Islam, Authoritarianism, and Underdevelopment,
A Global and Historical Comparison
San Diego State University
Cambridge University Press
31 July 2019
If Catholicism led to progress in Europe, David Cosandey (2007/1997; 120-121)
rightly asks, why had it not done so for centuries before the Renaissance?
See also van Zanden 2009.
Van Zanden 2009, ch2; Cosandey 1997, p.101, 255-61; De Long and Shleifer 1993.
Daniel Chirot (1994, 63) regards decentralization and powerful towns as a necessary
condition for European intellectual dynamism: “Only where it was possible for
a thnker to flee to a safe haven could the continuing developmebt of
rational thougth take place”.
Muslims Need Critical Self-Reflection: Beyond Essentialism and Postcolonialism
October 3, 2019
Online article published on the website of Georgetown
Berkeley Center for religion, peace and
world affairs in Washington D.C. (USA).
Muslim-majority countries have shown high levels of authoritarianism
and low levels of socioeconomic development in comparison to world
averages. The contemporary problems of Muslims are especially puzzling
given the scholarly and socioeconomic achievements of their predecessors.
Between the eighth and eleventh centuries, the Muslim world produced
creative polymaths and played a pivotal role in intercontinental trade,
while Western Europe was philosophically and economically marginal.
Early Muslims’ progressive civilization shows that Islam was perfectly
compatible with scholarly flourishing and socioeconomic progress. Thus,
essentialists who blame Islam for Muslims’ contemporary problems are wrong.
In the eleventh and twelfth centuries, however, the comparative levels
of development between the Muslim world and Western Europe gradually
started to reverse. This process dramatically escalated between the
sixteenth and eighteenth centuries, when Western Europe achieved a
multi-faceted advance while the Muslim world became stagnant and fell
behind. When widespread Western colonization of Muslim lands began in
the mid-nineteenth century, Muslims had already faced multiple political
and socioeconomic problems.
Hence, contemporary Muslim-majority countries’ problems have long-term
historical origins and cannot simply be explained as the result of Western
colonialism. Colonialism destroyed local institutions and exploited
natural resources in many cases, but focusing on the damage wrought by
Western powers should not distract Muslims from addressing their own failures.
My new book, Islam, Authoritarianism, and Underdevelopment: A Global
and Historical Comparison, argues that relations between religious,
political, intellectual, and economic classes were the main reason
for the initial dynamism and later stagnation in the Muslim world.
From the eighth to the eleventh century, creative intellectuals and
dynamic merchants were the main agents of Muslim progress.
Yet a multi-dimensional transformation began in the eleventh century.
Abbasid caliphs in Baghdad, severely weakened by the rising Shiite
states in North Africa, Egypt, Syria, and even Iraq, called for the
unification of Sunni sultans, ulama, and masses. To unify Sunnis,
two successive Abbasid caliphs defined the “others”: they declared
certain Shia, rationalist theologians (Mutazilis), and philosophers
as apostates who could be punished by death.
This call was well received by the newly emerging Turkish military
force—the Seljuk Empire—that eventually dominated most parts of
Central Asia, Iran, Iraq, and Anatolia. Central to Seljuk rule was
the expansion of the iqta, a system of land revenue assignment and
tax farming designed to bring agricultural revenues in particular
and the economy in general under military control. This policy weakened
the economic capacity and social position of merchants, who had
previously provided funding to philosophers and independent Islamic
One Seljuk grand vizier also founded a series of madrasas, the
so-called Nizamiyyas. These madrasas helped the establishment of
a Sunni orthodoxy by synthesizing formerly competing schools of
jurisprudence and theology. They also served to produce Sunni ulama
who would ally with the state against Shia and other “unorthodox”
groups. A genius scholar, Ghazali played a key role in this process
by writing multiple influential books to criticize and condemn
philosophers, rationalist theologians, and certain Shia.
From the twelfth to the fourteenth century, the Seljuk model of the
ulama–state alliance spread to other Sunni states in Syria, Egypt,
and North Africa, particularly the Mamluk Empire. The Crusader and
Mongol invasions accelerated the spread of the ulama-state alliance
model because Muslim communities sought refuge from the chaos of
foreign invasion in military and religious authorities.
Between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries, the Ottoman, Safavid,
and Mughal Empires established versions of the ulama-state alliance in
territories extending from the Balkans to Bengal. These empires were
militarily powerful, but they failed to revive early Muslims’ intellectual
and economic dynamism because they virtually eliminated philosophers
and marginalized merchants.
The nineteenth-century reform attempts in various Muslim territories
mostly failed due to the ulama’s resistance and to Western colonization.
When numerous Muslim-majority states became independent in the twentieth
century, they inherited deep political and socioeconomic problems as a
result of centuries of intellectual and economic stagnation.
In order to address their current problems of authoritarianism and
socioeconomic underdevelopment, Muslims need creative intellectuals
(that is, thinkers who criticize established perspectives and produce
original alternatives) and an independent bourgeoisie (that is, economic
entrepreneurs, such as merchants, bankers, and industrialists).
Yet these two classes are still marginalized in most Muslim-majority
countries by various modern forms of the ulama–state alliance.
My policy recommendation: Simply blaming Islam or colonialism will not help
Muslims solve their problems. Instead, Muslims should question the centuries-old
anti-intellectualism and state control over the economy in their countries.
Only with such critical self-reflection can Muslims truly address their
political and socioeconomic issues.
Ahmet Kuru, 03 Oct 2019.
Other interesting sources:
A longer introduction, by the author (27 Sep 2019):
A.Kuru presenting his book via video (11 May 2020):
An interview of A.Kuru via podcast (25 Mar 2020):
Review in Foreign Affairs (March 2020):