Wednesday, November 14, 2012

The Spread Of Islam: An Economic Perspective

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.

Technical Notes

Michalopoulos, Stelios; and Alireza Naghavi & Giovanni Prarolo, "Trade and Geography in the Origins and Spread of Islam", NBER Working Paper No. 18438, October 2012


  1. Hmm may be for a more alternative view you may be interested to read the Republican Paul Ryan, hero Ayn Rand's quotes on religion.

    For centuries, the mystics of spirit had existed by running a protection racket - by making life on earth unbearable, then charging you for consolation and relief, by forbidding all the virtues that make existence possible, then riding on the shoulders of your guilt, by declaring production and joy to be sins, then collecting blackmail from the sinners. [Ayn Rand, For the New Intellectual]

    Playboy: Has no religion, in your estimation, ever offered anything of constructive value to human life?

    Ayn Rand: Qua religion, no - in the sense of blind belief, belief unsupported by, or contrary to, the facts of reality and the conclusions of reason. Faith, as such, is extremely detrimental to human life: it is the negation of reason. But you must remember that religion is an early form of philosophy, that the first attempts to explain the universe, to give a coherent frame of reference to man's life and a code of moral values, were made by religion, before men graduated or developed enough to have philosophy. And, as philosophies, some religions have very valuable moral points. They may have a good influence or proper principles to inculcate, but in a very contradictory context and, on a very - how should I say it? - dangerous or malevolent base: on the ground of faith. [Playboy interview with Ayn Rand]

    This god, this one word: I. [Ayn Rand, Anthem]

    If I were to speak your kind of language, I would say that man's only moral commandment is: Thou shalt think. But a 'moral commandment' is a contradiction in terms. The moral is the chosen, not the forced; the understood, not the obeyed. The moral is the rational, and reason accepts no commandments.

    There has never been a philosophy, a theory or a doctrine, that attacked (or 'limited') reason, which did not preach submission to the power of some authority. [Ayn Rand, The Comprachicos, in The New Left]

    Are you in a universe which is ruled by natural laws and, therefore, is stable, firm, absolute - and knowable? Or are you in an incomprehensible chaos, a realm of inexplicable miracles, an unpredictable, unknowable flux, which your mind is impotent to grasp? The nature of your actions - and of your ambition - will be different, according to which set of answers you come to accept.

    (The Doctrine of Original Sin) declares that (man) ate the fruit of the tree of knowledge - he acquired a mind and became a rational being. It was the knowledge of good and evil - he became a moral being/ He was sentenced to earn his bread by his labor - he became a productive being. He was sentenced to experience desire - he acquired the capacity of sexual enjoyment. The evils for which (the preachers) damn him are reason, morality, creativeness joy - all the cardinal values of his existence.

    The alleged short-cut to knowledge, which is faith, is only a short circuit destroying the mind.

    Faith is the wors curse of mankind, as the exact antithesis and enemy of thought.

    [T]he only real moral crime that one man can commit against another is the attempt to create, by his words or actions, an impression of the contradictory, the impossible, the irrational, and thus shake the concept of rationality in his victim.

    Definitions are the guardians of rationality, the first line of defense against the chaos of mental disintegration.

    To fear to face an issue is to believe the worst is true.

    To rest one's case on faith means to concede that reason is on the side of one's enemies- that one has no rational arguments to offer.

    ...if devotion to truth is the hallmark of morality, then there is no greater, nobler, more heroic form of devotion than the act of a man who assumes the responsibility of thinking.... the alleged short-cut to knowledge, which is faith, is only a short-circuit destroying the mind. [Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged]

  2. Didn't know there is an Ayn Randian following this blog? Very verbose???????

  3. Believe it or not, but I have had some considerations about religion as an efficient response to collective goods problems recently.

    See here: