“Islam, Authoritarianism, and Underdevelopment – A Global and Historical Comparison”


Author: Ahmet T Kuru

Cambridge University Press

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Ataul Fatir Tahir, Al Hakam

In his timely and thoroughly researched book, Islam, Authoritarianism, and Underdevelopment, Ahmet T Kuru, a professor of Political Science at San Diego State University gives his analysis of why Muslim societies lost the vibrant intellectual and scientific light it once led the world with between the 8th and 12th centuries.

He proves that modern-day Muslim societies are far behind in political and socioeconomic development; lacking in education, innovation, economy, science, while excelling in authoritarianism.

Throughout the book, Kuru aims to give “a global and historical comparison” on the issue. The book was described by Timur Kuran from Duke University as “meticulously researched, insightful and provocative”.

Robert W Hefner from Boston University said that “no scholar has explored the issue with the sociological richness, comparative erudition, or depth of insight Kuru achieves in the book. This is one of the most important works in years on the politics and culture of Muslim modernity”.

Prof Ahmet Kuru addresses the question of why Muslim societies have regressed politically, socio-economically and academically by comparing the historical similarities between Muslim and Western societies in a turning-of-tables style. He aimed to do this in a more “nuanced” way; neither blaming Islam nor Westernأcolonialism, as the current rhetoric amongst academics prescribe.

The book is divided into two parts; the first examines “how the ulema, the authoritarian state, and various alliances between them have substantially contributed to problems of violence, authoritarianism, and underdevelopment in many Muslim countries today.”

Part two analysed “how the ulema-state alliance began to emerge in the eleventh century – a critical juncture before which Muslims had achieved scholarly and socioeconomic progress and after which they started to experience intellectual and socioeconomic stagnation.” (Islam, Authoritarianism, and Underdevelopment, p. 12)

Muslim societies gave birth to polymaths, philosophers and scientists, like Farabi, Biruni and Ibn Sina whose work shaped modern sciences – this, Kuru argues, was due to a separation between religion and state, the independence of scholars and a flourishing bergeouis class who led industry and business. Historically, this changed in the 11th century with the rise of the “ulema-state alliance” according to Kuru. Prior, “creative intellectuals and influential merchants” existed in Muslim societies, and most Islamic scholars avoided serving the state and were funded by “trade revenue and regarded interactions with rulers as corrupting.”

He shows that the ulema (scholars) preferred to fund themselves through industry and commerce; “from the eighth to the mid-eleventh century, 72.5 percent of Islamic scholars or their families worked in commerce and/or industry.” (Ibid, p. 3)

From the 11th century onwards, this changed and the control of the ulema and their alliances with the state led to regression. Subsequently Muslim empires embraced the authoritarian ulema-state alliance including the Seljuks, Mamluks, Ottomans, Safavids and Mughals – this meant “… the Muslim world during and after the eleventh century resembled those in the early medieval Europe: clerical and military elites dominated society and inhibited the flourishing intellectuals and merchants.” (Ibid, p. 228)

According to Kuru, the ulema became servants of the rulers, the merchant class began to hugely regress and through iqta systems, the military and officials began forcefully controlling land revenues. Philosophy, innovation and science were not given the importance they had in earlier centuries and as a result, Muslim regression in these fields started. This alliance also “weakened social roles of merchants, who had previously funded certain philosophers and independent (i.e, not state-servant) Islamic scholars.” (Ibid, p. 152)

While Muslim nations flirted with authoritarianism and ulema-state alliances, the West began escaping the clutches of authoritarianism and the influence of the clergy that had inhibited socioeconomic and academic progress in the West. This change ultimately led to the Western Enlightenment but while the tables were turning and Europe was rising in economy and education, it is important to remember that “facets of Western Europe development – from the cultivation of new crops to intercontinental trade, and from paper production to the engagement with Aristotelian philosophy – bear the deep imprint of Muslim influence.” (Ibid, p. 161)

Throughout the book, Kuru emphasises the role ulema played in controlling the religious narratives within Muslim nations as the “legislative authorities” who also discouraged philosophy and science as it attacked their religious authority. Kuru is very critical of scholars like Ghazali, Ibn Taymiyya and Mawardi who promoted blasphemy and apostasy laws – hence the book being “provocative” for many.

