The historical roots of the crisis in Islamic civilization

This article was published in Oasis 31. Read the table of contents

Last update: 2022-04-22 10:04:57


Ahmet T. Kuru, Islam, Authoritarianism and Underdevelopment. A Global and Historical Comparison, Cambridge University Press, New York 2019


Why is it that Muslim societies have failed to keep up with the West over the last five hundred years and are still, today, to a large extent, held back by underdevelopment and authoritarianism? The question has been fuelling debate—and, often, bitter controversy—between scholars of varying persuasions for at least two centuries. It has also been exercising Ahmet Kuru, political scientist at San Diego State University, ever since one evening in 1989 when his father Uğur had a rather heated exchange with a general in the Turkish army regarding the Muslim contribution to modern civilization. Intrigued by the incident, the young Ahmet began to investigate the subject personally, embarking on a research project that was to end thirty years later with the publication of his Islam, Authoritarianism and Underdevelopment. The book distances itself from two prevailing approaches, in particular: on the one hand, the essentialist one, according to which it is Islam itself that prevents the advance of the societies in which it is rooted; on the other, the dependency theory, which traces the Muslim world’s problems to the colonial exploitation of which it has been a victim. The first thesis is belied by the fact that, up until the eleventh century, Muslim societies were more developed and intellectually lively than European ones; the second by the economic success of certain countries, particularly those in the Far East, which have been spared neither colonial domination nor authoritarianism. Thus, for Kuru, the question is more complex and account must be taken of other elements including, for example, the fact that the abundance of hydrocarbons has led to a rentier economy in most Muslim-majority countries and this has, in turn, fostered the establishment of authoritarian systems. This is not the book’s basic argument, however. According to the Turkish scholar authoritarianism and underdevelopment can ultimately be traced to two closely intertwined factors that have been weighing Muslim societies down for a thousand years: the alliance between state and ulama and the absence of a politically independent merchant class.


Unlike what was to happen subsequently, during the first four centuries of Islam prominent religious figures tended to refuse to collaborate with the state, enduring threats and persecution rather than submit to political authority. As Kuru recalls, this was the fate met by the founders of the great schools of law, in particular: “Abu Hanifa died in prison, Malik was whipped, Shafii was detained and chained, Ibn Hanbal was beaten in prison, and Jafar al-Sadiq was poisoned to death” (p. 72). In order to maintain their autonomy, religious scholars refused to be funded by the state and personally devoted themselves to trade. This activity was flourishing at that time, benefitting from the conditions created by Islamic expansion, namely, “[a] common language (Arabic), a shared set of laws, and a religious motivation to travel (the pilgrimage to Mecca)” (p. 80). The prophet of Islam himself, Muhammad, had been a merchant and this conferred a particular religious legitimacy on those who took up this livelihood. The prosperity deriving from it allowed and stimulated the development of sciences in its turn. Intellectual independence and prosperity from trade were the drivers behind the dynamism of Islam’s first centuries and the cultural effervescence of the Abbasid era, in particular, when, with its doctors, mathematicians, astronomers, geographers and philosophers, the Islamic empire was at the cutting edge of knowledge.


In the frame proposed by Kuru, this rise was interrupted around the eleventh century. The economic system founded on trade began to decline, making way for a feudal system founded on land revenue and the awarding of lands by the state, which began to use this tool systematically to reward the military classes. At the same time, Sunni orthodoxy (which was forming during those years) established alliance between religious scholars and rulers as one of its tenets, partly because the ulama had meanwhile lost the possibility of safeguarding their own financial independence through trade. The marriage between book and sword was sealed by the apocryphal attribution to Muhammad of the originally Persian maxim “Monarchy and religion are twins.”


According to Kuru, the figure who, more than any other, marked the watershed between the old system and the new one is al-Ghazālī (1058–1111), whose attitude towards political power is emblematic of Sunni Islam’s trajectory. Indeed, during an initial phase, the great Muslim theologian had close ties with the Seljuk sultans, who entrusted him with an important teaching post in Baghdad. Al-Ghazālī gave up this position after four years, however, and visiting Abraham’s tomb, swore that he would never again accept money from a ruler, only to return to teaching in a state-founded madrasa at the end of his life. Furthermore, through his theological work, al-Ghazālī integrated Sufism within Sunni orthodoxy and, at the same time, eliminated philosophy from it and contributed to legitimize the possibility of declaring Muslims deviating from Sunni teaching to be apostates, thus condemning them to death.


