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The Long Divergence: How Islamic Law Held Back the Middle East [Kindle Edition]

Timur Kuran
4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (16 customer reviews)

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Book Description

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.

Timur Kuran argues that what slowed the economic development of the Middle East was not colonialism or geography, still less Muslim attitudes or some incompatibility between Islam and capitalism. Rather, starting around the tenth century, Islamic legal institutions, which had benefitted the Middle Eastern economy in the early centuries of Islam, began to act as a drag on development by slowing or blocking the emergence of central features of modern economic life--including private capital accumulation, corporations, large-scale production, and impersonal exchange. By the nineteenth century, modern economic institutions began to be transplanted to the Middle East, but its economy has not caught up. And there is no quick fix today. Low trust, rampant corruption, and weak civil societies--all characteristic of the region's economies today and all legacies of its economic history--will take generations to overcome.

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.

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Kuran (Islam and Mammon), a Duke University professor of economics and political science, continues his exploration of Islam and economics in a dense volume that debunks the most common apologies for the economic plight of the Middle East, such as colonization, or the economic importance of the annual hajj pilgrimage. Kuran argues instead that the failure of Middle Eastern economics is not due to Islam itself, but to the fact that Muslims failed to reinterpret previously successful economic concepts at the onset of the Middle Ages, while the West went on to create the corporation (see InProfile in this issue). Muslims may demur, but Kuran points out that many have abandoned some Qur'anic economic practices they disagree with, including the ban on interest, and, more progressively, they have updated and refreshed the tax code described in the Qur'an. His most controversial argument is that Islam, liberated from stagnant interpretation and practice, is very adaptable to modern institutions. (Dec.)
(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.


[The Long Divergence] explains a large part of why the Middle East and Turkey fell behind the West and law and economics has a lot to do with it. Various laws in Islamic societies were not conducive to large-scale economic structures, at precisely the time when such structures were becoming profitable and indeed essential as drivers of economic growth. This is not a book of handwaving but rather he nails the detail, whether it is on inheritance law, contracts, forming corporations, or any number of other topics.

Product Details

  • File Size: 2244 KB
  • Print Length: 432 pages
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press; Reprint edition (November 11, 2012)
  • Sold by: Amazon Digital Services, Inc.
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B0046A9MA4
  • Text-to-Speech: Enabled
  • X-Ray:
  • Word Wise: Not Enabled
  • Lending: Not Enabled
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #516,354 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
55 of 57 people found the following review helpful
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I have read many books on Islam. I read them to understand why Islam conquered so much so quickly, and why it failed both politically and economically over the last 500 years. The relative economic decline is of interest because around 1000 CE, the Muslim world was as wealthy as Europe. This is the first book that provided understanding that I could use. Not on conquest directly, but on the economics.

In "The Long Divergence", the author emphasizes two themes around Muslim law of inheritance. Islamic law mandated distribution of wealth after death amongst multiple heirs. This mandate had two results. First, it forced partnerships to be short lived: Death followed by demands for their part of the inheritance by heirs required liquidation of a partnership. Knowing that any death would end the partnership, Muslims tended to favor two person partnerships of short duration. In contrast, after 1000 CE Europeans developed forms of partnership and corporations that could survive the death of a single participant. Partly this was adoption of primogeniture, under which a single descendant could inherit the whole on one person's assets in a property, business or partnership. At the same time Europeans were becoming innovative about the types of business arrangements used to accumulate wealth. Something like modern corporations developed to manage guilds, monasteries, and even cities. European rulers, desperate for money, and often only weakly in power, were willing to allow independent groups take local power, in exchange for stability and the right to tax revenues or profits. These independent institutions were allowed to change their internal rules and general goals as circumstances changes.
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29 of 29 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An excellent technical review of complex phenomena February 20, 2011
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
When in law school, I studied Islamic legal theory. I wish this book had existed then. But even for a lay reader who is interested in social development and asks why the Islamic world seems not to have been able to develop a modern commercial society, this book will provide insight into why.

This is not an easy book. It presumes some knowledge of Islamic thought and of Islamic belief, as well as more generally of the history of the region from about 1400 to about 1900. Okay, fine, you weren't going to buy this if you're scared of the big words, but still be ready. I put it aside a few times and came back to it. But I always came back to it.