Kuru proves that even so-called “secular” Muslim states such as Pakistan, Turkey, Indonesia and Egypt are not secular at all, rather have authoritarian practices and are opposite to true democracy. Many leaders of such countries have been previous military leaders who go on to rule in an authoritarian manner, even though they are elected – often using the ulema to establish their legitimacy and rules.

Using Pakistan’s Zia ul Haq, Egypt’s Nasser, Turkey’s Erdogan and Iran’s Ayatullah Khomeini as prime examples, Kuru shows how so-called democratic Muslim countries have absorbed the influence of the ulema as authorities to help them gain support. Of course, this has often led to the Islamisation of Muslim countries in the paradigm of the narrative these political leaders and ulema desired.

Kuru thinks that even “secular Muslim states” who have used the ulema to establish themselves have, in the end, lost out; “the ulema have been cooperated with or been coopted by authoritarian rulers.” And in the long run, “the ulema seems to have benefited more from this relationship by Islamizing public discourse and ultimately promoting their own political and legal positions” (Ibid, p. 42)۔

And so, Muslim society remains chained to the “strong public role of the ulema”. “The fact that both secular and Islamic states are mostly authoritarian signals the deeper historical and socioeconomic roots of authoritarianism in the Muslim world”, Kuru notes (Ibid, p. 54).

He goes on to present multiple reasons for authoritarianism existing in the Muslim world and rejects the notion presented by essentialists that Islam is opposed to secular states and is inherently authoritarian.

The book identifies three “Islamic actors” who contributed to the regression within Muslim societies; “the ulema, Islamists, and Sufi Shaykhs”. He blames these actors for introducing a control over the interpretation of Islam, the creation of blasphemy and apostasy laws and even violence – which ultimately attacked Muslim philosophers and scientists too.

In terms of violence, Kuru stresses that violence isn’t due to “Islam” or a Muslim problem, rather it’s a human problem and Muslim terrorist activities started in more contemporary times due to multi-faceted reason; including the interpretation of the Quran.

Quoting Lapidus, he says that the ulema were not only “the undisputed interpreters of the divine law” but also the “administrators of the community’s familial, commercial, educational, and legal affairs.” (Ibid, p. 153)

Kuru blames old interpretation of the Quran in “medieval texts” as hugely problematic. “These medieval texts’ influence on the present can be seen in the contemporary institution of the religious police, which has been established with different forms in several countries, including Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Malaysia” (Ibid p. 46).

The traditional jurist traditions have not been changed and the ulema emphasise them without allowing any room for change. Kuru says, “In short, the central Islamic concept of ‘commanding right and forbidding wrong’ needs a modern interpretation to become compatible with democracy and individual freedom” (Ibid p. 47).

Further, he writes, “to solve contemporary problems of authoritarianism, patriarchy, and religious discrimination, Muslim countries need creative intellectuals. These countries, however, have had various barriers to the flourishing of intellectuals. Many Muslim countries have passed blasphemy and apostasy laws, which have further restricted freedom of conscience and intellectual life … Throughout the Muslim world, intellectuals who criticize orthodox views have faced various threats, including being labelled as apostates, native Orientalists, or lackeys of Western agenda.” (Ibid p. 47)

To challenge the ulema is a no go area. “It is very difficult to challenge the statist and conservative discourses of the ulema and interpret Islam in an individual and progressive manner. The ulema’s authority to interpret Islam based on their rigid epistemology has been very well established in Muslim societies. There is also a hierarchy within the ranks of the ulema that prevents younger ulema devising new and creative ideas. As a result, the ulema have preserved Islamic legal texts’ illiberal content, including those related to corporal punishment, one-man rule, patriarchy, violating privacy, and discriminating against non-Muslims.” (Ibid p. 45)

The book then addresses the subsequent centuries and the factors that further caused regression in Muslim nations. Kuru goes through more nuanced aspects like the effects of invasions on Muslim lands, such as the Crusaders, Mongols and Timurids.

