Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts The Long Divergence: How Islamic Law Held Back the Middle East

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

  • March 24, 2011
Timur Kuran

Professor of Economics and Political Science, Duke University

In the year 1000, the economy of the Middle East was at least as advanced as that of Europe. But by 1800, the region had fallen dramatically behind—in living standards, technology, and economic institutions. In short, the Middle East had failed to modernize economically as the West surged ahead. What caused this long divergence? And why does the Middle East remain drastically underdeveloped compared with the West? The Long Divergence provides a new answer to these long-debated questions. The book argues that what slowed the economic development of the Middle East was not colonialism or geography, still less Muslim attitudes or some incompatibility between Islam and capitalism. Rather, starting around the tenth century, Islamic legal institutions, which had benefitted the Middle Eastern economy in the early centuries of Islam, began to act as a drag on development by slowing or blocking the emergence of central features of modern economic life, including private capital accumulation, the corporation, large-scale production, and impersonal exchange. By the nineteenth century, modern economic institutions began to be transplanted to the Middle East, but its economy has not caught up. And there is no quick fix today. Low trust, rampant corruption, and weak civil societies—all characteristic of the region’s economies today and all legacies of its economic history—will take generations to overcome.

Timur Kuran is Professor of Economics and Political Science, and Gorter Family Professor of Islamic Studies at Duke University. He has also previously taught at Stanford University and the University of Southern California. In follow-up to his newest book, The Long Divergence, some of the archival work on which this book was based was published, as a ten-volume bi-lingual set entitled Kadi Sicilleri Isiginda 17. Yüzyil Istanbul’unda Ekonomik Yasam / Economic Life in Seventeenth-Century Istanbul, as Reflected in Court Registers. Among his earlier publications are Private Truths, Public Lies: The Social Consequences of Preference Falsification (Harvard University Press, 1995) and Islam and Mammon: The Economic Predicaments of Islamism (Princeton University Press, 2004), each translated into several languages, including Turkish. Dr. Kuran received his A.B. in Economics from Princeton University, and his M.A. and Ph.D. (also in Economics) from Stanford University.

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