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

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Ahmet Kuru (AK): I was born and raised in Turkey. My father was a politician and an intellectual; under his influence, I started to grapple at an early age with questions about the gap in development between the Muslim world and the West. The more I read about the history of Muslims, the more I became persuaded that, at some historical critical juncture, Muslims lost intellectual and economic dynamism. The achievements of Muslims in their early history made their current underdeveloped status even more intriguing and puzzling for me.

During my early academic career, I focused on contemporary political relations as the cause of political and socio-economic problems in many Muslim-majority countries. Yet, later, the breakdown of democracy in Turkey and the failure of the Arab uprisings to produce democratic regimes (except in Tunisia) convinced me that the problems of Muslim-majority countries are deeper than I previously had thought.

Two arguments have dominated public debates and even social scientific literature on the problem of underdevelopment in the Muslim world. Firstly, essentialists have singled out Islam as the source of problems. This argument contradicted what I knew about Islam as a religion and how Islam was perfectly compatible with progress between the eighth and mid-eleventh centuries. Secondly, post-colonialists have blamed Western colonialism for Muslims’ problems. This was not convincing either; Muslims already had intellectual and economic stagnation when Western colonization began. Hence, I decided to write my own alternative argument.

J:  What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

AK: The book asks questions about the contemporary problems of violence, authoritarianism, and socioeconomic underdevelopment in Muslim-majority countries. In order to answer them, the book conducts a comparative historical analysis. In addition to essentialism and post-colonialism, my book critically engages with new institutionalism, which argues that inclusive institutions lead to development and exclusive institutions cause underdevelopment. New institutionalists overemphasize the role of institutions at the expense of human agency. By contrast, my book explains how particular human actors created effective institutions in the Muslim world until the mid-eleventh century, as well as explaining how and why subsequent human actors created ineffective institutions.

The book argues that from the eighth to the mid-eleventh century, the Muslim world had two dynamic classes—scholars and merchants—who were financially and/or professionally independent from state authorities. These two creative classes were the engines of early Muslim philosophical and economic achievements. During those centuries, Western Europe, which was dominated by military rulers and the Catholic clergy, was far behind the Muslim world, in terms of the size of libraries, the quality of urban life, and the development of the monetary economy.

Nonetheless, a transformation occurred in both the Muslim world and Western Europe in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. In Muslim lands, the state structure became militarized with a new emphasis on conquest and with the institutionalization of the iqta system (the state allocation of land revenues to military and civilian officials). The military states, especially the Seljuk Empire and then the Mamluk Sultanate, established an alliance with a new class of Islamic scholars (the ulema). While most early Islamic scholars, such as Abu Hanifa, refused to be paid by the state and were funded by commerce, the new class of ulema became state servants. Nizamiyya madrasas established the institutional basis for the alliance between the ulema and the state.

The ulema-state alliance marginalized independent scholars and the merchant class in post-eleventh century Muslim lands. That is how Muslims lost their philosophical and economic dynamism. Western Europe, by contrast, experienced the rise of universities (creating a class of intellectuals) and the rise of city-states (with an influential bourgeois class) in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. Later, these two classes led the Renaissance, the printing revolution, geographical discoveries, and the scientific revolution in Western Europe.

During these revolutions, Western Europeans effectively used printing press, nautical compass, and gunpowder. The Ottoman, Safavid, and Mughal empires, which dominated and expanded the Muslim world at that time, employed only gunpowder. While the army commanders appreciated the importance of gunpowder, they did not understand the significance of the printing press. Muslims no longer had an intellectual or a bourgeois class who would realize the importance of the printing press. Furthermore, the ulema regarded printing as a threat to their religious, educational, and intellectual monopoly. Not a single book was printed by Muslims from 1455 (when the first European book was printed) to 1729 (when the first Ottoman book was printed). As a result, by 1800, the estimated average literacy rate reached to thirty-one percent in Western Europe, in comparison to just one percent in the Ottoman Empire. The literacy gap between Western and Muslim-majority countries has largely persisted until today.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?

AK: My first book, Secularism and State Policies toward Religion: The United States, France, and Turkey (Cambridge University Press), was published in 2009. It criticizes assertive secularism, the dominant ideology in France and (until recently) Turkey, for being exclusionary toward religions in the public sphere. The book appreciates passive secularism, the dominant ideology in the United States, for tolerating religions in the public sphere. I argued that passive secularism could be a democratic middle ground for Muslim-majority countries, which have faced a struggle between pro-authoritarian ideologies of assertive secularism and Islamism.

