer credible, like the flat earth, spontaneous generation, or the medical use of leeches.

Affiliations: 1: University of Arizona


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