Book Summary: “Islam, Authoritarianism and Underdevelopment” by Ahmet Kuru


Title: Islam, Authoritarianism and Underdevelopment: A Global and Historical Comparison
Author: Ahmet T. Kuru
Scope: 3.5 stars
Readability: 3.5 stars
My personal rating: 5 stars
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Topic of Book

Kuru seeks to explain why Muslim countries have higher levels of political violence, authoritarianism and lower levels of economic development than other regions.

Key Take-aways

  • On almost all measures of development, Muslim nations score significantly lower than the world average. This is despite many of them possessing vast amounts of oil and gas reserves.
  • Between 600 and 1000 Muslim regions were on the forefont of technological, scientific and artistic innovation. This was largely because religious leaders were independent from the political regime and intellectual and merchants had high status.
  • Meanwhile in Europe military and religious elites were far more powerful than intellectuals and merchants. This explains their relative stagnation.
  • Since the year 1000, however, states in Muslim regions have legitimized their rule by allying themselves with military and religious elites. This fusion of governmental, military and religious power has left no space for an independent middle class or free-thinking intellectuals.
  • Before 1000 Sunni doctrine was subject to real debate. Since that time, however, Sunni doctrine has been highly doctrinaire and with little tolerance for debate or innovation. Sunni clerics increasingly became servants of the state.
  • The melding of the state with religious leaders undermined long-term economic and political development.

Important Quotes from Book

Why do Muslim-majority countries exhibit high levels of authoritarianism and low levels of socioeconomic development in comparison to world averages? Ahmet T. Kuru criticizes explanations which point to Islam as the cause of this disparity, because Muslims were philosophically and socioeconomically more developed than Western Europeans between the ninth and twelfth centuries. Nor was Western colonialism the cause: Muslims had already suffered political and socioeconomic problems when colonization began. Kuru argues that Muslims had influential thinkers and merchants in their early history, when religious orthodoxy and military rule were prevalent in Europe. However, in the eleventh century, an alliance between orthodox Islamic scholars (the ulema) and military states began to emerge. This alliance gradually hindered intellectual and economic creativity by marginalizing intellectual and bourgeois classes in the Muslim world.

There are two main theoretical approaches in the literature on the problems of violence, authoritarianism, and underdevelopment in Muslim countries. The first one is the essentialist approach, which points to Islam as the main source of Muslims’ current problems. Several critics of Islam in the West as well as in Muslim countries have adopted various versions of this approach. They define certain “essential” characteristics of Islamic texts or history and then single out these alleged essentials as causes of the problems. The second one is the postcolonial or anti-colonial approach, which is more international in its analysis. It stresses Western colonization of Muslim countries and ongoing Western exploitation of their resources as reasons for Muslim societies’ contemporary problems. Many ideological groups in Muslim countries, from Islamists to secularists, have shared this anti-Western perspective.

This book takes issue with both of these approaches. It criticizes essentialism by documenting that between the eighth and twelfth centuries Muslim societies exhibited great philosophical and economic achievements, which indicates Islam’s compatibility with progress.6 The book also criticizes the anti-colonial approach by emphasizing that in the mid-nineteenth century, when the pervasive colonization of Muslim lands by Western powers began, Muslims had already suffered multiple political and socioeconomic crises.

My theoretical approach focuses on the relations between religious, political, intellectual, and economic classes. In both the Muslim world and Western Europe, these class relations have resulted in societies’ success or failure in the intellectual and socioeconomic spheres. Early Muslims’ intellectual and economic achievements were led by independent intellectual and bourgeois classes. Starting with the eleventh century, however, class relations changed in the Muslim world; the ulema–state alliance emerged and it sidelined intellectuals and the bourgeoisie.

