The Long Divergence: How Islamic Law Held Back the Middle East

By Timur Kuran | Go to book overview

14
Did Islam Inhibit Economic Development?

In seeking to explain why the Middle East—defined to include the Arab countries, Iran, Turkey, and the Balkans—entered the nineteenth century as an underdeveloped region, this book has focused on institutions that contributed to critical deficiencies. Until the eighteenth century, and in some respects even later, neither the people who lived under those institutions nor outside observers saw the unfolding problems. In the seventeenth century, not even foreigners whose organizational innovations were turning western Europe into an economic superpower understood that the Middle East’s economic infrastructure would become dysfunctional. They did not foresee that the region would need to transplant from abroad an entire institutional complex. Although certain statesmen, businessmen, and other players may have noticed particular inefficiencies—frozen waqf assets, atomistic financial markets, courts unsuited to impersonal exchange—none comprehended how such features were mutually reinforcing, or how they were blocking transformations essential to global competitiveness.

Part of the problem is that, alongside inefficient institutions, observers also noticed institutions that were working admirably well. The region’s bazaars carried a wide assortment of luxuries. Its commercial centers attracted fortune seekers speaking a babel of languages, much as Los Angeles and Paris do today. The capitulations allowed ambitious foreigners to operate in the region with increasing ease. Through waqfs, residents benefited from subsidized social services. Economic disputes were settled informally through arbitration or formally through courts that rendered judgments quickly.

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