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 to the West? In The Long Divergence, one of the world's leading experts on Islamic economic institutions and the economy of the Middle East provides a new answer to these long-debated questions.
Economist Angus Maddison has calculated the Middle East’s share of the world gross domestic product to be 10 percent in the year 1000, compared to Europe’s 9 percent. In 1700, the Middle East’s share had fallen to 2 percent and Europe’s had risen to 22 percent. What happened?
The standard explanations attribute this divergence to both European and Islamic factors. The most common European explanation, the Protestant work ethic and scientific advancements of the Renaissance, which Erdoğan would probably attribute to the conquest of Istanbul by the Ottomans, could have definitely played a role. However, I have always found the traditional Islamic explanations unsatisfactory.
For example, it is claimed that Islam is hostile to commerce, but Muhammad himself was a merchant. Yes, the Quran bans usury, but so does the Torah and the Bible. Erdoğan argues that Muslims were exploited by Western imperialists, but the Middle East was not really colonized. I found a much more satisfactory answer in Turkish economist Timur Kuran’s book, “The Long Divergence: How Islamic Law Held Back the Middle East”, which I read over the weekend.
The Long Divergence opens up a frank and honest debate on a crucial issue that even some of the most ardent secularists in the Muslim world have hesitated to discuss.
Timur Kuran is professor of economics and political science and the Gorter Family Professor of Islamic Studies at Duke University. He is the author of Islam and Mammon: The Economic Predicaments of Islamism (Princeton).