Contemporary problems of Muslim-majority countries3 are especially puzzling given the scholarly and socioeconomic achievements of their predecessors between the eighth and twelfth centuries. During that period, the Muslim world produced creative polymaths, such as Farabi, Biruni, and Ibn Sina, and played a pivotal role in intercontinental trade,4 while Western Europe5 was a marginal corner of the Old World.6 This historical experience shows that Islam was perfectly compatible with scholarly flourishing and socioeconomic progress.

In the eleventh and twelfth centuries, however, a gradual process of reversal in terms of comparative levels of scientific and socioeconomic development started between the Muslim world and Western Europe. Especially between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries, Western Europe experienced multiple progressive transformations, 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 intellectual, socioeconomic, and political problems.

I argue that the relations between religious, political, intellectual, and economic classes have been the main engine behind the changes in and reversals between the levels of development in the Muslim world, as well as in Western Europe. In early Islamic history, Islamic scholars generally regarded close entanglements with political authorities as corrupting; they preferred to be funded by commerce and maintained close relations with merchants. According to one analysis I will elaborate later, from the eighth to the mid-eleventh century, 72.5 percent of Islamic scholars or their families worked in commerce and/or industry.

In early Islamic history, Islamic scholars’ independence from the state and the economic influence of merchants enabled the freedom of thought enjoyed by philosophers, a diverse group including not only Sunni and Shii Muslims, but also Christians, Jews, and agnostics. These philosophers were funded by both merchants and political authorities. The rulers particularly patronized the translation of ancient works (from Greek, Syriac, Middle Persian, and Sanskrit into Arabic). Yet there were no state-led schools to standardize philosophy. Thus, state patronage of philosophers in early Islamic history was less harmful for intellectual flourishing than what would become the state patronage of Islamic scholars (the ulema; sing. alim) following the eleventh century.

What happened in eleventh-century Central Asia, Iran, and Iraq was a multidimensional ltransformation. Abbasid caliphs in Baghdad, severely weakened by the rising Shii states in North Africa, Egypt, Syria, and even Iraq, called for the unification of Sunni Muslims to meet this threat. In order to unify Sunni sultans, ulema, and masses, two Abbasid caliphs declared a “Sunni creed” in the early eleventh century; those whose views were deemed to contradict this creed, including certain Shiis, rationalist theologians (Mutazilis), and philosophers, were declared to be apostates and faced the threat of execution.  Central to Seljuk rule was the expansion of the iqta, an existing systemof 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 both the ulema and philosophers.

From the twelfth to the fourteenth century, the Seljuk model of the ulema– state alliance spread to other Sunni states in Andalus, Egypt, and Syria, particularly the Mamluks. The Crusader and Mongol invasions accelerated the spread of this alliance because Muslim communities sought refuge from the chaos of foreign invasion in military and religious authorities. Later, around the sixteenth century, Muslims established three powerful military empires: the Sunni Ottoman, the Shii Safavid, and the Sunni-run (but non-sectarian) Mughal Empires. These empires established versions of the ulema–state alliance in territories extending from the Balkans to Bengal.

While the Muslim world was losing its intellectual and economic momentum, Western European progress began. In the second half of the eleventh century, three transformations occurred in Western Europe. First, the Catholic Church and royal authorities tried and failed to dominate one another, leading to the institutionalization of the separation between them as a modus vivendi. This substantially contributed to decentralization and balance of power among Western European actors and institutions. Second, universities started to be established and provided an institutional basis for the gradual emergence and increasing influence of the intellectual class. Many revolutionary thinkers, from Aquinas to Luther, from Copernicus to Galileo and Newton, would be university graduates and professors. Third, the merchant class, which would be the engine of Western European economic breakthroughs, began to flourish. These new relations among religious, political, intellectual, and economic classes eventually drove various progressive processes, including the Renaissance, the printing revolution, geographical explorations, the Protestant Reformation, the scientific revolution, the American and French Revolutions, and the Industrial Revolution. As a result of these processes, Western Europe surpassed its once-superior competitors, the Muslim world and China.

