The economic decline of the Muslim world and the rise of Western Europe has long captured the attention of scholars across disciplines. Explanations largely focus either on Islam, whether its financial institutions or the essence of its teachings, or on Western colonialism as the culprit. In Islam, Authoritarianism, and Underdevelopment, Ahmet T. Kuru puts forward a new explanation rooted in class relations. He takes issue with existing approaches, convincingly demonstrating the intellectual and economic vibrancy of the Muslim world between the eighth and twelfth centuries, undermining arguments about Islam’s incompatibility with progress, and asserting that colonialism occurred too late to explain multiple political and socioeconomic crises. Instead, Kuru identifies the eleventh century as a critical juncture when the Muslim world witnessed the emergence of alliances between Islamic scholars (ulema; singular alim) and the military. These alliances persisted through path dependence and gradually hindered intellectual and economic creativity by marginalizing independent intellectual and bourgeois classes in the Muslim world. In turn, the absence of these classes led to the persistence of authoritarianism and the well-documented underdevelopment in the contemporary period.
The main strength of Kuru’s argument is its utility for comparing the Muslim and non-Muslim worlds; in essence, it is a historically grounded application of Barrington Moore for the Muslim world. The argument does not focus on the peculiarities of a specific historical or religious experience, and thus it can be applied to cases across time and space. This generalizable approach focused on the nature of relations between religious, political, intellectual, and economic classes ties the study of Muslim economic and political development to that of the non-Muslim world; as the author notes, scholars have long suggested a causal relationship between societies’ political and economic development and the shape of their class relations. Furthermore, Kuru’s application challenges existing theories of state building to expand and incorporate the development of the Muslim world. In the history of the Muslim world, it appears that the timing of economic growth and decline matters for the development of religious institutions, their relationship with political authority, and the nature of the subsequent government.
The book raises two main unanswered questions and possible avenues of continued exploration. First, the mechanisms of continuity underpinning the argument are underspecified. It appears that once regimes eliminate independent intellectual and economic elites through the ulema-military alliance, there is never any space for creativity and dissent. This may be generally true, but I would like to see more concrete examples of how the ulema contribute to this dynamic—how they succeed in squelching competing religious and economic competing ideas and how this practice continues over time across generations of ulema. The advent of the internet as a space somewhat beyond regime censorship and the emergence of transnational Islamist movements and other alternative religious authorities, many of whom are not necessarily “progressive” in a positive sense but who do take positions independent from state-allied ulema, challenges the author’s argument.
Second, Kuru’s argument relies on the financial success of merchants in the Muslim world. Between the eighth and twelfth centuries, merchants possessed wealth independent of the state and funded independent creative scholarship, which challenged state authority. When this wealth was eliminated, so, too, were independent intellectuals. However, in Kuru’s telling, the elimination of independent resources is presented as an exogenous shift. More direct engagement with recent work by Lisa Blaydes and coauthors would strengthen the author’s claims. These scholars document how political fragmentation along the Silk Road caused a shift in trade routes, which in turn undermined urbanization and prosperity. If these works are read together, Kuru outlines an additional mechanism through which shifting trade routes contributed to the decline of the Muslim world by undermining the strength of independently wealthy merchants as a socioeconomic class.
In sum, Kuru’s Islam, Authoritarianism, and Underdevelopment offers a succinct yet full overview of multiple centuries of political and intellectual history. It will give scholars of historical political economy much to ponder in thinking about trade, religion, and state building in the Muslim world and beyond.
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