Published by EH.Net (May 2020)
Ahmet T. Kuru, Islam, Authoritarianism, and Underdevelopment: A Global and Historical Comparison. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2019. xvii + 303 pp. $35 (paperback), ISBN: 978-1-108-40947-6.
Reviewed for EH.Net by Jared Rubin, Department of Economics, Chapman University.
For centuries following the spread of Islam, the Islamic world was far ahead of Western Christendom by every conceivable metric of civilization: economy, science, philosophy, technology, urbanization, and empire. Yet, the Islamic world is not where the modern economy was born. At some point in the late medieval or early modern period, it fell behind the leading parts of Europe. It was in those places, particularly the Netherlands and Great Britain, where modern economic development began. Why was this the case? Why did the Islamic world lose its once sizable lead over Western Europe?
These are the questions tackled by Ahmet Kuru in Islam, Authoritarianism, and Underdevelopment: A Global and Historical Comparison. Kuru’s primary thesis is that the Middle East fell behind as a result of the “ulema (religious jurist)-state alliance” that took hold in many parts of the Muslim world beginning in the eleventh century. By this, Kuru means an alliance between the religious establishment on the one hand and the military state on the other. According to Kuru, this alliance marginalized intellectuals and bourgeoisie, and this persisted in most parts of the Islamic world until the twentieth century. Importantly, and correctly in my opinion, Kuru argues that this alliance is not a natural outgrowth of Islam, as was long argued by Orientalist scholars and more recently by Bernard Lewis. Kuru argues that this alliance emerged for the first time in the eleventh century and quickly became institutionalized via the madrasa system.
Much of the first half of the book is spent attempting to convince the reader that politics, science, and technology in the first few centuries after Islam were fundamentally different than what would follow after the eleventh century. This is uncontroversial, and Kuru does an excellent job summarizing the major developments from the period. On this front, Kuru is the best recent book I can think of in social science. He delves into the early history of Islamic science, mathematics, and philosophy, spanning most of the Islamic world from Spain to south Asia. Most readers knowledgeable in history will not come away convinced of something new — it is widely known that the Islamic world was well ahead of Western Europe (and perhaps the rest of the world) during Islam’s “Golden Age.” However, most readers will come away with much more insight into exactly what made the Islamic world so cutting-edge in this period.
Kuru proceeds to ask why the Islamic world fell behind. He posits that the “ulema-state” alliance that emerged in the eleventh century is to blame. This alliance emerged in the Seljuk Empire, which ruled large parts of the Middle East and Central Asia in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. It spread west from there, to the weakened Abbasid Empire and eventually toward Egypt and Syria under the Ayyubids and Mamluks. An important institution supporting the fiscal needs of these states was the iqta system (a militarized tax farming arrangement similar to the timar system used under the Ottomans), which gave the state financial independence and permitted the marginalization of the bourgeoisie. To make such a sea-change in the institutions of the state, the Seljuk model promoted the idea of religious legitimation of rule. And an institutional sea-change it was. Prior to the emergence of the ulema-state alliance, Islamic philosophy was vibrant and merchants had political power (mainly via their funding of ulema and philosophers). This changed with the movement towards the ulema-state alliance and the rise of madrasas. With a new source of legitimacy, rulers could afford to ignore the wealthy merchants who had previously been a central source of power. Philosophy also declined in favor of theology. Importantly, for Kuru, this meant that intellectuals were mostly sidelined, although Kuru goes to great lengths to show that intellectual activity merely slowed down; it did not stop altogether. This meant that there was little voice to counteract the ulema and Sufi mystics, neither of whom promoted rational thought. This arrangement was institutionalized through the madrasa system: “the ulema class had dozens, if not hundreds, of madrasas and thousands of members to disseminate its ideas, whereas the philosophers lacked institutional and financial bases except for arbitrary political patronage, particularly after the weakening of the merchant class, which had previously supported both philosophers and independent Islamic scholars” (p. 149). Even today, “the ulema have contributed to the weakening of [intellectuals and the bourgeoisie] by imposing certain religious restrictions that discourage conservative Muslim youth from pursuing careers in intellectual and financial sectors” (p. 60). These prohibitions required state support, which the ulema had as part of the ulema-state alliance. Kuru contrasts this with Europe, where the Renaissance and Enlightenment propelled philosophy, science, and ultimately economic development. He argues that this was where the economic divergence had its roots: the intellectual and mercantile classes of Europe gained greater power over time, while it was the religious clerics of Islam who maintained their grip on political (and, to a lesser extent, economic) power.