There are two major connections between the two books. Firstly, both books explain contemporary phenomena with comparative historical analysis. For the previous book, assertive secularism was a republican reaction to the ancien régime, which was based on the marriage between the monarchy and the Catholic Church in France and the marriage between the monarchy and the ulema in the Ottoman Empire. The concept of the ancien régime in my previous book is connected to the concept of the ulema-state alliance in my new book.

Secondly, although the previous book is primarily a critique of secularists and the new book focuses on critiquing Islamists, both books, in fact, critique both secularists and Islamists. For example, in the new book, I stress that modernization attempts of secularist state leaders—from Turkey’s Kemal Ataturk to Egypt’s Gamel Abdel Nasser—mostly failed because they, with their specifically military education, truly appreciated neither the critical thinking of intellectuals nor the economic creativity of the bourgeoisie.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

AK: I hope those with certain prejudices against Islam will read this book and learn the complexity of Islam as a religion and as a civilization from history to present. The book has a specific chapter on violence that directly addresses such readers.

I also hope that apologists who label anyone criticizing Muslims’ certain ideas as “orientalist” will read this book and see that particular ideas effective in Muslim societies are authoritarian. These ideas were constructed during a long historical process starting in the mid-eleventh century; contemporary Muslims should challenge them in order to achieve democratization.

I am happy that several readers with educational background other than social science, such as engineering, have noted that they read the book and found it very accessible. So, it seems my book has reached a broad readership beyond academia.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

AK: I am now working on the translation of the book. The Indonesian translation will be published soon (by Kepustakaan Populer). Cambridge is now negotiating with three publishers for its Arabic, Japanese, and Turkish translations. I plan to write a preface for each translation regarding the book’s relevancy to the particular country of translation. I will also make revisions on Arabic and especially Turkish translations.

J: Can your appreciation of the bourgeois class be criticized as promoting capitalism? Alternatively, can your class-based analysis be theoretically defined as a reiteration of the Marxist analysis? 

AK: My short answer to both questions would be no. My book does not simply appreciate the bourgeoisie, per se; instead, it values how intellectuals and the bourgeoisie were able to balance the power of political and religious authorities in early Islamic history and late European history. Thus, it is an appreciation of the balance of power, diversity, differentiation, competition, and creativity. I regard the protection of private property as crucial for economic and intellectual development, but this does not necessarily mean favoring a version of capitalism that rejects social policies and/or state regulations.

Theoretically, I see the Marxist approach as much more materialist than my book’s perspective. On the one hand, I explore class interests as well as such material factors as the medieval iqta system and modern rentierism based on oil revenues. On the other hand, I examine certain ideas, such as Sunni and Shi‘i orthodoxy, as the basis of the ulema-state alliance in various cases. The book has an extensive analysis of the ideas of Mawardi, Ghazali, and Ibn Taymiyya, as defenders of the ulema-state alliance, in addition to those of Ibn Rushd, Tusi, and Ibn Khaldun on their alternative perspectives. Moreover, unlike classical Marxism, I analyze the roles of intellectuals and their ideas in the rise of Western Europe. The following excerpt elaborates my book’s emphasis on secular ideologies and religious ideas—particularly those on Islamic jurisprudence.


Excerpt from the book

From the introduction:

Secularists and Islamic Actors

Despite their century-long struggles against each other, secularists and Islamic actors have both contributed to the enduring marginalization of intellectuals and the bourgeoisie in their societies. There are three main explanations for the secularists’ contribution. First, most twentieth-century secularist leaders in such cases as Turkey, Iran, Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Algeria, Tunisia, Pakistan, and Indonesia were former military officers. By training and socialization, they were unlikely to truly appreciate the importance of intellectuals and the bourgeoisie for the political and economic development of their countries. Second, these secularist leaders were generally under the influence of socialist and fascist ideologies, in particular, and authoritarian modernist ideas, in general. Thus, they imposed ideological views to society and established state control over the economy by restricting the intellectual and bourgeois classes. Third, many secularist rulers have arbitrarily tried to use Islam to legitimize their regimes. Such cooptation has eventually promoted the established ulema at the expense of independent Islamic scholars and intellectuals.

Though they were founded by secularist leaders, many modern states in the Muslim world experienced Islamization of public life as a result of policy failures of the secularists and general conservatism of Muslim societies. Islamization has elevated the status of three groups of Islamic actors, who have shared negative attitudes toward intellectuals and the bourgeoisie. One group is the ulema, who are trained in madrasas or their more modernized equivalents (such as Turkey’s departments of theologies) in Islamic disciplines, including jurisprudence, the hadith, and Quranic exegesis. Another group is the Islamists, who engage in electoral or other types of politics through political parties and movements. The third group is the Sufi shaykhs, who are mystical and social leaders of Sufi orders (tariqas).

