Edited by Peter Bernholz and Roland Vaubel
Chapter 7: Islamic statecraft and the Middle East's delayed modernization
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 : 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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