My analysis actually explains that the ulema–state alliance is neither an essential part of the Quran and hadiths nor a permanent feature of Islamic history. Early Islamic history includes examples of religion–state separation, and it is a mistake to see Islam as inherently rejecting such separation.

It is very difficult to challenge the statist and conservative discourses of the ulema and interpret Islam in an individualist and progressive manner. The ulema’s authority to interpret Islam based on their rigid epistemology has been very well established in Muslim societies. There is also a hierarchy within the ranks of the ulema that prevents younger ulema from devising new and creative ideas. As a result, the ulema have preserved Islamic legal texts’ illiberal content, including those related to corporal punishment, one-man rule, patriarchy, violating privacy, and discriminating against non-Muslims.  Whenever they find convenient conditions, these ideas have moved from madrasa textbooks to political systems.

In sum, the ulema have generally enabled authoritarianism in many Muslim countries through its alliances with authoritarian rulers and its promotion of certain medieval and anti-democratic ideas. Especially if sharia is declared to be the law of the land in a country, it becomes almost impossible to challenge the ulema’s authority to interpret Islam. Through their rigid epistemology, control over madrasas and equivalent institutions, societal prestige, and state support, the senior ulema have marginalized intellectuals, as well as some dissenting junior ulema.

The ulema’s and Sufis’ ideas would not hinder progress if there were alternative ideas challenging them. But there have been very few Muslim intellectuals who could pose such a challenge. In a broader sense, to solve their socioeconomic problems, Muslim countries need influential intellectuals and an independent bourgeoisie. Presently in most Muslim countries, there are few influential intellectuals, and businesspeople rely too much on political patronage to constitute an independent bourgeoisie. The ulema have contributed to the weakening of these two classes by imposing certain religious restrictions that discourage conservative Muslim youth from pursuing careers in intellectual and financial sectors. For the ulema, there are hardly any issues that do not eventually become jurisprudential questions.

To impose these prohibitions and restrictions, the ulema have always needed state support. This reliance has made the ulema willing to cooperate with and legitimize authoritarian rulers. In this regard, the main problem with the ulema’s ideas is not simply their illiberal content but their role in maintaining authoritarian regimes. In a democratic setting with open public debates, the ulema’s views could be challenged and transformed.

My approach diverges from new institutionalism by directly analyzing the actors who create institutions… My analysis emphasizes that this class domination is based on certain religious and political ideas. By contrast, new institutionalism, especially its rational choice version, underestimates the role of ideas.46 Institutions, however, do not inherently have legitimacy; they need to be legitimized by ideologies. Exclusionary institutions in many Muslim countries have been legitimized by politically hierarchical and economically ineffective ideas (promoted by the ulema) and enforced by certain power relations (controlled by authoritarian state actors).

In early Islamic history, Muslims were scientifically and economically superior to Western Christians because they ascribed high status to scholars and merchants, whereas Europe was mostly under the hegemony of the clergy and the military elite. Later on, the positions eventually became reversed. In Muslim lands, the ulema and the military elite became dominant, while in Western Europe, scholars and merchants became increasingly important. In a nutshell, this reversal explains the rise of Western Europe and the decline of the Muslim world.

This chapter begins by examining Muslims’ military, commercial, and intellectual achievements between the seventh and eleventh centuries. At that time, most of Islamic scholars (ulema) were funded by commerce, while only few of them served the state. The merchants flourished as an influential class.

The existence of multiple political entities and the balance of power between them contributed to intellectual and economic flourishing. Baghdad in particular experienced an intellectually productive era under the coexistence of Shii Buyid rulers and Abbasid caliphs from the midtenth to the mid-eleventh century.

Between 700 and 1100, the virtuous circle of agricultural productivity, demographic growth, and commercial expansion contributed to the development of Muslim urban life. 

In reality, in the Early Middle Ages, while scholars and merchants enjoyed a relatively high social status in Muslim lands, the clergymen and the military elite dominated Western Europe.

