On the Road to Heaven: Self-Selection, Religion, and Socio-Economic Status
The correlation between religion and socioeconomic status is observed throughout the world. In the Middle East, local non-Muslims are, on average, better off than the Muslim majority. I trace the origins of the phenomenon in Egypt to a historical process of self-selection across religions, which was induced by an economic incentive: the imposition of the poll tax on non-Muslims upon the Islamic Conquest of the then-Coptic Christian Egypt in 640. The tax, which remained until 1856, led to the conversion of poor Copts to Islam to avoid paying the tax, and to the shrinking of Copts to a better off minority. Using a sample of men of rural origin from the 1848- 68 census manuscripts, I find that districts with historically stricter poll tax enforcement (measured by Arab immigration to Egypt in 640-900), and/or lower attachment to Coptic Christianity before 640 (measured by the legendary route of the Holy Family), have fewer, yet better off, Copts in 1848-68. Combining historical narratives with a dataset on occupations and religion in 640-1517 from the Arabic Papyrology Database, and a dataset on Coptic churches and monasteries in 1200 and 1500 from medieval sources, I demonstrate that the cross-district findingsreflect the persistence of the Copts’ initial occupationalshift, towards white-collar jobs, and spatial shift, towards the Nile Valley. Both shifts occurred in 640-900, where most conversions to Islam took place, and where the poll tax burden peaked. Occupational barriers to entry and the religiously segregated schools both led occupations to persist in 900-1848.
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