is owned and operated by the Economic History Association
with the support of other sponsoring organizations.

Rulers, Religion, and Riches: Why the West Got Rich and the Middle East Did Not

Author(s):Rubin, Jared
Reviewer(s):Mokyr, Joel

Published by EH.Net (April 2017)

Jared Rubin, Rulers, Religion, and Riches: Why the West Got Rich and the Middle East Did Not. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2017. xxi + 273 pp. $30 (paperback), ISBN: 978-1-108-40005-3.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Joel Mokyr, Departments of Economics and History, Northwestern University.

The Middle East, it has been said, is not just a collection of failed states. It is a failed region. It generates a disproportional number of the world’s orphans and refugees, its GDP per capita is intolerably low despite oil riches, and there are few signs that there is light at the end of tunnel. Democracy seems to have been put on the back burner indefinitely, and human rights are a lost cause in most countries and in retreat elsewhere. Intellectually, too, things look rather dismal: In 2005 Harvard University alone produced more scientific papers than 17 Arabic-speaking countries combined. Muslim countries contribute just 2.5 percent of more than 11.5 million papers published worldwide each year (Muslims constituted 23 percent of the world’s population in 2010). A 1997 Scientometrics paper estimated that 46 Muslim countries (which of course contain much more than the Middle East) contributed 1.17 percent to world science literature as opposed to Spain (1.48 percent).

Is the Islamic religion to blame? Jared Rubin, in this stimulating and highly original study, would deny that emphatically. Although this is a book about religion and its implication for institutional and economic change, Rubin is little interested in the actual doctrinal content of religion. He points out, as many others have, that the essence of Islam could not possibly be as rigid and opposed to commerce and economic change as it may seem, because for the first centuries of its existence, the nations that adopted Islam flourished not just commercially but also in terms of technology, architecture, poetry, agriculture, medicine, and engineering, while western Europe was an ignorant, violent and poverty-stricken backwater. What we have witnessed since 1200 is more than a “divergence”: it is a Great Reversal, of momentous importance till the present day.

Rubin’s book presents us with an explanation for this great reversal, which will have to be taken into account from now on in all future discussions on the economic history of the Islamic world. He does not oversell his argument as the reason for the great reversal, he makes a plausible argument for it as a complementary argument to the ones other serious scholars have made. The book is divided into a few chapters that outline the theory and logic of the argument and then applies these insights to a number of historical case studies. It is a tale that combines economic history, political economy, and religion in a unique and novel way.

Here is the basic argument: any kind of ruler has power because his or her subjects accept their rule and their main concern is what Rubin calls “propagating their rule.”  How do you get people to accept you as their ruler and let you keep your job? Political power is supported by a combination of coercion (that is, violence) and legitimacy (people willingly accept a ruler because they believe that this person has the right to rule them). Through most of history, rulers depended on a combination of the two, though the weights of each differed greatly depending on their costs and benefits. Rubin is exclusively interested in the legitimacy part. Legitimacy is provided by what he calls “legitimizing agents” — groups or entities that have enough influence to make the subjects of the ruler follow instructions and pay taxes. An obvious legitimizing agent is the religious establishment — for example, European rulers once ruled ex dei gratia and called themselves the most Catholic King. Some modern royalty still include the line in their title, although in most places such relics are empty.

Rubin observes that in the early medieval period, both Christian and Muslim rulers used religious authorities as legitimizing agents, but that at some point in the later Middle Ages, Muslim and western European society diverged. Whereas in the Ottoman Empire the sultans continued to rely on religious authorities for their legitimacy, in many western societies the Church’s political leverage was diminished irreversibly. From the beginning, Rubin points out, Christian doctrine envisaged separate spheres for secular and religious power. The schisms and exiles to which the late medieval papacy was subject weakened it greatly in the face of ambitious rulers, and the reformation administered to religious legitimization the coup de grace. Apart from a few corners of Europe such as Spain, religion lost the power it had exercised since even before the prophet Samuel anointed Kings Saul and David.

Why and how did this matter to economic history? Rubin argues that religious authorities were in general conservative, and that the institutions they established are less aligned with commerce and finance than when an economically important elite such as rich urban merchants and artisans are more powerful. As a result of their political influence, religious authorities in the Middle East were successful in blocking critical breakthroughs, most notably the printing press and more sophisticated financial institutions. The printing press facilitated the success of the Reformation, and the Reformation had further favorable economic effects, as has recently been shown by a pair of important papers (Cantoni, Dittmar and Yuchtman, 2016; Dittmar and Meisenzahl, 2016). One might add that even in France, in which the reformation was suppressed, the power of religious authorities to legitimize the king disappeared. Napoleon famously took the crown out of the hands of Pope Pius VII during his 1804 coronation and crowned himself, symbolizing that his legitimization came from military power, not God.

In summary, Rubin argues that the leaders of organized religion tended to be conservative across the board. Their influence, he thinks, depended on their monopoly of eternal truths, and updating those truths threatened to erode their credibility.  The Islamic world was unable to curtail the influence of Islamic scholars until the Islamic world had fallen hopelessly behind Europe. Even within Christian Europe, the power of religious authorities, he feels, helped determine the difference between successful regions such as the Netherlands and Britain and economic laggards such as Spain. When discussing the past three centuries, the influence of religious authorities is somewhat diminished, but what counts in Rubin’s view is that in all poor and backward states, the institutional structure and the capability of key players to “sit at the bargaining table” as he calls it was little affected by the urban-commercial classes whose demands for free and open markets, constraints on the executive, and a rule of law led to rapid economic progress in the north-west corners of Europe.