There are many things to like about Islam, Authoritarianism, and Underdevelopment. Perhaps above all, Kuru addresses head on the question “why did the Islamic world fall behind, despite being ahead for so long?” While such a question might not be controversial in some circles, particularly in the social sciences, much of Kuru’s audience does not consider this a correct question to ask. I certainly agree with Kuru that this is an important question, and understanding its answer helps us understand much about long-run economic development, both in the Islamic world and beyond. Kuru does an excellent job showing that a reversal of fortunes did indeed happen, and it was not just the result of colonization. Moreover, Kuru’s deep dive into early Islamic philosophy and science is admirable, and I believe most readers will learn a considerable amount from the first half of the book. Another one of the great strengths of Kuru’s tome is the documentation of the ulema-state alliance — both its origins and persistence. Such detailed documentation is largely missing in social science accounts of Islamic political history.
I believe that Kuru’s central thesis — the ultimate cause of the economic divergence was the emergence of an ulema-state alliance — is largely correct. Indeed, it strongly echoes the thesis I recently put forward in my 2017 book, Rulers, Religion, and Riches. This said, I believe there are three aspects to the book that could have been strengthened. Before I get to these, I would like to reiterate that there are indeed many good features to this book, and these positives well outweigh any drawbacks.
First, Kuru is a bit too quick to dismiss alternative explanations. He begins with the supposition that any explanation that cannot account for the initial economic lead of the Islamic world has limited explanatory power. This is undoubtedly true. He also correctly points out that while explanations focusing on colonialism make valid points regarding the detrimental effects of colonialism, they have a difficult time explaining the roots of the divergence, particularly because the timing is off. This said, Kuru is somewhat quick to dismiss works by Greif (2006), Kuran (2011), Blaydes and Chaney (2013), and Rubin (2017). These dismissals tend to take the tone of “there are counterexamples to one aspect of the argument” or “they cannot account for most of the observed phenomena” and thus should be dismissed (with the exception of Kuran, whose argument Kuru is not so negative on). But this is too high of a bar for arguments that attempt to explain major, macroeconomic movements over centuries. There will always be counterexamples (this is Kuru’s major argument against Greif; it is also used to counter Rubin). Arguments do not need to explain everything to provide deep insight (this is Kuru’s major argument against Blaydes and Chaney which, after all, is a nineteen-page article). In fact, if one were to hold Kuru’s argument to the standard he holds other arguments, it would also fail. But I do not believe this to be the case; I believe Kuru’s argument provides nice insight. Kuru’s argument would have been significantly strengthened had he focused on how these various arguments complement each other.
Perhaps this is a methodological issue. The works that Kuru dismisses are either empirical or support their theory via analytic narrative. Kuru’s work, meanwhile, is more of a narrative. The key distinction between narrative and analytic narrative is that the latter lays out the supporting evidence (in this case, historical evidence) within an analytical framework. Such a framework provides falsifiable predictions, and the analytic narrative provides evidence in support of these predictions. Kuru’s book does not do this. Its second shortcoming is that there is no real framework provided for understanding why the ulema-state alliance persisted for so long. In the words of economics, why was this an equilibrium? Kuru provides wonderful evidence that it existed and persisted, but why did it? Why did alternatives not arise? These are key questions to address for a book aiming to achieve a convincing causal explanation. On this front, the book is largely silent.
