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

Jared Rubin (Chapman University)

Abstract: For centuries following the spread of Islam, the Middle East was far ahead of Europe. Yet, the modern economy was born in Europe. Why was it not born in the Middle East? This book examines the role that Islam played in this reversal of fortunes. It argues that the religion itself is not to blame; the importance of religious legitimacy in Middle Eastern politics was the primary culprit. Muslim religious authorities were given an important seat at the political bargaining table, which they used to block important advancements such as the printing press and lending at interest. In Europe, however, the Church played a weaker role in legitimating rule, especially where Protestantism spread (indeed, the Reformation was successful due to the spread of printing, which was blocked in the Middle East). It was precisely in those Protestant nations, especially England and the Dutch Republic, where the modern economy was born. In both of those nations, the Church was replaced with the economic elite in parliaments at the political bargaining table. These elites had interests more aligned with laws and policies that portend economic success, and long-run economic growth resulted. Such changes did not occur in Spain or the Ottoman Empire, and they suffered economic stagnation that persisted for centuries as a result.