THE LONG DIVERGENCE: HOW ISLAMIC LAW HELD BACK THE MIDDLE EAST by Timur Kuran Princeton, Pounds 20.95, 405pp Pounds 18.86 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
Around 300 years ago, the bazaars of the Middle East were overflowing with luxury goods. The commercial centres of the region attracted all variety of fortune seekers, speaking numerous languages. There was nothing to indicate that the region would not continue to be economically prosperous. But then the trajectory changed. The Middle East nosedived into a downward spiral of underdevelopment. So what went wrong?
The major causes of the economic stagnation of the Middle East, which includes Turkey, are not colonisation, or the conservative and anti-scientific attitudes of the people, argues Timur Kuran, a professor of Islamic studies at Duke University. While colonisation certainly played a role, many former colonies, such as Brazil and India, have managed to overcome the historic hurdles of occupation. Conservatism and anti-scientific attitudes are as prevalent in Europe as the Middle East, and they have not been a barrier in the development of the West. The real cause of underdevelopment in the Middle East, Kuran suggests in this meticulously argued book, is the Sharia, or Islamic law.
When it was first formulated, the Sharia developed institutions, such as contract law, that were advanced and sophisticated for its time. But the law has not evolved and adjusted to the new world of business and finance. There have been, throughout history, many attempts to reinterpret it, eliminate ambiguities and resolve contradictions. In some areas, such as tax collection, innovations never ceased. However, the substance of the law was not transformed significantly to cope with radical changes in the range and magnitude of economic activity. The reinterpretations were seldom more than odd ripples in a pond.
Kuran identifies contract law, rules of inheritance, the ban on usury, and the death penalty for apostasy as key elements of Islamic law that thwarted economic development of the Middle East. His goal is not to rubbish Islamic law. Indeed, he takes pains to explore its positive features. But to demonstrates convincingly that lack of innovation generated negative consequences, even from the progressive aspects of Islamic law.
During the Middle Ages, business transactions were based on personal relationships. Islamic contract law, on the other hand, promoted cooperation outside family and kin. Complete strangers could come together to form a business partnership on the basis of mutual interest that was recognised in law and upheld in courts. The problem was that an Islamic partnership could be terminated at will by any partner. The death of a partner also dissolved the partnership, with subsequent profit and loss going solely to the survivor. The children and family of the deceased partner could neither inherit nor automatically take his place.
This meant that durable business partnerships that could last generations did not emerge in the …