Muslims Need Critical Self-Reflection: Beyond Essentialism and Postcolonialism

By: Ahmet Kuru

October 3, 2019

Muslim-majority countries have shown high levels of authoritarianism and low levels of socioeconomic development in comparison to world averages. The contemporary problems of Muslims are especially puzzling given the scholarly and socioeconomic achievements of their predecessors.

Between the eighth and eleventh centuries, the Muslim world produced creative polymaths and played a pivotal role in intercontinental trade, while Western Europe was philosophically and economically marginal. 

Early Muslims’ progressive civilization shows that Islam was perfectly compatible with scholarly flourishing and socioeconomic progress. Thus, essentialists who blame Islam for Muslims’ contemporary problems are wrong.

In the eleventh and twelfth centuries, however, the comparative levels of development between the Muslim world and Western Europe gradually started to reverse. This process dramatically escalated between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries, when Western Europe achieved a multi-faceted advance while the Muslim world became stagnant and fell behind. When widespread Western colonization of Muslim lands began in the mid-nineteenth century, Muslims had already faced multiple political and socioeconomic problems. 

Hence, contemporary Muslim-majority countries’ problems have long-term historical origins and cannot simply be explained as the result of Western colonialism. Colonialism destroyed local institutions and exploited natural resources in many cases, but focusing on the damage wrought by Western powers should not distract Muslims from addressing their own failures.

My new book, Islam, Authoritarianism, and Underdevelopment: A Global and Historical Comparison, argues that relations between religious, political, intellectual, and economic classes were the main reason for the initial dynamism and later stagnation in the Muslim world. 

From the eighth to the eleventh century, creative intellectuals and dynamic merchants were the main agents of Muslim progress.

Yet a multi-dimensional transformation began in the eleventh century. Abbasid caliphs in Baghdad, severely weakened by the rising Shiite states in North Africa, Egypt, Syria, and even Iraq, called for the unification of Sunni sultans, ulama, and masses. To unify Sunnis, two successive Abbasid caliphs defined the “others”: they declared certain Shia, rationalist theologians (Mutazilis), and philosophers as apostates who could be punished by death.

This call was well received by the newly emerging Turkish military force—the Seljuk Empire—that eventually dominated most parts of Central Asia, Iran, Iraq, and Anatolia. Central to Seljuk rule was the expansion of the iqta, a system of land revenue assignment and tax farming designed to bring agricultural revenues in particular and the economy in general under military control. This policy weakened the economic capacity and social position of merchants, who had previously provided funding to philosophers and independent Islamic scholars. 

One Seljuk grand vizier also founded a series of madrasas, the so-called Nizamiyyas. These madrasas helped the establishment of a Sunni orthodoxy by synthesizing formerly competing schools of jurisprudence and theology. They also served to produce Sunni ulama who would ally with the state against Shia and other “unorthodox” groups. A genius scholar, Ghazali played a key role in this process by writing multiple influential books to criticize and condemn philosophers, rationalist theologians, and certain Shia.

From the twelfth to the fourteenth century, the Seljuk model of the ulama–state alliance spread to other Sunni states in Syria, Egypt, and North Africa, particularly the Mamluk Empire. The Crusader and Mongol invasions accelerated the spread of the ulama-state alliance model because Muslim communities sought refuge from the chaos of foreign invasion in military and religious authorities. 

Between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries, the Ottoman, Safavid, and Mughal Empires established versions of the ulama-state alliance in territories extending from the Balkans to Bengal. These empires were militarily powerful, but they failed to revive early Muslims’ intellectual and economic dynamism because they virtually eliminated philosophers and marginalized merchants.

The nineteenth-century reform attempts in various Muslim territories mostly failed due to the ulama’s resistance and to Western colonization. When numerous Muslim-majority states became independent in the twentieth century, they inherited deep political and socioeconomic problems as a result of centuries of intellectual and economic stagnation. 

In order to address their current problems of authoritarianism and socioeconomic underdevelopment, Muslims need creative intellectuals (that is, thinkers who criticize established perspectives and produce original alternatives) and an independent bourgeoisie (that is, economic entrepreneurs, such as merchants, bankers, and industrialists). Yet these two classes are still marginalized in most Muslim-majority countries by various modern forms of the ulama–state alliance.

My policy recommendation: Simply blaming Islam or colonialism will not help Muslims solve their problems. Instead, Muslims should question the centuries-old anti-intellectualism and state control over the economy in their countries. Only with such critical self-reflection can Muslims truly address their political and socioeconomic issues.

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Muslims Need Critical Self-Reflection: Beyond Essentialism and Postcolonialism