Is Islam an Impediment for Development in Muslim Countries?

Civilizations die from suicide, not by murder (Toynbee, 1957)


The history has witnessed the glorifying period of Muslim civilizations for millennium. However, that was just a myth now since Muslim countries are plagued by a lot of problems such as illiteracy, poverty, unemployment, health issues, freedom, and many other things so that they can be categorized as the developing or underdeveloped countries. Therefore, some orientalists argue that Islam with its characteristic is the essence impediment for development. However, this essay will argue that Islam is not the true hindrance for development but the violation and the disembeddedness of Islamic world-view in everydayness. In doing so, this essay will first define development prior to provide a discourse on the decline of Muslim civilizations.

What is development?
There is a huge debate in defining development which ranges from the life improvement of poor people (Hayter, 2005) until the process of production which expropriate natural environment (Rist, 2007). The definition of development is changing over time and being determined by the initiator’s vision of the development itself (Chambers, 1997). As a framework, this essay is referring to Amatya Sen (1999) who denies the mainstream development articulation as merely an economic progression. He defines a broader meaning of development by constitute it as a freedom from oppression such as tyranny and social deprivation that leads human into a little choice and opportunity. His argument lies on two dimensions which are functionings (being and doing) and freedom. Functioning means enhancing capabilities so that people can be empowered and emancipated. Whereas, freedoms represented by the real opportunity to choose a genuine life that people admire, not a life that people forced into (Alkire, 2016). Sen also argues that the strategy of development itself has to be democratic (Evans, 2002) so that it considers the well-being of people at the bottom (equity) not just the importance of efficiency for those on the top. Sen’s idea inspires the measurement of Human Development Index (HDI) that comprised of two categories which are directly enhancing human capabilities (functioning) and creating conditions for human development (freedom).

Unfortunately, under the measurement of HDI, Muslim countries are those who suffer on the list. Indonesia as the largest Muslim countries is facing 190 deaths among 100.000 livebirths or 6,78 times higher than the USA which has 70 million more people. Moreover, Malaysia who ranks 8th on the GNI per capita among Muslim countries has the worst GINI Ratio. In addition, only 45,50% of adult in Mauritania who can read and write; and about 31,20% of the adult are jobless.

Likewise, Tajikistan is facing 58.30% rate of violence against women. Those figures show that Muslim countries have problems with equity and freedom besides economic growth. They also inquire plausible explanation about the observed underdevelopment in Muslim countries.

Should Islam be blamed for the backwardness in Muslim countries?
Orientalists such as Weber (1965) argues that Islam and its characteristic is inimical for growth because it is not a religion of salvation and has an incompatible culture with the spirit of capitalism. The fit personality kind of Islam was not educated people but warrior who articulated religious quest into territorial adventure (Levtzion, 1999). This argumentation is far from valid and did not equally emphasized the reality that Islam has united a lot of tribes in Mecca who fight for years prior to Islam. In fact, Islam requires a complete salvation to God (4:125) and encourage the believer to create peace in the society (49:9). In support to this, Turner (2008, 2010), refutes Weber’s argument by saying that Islam is urban and supporting commercial activity. Even, Quran contains a lot of commercial terminologies and Sharia prohibits such threat to trade expedition done by warrior tribes.

Another reason why Muslim countries are underdeveloped is the institutional failure that caused by the Islamic inheritance system. Kuran (2004, 2005a) argues that capital accumulation is barely happened due to the strict inheritance system which is the most detailed topics elaborated in the Quran (Kuran, 2003) whereas there was not an adequate inheritance standard in Christian law which made European is easier to keep the capital intact across generation (Kuran, 2011). Timur Kuran should revisit his argument and realize that Islamic inheritance system was aimed to achieve wide distribution of wealth among the close relatives of the deceased. It also avoids hoarding and individualistic discrimination (Cummings, Askari, & Mustafa, 1980). Chapra (2008a) argues that economic expansion in Europe was fueled by the growing technology and transportation, not primogeniture. He continues that East Asian countries such as Japan has succeed to grow by the assistance of land reform, social equality, and cultural values. In essence, Islamic inheritance system was not the reason for the backwardness.

