Why Does the Islamic World Lag Behind?

The passing of Bernard Lewis last week at the age of 101 recalls to mind perhaps his most famous book title about the Muslim world, What Went Wrong?  But maybe a successor of sorts has been found in Duke University economist Timur Kuran, who has a long article forthcoming in the Journal of Economic Literature that paints a pretty bleak picture of the economic and social structure of Islamic nations. Just check out the abstract of the article, which is bland in language but harsh in its conclusions:

Islam and Economic Performance: Historical and Contemporary Links

Timur Kuran

Abstract. This essay critically evaluates the analytic literature concerned with causal connections between Islam and economic performance. It focuses on works since 1997, when this literature was last surveyed. Among the findings are the following: Ramadan fasting by pregnant women harms prenatal development; Islamic charities mainly benefit the middle class; Islam affects educational outcomes less through Islamic schooling than through structural factors that handicap learning as a whole; Islamic finance hardly affects Muslim financial behavior; and low generalized trust depresses Muslim trade. The last feature reflects the Muslim world’s delay in transitioning from personal to impersonal exchange. The delay resulted from the persistent simplicity of the private enterprises formed under Islamic law. Weak property rights reinforced the private sector’s stagnation by driving capital out of commerce and into rigid waqfs. Waqfs limited economic development through their inflexibility and democratization by restraining the development of civil society. Parts of the Muslim world conquered by Arab armies are especially undemocratic, which suggests that early Islamic institutions, including slave-based armies, were particularly critical to the persistence of authoritarian patterns of governance. States have contributed themselves to the persistence of authoritarianism by treating Islam as an instrument of governance. As the world started to industrialize, non-Muslim subjects of Muslim-governed states pulled ahead of their Muslim neighbors by exercising the choice of law they enjoyed under Islamic law in favor of a Western legal system.

Worth reading the whole thing, which is written in plain English. One thing the article does not do is speculate about what the Arabian world would be like if it didn’t have the huge oil resources on which to generate huge (state-controlled) wealth, and whether the Arab world might have been better off without their oil riches, as it might have forced them to modernize and diversify. In other words, the paradox of gleaming modern cities in the Middle East amidst dysfunctional culture is a case study of the highly contested “resource curse” hypothesis.

The amazing thing is that this article got published at all. I’ll be interested in tracking the reaction it gets, though I suspect the initial response will be to try to ignore it. Though I suggest Prof. Kuran secure himself a Kevlar vest anyway.

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