Academic journal article Pakistan Historical Society. Journal of the Pakistan Historical Society

What Did Hold Back the Middle East? the Thesis of the Long Divergence Revisited *

Academic journal article Pakistan Historical Society. Journal of the Pakistan Historical Society

What Did Hold Back the Middle East? the Thesis of the Long Divergence Revisited *

Article excerpt


The Middle East, beginning from the mid-seventh century for about one thousand years under the Muslim rule, experienced remarkable development, strong economy, high standard of living, and brilliant cultural and scientific activities. Then started a period of fall which continued for about four centuries. It is the same period when Europe made tremendous progress in the field of science and technology, politics and economics. The investigation into the causes of the rise of the West and decadence of the Middle East is a very pertinent theme, and a number of works studied its various aspects. Still disagreement exists on the real causes of decline. The context of the present paper is a book entitled The Long Divergence: How Islamic Law Held Back the Middle East by Timur Kuran (2011).1 The gist of The Long Divergence is that when the West gradually made the transition from medieval to modern economic institutions, corporations, banks, and big trading companies, which could assemble greater capital and survive longer, played the vital role in its development. Since certain provisions of the Islamic Law seemingly resulted into fragmentation of assets, in the opinion of Kuran, they proved impediment in the way of accumulation of capital and continuation of corporations, hence responsible for the fall of the Middle East whose dominant population is the followers of Islam. This is an amusing and a novel explanation but at the same time a simplistic analysis which ignores the deep rooted causes of economic decline of the Middle East. In fact, it is not only the matter of the Middle East. It is the West vs. the rest.2 The present paper argues that the political, intellectual and economic factors were not in favour of the rise of modern economic institutions in the Middle East. There was no question of Islamic law preventing them or causing their annihilation. Any such possibility could have been checked by applying fresh and creative thinking (ijtihäd) whose doors were still not closed.

For a person aware of the history of region, it is difficult to agree with the thesis of the long divergence. Its fault is obvious from the fact that under the full implementation of Islamic law, the region made enviable development for about a thousand years. Again the twentieth century developments in the Middle East proved inaccuracy of this thesis. Now the Middle East has big corporations, banks, investment trusts, industries, commercial exhibitions, etc. at the same time increasing adherences to the Islamic Law. In fact the modern economic institutions are effects of some other stronger factors. A holistic approach is required to find out the real causes of the fall of Middle East behind the West. This needs revisit of the thesis of The Long Divergence.

Emergence of Divergence

At the time when Renaissance sparked in Europe, the Middle East was among the most advanced parts of the globe and Muslim governments surpassed Europe in nearly all respects, including living standards, science and the arts. Economically also they were very rich (Hodgson, 1974, p. 47). However, from the thirteen century onwards the balance of economic potential and technological scope (including scientific and economic) moved progressively in Europe's favour (Cipolla, 1977, p. 10). Starting from the 16th century the graph of economic and intellectual power of the West started rising and that of Middle East began sliding and the divergrnce became longer and longer in the course of time.

Thus, in the development of the West, the scientific, intellectual, and economic advancements, that were taking place in Europe, played the vital role. The Renaissance that started during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, intensified in the subsequent periods. It had wide-ranging consequences in literature, philosophy, art, politics, science, religion, and other aspects of intellectual enquiry.

A host of factors helped in the ascendency of Western economies. …

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