Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Shaj Mathew reviews Before the West

Ayşe Zarakol. Before the West: The Rise and Fall of Eastern World Orders. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2022. 313 pp.

Review by Shaj Mathew

11 January 2024

Why did the West win? A veritable cottage industry suggests familiar causes—capitalism, colonialism, industrialization, the Plague—that singly intrigue but collectively fail to convince largely due to their Eurocentrism. Ayşe Zarakol’s Before the West succeeds by rejecting the question altogether. Instead of viewing the West as the undisputed victor of history, it looks back in time, starting with the thirteenth century, to resurrect an epoch of Eastern power. Roving across early modern empires under the suzerainty of Genghis (Chinggis) Khan, Zarakol excavates a Eurasian concept of sovereignty that would inform those of Europe rather than imitating them.

While most theories of international relations take the Peace of Westphalia (1648) as their point of departure, Zarakol contends that Genghis Khan’s thirteenth-century dynasty, as well as the four Houses of Khan that would follow it into the seventeenth century, offer a loose but coherent model of sovereignty. These five centuries of Eurasian hegemony express what Zarakol considers “‘Chinggisid’ sovereignty,” a highly centralized world order in which power originates in the sovereign rather than in a religious order (p. 18). Neither asserting divine writ nor ventriloquizing godly messages, Genghis Khan arrogated the power to issue edicts through ceaseless imperial conquest. “The claim to have such awesome authority,” Zarakol writes, “could only be justified by a mandate for universal sovereignty over the world, as corroborated and manifested by world conquest and world empire” (p. 21).

Genghis Khan was therefore responsible for establishing “Asia as a political space of its own right by acting as a unifying sovereign over much of Asia,” Zarakol argues. “[His] main legacy is thus the creation of an Asian ‘world order’” (p. 57). That world order declined in the fourteenth century, but its core tenets would inform those of subsequent empires, such as the Timurids and the Ming Dynasty, who “chas[ed] a universal empire . . . and invoked, reproduced and modified the Chinggisid sovereignty model” (p. 90). Such a model aspired to universality without homogeneity: Chinggisid world empires were “ontologically porous” with their European rivals (p. 186). Imperialism was the structural condition of their syncretism.

This qualification enables Before the West—which evokes both the title and the spirit of Janet Abu-Lughod’s Before European Hegemony (1989)—to challenge the decolonial framework it would seem to court. In a forward-looking coda, Zarakol criticizes that movement for its ahistorical cult of authenticity premised on triumphant—yet modernist and nationalist—returns of non-European selves seemingly obscured by coloniality. Zarakol’s rich study of early modern Eurasian empires demonstrates that non-European pasts were themselves imperial, concomitant and co-emergent with world history’s succession of empires in interaction. The concept of sovereignty, understood in its broadest sense, was therefore not a European invention or construction nor the conceptual superstructure of a colonial base. Instead, as Zarakol’s study makes clear, sovereignty has multiple interconnected genealogies: Chinggisid and Westphalian among others.

Before the West is a salient contribution to our multipolar world’s conceptual toolkit. Part II of the book, entitled “Lessons of History,” imparts especially fascinating lessons for the present. In lieu of prognosticating, Zarakol sketches the criteria for a “post-Western” world (p. 241). Multipolarity, in this account, would represent the achievement not of material or military parity, but rather of a certain mindset: “We will know it happened when those who live elsewhere forget to wonder what those of us who live in the West are doing or thinking, when they forget that we act at all” (p. 243). Who knew double consciousness had a cure?