Islam, Authoritarianism, and Underdevelopment
A Global and Historical Comparison
- ISBN: 9781108409476
- Published By: Cambridge University Press
- Published: September 2019
Why do Muslim-majority countries exhibit high level of authoritarianism and low level of socio-economic development? Did Islam or western colonialism underdevelop the Muslim-majority countries? Ahmet T. Kuru in his latest book Islam, Authoritarianism, and Underdevelopment: A Global and Historical Comparison, addresses these questions from a historical comparative standpoint and challenges the existing scholarship about Islam’s relationship with democracy and development. Structurally Kuru’s book consists of two parts: Present and History. Three chapters in the first part focus on the contemporary context: the question of violence, authoritarianism and democracy in the Muslim world in comparative perspective. The four chapters in the second portion critically examine the history: The Golden Age of Islam from the 7th to 11th centuries, the beginning of ‘crisis’ from the 12th to 14th centuries, the emergence of the Muslim Empires from the 15th to 17th centuries, and the collapse of Western colonialism.
Kuru points out that comparative historical analysis suggests neither Islam nor Western colonialism caused the “decline” of the Muslim world. He covers the vast literature on Islamic history and politics and looks at the state of state-mosque separation in the early history of Islam. He argues that there existed, at least in principle, state-religion separation to an extent. He argues that it is “mistaken” to assume that “Islam as a religion necessarily rejects religion-state separation” (235). For such a “conventional view”, he argues, Western scholars ``who have taken the ulema’s quasi-Islamic political views written during and after the eleventh century as the definition of what is essentially Islamic” and Islamists who “rejected the notion of a secular state and championed the integration of religion and state, going beyond the pre-modern notion of a religion-state alliance” are responsible (10). While explaining his theoretical framework, he argues that even the very idea of the ulema–state alliance was based on “some Sasanian-inspired and quasi-Islamic ideas'' which found certain conducive material conditions like “the militarized land revenues and state control over commerce.”
While discussing the anti-colonialist view, he argues that blaming only external factors for authoritarianism and underdevelopment in the Muslim world would not “only be analytically wrong but also normatively counterproductive” (58). Kuru points out that Muslim societies had been experiencing political and economic crises even before the mid-nineteenth century when Western colonialism started occupying those societies. Notably, many non-Muslim countries (e.g. Southeast Asia) which were once western colonies are much more developed than several Muslim-majority countries. Kuru argues that western colonialism has destroyed the sociopolitical structure of the Muslim world but only “focusing on the damage wrought by western powers has distracted Muslims from addressing their own failures and reforming their ideas, policies and institutions” (234).
Kuru argues that it was the ulema-state alliance, the entente between the orthodox Islamic scholars and the political class that began to emerge in the 11th century, which hindered socio-economic development and marginalized and it “still prevents creativity and competition in Muslim countries”. For Kuru, the presence of independent scholars and bourgeois classes are necessary prerequisites for development and freedom. He argues that “the relations between religious, political, intellectual, and economic classes have been the main engine behind the changes and reversals between the levels of development in the Muslim world, as well as in Western Europe” (3).
Kuru offers a detailed description of Muslims’ rule from 7th to 11th centuries when they were able to conquer the Sasanian Empire and the Middle Eastern territories of the Byzantine Empire. It made their control of main trade routes (between China, India, and Europe) possible. Moreover, in the 8th century, the Muslims started producing papers after importing paper production techniques from China. As a result, there were more than a hundred booksellers in Baghdad. There were large libraries and notable scholars in several other cities like Damascus and Aleppo in Syria and Balkh, Bukhara, Gurganj, and Merv in Central Asia. They also built dams and canals for agriculture and drinking water systems in cities. Muslims also had communication systems in cities like “commercial post” which was used by the general population (84).
However, in the 11th century a major development took place: the din wa dawla (religion and the state) alliance. It led to the alliance of military state and the ulema, militarization of the economy through the iqta system, and marginalization of scholars and merchants (93-4). He explains that Abbasid rulers faced economic crisis as a result of the decline of revenues from Sawad fields and lavish lifestyle expenditures and inflated bureaucracy. This crisis led to the decline of the old economic system which was based on monetary economy. In response to these challenges, Abbasid rulers used iqtas to officials when the latter asked for payments. The iqta system was a system of “land revenue assignment and tax farming” (4) that intended to bring the economy, and particularly the agriculture revenue, under the military’s control. At this moment, though the iqta system was “unsystematic”, it paved the way for “the militarization of the land regime” (99).
There were several developments during the Buyid rule in Baghdad but the most significant was when the Seljuk sultan, Tughrul Bey, came into power. At the beginning of the Seljuk Empire, all the structural conditions for the consolidation of the ulema-state alliance were available for a critical juncture that would “leave a long-lasting legacy of path dependence.” Those structural conditions were as follows: the process of Sunni orthodoxy partially complete; b) Sunni religious and military forces were united against the common enemy i.e. Shiis; c) the iqta system has substantially weakened the merchants and forced Islamic scholars to seek state patronage; d) the state structure was militarized. In these structural conditions, the Seljuk rulers and Sunni ulema played the role of agency. Scholars like al-Ghazali played a crucial role in consolidating the Sunni orthodoxy but officially it was the Nizam al-Mulk who systemized the iqta system and looked for a strong army. The use of the iqta system to militarize the state was followed by the subsequent dynasties like the Ayyubids, Mamluks, Ottomans, and Safavids (102). In Kuru’s view, these structures and ideas have created a long-lasting legacy of path dependence that continues to prevail in the Muslim world.
Though Kuru considers the ulema-state alliance as the chief cause behind the Muslim downfall, he does not explain why this sort of alliance persisted for so long in the Muslim World. For example, why, unlike in Western Europe, no alternative appeared to this alliance till now.
Overall, the book is a significant addition to comparative political science to understand the failure of democracy in the Muslim world.
Saleha Anwar is an independent scholar.Saleha AnwarDate Of Review:April 23, 2022