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  • The Long Divergence: How Islamic Law Held Back the Middle East
  • Zouhair Ghazzal
The Long Divergence: How Islamic Law Held Back the Middle East. By Timur Kuran. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2011. 405 pp. $29.95 (cloth).

Even though Timur Kuran is overall convincing at laying out arguments on the backwardness of Islamic practices regarding partnerships, corporations, banks, loans with interest, waqfs (mortmain properties blocked from circulation), and contracts in general, he seems less convincing at explicating why Islamic societies were held back from competition with Europe from the Middle Ages up to modern times. Indeed, his main assumption that it was Islamic law that held back the economy escapes the problem rather than points at its cause in a convincing way. Legal systems in general are more an outcome of social conditions, rather than the major force that would bring social relations to a more developed level. In other words, history shows that whenever the law is "behind" social practices, whether cultural or economic, they tend to be addressed sooner rather than later. A case in point, which Kuran explains at length, is the ban on loans with interest that both Jews and Christians had to abide by in the early European Middle Ages, which in both instances were bypassed because of the socioeconomic conditions in Europe at the time. Even in modern times, legal systems tend to struggle in order to match cultural and economic developments. Witness how the American common law had to battle, since the nineteenth century, its formative period, with issues like private property, contracts, the corporation, slavery, rights of minorities and women, abortion, and gay and lesbian rights, in order to become congruent with the nascent capitalism and the mores of the times. It therefore seems quite obvious that for any society and civilization, at every historical juncture, it is the totality of social relations, or the mode of production, which in the last stance is what impacts politics and law. There are times when the law falls behind the evolution of social relations, which could be attributed to anything from the weakness of the state, or to the nature of legal reasoning itself, for instance, a need for complete overhaul that is constantly delayed, because of a lack of adequate resources or for political reasons. However, Kuran addresses Islamic law for over a millennium, and for that long a period it would be absurd, as he does, to blame economic backwardness solely on the law, as suggested in the book's subtitle and its various chapters. It goes without saying, however, that there is a "divergence"—and a wide one for that matter—between Islamic economies and their Western counterparts; the Mediterranean economies of the last millennium, between East and West, point to such a divergence. Even though Islamic law [End Page 422] shares the blame, it is more of a symptom of a much broader and deeper problem, than the major culprit.

Kuran's demonstration often questions the reasons that did not push "communities" and subcommunities from tailoring Islamic law to their own needs and aspirations. In other words, if Islamic law proves to be, indeed, the main culprit, or the prima causa, in the history of economic backwardness of Middle Eastern societies, why hasn't there been any resistance to its rule? Or why, in the vast Islamic empires since the Umayyads and Abbasids up to the Ottomans, were no major challenges posed to the legal limitations on partnership, inheritance, loans with interest, and waqfs? Why is it that no corporations, loan institutions, public debt and banking services have emerged even in rebellious peripheries? Or why is it, as far as economic and legal practices are concerned, no significant changes are to be noted between the Shi'i and Sunni sects? Why is it that no group, subgroup, community, or subcommunity broke the general rules in order to establish more aggressive economic and legal practices?

Kuran's reasoning assumes that, first, Islamic law reached such a level of maturity and comprehensiveness so as to rule out any possible defections on the part of groups and communities, whether urban or regional: "On the face of it, the presumed...


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