The three-fold process of militarizing political power, marginalising the merchants and subjugating Islam to the state continued during the following centuries, driven by Crusade pressure and the Mongol invasions. The result was the end of the Muslims’ commercial and intellectual dynamism and, therefore, also of the possibility of seeing the rise, in Islamic societies, of a bourgeoisie similar to the one that was to play a crucial role in Europe’s progress.


The development that had marked the Muslim world up until the eleventh century reversed into a slow but inexorable decline. In response to the revisionist scholars who, postulating Islamic civilization’s recovery during the Ottoman empire, relativize the extent of such decline, Kuru puts forth a long and detailed series of remarks: Ibn Khaldūn (1322-1406), the towering Maghrebi thinker considered by many a precursor of modern sociology, was essentially ignored by his contemporaries, thereby constituting for Muslims “a lost opportunity to revive their waning intellectual dynamism” (p. 143); book printing, decisive for literacy and, therefore, for Europe’s development, struggled not a little to make headway in the Islamic world and so much so that, owing to the ulama’s veto, it was only in 1729 that Muslims could make use of it in Ottoman territory; even astronomy, once the jewel in the Islamic sciences’ crown, had to migrate to the West in order to continue its progress: around the 1580s, while the king of Denmark was sponsoring the construction of Tycho Brahe’s observatory, the Ottomans had theirs destroyed at the request of the state’s highest Islamic authority, which accused the building of bringing “misfortune” (p. 174).


According to Kuru, not even the modern era’s great reformist effort has succeeded in changing this course and thus many Muslim countries are still reckoning with problems from the past. Stated more than once, the political scientist’s standpoint is crystal clear: Islamic civilization is in crisis due to contingent historical factors and not because of an intrinsic flaw in Islam. This conclusion is supported in the book by a considerable quantity of data coming from various disciplines, a methodical and systematic discussion of other scholars’ theses and a stimulating comparison with other civilizations.


Despite the work’s great merits, some of its thesis are worth debating. For example, in various passages, the book seems to adopt a typically Enlightenment vision (often assumed also by Muslim reformers) that sees European progress as a journey in reason’s emancipation from the Church’s authority. Such a perspective tends—in Islam, too—to promote rationalist and heterodox thinkers, who are regarded as a possible antidote to the paralyzing effect of “official” religious doctrines. A recurring theme, in this sense, is the appreciation of Averroes’ philosophical openness (also perceptible in Kuru’s book) as opposed to al-Ghazālī’s dogmatism. Although not wholly unfounded, this reading does not take account of certain decisive aspects. For example, in his History of Christian Philosophy in the Middle Ages, Étienne Gilson suggested that it was precisely the Church’s distancing herself from Averroism (sanctioned by the condemnation in 1277) that meant, for Europe, the freeing of minds “from the finite limits within which Greek thought had enclosed the universe,” thereby paving the way to modern science. In this sense, rather than establishing a generic contrast between the dynamism of philosophy and science and the dogmatism of theology or mysticism, it would be worth exploring the outcomes that the different thought systems lead to.


For all that Kuru insists on the force of ideas, his interest centres not so much on the potential and limitations of individual intellectual currents as on the relations they maintain with power. For this reason, his proposal (contained in the volume’s tail end) is to promote “competitive and meritocratic systems” in which “creative intellectuals” and an “independent bourgeoisie” (p. 235) can counterbalance the influence of ulama and state authorities. Reading between the lines, it appears that Kuru’s benchmark is the North-European modernity of Protestant origin, with its strong emphasis on the economic dimension of the social bond. One may wonder whether the inviolable dignity of the human person does not come before competition when seeking to found an authentically liberal system.


The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Oasis International Foundation


To cite this article

Printed version:
Michele Brignone, “The Alliance that Stifles the Muslim World”, Oasis, year 16, no. 30, pp. 146-149.

Online version:
Michele Brignone, “The Alliance that Stifles the Muslim World”, Oasis [online], published on December 2020, URL: /en/the-alliance-that-stifles-the-muslim-world