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

By Timur Kuran | Go to book overview

3
Commercial Life under Islamic Rule

Although little is known about Muhammad’s early years, historians generally believe that he worked as a commercial agent for a powerful clan in Mecca. Among the people he served was a wealthy widow named Khadija, whom he later married.1 Muhammad’s trading career is sometimes invoked as evidence of Islam’s compatibility with free enterprise and with commercial cooperation across groups defined by descent.2 The underlying logic is strained. It is akin to stating that because Jesus was a carpenter, Christians must have a special knack for making furniture. Nevertheless, it is significant that the founder of Islam was a successful merchant. His familiarity with markets and commercial risks predisposed him to strengthening mercantile institutions. A polity under his leadership would have granted merchants influence. It was unlikely to equate profit making with exploitation, as the thinkers of antiquity usually did.3

Unsurprisingly, the Quran endorses private property, encourages commerce, and supports personal enrichment. Some of its verses characterize profit as Allah’s bounty to humanity.4 Others allow the believer to combine piety with profit seeking. There is even a passage that legitimates commerce during the annual pilgrimage (hajj).5 The last provision bestowed approval on a prominent preIslamic practice of Arabia, thus encouraging its continuation. Once every lunar year, pagan tribes visited the Kaba, Mecca’s cuboidal shrine. There they suspended their endemic quarrels temporarily, to worship and conduct business in peace. Ridding the Kaba of its idols, Muhammad redefined it as Islam’s most sacred sanctuary and the focal point of its main commercial forum.

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