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Political Competition, Innovation and Growth in the History of Asian Civilizations

Edited by Peter Bernholz and Roland Vaubel

Do political decentralisation and inter state competition favour innovation and growth? There has long been a lively debate surrounding this question, going back to David Hume and Immanuel Kant. This book is a new attempt to test its veracity. The existing literature tends to assume that the beneficial effects of inter state competition have been confined to European history. By contrast, China, India and the Islamic Middle East are regarded as inherently imperial and overcentralised. However, these civilisations have not always been unified politically. In their history, there have been long spells of decentralised rule or inter state competition. The same is true for Japan. If the Hume–Kant hypothesis is correct, it should also apply to those periods. This volume analyses the qualitative and quantitative evidence.
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Chapter 7: Islamic statecraft and the Middle East's delayed modernization

Timur Kuran, Peter Bernholz, Michael Cook, Toby E. Huff and R. Stephen Humphreys


7. Islamic statecraft and the Middle East’s delayed modernization Timur Kuran Pre-modern states that ruled in the name of Islam are often characterized as absolutist. The implication is that they exploited their subjects and menaced foreigners with formidable strength and that their initiatives emanated largely from one powerful man. A famous variant of this thesis belongs to Max Weber (1925 [1947]: 347), who used the term ‘sultanism’ to describe the exercise of unlimited and arbitrary Islamic authority. Another famous variant, Karl Wittfogel’s Oriental Despotism, portrays the early Islamic states as merciless systems of exploitation. Drawing on Marx, Wittfogel (1957: 49–80, 173–82) suggests that each of these states gained strength through its strategic role in administering integrated irrigation networks.1 Various political movements of our own era have propagated similar interpretations for self-serving reasons: colonizers to justify foreign rule, secular nationalists to appear benevolent by comparison, Islamists to make moral corruption seem eradicable through religious discipline. All versions of the ‘absolutist Islamic state’ thesis make the mistake of projecting state control in the modern sense to distant periods when social control technologies were still primitive. Like other pre-modern states, from the Prophet Muhammad’s polity and the Arab caliphates to the Ottoman empire and Safavid Iran at their peak, states legitimized through Islam had difficulty regulating markets, controlling production, directing food supplies, manipulating household decisions and appropriating resources. Although some Muslim rulers may have wanted to manage their economies in a manner akin to Soviet-style central planning, they surely recognized their...

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