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

By Timur Kuran | Go to book overview

9
The Islamization of
Non-Muslim Economic Life

Until the late eighteenth century, no major religious community of the Middle East outclassed others in either commerce or finance. However, in the course of global economic modernization, local Christians and Jews registered advances that Muslims failed to match. By the nineteenth century Greeks and Armenians, and to a lesser extent Jews, were playing strikingly disproportionate roles in the region’s commercial and financial life, especially in cities. They had leapt ahead of Muslims also in living standards. That is why over the past two centuries Middle Eastern reforms to restore national economic competitiveness have included policies to improve the relative economic standing of Muslims.

The successes of minorities have been attributed to western favoritism toward non-Muslims, European imperialism, and the clannishness of the minorities themselves. But none of these factors arose in the eighteenth century; for instance, efforts to impose European control over the Islamic Middle East extend to the Crusades. So they leave unexplained why the minorities began to pull ahead of the majority in the eighteenth century, and not before. Also relevant, it is said, is that Muslims shunned interest, looked down on commerce, and had military duties from which nonMuslims were exempt. The first two claims are open to challenge, and all three raise a question of timing. None elucidates the preand post-eighteenth century patterns simultaneously. In other words, none makes sense of why no major differences existed before the

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