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Muslim Civilization: The Causes of Decline and the Need for Reform

Author(s):Chapra, M. Umer
Reviewer(s):Rubin, Jared

Published by EH.NET (June 2008)

M. Umer Chapra, Muslim Civilization: The Causes of Decline and the Need for Reform. Leicestershire, UK: The Islamic Foundation, 2008. xxii + 225 pp. ?13 (paperback), ISBN: 978-0-86037-4619.

Review for EH.NET by Jared Rubin, Department of Economics, California State University, Fullerton

M. Umer Chapra’s Muslim Civilization: The Causes of Decline and the Need for Reform is a daring attempt at reconciling Islamic economics with modern economic theory. Though it fails in many respects, it represents a necessary step in the advancement of Islamic economics (a “field” quite eloquently deconstructed in Timur Kuran’s Islam and Mammon, a book which is inexplicably not cited by Chapra).

The introduction presents the problems that Chapra attempts to tackle. These are, namely, “Why has the Islamic world declined economically over the last seven centuries after such a brilliant rise in its first few centuries?” “Did Islam play a positive role in the early rise of the Muslims?” “Did it play a role in the decline?” “How can we use the lessons of the past to help shape the future?”

To answer these questions, Chapra employs the framework of the fourteenth century philosopher/historian Ibn Khaldun. In Chapter one, Chapra explains the essence of this framework, which is circular in nature. It suggests that a functioning government is needed to uphold Shara (Islamic law), a functioning government can only be sustained by its people, who are sustained by wealth, which is attained by development, which is attained by justice, which is the responsibility of the government. What is needed in this model to describe the rise or fall of a society is a “trigger mechanism” ? to Ibn Khaldun, Islamic societies began to decline with the failure of the political authority.

Chapter two employs this model to account for the rise of the Muslims, suggesting that Islam acted as a “trigger mechanism” which helped develop early Muslim society. It did so by replacing tribal ties with broader religious ties and an associated (political and legal) institutional structure. While Chapra undoubtedly exaggerates the degree to which Islamic ideals were followed, he rightly places the advent of Islam as crucial in the build-up of Middle Eastern institutions. Chapter three employs Ibn Khaldun’s methodology to address factors responsible for the “decline” of Muslim civilization. Chapra implicitly admits his agenda in the first paragraph of this chapter, providing the specious argument that (p. 45): “given the upward push that Islam provided to these societies, there would be little justification in blaming it for their later decline.” He attempts to substantiate this claim by deconstructing Timur Kuran’s argument that certain aspects of Islamic law (the inheritance system, the lack of a concept of limited liability and legal personhood, and the waqf) inhibited development in the Islamic world. The deconstruction largely fails ? Chapra does not adequately counter Kuran’s claim that the Islamic inheritance system inhibited the creation of long-lasting partnerships, and he oddly claims that it was democratic governments in the West that promoted property rights and encouraged the corporation (both of which existed before democracy). Like Ibn Khaldun, Chapra ascribes the oncoming of political illegitimacy as the “trigger mechanism” which precipitated the decline.

Chapter four discusses the economic decline of the Islamic world. Here, Chapra furthers his thesis that political illegitimacy was the root cause of underdevelopment, citing a general overindulgence in military campaigns, unjust taxation, and other detrimental economic policies. Chapter five analyzes the decline in education, science, and technology, all of which were vibrant in the first few centuries of Islam. As in his discussion on the economic decline, Chapra links the stagnation of education, science, and technology to lack of political support. This is a very useful chapter, as Chapra provides a nice discussion of the philosophical debates that were a result of and resulted in the decline.

Chapter six discusses “social decline,” claiming that political discord drove Muslims away from the Shari’a. Chapters seven and eight attempt to derive lessons from the Islamic historical experience. Harkening back to Ibn Khaldun’s circular theory of development, Chapra notes that the initial “spark” which started the “self-reinforcing” process of decline was the political authority’s neglecting of responsibility. This leads to the conclusion that: 1) development is dependent on the accountability of rulers to the people, 2) the lack of political accountability gives rise to numerous ills, and 3) Islam itself is not to blame for Muslim decline.

Chapra concludes with a call for reform. This includes a series of vague suggestions (at least, in the sense that few realistic suggestions are made for implementation), such as moral reform, proliferation of education, and political reform. His ultimate suggestion is that democracy and democratic institutions within an Islamic context are what is needed in order to reform the Islamic world.