Despite their internal disagreements, these Islamic actors have shared negative attitudes toward the independent bourgeoisie, given their statist and hierarchical outlook, according to which religious and political authorities are supposed to hold the highest social status. These Islamic actors have also had a common anti-intellectual attitude. This attitude follows the ulema’s epistemology, which is based on four hierarchical sources: the Quran, hadiths (the records of the Prophet’s words and actions), consensus of the ulema (ijma), and analogical reasoning (qiyas). Two characteristics of this epistemology discourage new interpretations of Islam, particularly by Muslim intellectuals. First, it restricts reason to making analogies on points where the literal meanings of the Quran and hadiths offer no clear ruling, and where there is a lack of consensus among the scholars. Second, and relatedly, it establishes the consensus of the ulema as an entrenched authority, which weakens alternative views.

In fact, the basis of consensus as a jurisprudential concept is a hadith: “My community will never agree upon an error.” The term “community” here referred to Muslim people at large. If it had continued to be understood in this broad manner, this concept could have provided opportunities for participation and change. However, the ulema have monopolized the concept of consensus by exclusively interpreting it with reference to themselves, turning it into “a bulwark of conservatism.”

Early Muslims actually assigned a more significant and emancipatory role to reason. Abu Hanifa (699–767), the founder of earliest Sunni school of jurisprudence, acknowledged a jurist’s reason-based judgment as an important source of jurisprudential authority. Two generations later, however, Shafii developed the jurisprudential method that prioritized the literal understanding of the Qur’an and hadiths followed by the consensus of the ulema, limiting the role of reason to mere analogy. Moreover, with the works of such eminent ulema as Ghazali, Shafii’s jurisprudential method influenced other fields of Islamic knowledge such as theology and Sufism. At first, Shafii’s method was one of the many alternative jurisprudential approaches. By the establishment of the ulema–state alliance starting in the eleventh century, however, it gradually became the main pillar of Sunni orthodoxy. Ultimately, Hanafis adopted this methodology, as did Malikis and Hanbalis.

Consequently, Shafii’s jurisprudential method became a dominant epistemology that came to order other aspects of knowledge in the Muslim world. “If it were admissible to name Islamic culture according to one of its products,” wrote Mohammed Abed al-Jabri in the 1980s, “then we would call it ‘the culture of fiqh (jurisprudence)’ in the same sense that applies to Greek culture when we call it a ‘culture of philosophy’ and contemporary European culture as a ‘culture of science and technology.’” For Jabri, the rules of jurisprudence established by Shafii “are no less important in forming Arab-Islamic reason than the ‘rules of methodology’ posited by Descartes about the formation of French reason.”

There have been some attempts to include additional sources of knowledge into this jurisprudential epistemology. Although Ghazali was a leading promoter of this epistemology, particularly its sidelining of reason, he was also a sophisticated scholar with complex, if not always consistent, ideas. He promoted the idea of the five “higher objectives” of Islamic law. About three centuries later, the Andalusian jurist Shatibi elaborated these five objectives – the protection of religion, of life, of intellect, of progeny, and of property – as a way of making jurisprudence more flexible. Sufi shaykhs’ promotion of mystical knowledge was another attempt to relax the epistemological constraints on Muslim intellectual life. Nonetheless, these efforts have mostly remained inconsequential in comparison to the dominant epistemology originally formulated by Shafii, which assigns a marginal role to reason and no role to empirical experience. This epistemology has been a source of the anti-intellectualism among the ulema, Islamists, and Sufi shaykhs.

From the 1980s onward, many Muslim countries experienced Islamization of the public life, as part of the global rise of religious movements. The ulema, Islamists, and Sufis gained more public influence and reinforced the marginalization of the intellectual and bourgeois classes. The secularists by and large have been similarly anti-intellectual and anti-bourgeois in implementing their authoritarian secularist ideologies and policies. Under these class conditions, Muslim countries have mostly failed to solve their multifaceted and historically rooted problems.

Those who see Islam as inherently rejecting religion–state separation may regard my explanation as pessimistic. For them, if the ulema–state alliance is the source of Muslims’ problems, then there is no way to solve them, because the alliance is based on Islam’s essentially non-separationist approach to religion–state relations. However, my analysis actually explains that the ulema–state alliance is neither an essential part of the Quran and hadiths nor a permanent feature of Islamic history. Early Islamic history includes examples of religion–state separation, and it is a mistake to see Islam as inherently rejecting such separation. But what might be the cause of this widespread and by now conventional misunderstanding?