Given the holiday tomorrow in conjunction with the Islamic New Year, this new NBER research paper is really appropriate (abstract):
Trade and Geography in the Origins and Spread of Islam
Stelios Michalopoulos, Alireza Naghavi, Giovanni Prarolo
This research examines the economic origins and spread of Islam in the Old World and uncovers two empirical regularities. First, Muslim countries and ethnic groups exhibit highly unequal regional agricultural endowments. Second, Muslim adherence is systematically higher along the pre-Islamic trade routes. We discuss the possible mechanisms that may give rise to the observed pattern and provide a simple theoretical argument that highlights the interplay between an unequal geography and proximity to lucrative trade routes. We argue that these elements exacerbated inequalities across diverse tribal societies producing a conflictual environment that had the potential to disrupt trade flows. Any credible movement attempting to centralize these heterogeneous populations had to offer moral and economic rules addressing the underlying economic inequalities. Islam was such a movement. In line with this conjecture, we utilize anthropological information on pre-colonial traits of African ethnicities and show that Muslim groups have distinct economic, political, and societal arrangements featuring a subsistence pattern skewed towards animal husbandry, more equitable inheritance rules, and more politically centralized societies with a strong belief in a moralizing God.
It’s always a little dangerous to subscribe to only a single perspective of any great social movement or historical event. Nevertheless, you can’t deny that an economic explanation for the rapid spread of Islam and its persistence in the Middle East over the centuries has some foundation.
I obviously have some sympathy for this viewpoint, especially as an economic perspective also offers an explanation for Islam’s subsequent political and technological decline after Europe’s Renaissance period – the increasing bypassing of the overland trade routes by European and Chinese merchants going around the Horn of Africa, eventually undermined the foundations of economic power and prosperity in the Middle East until the discovery of oil in the region in the early 20th century.
Identification (i.e. the causal linkage) is obviously a problem here – as late as the 1670s, the Ottoman Turks were threatening Vienna and Central Europe, and their subsequent slow relegation to global political and military non-entities coincided with both the beginning of the great era of European colonisation and the Industrial Revolution.
Some would argue, with justice, that political and social arrangements within Islam’s various empires led to their stagnation and downfall –Islamic inheritance laws for instance, while more socially equitable on a personal level, could have resulted in the fragmentation of property holdings that also led to the downfall of the French Carolingian dynasty. But that’s probably more true of the early Arab Islamic empires than the latter Turkish dynasties.
I’m obviously no expert in this field – all comments on this subject are welcome – but I don’t think the trade factor can be ignored in explaining the spread of Islam, and the subsequent history of Islamic nations in the Middle East.
Michalopoulos, Stelios; and Alireza Naghavi & Giovanni Prarolo, "Trade and Geography in the Origins and Spread of Islam", NBER Working Paper No. 18438, October 2012