Beyond the fact that Chapra fails to confront many salient alternative hypotheses for the “rise and decline of Muslim civilization,” his analysis is unconvincing on two fronts. For one, his account of the “decline of Muslim civilization,” based on the corruptibility of certain early Islamic leaders, too easily excuses institutions fundamental to Islam from culpability. Not only does Chapra overemphasize the glory of the four “rightly guided caliphs” who reigned for the first thirty years after Muhammad’s death ? three of whom were assassinated ? but he denies that the subsequent “illegitimate” leaders could have emerged from the perverse incentives established by the newly founded Islamic political structure. Indeed, Chapra does not even address this as a possibility. This is where Chapra may have best benefited by including more recent advances in economic and institutional history into his framework. While he quite honorably cites Douglass North, there is no attempt to either deny or incorporate North’s framework. More importantly, Chapra fails to consider other “big question” answers such as those of David Landes, Eric Jones, Kenneth Pomeranz, Jared Diamond, and Avner Greif (the latter being an especially curious omission given Chapra’s frequent use of the term ‘self-reinforcing’ in attempting to explain the extended stagnation of the Islamic world).

The other aspect of Chapra’s analysis which I find untenable is that the recommendations he derives for “reform” are largely devoid of institutional context and instead rely too much on Muslims everywhere acting like the ideal-type homo islamicus. This problem is the same one Kuran confronts in Islam and Mammon (p. x): “There are several reasons why Islamic economics has largely been spared the sort of critical analysis to which the typical economic doctrine or program is subjected routinely. The most basic is that its prescriptions are considered too unrealistic to threaten prevailing economic structures. Another is that evaluating an economic doctrine grounded in Islam requires familiarity with economic theory, Islamic history, and the contemporary Islamic world ? realms of analysis that rarely intersect.” Take, for example, Chapra’s suggestion on how to bring political reform in a region where political illegitimacy is well-entrenched. Eschewing the fact that Chapra never really defines legitimate political authority (besides reverting to the idealized notion of the early caliphs), his answer is not implementable (or at the very least, incomplete) given the institutional context ? he best strategy for political reform is, therefore, political and non-violent struggle, even though this may appear time consuming” (p. 172-173). How is this implemented? For Chapra, it is through the establishment of democratic governments, which should arise because “the international environment is now unfriendly towards illegitimate governments” and “globalization is also acting as a check on despotic governments, two dubious claims given recent experiences in (amongst others) Saddam’s Iraq, Suharto’s Indonesia, and the Myanmar junta. He never suggests how democratic institutions can arise within the broader institutional context. Indeed, can democratic governments and Shari’a co-exist? Chapra assumes so without providing any evidence or even an argument for why democratic governments could arise in this setting. This passage is indicative of Chapra’s style, where pleasing yet non-implementable suggestions are proposed (most of which come to fruition when all Muslims abide by certain Islamic tenets).

But these deficiencies should not take away from the primary advance that this book makes in the field of Islamic economics ? at the very least, it attempts to reconcile this agenda-driven field with “Western” economic thought. A quick look at the reference list reflects this, as Chapra cites the likes of Kenneth Arrow, Benjamin Friedman, Douglass North, and Robert Solow. The significance of this attempt at reconciliation with economic theory should not be trivialized ? indeed, the lack of such attempts in previous Islamist tracts provides the basis for Kuran’s criticisms of the field. Thus, while Chapra’s book is not likely to be of much use to economists studying the “rise of the West” or the relative “stagnation of the Islamic world,” it provides a nice building block for future attempts at providing a practical, context-driven theory of the “rise and fall” of the Islamic world within an Islamist framework.

Jared Rubin is an assistant professor of economics at California State University, Fullerton. He recently completed his Ph.D. at Stanford University, where his dissertation analyzed the institutional forces underlying the emergence and persistence of interest restrictions in Islam and Christianity. His current working papers include “Social Insurance, Commitment, and the Origin of Law: An Economic Theory of the Emergence of Interest Bans,” “Printing and Interest Restrictions in Islam and Christianity: An Economic Theory of Inhibitive Law Persistence,” and “Interest Bans, Impersonal Exchange, and Endogenous Institutional Change in Islam and Christianity.”

Subject(s):Military and War
Geographic Area(s):Middle East
Time Period(s):Medieval