Kuran’s article attempts to explain why the Middle East, which was rather economically advanced in the past, is now viewed as underdeveloped when compared to Europe. The theory he presents is that Islamic institutions, while not actively preventing economic development, eventually did act as barriers to economic growth in the Middle East due to “unintended interactions among [themselves]” (Kuran 2004: 72). Kuran provides convincing evidence in the first half of his article about how specific institutions (inheritance law, individualism, and waqfs) could have hampered economic development along a Western model in the Middle East; however, the latter half of his paper includes broad and/or unsubstantiated claims and requires multiple assumptions to reach his conclusions.
The first sections of the paper do a good job of explaining relevant economic institutions and providing general background for the argument, a crucial element as the reader must understand these concepts if they are to follow his argument. Specifically, the comparisons between Europe and the Middle East that Kuran offers as evidence throughout the article are useful and convincing. It makes sense that, given the Bible neglects inheritance law, European economies would develop various inheritance models that would eventually favor passing on wealth to a select few, while Muslim economies would follow Islamic inheritance law thereby distributing wealth to many; it is then logical that these varying practices would result in wealth accumulation for the Europeans and wealth dispersion for Muslims that would later affect each’s economic development (Kuran 2004: 79). The first half of the article contains similar evidence and examples (particularly comparisons between Muslims and non-Muslim minorities) that convincingly support Kuran’s contention that some Islamic institutions hindered Western-like economic development.
However, the second half of Kuran’s argument relies on several assumptions to connect the above evidence to his ultimate conclusion about the persistence of underdevelopment in the Middle East. The clearest assumption underlaying his argument is that Western intervention in Middle Eastern economies is not a large factor in the region’s current economic situation, as he neglected to mention anything relating to colonialism or imperialism and simply blamed the unfortunate aging of Islamic institutions. In fact, he even cited trading agreements that Europe ultimately exploited (“capitulations”), as “bilateral treaties” that non-Muslim minorities could simply access to advance economically (Kuran 2004: 85). While he criticized the “fragmented agricultural land” created by Islamic inheritance law, he also neglected to mention colonial practices that took land from the native population, as seen in Algeria under French colonization. Furthermore, Kuran operates under the assumption that the Western economic model is desirable and that every region should adopt it, copying its institutions and norms (Kuran 2004: 86, 89). However, there is no discussion of whether such an economic system is right for the entire Middle East, if individuals in the region desire it, or if the Islamic model has any beneficial attributes (such as its emphasis on equity). The lack of such conversations is a glaring weakness in Kuran’s argument, as it neglects the voices of those who live in the region.
The article leaves the reader with several questions: Why does the Middle East need to develop in the exact same way as Europe? Why is individualism in the Islamic context a liability, while it is a virtue in Western economies? What was the true role of Europe in the Middle East’s economic history? While Kuran does not offer answers to these questions, his article does provide a historical overview of both the Middle East and Europe’s economic development, as well as an in-depth description of Islamic economic institutions, which ultimately helps to situate class discussions on the economies and interactions of these two regions.
Citation: Kuran, Timur. “Why the Middle East is Economically Underdeveloped: Historical Mechanisms of Institutional Stagnation.” Journal of Economic Perspectives 18, no. 3 (Summer 2004): 71-90.