A major transformation in the eleventh century was the beginning of the formation of the din wa dawla (religion and the state) alliance, which basically implies an alliance between the ulema and the military state. This process included the transformation of Islamic scholars into state servants through state-led madrasas, the militarization of the economy through the iqta system of land tenure and tax farming, and the marginalization of philosophers and merchants.

The ulema–state alliance was not an essential part of Islam; instead, it began to be constructed as late as the eleventh century.

A major component of the ulema–state alliance was the orthodox Sunni ulema. The epistemology of the orthodox ulema was mostly formed in the ninth century.

In 1029, in Baghdad, Qadir was joined by several ulema and issued a broader decree, which intended to put an end to theological debates by establishing a Sunni orthodoxy and threatening those who rejected it. Three points in the creed established a framework for an inquisition. The creed declared that (1) those who depict the Quran in any sense as “created” (i.e., the Mutazilis) are infidels and may be killed; (2) the religious ranking of each of the Four Caliphs follows their chronological ranking (i.e., Abu Bakr, Umar, and Uthman are religiously superior to Ali – the opposite of the Shii belief ), and those who slander the Prophet’s wife Aisha (i.e., the Shiis) have nothing to do with Islam; and (3) those who do not perform daily prayers become infidels.

The weakening of the old economic regime, which depended on the monetary economy, was an important factor in the emergence of the ulema–state alliance. The newly emerging economic regime, by contrast, was based on the iqta system of land revenue assignments and agricultural tax distribution to (primarily military) officials. In the words of Goitein, by the early eleventh century, “the monetary and mercantile economy of the Middle East gave way to an economy in which feudalistic trends became dominant.”177 This transformation shrank private financial sources for Islamic scholars and made many of them accept, if not seek, public funding in the service of the state.

Watson points to the iqta system as a major reason for the end of the innovative and productive era of Muslim agriculture around the year 1000. For him, this system restricted private property and entrepreneurship and thus diminished agricultural productivity.189 Despite its negative consequences, the iqta system was further institutionalized under the Seljuks, because it already created a path dependence and suited the Seljuks’ military state structure.

An economic characteristic of the military state structure was its focus on rent-seeking through conquest.

Through Nizamiyya madrasas, the Seljuk state authorities went beyond receiving the support of the ulema; they began to systematically affect the formation of the ulema.

The transformations in the eleventh century negatively affected Muslim intellectual life in the subsequent centuries. Although Muslims continued to produce scientific and philosophical works, the quantity and quality of such production declined, and eventually reached a standstill.

The ulema–state alliance under Mamluk rule imposed obedience on the people by using both state power and religion, and thus turned the people into docile bodies without asabiyya – the group feeling to determine their own political destiny. The ulema monopolized the authority to interpret Islam, used waqf funds, and held judicial and other official positions. In exchange for these privileges, the ulema legitimized the Mamluk rulers’ acts, even the seizure of private properties and the levying of extraordinary taxes. The ulema were supposed to function as social leaders. Instead, by cooperating with the Mamluk military elite, the ulema delegitimized resistance against corrupt and oppressive rulers.

The ulema–state alliance was effective in the Ottoman, Safavid, and Mughal Empires to varying degrees and with different characteristics…  Trade was crucial for all three empires, but none accorded merchants an influential political position. In short, the Ottomans, Safavids, and Mughals had world-scale military powers, but their attitudes toward the intellectual and economic spheres were far from impressive.

On the one hand, the ulema had a pivotal position in the Ottoman state. They monopolized the interpretation of Islam, which was the basis of the legal system and public discourse. The Ottoman ulema made laws (as jurists), ruled the courts (as judges), and ran the main educational institutions, the madrasas (as professors). The ulema exercised power from the Imperial Council down to the smallest unit of government…  On the other hand, their bureaucratic status made the ulema state servants who were dependent on public salaries and government appointments.