On this, I admit to being biased: understanding why this equilibrium occurred and why it persisted is central to my own book. On the one hand, Kuru is very good at showing this was not always an equilibrium in the Islamic world (my terminology, not his): for centuries following the spread of Islam, the alliance was weak at best, and merchants were not marginalized. Kuru and I agree on this point (although he does not believe so, as he incorrectly claims that I argue the alliance existed from the inception of Islam; we have some disagreement on details, but my views are largely aligned with his that this alliance emerged sometime around the tenth or eleventh century, after the religious establishment consolidated along with the four major schools of Sunni Islam). On the other hand, it is unclear from Kuru’s theory why this arrangement persisted for so long. A comparison to Europe makes this issue all the more apparent. As Kuru notes, such a cleric-state alliance also pervaded medieval Europe at certain times and places. What were the mechanisms that broke Europe out of this equilibrium? Kuru claims that the rise of the intellectuals, helped by universities and, eventually, the spread of printing facilitated the rise of Europe. But this is not enough. These events were not exogenous. They were part of a larger process through which religion became less important over time in European politics.
Finally, despite the fact that the book’s subtitle is “A Global and Historical Comparison,” this is not really a global theory. Almost nowhere outside of the Islamic world and Western Europe is mentioned in depth. And where Kuru attempts to explain the rise of Western Europe, there is much left wanting. As I read it, Kuru places significant weight on the rise of the European intellectual class (along with merchants) in the late medieval and early modern periods. While it is undoubtedly true that this class superseded its Islamic counterparts by the eve of industrialization, it is big leap to connect this to the rise of the modern economy, as well as why its locus was in northwestern Europe and not elsewhere. Kuru does (correctly) mention the importance of the printing revolution, Reformation, geographical discoveries, and the scientific revolution, but his emphasis remains on the role of intellectuals in making these events happen. This is not necessarily wrong — Joel Mokyr (2010, 2016) convincingly makes the case for an “Enlightened Economy” being central to England’s rise. But Mokyr’s argument is based on England in particular having numerous other, complementary factors such as a large base of highly-skilled workers. Nothing like this comes through in Kuru’s argument. In short, while Kuru’s argument regarding economic stagnation in the Islamic world is a deep one that is a real contribution to the literature, the arguments regarding the rise of Europe are less fleshed out.
If the latter half of this review seems negative, I urge you not to take that as indicative of my overall feelings towards Islam, Authoritarianism, and Underdevelopment. I believe it is the duty of any reviewer to highlight both their perceived positives and negatives in the book they are reviewing, and this is what I have attempted to do. In this case, I believe the positives well outweigh the negatives, and anyone interested in early Islamic history will get much from reading this book. The detailed history of early Islamic philosophy, science, and mathematics are a real treat to read, and are a great reminder that societies and economies ebb and flow.
Blaydes, Lisa and Eric Chaney. 2013. “The Feudal Revolution and Europe’s Rise: Political Divergence of the Christian West and the Muslim World before 1500 CE.” American Political Science Review 107(1): 16-34.
Greif, Avner. 2006. Institutions and the Path to the Modern Economy: Lessons from Medieval Trade. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Kuran, Timur. 2011. The Long Divergence: How Islamic Law Held Back the Middle East. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Mokyr, Joel. 2010. The Enlightened Economy an Economic History of Britain, 1700-1850. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Mokyr, Joel. 2016. A Culture of Growth: The Origins of the Modern Economy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Rubin, Jared. 2017. Rulers, Religion, and Riches: Why the West Got Rich and the Middle East Did Not. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Jared Rubin is a professor of economics at Chapman University. His most recent book, Rulers, Religion, and Riches: Why the West Got Rich and the Middle East Did Not, was published by Cambridge University Press in 2017.
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Comment by: Bernhard Benedikt KOEHLER