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.