Islam, Authoritarianism, and Underdevelopment:

A Global and Historical Comparison AHMET T. KURU, San Diego State University

Reviewed by Noor Mohammed

Edward Said sagaciously mentions in his seminal work on Orientalism that economics, politics and sociology in the modern academy are ideological sciences, and, went on to unequivocally state that, “No one has ever devised a method for detaching the scholar from

the circumstances of life…” Sadly, many modern Muslim academics have been in one way or the other deeply influenced by Western Orientalist writings. To expect Ahmet Kuru, who teaches in a Western University, to write a book encompassing economics, politics and sociology being totally detached and free from ideological leanings is to expect the impossible.

Kuru’s book “Islam, Authoritarianism, and Underdevelopment: A Global and Historical Comparison” can also be classified as belonging to the genre of ‘decline literature’. What one would have expected Kuru to demonstrate, given his political science background, and the fact that he did not really belong to the Occident, is a balanced essay on the causes for decline of the Muslim world which took cognizance of heterogenous factors and multiple actors who differed from geography to geography and century by century. What, however, emerges is a narrative that paints the entire Muslim world, starting from the 12th century until modern times, with a single, albeit, broad, brush.

Interspersed in the book, to be fair to the author, are his brave attempts to exonerate Islam and early Muslims from the calumnies spread by Orientalists and others who deny Muslims any major civilizational paradigm changes, and who blame the religion of the Muslims as being responsible for their decline.

This apart, Kuru claims that the decline of the Muslims, after a bright period starting from the 8th and lasting up to the 11th century, was caused by what he calls the “ulema-state alliance”. His singular obsession with this claim so overpowers him that he sees no other factors but the nexus of the ulema and the state for the decline; invariably he tends to see very few bright spots in the millennium that passed between the 12th and 21st centuries.

Kuru begins by asking questions like, “Why are Muslim-majority countries less peaceful, less democratic, less developed?” (1) He postulates that, “In early Islamic history, Islamic scholars generally regarded close entanglements with political authorities as corrupting; they preferred to be funded by commerce and maintained close relations with merchants”. (3).

Since the 12th century, he claims, Muslim ulema began to depend on rulers for their sustenance since, in Kuru’s estimation, the merchant-class, the main sponsors of the ulema, was side-lined. This—the side-lining of the mercantile class and the growing dependency of the ulema on state-funding— led to, what Kuru alleges, the stifling of intellectualism, which, in turn, led to the unbridled authoritarianism of the state, abetted by the ulema-class. And these factors, Kuru wants the reader to believe, did not change for a 1000 years, whereas the West was able to grow in science and technology and business, overcoming the Muslim world in all spheres of life, especially form the latter-half of the 18th century.

The absurdity of such a claim, of the ulema-state alliance remaining the singular factor that led to the continuous decline of Muslim countries, over 10 centuries, and irrespective of the wide-spread geographies, needs very little effort to prove. Yet, it will be in order to highlight major deficiencies in the arguments posited by the author. The following list may be instructive in setting the records straight:

  1. Kuru states that early scholars like Imam Abu Hanifa did not depend on state-funding.

However, it is clearly evident that many later-day scholars even up to our own times have been suffering at the hands of despotic Muslim rulers, not to speak of non-

Muslim despots who have persecuted their Muslim minorities, especially the ulema who represented them. These scholars have vigorously refused state funding.

  • No evidence from primary sources is furnished to prove that the agricultural levies imposed on land-owners, the Iqta, was responsible for the ulema being forced to depend on the state for their livelihood. (4)
  • In the author’s opinion, if the Nizamiyyah madressahs had not existed, there would have been a wider flowering of intellectualism. (4). Kuru did not think it necessary to prove how this would have happened.
  • “From the twelfth to the fourteenth century, the Seljuk model of the ulema–state alliance spread to other Sunni states in Andalus, Egypt, and Syria, particularly the Mamluks. The Crusader and Mongol invasions accelerated the spread of this alliance because Muslim communities sought refuge from the chaos of foreign invasion in

military and religious authorities”. (4). This is but natural. Yet, to extrapolate what transpired for a century or two as being a permanent feature is unsubstantiated by the author. Also, while the Mongols ransacked Baghdad in 1258, around the same time, Islam spread very rapidly in Southeast Asia, with the help of sufis and orthodox scholars. Local rulers who had converted to Islam also helped in the spread, using the power of arms when needed. (Khairudin Aljunied). While admitting this spread of Islam in southeast Asia, the author mentions these states as “small states”. Today, the Muslim population of these “small states” exceeds that of Turkey, and other populous Muslim countries.

  • Another observation of Kuru that “these Southeast Asian states did not have an ulema–state alliance and they were mainly mercantile”, is not accurate. While the merchants brought Islam to the coastal cities, it was the “Islamic actors”, sufis and

ulema, who were responsible for the rapid spread of Islam in the hinterland and the other parts of the Archipelago (Khairudin Aljunied).