Kuran is an excellent writer and his prose is clear. His conclusions may not be indisputable, but they are well-drawn from his premises and they are highly plausible. They are also derived from data. He has gone through not just previous writers but also historical archives to get primary source data to back up his thoughts and analysis. This isn't Niall Ferguson - you don't have to wade through pages of tables and statistics - but it's clear that if Kuran had wanted to write that book he could have.

The other review of this book (at time of my posting there was only the one) has gone into great depth on the discussion of the rules of inheritance, and I won't repeat. I'll focus instead on one element that suggests to me that Kuran is onto something: his explanation for why Islamic societies continued to allow choice of law to religious minorities even after it was clear that they were benefiting from this, while denying it to Muslims who therefore couldn't have benefited.
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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Hard Reading - March 22, 2011
In the year 1000, the Middle East's economy was at least as advance as Europe's. But by 1800, the region had fallen dramatically behind. "The Long Divergence's" author, Timur Kuran, argues that the explanation lies not in geography or Muslim attitudes; instead it was Islamic legal institutions that slowed private capital accumulation, corporations, and large-scale production. Low trust, rampant corruption, and weak civil institutions have followed, and will take generations to overcome.

A good place to start is with the lack of corporate structure in early Islam. The first mostly Muslim-owned joint stock company came in 1851; further delaying Muslim corporations was the lack of a mechanism for trading shares, forcing shareholders to give up liquidity. 'Tax farmers' (those who paid rulers for the right to collect and keep taxes) might have evolved into corporations, but the rulers developed a bad habit of revoking the agreements.

The alternative to corporations, traditional Islamic partnerships, dissolved upon the death, withdrawal, incapacitation of any single member.

Estates, in turn, were divided according to Islamic inheritance rules. The intent was to spread wealth, strengthen families, benefit wives and daughters, and promote political stability. Muslim inheritance practices are embodied in the Koran, and had to modify.

Until modern times, Middle Eastern cities lacked corporate status. Kuran did point out that the early Muslim alternative to incorporated towns providing service was the 'waqf.' The waqf was perpetual, controlled by the founder per his directions, and could provide drinking water, pavement, travelers assistance (especially to those making a pilgrimage to Mecca), even colleges and madrases.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
Read for my class and it was a very good one!
Published 5 months ago by Sang J.
4.0 out of 5 stars Solid History, Compelling Thesis
A very accessible overview addressing why the Middle East became underdeveloped relative to Western Europe. The title must have been suggested by an overzealous editor. Read more
Published 14 months ago by Christopher D. Hampson
5.0 out of 5 stars Very interesting
There are quite a few books these days examining why the West suddenly surged on ahead in progress while most of the world lost their significant lead in technology, learning,... Read more
Published 17 months ago by Grimmy
1.0 out of 5 stars Timur! Thank's God for being held back!
Islamic law holding back the Middle East! Holding it back from what? From Secularism or from Positivism or from Liberalism. Read more
Published on December 28, 2012 by Waleed A. Addas
5.0 out of 5 stars A must read
The Muslim civilization was far ahead of the European Christian world in science, wealth and knowledge during the Middle Ages, This book sought to explain where the two... Read more
Published on December 13, 2012 by Micheline Beauchemin
5.0 out of 5 stars Empire and Law
A robust and detailed analysis of the effect of different forms of Islamic Law on the ME, focusing largely on the Ottoman case. Read more
Published on January 11, 2012 by L. King
5.0 out of 5 stars Very insightful, fair, and unbiased by any preconceived views or...
For centuries the Islamic world dominated the West militarily, economically, and culturally. As late as 1683, when Ottoman forces laid siege to Vienna, Muslim military domination... Read more
Published on November 24, 2011 by Charles Lewis Sizemore, CFA
4.0 out of 5 stars GUESSWORK
Nicely written analysis explaining the progression of Islamic law. Early Muslim period rests on assumptions of traditions and consensus. Hence, it remains guesswork. Read more
Published on August 22, 2011 by A.J. Deus
4.0 out of 5 stars Well done, if a bit over done
Kuran has examined this subject closely, well supported by a lot of historical evidence. I'll not restate his basic arguments like the dual outcomes of Islamic inheritance law... Read more
Published on August 22, 2011 by Eric C. Petersen
5.0 out of 5 stars A truly compelling book
Timur Kuran takes an evidence-based approach to the causes of the Middle East's poor economic performance compared with Europe's over the last few hundred years. Read more
Published on June 22, 2011 by Geoff Connor
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