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Medieval Islamic Economic Thought: Filling the Great Gap in European Economics

Author(s):Ghazanfar, S.M.
Reviewer(s):Chapra, M. Umer

Published by EH.NET (October 2004)


S.M. Ghazanfar, editor, Medieval Islamic Economic Thought: Filling the Great Gap in European Economics. London: Routledge/Curzon, 2003. xv + 284 pp. $115/?55 (hardback), ISBN: 0-415-29778-8.

Reviewed for EH.NET by M. Umer Chapra, Islamic Research and Training Institute of the Islamic Development Bank, Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

Muslim contributions to economics have failed to be generally recognized in the Western literature that deals with the history of economic thought. This has led to the concept of a “Great Gap” of “over 500 years” in the history of economic thought from the time of the Greek contribution to that of the Scholastics. Joseph Schumpeter, therefore, falsely assumed in History of Economic Analysis (1954), that this intervening period was sterile and unproductive. The reality, however, is that the Muslim civilization had made rich contributions to intellectual activity, including socio-economic thought, and had thereby played a part in kindling the flame of the European Enlightenment Movement. Even the scholastics themselves had been greatly influenced by the contributions made by Muslim scholars. The names of Ibn Sina (Avicenna, d. 1037), Ibn Rushd (Averroes, d. 1198), and Maimonides (d. 1204, the Jewish philosopher, scientist and physician who flourished in Muslim Spain and then in Egypt.) appear on almost every page of the thirteenth century summae (books written by scholastic philosophers) (Pifer, 1978, p. 356). Todd Lowry rightly points out in his foreword to the book under review that the character and sophistication of Arabic writings on economic subjects has been “generally ignored” (p. xi).

Since Schumpeter’s book became a classic in economics, it led to a “blind spot” in the history of economic thought (Mirakhor, December 1987, p. 248). This blind spot has persisted to this day, as is evident from the reference by Douglass North, in his December 1993 Nobel lecture, to the “long hiatus between the end of the Roman Empire in the West and the revival of Western Europe approximately 500 years later” (North, 1994, p. 365). It is difficult to understand why these scholars have not realized what Abu Bakr al-Razi, the great Muslim philosopher, scientist and physician (d. 925), understood more than a thousand years ago — that the history of knowledge is a continuous process, building upon the foundations laid by former generations of scholars (cited by Rosenthal, 1947, p. 68). If this evolutionary process in human intellectual development had been realized, Schumpeter and North may not have assumed the great gap or hiatus of 500 years, but rather tried to discover the foundation on which the Scholastics and other Western scholars built their intellectual edifice.

However, Muslims themselves are also to be blamed for having failed to adequately articulate their own contribution. Ghazanfar’s book will go a long way toward setting things right. Ghazanfar has been a faculty member at the University of Idaho for the last 36 years. His long experience in teaching conventional economics along with his deep interest in Islamic economics makes him highly qualified to write confidently on the contribution made by classical Muslim scholars to economics. He has rendered a valuable service to the academy by editing this enlightening book.

In addition to the foreword by Todd Lowry and the introduction by Ghazanfar, the book contains fifteen papers, seven of which are by Ghazanfar himself, four by him in association with A. Azim Islahi, one by Paul Oslington, two by Hamid Hosseini, and one by M. Nejatullah Siddiqi in association with Ghazanfar. These papers cover in sufficient detail the contributions made by Abu Yusuf (d. 798) Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (d. 1111), Ibn Taimiyyah (d. 1328.), Ibn Qayyim (d. 1350), and a number of other Muslim scholars like Ibn Hanbal (d. 855), al-Kindi (d. 873), al-Farabi (d. 950), Ibn Hazm (d. 1064), Alberuni (d. 1048), Kay Kaus (d. 1082), Nizam al-Mulk (d. 1092), Dimashqi (d. 1175), Nasir al-Din al-Tusi (d. 1274), and Dawwani (d. 1501).

All these papers together help enlighten the reader on the contributions made by these Muslim scholars to a number of economic concepts like the market mechanism, demand, supply, prices and profits, money, counterfeiting and currency debasement, labor supply and population, and the role of the state and justice, peace and stability in economic development. There is also a discussion of economic thought in medieval Iran, the link between medieval Islamic socio-economic thought and the Greek and Latin-European scholarship, post-Greek/pre-Renaissance economic thought during the “Great-Gap” centuries, and a comparison between the thought of Al-Ghazali and St. Thomas Aquinas. The quality of the papers is on the whole quite good and the book should go a long way in fulfilling its primary objective, which is to highlight the Muslim contribution.

It is a little surprising that, even though the name of Ibn Khaldun (d. 1406) is mentioned in several places in the book, there is no full-fledged paper on this great scholar. Even though he lived after the “Great Gap” period, his book, Muqaddimah, or Introduction [to History], represents a crystallization of Muslim economic thought before him. His insight into some economic principles was so deep that a number of theories propounded by him nearly six hundred years ago could undoubtedly be considered the forerunners of some more sophisticated modern formulations of these theories. A number of papers are available on Ibn Khaldun’s contribution and at least one or two of these could have been included in this book for the sake of completeness. It would also have been helpful if the spellings of scholars’ names had been made uniform throughout the book. Different spellings in different papers can create confusion in the mind of a reader who is not familiar with these names.

The author deserves our compliments for this valuable contribution to Islamic economics. It deserves to have a place in the library of not only every college and university where history of economic thought is taught, but also of individual scholars of economics concerned with the evolutionary development of economic theories over the centuries.


Abbas Mirakhor, “The Muslim Scholars and the History of Economics: A Need for Consideration,” American Journal of Islamic Social Sciences, December 1987, pp. 245-87.

Douglass C. North, “Economic Performance through Time,” American Economic Review, June 1994, pp. 359-68.

Josef Pifer, “Scholasticism,” in Encyclopedia Britannica, 1978, Vol. 16, pp. 352-55.

Franz Rosenthal, “The Technique and Approach of Muslim Scholarship,” Analecta Orientalia (Rome, Pontificam Institutum Biblicum, Vol. 24, 1974), pp. 1-73.

Dr. M. Umer Chapra is Research Adviser at the Islamic Research and Training Institute of the Islamic Development Bank, Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. He joined the institute in 1999 after retiring as Senior Economic Adviser from the Saudi Arabia Monetary Agency where he served for thirty-five years. He has authored a number of books and papers. His most recent book is The Future of Economics: An Islamic Perspective (Leicester: Islamic Foundation, 2000).


Subject(s):History of Economic Thought; Methodology
Geographic Area(s):Middle East
Time Period(s):Medieval