By combining an institutional argument with religion through the effect that religion had on institutions and politics (rather than on cultural beliefs), Rubin’s argument is reminiscent of an important recent book by Karel Davids, which has not thus far received sufficient attention (Davids, 2013). Both books, in a different way, stress how religious institutions mattered regardless of the precise content of religion. Davids, however, emphasizes another aspect, namely the role of religion in the generation and dissemination of technology. Rubin is primarily interested in institutions that support markets. Yet an explanation of modern economic growth cannot possibly avoid the primum movens of economic growth, which was the rapid expansion and dissemination of useful knowledge. In early medieval Islam, engineers, doctors, and chemists were at the forefront of pushing the envelope. By 1600 the Islamic world had become a follower, by 1800 they were a laggard. A natural extension of Rubin’s idea is that a government dominated by religious authorities will also be less than accommodating to out-of-the-box ideas from natural philosophers, astronomers, mathematicians, and medical doctors. The tradeoff between religiosity and scientific and technological progress has become a serious topic of investigation in recent years (Benabou, Ticchi, and Vindigni, 2014; Squicciarini, 2016). Their findings support the notion that devoutness affects innovativeness negatively and that political institutions could be used by powerful religious leaders to suppress what they considered heretical views.

Rubin is correct in pointing out that in the most progressive countries in western Europe the ability of religious leaders to halt progress was limited.  A striking example of this phenomenon is provided by Amir Alexander (2014), who documents the fierce resistance to infinitesimal mathematics by the Jesuits in the seventeenth century, which seriously slowed down the development of mathematics in Italy. The reason the reactionary powers such as the Jesuits were not able to slow down the development of radical new ideas in Europe materially is primarily the high level of political fragmentation in Europe. If a particular ruler tried to crack down on his most creative subjects because they wrote things he felt to be subversive or heretical, they could always move across the border. Such outside options may have been much more limited in the Ottoman Empire and in China. Interstate competition is another factor that rulers worried about, beside Rubin’s legitimization story. After all, every ruler faced both internal and external threats. Without interstate competition, or “emulation” as eighteenth-century writers called it, Europe might never have had the Enlightenment, which opened the doors to so many of the institutional and technological changes that have helped create economic modernity.

Here and there one could nitpick some of Rubin’s historical interpretations. His account of Spain’s political economy would have greatly benefitted from a closer attention to Regina Grafe’s path-breaking work (Grafe, 2012). Rubin’s agnosticism as to the actual content of religion may be somewhat misplaced: the Sunni revival of the eleventh century did in time move the ruling orthodoxy into a more conservative direction, as Eric Chaney (2015) has shown. More generally, an argument that focuses on “the ruler” and the significance of the propagation of political power may exaggerate the ability of the state to control what the citizens did in pre-twentieth-century societies.

All the same, Rubin has written an important and timely book. His methodology is very much that of the historically informed economist: certain choices are made at some point because they make sense, that is, the benefits to those that make the decision exceed the costs. But once made, these initial conditions can have cascading unintended and unanticipated consequences, and those historically contingent causal chains may well be what drove much of the great and little divergences that our profession is so interested in. Equally important, this well-argued and sensible book about Islam provides a much-needed antidote to the toxic rubbish masquerading as scholarship produced by some of the Islamophobes in the current American administration (e.g., Gorka, 2016). The Middle East’s problem is not Islam; it is History.


Alexander, Amir. 2014. Infinitesimal: How a Dangerous Mathematical Theory Shaped the Modern World. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Benabou, Roland, Davide Ticchi, and Andrea Vindigni. 2014. “Forbidden Fruits: The Political Economy of Science, Religion and Growth.” Unpublished working paper, Princeton University.

Cantoni, Davide, Jeremiah Dittmar and Noam Yuchtman. 2016.  “Reformation and Reallocation: Religious and Secular Economic Activity in Early Modern Germany.” Unpublished.

Chaney, Eric. 2015. “Religion and the Rise and Fall of Islamic Science.” Unpublished working paper, Harvard University.

Davids, Karel. 2013. Religion, Technology and the Great and Little Divergences. Leiden: Brill.

Dittmar, Jeremiah E. and Ralf Meisenzahl. 2016. “Origins of Growth: Health Shocks, Institutions, and Human Capital in the Protestant Reformation.” Unpublished.

Gorka, Sebastian. 2016. Defeating Jihad: The Winnable War. Washington, DC: Regnery Publishing.

Grafe, Regina. 2012. Distant Tyranny: Markets, Power, and Backwardness in Spain, 1650–1800. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Squicciarini, Mara. 2017. “Devotion and Development: Religiosity, Education, and Economic Progress in 19th-century France.” Unpublished working paper, Northwestern University.

Joel Mokyr is the author of Culture of Growth: The Origins of the Modern Economy (Princeton University Press, 2016).

Copyright (c) 2017 by EH.Net. All rights reserved. This work may be copied for non-profit educational uses if proper credit is given to the author and the list. For other permission, please contact the EH.Net Administrator ( Published by EH.Net (April 2017). All EH.Net reviews are archived at

Subject(s):Economic Development, Growth, and Aggregate Productivity
Economywide Country Studies and Comparative History
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Middle East
Time Period(s):General or Comparative