Islam is also being blamed for the hardship in Muslim countries due to the inflexibility of the Sharia (Weber, 1930) so that do not allow capitalism to root. Likewise, the individually oriented law in Islam that does not provide any space for corporation to possess legal right whereas European civilization has growth because of its creativity and support to the presence of corporation (Kuran, 2005b). This argument does not consider the fact that Sharia promotes trade as the Prophet saying that nine out of ten gates of fortune are in trade. In this point, Rodinson (1974) states that there is no article in the Quran and Sunnah that prohibit private property but favor trade. Moreover, Quran condemns such fraudulent practice before Islam and promotes justice and ethical behavior (Rodinson, 1972). Chapra (2008b) refutes Kuran’s argument that saying Islamic Islamic law does not support corporation by stating that such entity did not directly appear in the classical fiqh discourse but corporate legal entity exists in bayt al mal (public treasury), mosque property, and waqf. However, most fuqaha has already approved the form of corporation through the qiyas (Chapra, 1985). Moreover, Cizakca (1996) argues that limited liability in mudarabah contract was so universal and well understood. At last, a study by (Noland, 2005) point out that Islam is not inimical for growth.

However, to some extent, the backwardness is happened due to the patrimonial bureaucracy in Muslim civilization as orientalists may argue. Later, this factor has caused instability of justice and unjust taxation. Weber (1930) and Rheinstein (1964) argue that the qadi had vested interest with patrimonial bureaucracy in making the law which led to the justice instability. Besides, it also leads to unjust taxation system which discouraged investment on trade and latter fueled urban merchants to invest in waqf that much safer from intervention of the rulers but lead to capital immobilization at once (Kuran, 2001; Weber, 1968). For the record, problem lies in the lack of management not on waqf system itself because waqf has prominently contributed to provide welfare in Muslim civilization before it started to decline (Asutay, 2010).

The True Hindrance
After all, the true hindrance to development in Muslim civilization both in the past and present day is the violation and the disembeddedness of Islamic world-view in everydayness. In the past, the decline of Muslim civilization has begun when political illegitimacy took place in the birth of heredity monarchy system after the fourth Caliph (Khaldun, 1969). This directly violated the foundational Islamic world-view but mostly al ‘adl wa’l ihsan, khilafah, rububiyyah, and tazkiyah. The monarchy system does not reflect al adl wa’l ihsan (justice) (Naqvi, 1994) among people which gives opportunity only for the heredity of the monarch to be a leader. It also violated khilafah (God’s vicegerent), rububiyyah (sustainable growth) and tazkiyah (growth in harmony) (Asutay, 2007) as it neglected the shura (consultation) for the accountability and moral control for the leader. Later, this caused absolute power on patrimonial ruler caused which led to insufficient condition for development. Recent studies also point out the problematic democracy situation as the reason for the backwardness in the Muslim countries (Haber & Menaldo, 2010; Chaney, 2012). In present day, the disembeddedness of Islamic world-view in Muslim countries is congruent with the underdevelopment. It can be seen that Muslim countries who suffer in HDI list also suffer in the Islamicity Index and Corruption Perception Index2. In contrast, non-Muslim countries such as Norway, Netherlands, Austalia are high in the three list. This phenomenon is relevant with Hourani (1962) who said: “Christian are strong because they are not really Christian; Muslim are weak because they are not really Muslim”.

Hence, the initiative to reform (islah) should begin with re-embedding Islamic values in each individual. Then, it should be articulated into an akhlakul karimah in every family and society. By doing this, hopefully Islamic value will construct institutions that will bring back the greatness of Islam that benefit all humanity and civilization.

In conclusion, Islam with its characteristic is not the impediment for development as Weber stated but the violation and disembeddedness of Islamic world-view in everydayness is the true hindrance for development in Muslim countries.

*This article was submitted for Islamic Political Economy assignment in MSc Islamic Finance and Management Program, Durham University Business School (2016-2017)


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