Why underdevelopment in the Muslim world?

Bassem Aly , Tuesday 8 Oct 2019

In his new book, political science professor Ahmet T Kuru explores why Muslim-majority countries have historically shown less socio-economic development than Western ones, explaining why to Bassem Aly

Why underdevelopment in the Muslim  world?

According to a new book entitled Islam, Authoritarianism, and Underdevelopment: A Global and Historical Comparison by Ahmet T Kuru, a professor of political science at San Diego State University in the US, the Muslim world had a wealth of independent scholars and merchants who made widespread philosophical and economic achievements possible until around the mid-11th century CE.

The book also explains why many parts of the Muslim world fell behind the West after this date.

The time factor played a significant role. In recent years, Islamist militant groups such as the Islamic State (IS) group have been responsible for terrorist attacks in several parts of the Arab and Muslim-majority world. The security threats that they have represented have even extended to Western societies.

Moreover, some Arab Islamist groups, especially those who have had access to power positions, have been widely blamed for the socio-economic and political unrest during the post-Arab Spring years.

He challenges arguments that see Islam as somehow being the cause of sometimes “low levels of socioeconomic development in Muslim-majority states in comparison to world averages.” In the introductory part of the book, he praises Muslims for the philosophical and socio-economic development of their communities between the ninth and 12th centuries, which exceeded that of Western European ones. 

He also rejects claims that Western colonialism caused socio-economic and intellectual problems for the Muslim world, however, as these had already been in place when colonisation started, he says.  

His analysis is based on historical comparisons that begin with the seventh century and end with the 21st. For example, he points out that the separation of religion and state during the mediaeval Umayyad and Abbasid caliphates gave room for resistance to Sunni Muslim rulers. The opposition to the state was led by both Shiites and Sunni jurists, theologians, the transmitters of hadith (sayings of the Prophet Mohamed) and Sufis, who represented a mystical strand in Islam.

As Kuru puts it, this “diversity engendered an intellectual vibrancy in religious thought,” including among the founders of the four Sunni Schools of Islamic Law, Abu Hanifa, Malik, Shafii and Ahmad Ibn Hanbal. Yet, these prominent scholars, Kuru states in his study, paid the price for their views towards the state. Abu Hanifa died in prison, Malik was publicly whipped, Shafii was detained and Ibn Hanbal was beaten in prison.

Kuru’s book offers a response to claims that it has been the absence of effective institutions that has been the cause of Muslim-majority states’ socio-economic problems. 

He criticises this argument by stressing that the absence of well-trained labour, funds and effective institutions, or the presence of ineffective institutions, are effects, rather than causes, of such problems. “The causes [of the problems] are human beings, particularly the religious authorities and the state authorities, as the ulema-state alliance created ineffective institutions in the Muslim world,” he says, referring to the Muslim world’s clerics, or ulemas.

In an interview with Al-Ahram Weekly, Kuru said that his book tackled a long list of questions from history, which serves as “the only laboratory for social scientists who are trying to answer the big questions.” Among other things, Kuru asks why the Muslims achieved substantial economic development in their early history but faced economic decline in the last two centuries at least. 

“My book argues that until the mid-11th century, the Muslim world had independent scholars and merchants who made philosophical and economic achievements possible. After the mid-11th century, however, most Islamic scholars (the ulema) became state servants and they established an alliance with the state. This ulema-state alliance marginalised independent scholars and merchants and thus led to intellectual and economic stagnation,” Kuru said. 

“One of the contributions my book makes to the field is its detailed examination of Muslims’ scholarly and socio-economic achievements between the eighth and 12th centuries. Most books and articles have analysed the philosophical and socio-economic problems in the Muslim world without analysing Muslims’ major achievements in their early history.”

He added that both Islamists and secularists have contributed to the intellectual and socio-economic problems in the Muslim world, for both have been “anti-intellectual and anti-bourgeois” in emphasis. 

“The Islamists regard the intellectuals as too sceptical of their Islamist utopia and want an Islamic state to control the economy. The secularists see intellectuals as too sceptical of their secularist modernisation projects and would like to see a secular state control the economy. That is why my book is critical of both the Islamists and the secularists in the Muslim world,” Kuru said. 

He believes that there “should be spaces and opportunities for all groups, regardless of whether they are Islamic or secular.”

“Religion should not dominate politics or vice versa. The Muslim world really needs a reinterpretation of religion-state relations. If the ulema-state alliance ends, the ulema will become autonomous and will stop justifying whatever the state does. The separation of spheres will also lead to the rise of independent scholars and merchants. This is the solution to the problem of intellectual and economic stagnation in the Muslim world,” he argued.


Ahmet T Kuru, Islam, Authoritarianism and Underdevelopment: A Global and Historical Comparison, Cambridge (UK): Cambridge University Press, 2019.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 10 October, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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