In the early sixteenth century, three powerful Muslim empires – the Ottoman, the Savafid, and the Mughal – ruled large territories. Two centuries later, Muslim empires had lost their military dominance and faced complex political and socioeconomic crises. This chapter has argued that even during the period of military power, these empires had substantial intellectual and economic handicaps, which led to their eventual decline. Their common problem had to do with class relations: the ulema–state alliance prevented the emergence of independent scholars and marginalized the merchants. Intellectually and economically, Muslims lacked creativity and remained indifferent to European advancements, including the printing revolution and the scientific revolution.

In the Ottoman Empire, the ulema–state alliance was very elitist. The ulema and officials defined the rest of society as reaya, which can be translated as the “subjects” or the “flock.” The emergence of civil society independent of the state was not possible in such a system. Moreover, the hierarchical nature of Ottoman socioeconomic structure hindered individual innovation. Unlike the Dutch and English states, the Ottoman state did not effectively protect property rights, another major disincentive for individual entrepreneurship and creativity. As a result, very few innovators, discoverers, or entrepreneurs emerged in the Ottoman Empire, as was the case in the Safavid and Mughal Empires and in contrast to much of Western Europe. Western Europe.

Starting with Turkey’s Atatürk in the 1920s, several secularist leaders either weakened or abolished the ulema–state alliance while establishing newly independent Muslim-majority states. Nonetheless, Muslim masses largely remained loyal to conservative ideas supporting a strong public role for the ulema. In a broader sense, three groups that I collectively call “Islamic actors” – the ulema, Islamists, and Sufi shaykhs4 – have received substantial popular support even in countries where top-down secularization policies were implemented for decades, including Turkey and Tunisia. The repeated failures of secularist politicians in foreign policy, the economy, and social reforms contributed to this popularity. Moreover, many secularist leaders reproduced certain aspects of the historical ulema–state alliance while trying to legitimize their rules by using Islamic institutions, such as Turkey’s Diyanet and Egypt’s Al-Azhar. Finally, in several Muslim countries, the ulema–state alliance either has continued to exist (such as in Saudi Arabia) or been revived in a different form (such as in Iran).

One might assume that the secularists would support intellectuals given their own two-century-long struggle against Islamic actors, but this is not always the case. In most Muslim countries secularist leaders have been authoritarian, statist, and nationalist, not champions of intellectual freedom and exploration. These leaders and their parties have generally been opposed to individualism, critical thinking, and diversity – necessary conditions for the flourishing of intellectual life. In many Muslim countries, secularists established a cult of personality around their leader, which resembled Sufis’ glorification of their shaykh as a “perfect man” or the Mahdi. The secularists sidelined the ulema and allowed bureaucrats to occupy the vacuum where the ulema once held power. In this regard, political secularization strengthened bureaucrats but did not substantially improve the status of the intellectuals or bourgeoisie.

In many Muslim countries, industrialists and businesspeople did emerge; but they have been too embedded within the state to constitute an independent bourgeoisie.

My historical analysis may seem deterministic and pessimistic; in fact, it is neither. By explaining the ulema–state alliance as an eleventh-century construction, my analysis has indicated the possibility of change and the reasonableness of optimism. It has exposed the historical inaccuracy of seeing the ulema–state alliance as something essential to Islamic texts or permanent in Islamic history. Contemporary perceptions of Islam as a religion that necessarily rejects religion–state separation are mistaken. Hence, Muslims can redesign the relationship between their religion and their states in way that would promote intellectual and economic creativity. Moreover, my analysis has shown that there is a historical basis for such a reform. From the eighth to the tenth century, Islamic scholars were mostly funded by commerce and largely avoided serving the state. During this period, Muslim societies produced cutting-edge polymaths and influential merchants. Critically analyzing Muslim history may contribute to the construction of a new, democratic, and progressive relationship between Islam and the state today.

If you would like to learn more about why some regions developed faster than others, read my book From Poverty to Progress.

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