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

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

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

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


In the year 1000, the economy of the Middle East was at least as advanced as that of Europe. But by 1800, the region had fallen dramatically behind--in living standards, technology, and economic institutions. In short, the Middle East had failed to modernize economically as the West surged ahead. What caused this long divergence? And why does the Middle East remain drastically underdeveloped compared to the West? In The Long Divergence, one of the world's leading experts on Islamic economic institutions and the economy of the Middle East provides a new answer to these long-debated questions.

Timur Kuran argues that what slowed the economic development of the Middle East was not colonialism or geography, still less Muslim attitudes or some incompatibility between Islam and capitalism. Rather, starting around the tenth century, Islamic legal institutions, which had benefitted the Middle Eastern economy in the early centuries of Islam, began to act as a drag on development by slowing or blocking the emergence of central features of modern economic life--including private capital accumulation, corporations, large-scale production, and impersonal exchange. By the nineteenth century, modern economic institutions began to be transplanted to the Middle East, but its economy has not caught up. And there is no quick fix today. Low trust, rampant corruption, and weak civil societies--all characteristic of the region's economies today and all legacies of its economic history--will take generations to overcome.

The Long Divergence opens up a frank and honest debate on a crucial issue that even some of the most ardent secularists in the Muslim world have hesitated to discuss.


If randomly selected intellectuals were asked to explain why the modern economy took shape in northwestern Europe and not the eastern Mediterranean, the typical answer would contrast western flexibility with Muslim rigidity. Through the Reformation, the Renaissance, and the Enlightenment, many would say, western Christendom liberated itself from Church dogma and gave free rein to creativity. For its part, the Islamic world failed to free itself from the fetters of religious custom. Islam opposes innovation, it is often claimed, so Muslim social structures resisted adaptation and advancement.

Although this common interpretation carries grains of truth, it leaves unexplained why the degree of adaptability may have differed. If the economically regressive elements of Christianity were trumped, what kept the Middle East from overcoming Islam’s retarding influences? Why did religious reinterpretations essential to economic modernization diffuse to the Middle East with a lag? The conventional wisdom is also imprecise about the mechanisms through which Islam supposedly blocked economic development.

As I set out to ponder the mechanisms at play, there existed no single work to which readers interested in a broad analytical treatment could turn. Generations of distinguished scholars had studied particular periods, episodes, institutions, or regions. There had also been admirable attempts to measure the Islamic world’s economic performance, some by comparative economic historians, others by specialists on Islam or the Middle East. But insofar as attempts had been made to explain observed economic patterns, the emphasis, with few notable exceptions, was on symptoms rather than causal mechanisms. To observe that Muslims of the sixteenth century were indifferent to European advances in publishing is to identify a symptom of trouble, not to explain the unfolding process of retardation.

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