  • Another of the sweeping allegations is the following, “Later, around the sixteenth century, Muslims established three powerful military empires: the Sunni Ottoman, the Shii Safavid, and the Sunni-run (but non-sectarian) Mughal Empires. These empires established versions of the ulema–state alliance in territories extending from the Balkans to Bengal. These empires were militarily very powerful, but they failed to revive early Muslims’ intellectual and economic dynamism because they virtually eliminated philosophers and marginalized merchants.” (4-5). Despite making this bold claim, the author mentions in a footnote, that, “After Ibn Khaldun (d. 1406) in history, Ali Kushji (d. 1474) in astronomy, and Taftazani (d. 1390) and Jurjani (d. 1414) in theology, the Muslim world very rarely produced scholars in that caliber, with few exceptions such as Takiyuddin (d. 1585) in astronomy and Mulla Sadra (d. 1640) in philosophy.” Pg. 5 fn. 9. First, the above proves that all was not lost. Secondly, the assertion that the “powerful Muslim empires” eliminated philosophers and marginalized merchants is not substantiated with evidence from primary sources.
  • Certain notes mentioned are also contestable. For instance, ‘According to Anthony Reid (1993b, 156), “no Islamic texts in Southeast Asian languages which date before 1590 have come to light”.’ Professor Murad Merican, ISTAC-IIUM, denies this. He mentions that “there were earlier works written around the 1300, which were translated into Bahasa Melayu from Parsi and Arabic.”
  • The author is at pains to explain how, “starting with Turkey and Iran in the 1920s, new states that were formed in the Muslim world with few exceptions such as –Saudi Arabia- did away with the ulema–state alliance and embraced more secular arrangements of political power. But why, even in these cases of political

secularization, did independent intellectual and bourgeois classes not emerge in an influential manner?” (6)

  • The explanation which he provides for the above phenomenon is empirically very weak. He alleges, “Islamic actors have shared negative attitudes toward the

independent bourgeoisie, given their statist and hierarchical outlook” (6).

  1. Another of the reasons provided by Kuru for the decline is, “Shafi 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 Sufis. (7). In response to this, Faisal Shah Alam (ISTAC-IIUM) writes, “It is true that he put analogical reasoning (qiyas) as one of the sources after the Qur’an, the Sunnah and ijma’. But you have to bear in mind that he incorporated rational approach (bi’l ra’y) to balance out the more literalist approach that he took from his

teacher Imam Malik. …. Shafi’i was also quite flexible in his approach towards fiqh as evidenced by the fact that he had two rulings (qaul qadim and qaul jadid) in his fiqh; the second one was conceived after his move to Egypt. Later in the 11th century Imam al Haramain al Juwayni made further enhancement in the Shafi’i school by incorporating the demonstrative method of reasoning (burhan) in his usul al-fiqh.

Kuru’s other accusation that the Shafi’i school dominated the whole Islamic epistemology including theology and Sufism could not be further from the truth. Ilm al-kalam, whether the Ash’ari or the Maturidi variant, has always had its own fixed set of epistemology which are the senses, the intellect and khabar sadiq (true reports).”

  1. In one breath, Kuru blames Ghazali for stifling intellectualism, and in another breath he credits him and Al-Shatibi for promoting the Maqasid al Sharia, or the higher objectives of Islamic law, which, Kuru admits, is a way of making jurisprudence more flexible”. (8). But, immediately thereafter, he goes on to allege that, “This epistemology has been a source of the anti-intellectualism among the ulema,

Islamists, and Sufi shaykhs”, without providing any explanation.

The complete list this reviewer has prepared runs into over 25 pages. However, in sum, it can be said that:

An objective analysis would consider the complexity and multidimensional aspects of the Muslim states over the centuries, avoiding a tendency to vilify or vindicate any of the Islamic actors.

Through his overtly simplified analysis in trying to prove why there was a decline in the Muslim lands, beginning from the 12th century, blaming it squarely on the ulema-state alliance, by clubbing together different Muslim states and treating them as a homogenous entity, and by overlooking major achievements of Muslim empires over the long period of a thousand years, Kuru has, so to speak, thrown almost the entire Muslim civilization under the bus.

Also, the author does not refer to prominent research works by contemporary Muslim and non-Muslim authors on the subject. Three such works which are relevant are:

  1. Teaching and Learning in the Madrasas of Istanbul During the late Ottoman Period, by Halil Ibrahim Erbay, a PhD Thesis, SOAS, University of London
  2. The Role of The Ottoman Sunni Ulema During the Constitutional Revolution of 1908- 1909/1326-1327 and the Ottoman Constitutional Debates, by Yakoob Ahmed, Thesis

submitted for the degree of PhD, 2017, Department of the Near and Middle East, SOAS, University of London.

  • Al-Ghazali’s Philosophical Theology, by Frank Griffel, Oxford University Press., 2009.

One cannot fail to see a similar pattern as can be found in Kuru’s book, in most decline literature which, regrettably, is written to cater to a Western or liberal audience.

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