10/28/2014 06:37 pm ET Updated Dec 28, 2014

Learning From the Silk Roads: Food, Manners, and World Politics

In my previous post, I introduced the Silk Roads as a remedy to contemporary crises. An old friend -- I'll call him Professor Rao -- read the post and challenged me to explain its practical applications...

RAO: Besides romantic nostalgia, what can the ancient Silk Roads (1st-15th centuries AD) offer us today, especially when faced with mass shootings in Parliaments and schools, viral contagion in bodies and the Internet, drones and weapons of mass destruction, ecological disasters... and so on?

The Roads petered out when Europe's merchant ships accessed the same goods and markets with superior technology and visionary men. Not only did they encounter a new landmass along the way but they also established a New World of politics and economics, ideas and norms, institutions and practices. What we call "modernity."

Aren't you indulging in simplistic, wishful thinking by dusting off the Silk Roads as a feel-good panacea for contemporary times?

ME: Far from it. To assume that anything of duration and consequence, like the Roads, could end just like that, because a New World came along, indicates "simplistic" and "wishful" thinking of the highest order! Your rendition of modernity may not "feel good" -- some laud it as "realist" -- but is it any less of an interpretation?

We have concrete evidence of how life was lived on the Roads, enabling them to last almost 15 centuries.

Food serves as an apt example.

Let me explain.

In the Silk Road Research Initiative (SRRI), we look at food as an entry into multiple civilizations or what we call worlds. We trace who made what, where, how, and why to understand how food both reflected and created worlds.

One student, Badrul Hisham Ismail, is researching rules of hospitality along the Silk Roads. He focuses on Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (450-505 AH/1058-1111 AD), one of Islam's great thinkers from the 12th century. Theologian, logician, jurist, and mystic, al-Ghazali lectured mostly in Baghdad or led the life of a wandering, whirling dervish. In his most celebrated work, The Revival of the Religious Sciences, al-Ghazali devoted an entire chapter on manners related to eating. Among other things, the chapter focused on the proper rules of conduct when dining with company. (Different rules applied when dining alone.) Al-Ghazali did not intend these rules as etiquette only. Rather, he codified manners to nurture a sense of responsibility in hospitality, especially between host and guest, so that each may "delight the heart" of the other.

For example:

• A host should not impose. Invitations should go only to those who can accept and with happiness.

• To prevent feelings of resentment, the host should reserve portions of the dinner for his household before the guest arrives.

• A guest should not focus exclusively on gratifying the stomach. The guest should also "gladden" the host's heart by not making extra demands. Conversely, the guest could make a suggestion if it would please the host.

• For both host and guest, being comfortable at the table is better than increasing the meal by two dishes.

International Relations would benefit from these rules of conduct as general principles. For example:

• On Imposition. Too often, the Self impose their agenda (e.g., "regime change," "structural adjustment") onto Others that are unwilling or ill-prepared, thereby producing outcomes (e.g., insurgency, corruption, alienation) that exceed the original, so-called problem (e.g., lack of "democracy" or a "free market").

• On Taking Care of One's Own. Leaders need to consider the welfare of their own populace before inviting Others into the national household. Otherwise, a sense of injustice will simply swell until, one day, it implodes the house.

• On Transcending Appetites. Neither power nor profits can decide everything. One has a responsibility to ask: how else would a community benefit? If there is none, then the plan or project or investment needs to be reconceived.

• On Ease. Adding incentives (an extra "dish" or two) cannot substitute for a feeling of ease between Self and Other, regardless of who is host or guest. Incentives may entice the present but ease assures the future.

Domestic politics would benefit, also. Community tensions -- whether stoked by class, race/ethnicity, religion, ideology, or lifestyle -- could lessen and perhaps reconcile with mutual consideration and respect as constant reminders, as with each Self seeking to "delight the heart" of the Other.

In turn, we delight ourselves. After all, who does not have multiple worlds swirling inside? Instead of squelching one world for another, because it would make us more "successful-legitimate-desired," we may learn to integrate these multiple worlds, strengthening each as we strengthen ourselves.

RAO: Did not al-Ghazali follow his chapter on manners with one on marriage? And he discussed the latter, I believe, exclusively from the man's perspective. One of the advantages of marriage, he cited, is liberation from "household duties" -- like cooking! Are you not cherry-picking your sources here?

ME: Not at all. I read al-Ghazali in light of the present. That is, I ask: how does his rules for proper dining help us retain the best of modernity -- like the innovations you mentioned earlier -- while overcoming its pitfalls?

RAO: Such as?

ME: Defining universality as what the West wants, security as what the State wants, and equality as what Corporate Elites want.

Consequently, we repeat, endlessly and numbingly but with better technology, all the tragedies that bedevil us today.

The Silk Roads can help to redress such mindlessness.

RAO: High expectations for a hazy concept!

ME: Still not convinced? Then let me tell you a story of spices and democracy...


L.H.M. Ling teaches International Affairs at The New School where she also directs the Silk Road Research Initiative (SRRI).