Was the Middle East's economic descent a legal or political failure? Debating the Islamic Law Matters Thesis
An influential thesis [Kuran, 2011, The Long Divergence] locates the economic failure of the Middle East in Islamic legal arrangements that laid the basis for organizational deficiencies. This article critically scrutinizes this thesis using the lens of political economy and argues that tracing the impact of Islamic law without a discussion of the enforcement environment is unconvincing. Specifically, as a legal explanation for development, it is important to probe the extent to which Islamic law was embedded in the material domain and influenced by preferences of political incumbents. A key contention of the article is that Islamic law can be described, at best, as a proximate rather than a deep determinant of development, and that there is limited evidence to establish it as a causal claim. Finally, I propose that, rather than exclusively concentrating on legal impediments to development, a more promising avenue for research is to focus on the co-evolution of economic and political exchange, and to probe why the relationship between rulers and merchants differed so markedly between the Ottoman Empire and Europe.
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