Were Islamic Records Precursors to Accounting Books Based on the Italian Method? A Comment. (Comment)

By Nobes, Christopher W. | Accounting Historians Journal, December 2001 | Go to article overview

Were Islamic Records Precursors to Accounting Books Based on the Italian Method? A Comment. (Comment)


Nobes, Christopher W., Accounting Historians Journal


Abstract: Some readers might have interpreted Zaid [2000] as claiming that the accounting practices of the Islamic State already used or directly led to double entry. This comment puts Zaid's paper into the context of prior literature and points out that no evidence is offered in that literature or by Zaid to dispute an Italian origin for double entry. Nevertheless, there are clear influences from the Muslim world on some antecedents to Western accounting developments and on some features of pre-double-entry accounting in the West.

INTRODUCTION: ZAID'S HYPOTHESIS

Zaid [2000, p. 89] argues that "the development of accounting records and reports in the Islamic State have most likely contributed to the development and practice of accounting in the Italian Republics as documented by Pacioli in 1494". Zaid would seem to be seeking to identify the influence of the practices of the Islamic State on one or other of the following Italian developments:

1. various pre-double-entry accounting records and reports, or

2. the accounting records and reports specifically related to the practice of double entry.

Readers might well infer from the reference to "as documented by Pacioli" that Zaid is suggesting Interpretation 2. Such an inference might be confirmed when Zaid [p.74] states, without questioning it, that (according to ten Have) it is "received wisdom" that Italians borrowed the concept of double entry from the Arabs. Zaid also refers to "the Italian Method" [title]. The main feature that distinguishes "the Italian Method" of recording described by Pacioli [1494] from that of previous Western systems is double entry.

Zaid has confirmed (1) that he has no evidence that Islamic records were kept in double entry in the period examined in his paper and that, despite the above references, he did not intend to claim Islamic influence over the development of the system. It is vital to establish this because a mass of literature would be overturned if Zaid had proposed and provided support for Interpretation 2. Not only do standard texts [e.g. Edwards, 1989, p.48; Chatfield and Vangermeersch, 1996, p.218] now assume an Italian origin for double entry, but scholars have expended great effort on explaining why it developed there when it did and how it spread from these origins [e.g. Bryer, 1993; (2) Mills, 1994].

The purposes of this comment are to try to summarise the literature relating to the Islamic influence on accounting in order to put Zaid's paper into that context and to correct any misinterpretation of the paper that some readers may have reasonably made.

PRIOR LITERATURE

Double-entry bookkeeping (or, at least, substantial elements of it) can be found in use by Italian merchants in Provence in 1299-1300 [Lee, 1977] and in London in 1305-8 [Nobes, 1982] and in the records of the commune of Genoa in 1340 [de Roover, 1956]. It can be seen evolving in Italy in records earlier than this [Yamey, 1947; de Roover, 1956; Lee, 1973]. It is the later Venetian version of the system that Pacioli describes in a small section of his Summa.

There is widespread acceptance that many of the necessary conditions for the development of double entry (as suggested by Littleton, 1966) were established in the Muslim world earlier than in Italy and that they probably moved from the former to the latter. Parker [1989] examines this in detail. Incidentally, the suggestion that Hindu/Arabic numbers are important for double entry (as in many references noted by Parker, 1989, p.110) can be countered by referring to the use of Roman numerals in the Farolfi and Gallerani records [Lee, 1977; Nobes, 1982].

Parker [1989] identifies medieval Jewish traders as the major intermediaries for taking Muslim ideas to Italy. He leaves open the question [p.112] of whether there was direct influence on accounting practices rather than on the antecedents of those practices (such as paper, arithmetic and money). …

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