“… invasions highlighted the need for survival and order, strengthening the military elites and their alliance with the ulema at the expense of philosophers and merchants throughout the Muslim world”. (Ibid, p. 161)

Scholars still existed within the Muslim world within these centuries – Ibn Rushd and Ibn Khaldun were from this time period – but their works were not given importance within the Muslim world. Interestingly, Kuru notes that it was Europeans who unveiled the importance of Ibn Rushd and Ibn Khaldun’s works.

“In short, the jurisprudential approach (represented by Ibn Taymiyya) was dominant, while the philosophical approach (represented by Ibn Rushd) was mostly marginal in Muslim political thought between the twelfth and fourteenth centuries. The ulema class had dozens, if not hundreds, of madrasas and thousands of members to disseminate its ideas, where the philosophers lacked institutional and financial bases except for arbitrary political patronage, particularly after the weakening of the merchant class, which has previously supported both philosophers and independent Islamic scholars.”

A comparison of Europe and Muslim lands is made in the book. Where Muslims were regressing away from innovation and education, the West began to excel and ironically much of the West’s work in academia and science was due to the works of previous Muslim societies.

Kuru notes, “In the thirteenth century, Latin and Hebrew translations of Ibn Rushd’s commentaries on Aristotle exerted a strong influence on various European thinkers” (Ibid, p. 160).

Universities also drastically increased across Europe between the 12th and 14th Centuries; by 1500, they had reached 66 as compared to 20 in 1300. However, European universities and Muslim madrasas differed:

“While European universities increasingly taught more secular subjects and became open to new ideas, madrasas were focused more on religious education and defending the tradition. Universities had strong institutional bases and issued institutional licenses. Madrasas, by contrast, were based on personal relationships; each professor was granting personal licenses (ijazas) to certify his student’s expertise to teach particular books and/or issue legal opinions. Institutionalization helped universities become stronger against pressures of the political and religious authorities, whereas relatively uninstitutionalized madrasas remained weak against such pressures”. (Ibid, p. 161)

Overall, the book deep dives into Muslim societies and analyses them during their period of scientific wonder (8th-12th centuries) and the devastating stagnation Muslim societies underwent and still experience after. Comparisons are drawn with Europe which saw such stagnation in its medieval period but escaped and entered the Enlightenment due to political and socioeconomic changes.

I don’t say that Kuru’s criticisms of Ghazali, Ibn Taymiyya and Mawardi are completely misplaced and wrong, but they definitely draw a very negative overall picture and may imbed an inherently negative view of them for readers less acquainted with their grand works. Acknowledging more of their positive works, while highlighting the errors they made, could be a more holistic approach.

Prof Ahmet Kuru also criticises those who say intellectual progression in science and philosophy in early Islamic history world wasn’t due to Muslims, but other scholars who were from other religions; Zoroastrians, Christians, Jews etc. He proves that this wasn’t the case.

Kuru also criticises “Islamists” who say whenever Muslims followed orthodox Islam, they saw development and progress. But when they left the true Islam, the Muslim world declined.

I understand Kuru’s angle and agree that many of the Muslims philosophers would have been labelled as apostates within contemporary Islamist states; however, what Kuru misses is that many of the scientists in early Islamic history drew inspiration from the Quran and its call to study the world around us – I think this nuance is missed within the book and it would have been hugely beneficial to talk about the religious inspiration early Muslim scholars had. Whether the ulema of their time labelled them apostates or blasphemous isn’t the issue at hand; rather, it would have been insightful to see how the Muslim scholars supported their research though inspiration from scripture.

The book is well researched and thoroughly referenced to support its claims. It enables the reader to appreciate the broader picture of Muslim history and why Muslim societies have regressed so much. It is a provocative book – many conclusions I too disagree with – and will be a tough pill to swallow for many Muslims, especially the “ulema” who still enjoy absolute control and influence of the Muslim narrative.

Nevertheless, facts are hard to dismiss; reading the book most definitely would require an open mind and a realisation that much of medieval Islamic theology (by jurists) needs to be revaluated and less traditional interpretations of the Quran, allowed.

The book directly attacks the control ulema have had on the narrative and their lack of acceptance of other opinions or new interpretation. Sadly, this is a reality and Muslims must admit this and not be in denial for any future development to occur.

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