Why the West became so advanced and the Middle East did not?

Tarek Amr
7 min readMar 10, 2018

A review of Jared Rubin’s book, Rulers, Religion, and Riches

I had this question in mind for a while. All the articles I read that tried to answer this question had one thesis; it is religion, Islam is to be blamed. Though, I do not totally disagree, the answer felt very simplistic. In a way, religions are the products of their societies, and there is nothing stopping societies from re-shaping their religions if they want to. The west itself had Christianity, which would have hindered their development if it stayed in its middle ages form, but it didn’t. Why did the two societies diverged then?

The real questions, then, are: Why did a region that was so far ahead for so long ultimately fall behind? Why did the Industrial Revolution begin in Great Britain instead of, say, the Ottoman Empire?

Then I knew that the concept where the western world became advance and diverged from the rest has a name. It is called The Great Divergence, after a book with the same name by Kenneth Pomeranz. However, Pomeranz focused more on China as the counter example to the west, while I was more interested in the Arab and Islamic world due to my personal background, thus I pick Jared Rubin’s book instead. And now after I finished Rubin’s book, I can easily say it one of the best books I’ve read in years.

The propagating agents

The main thesis of Rulers, Religion, and Riches is as follows: The ultimate goal for any ruler is to stay in power, and for them to stay in power they have to make sure they have on their side people or organisations who can use their identity or access to resources to help the ruler stay in power. The author calls these people and organisations, propagating agents. He then divides them into two kinds, coercive agents and legitimising agents:

The framework focuses on two types of propagating agents: coercive agents and legitimising agents. Coercive agents propagate through force — people follow the ruler because they face punishment otherwise — while legitimising agents propagate through legitimacy — people follow the ruler because they believe he (or, much more rarely, she) has the legitimate right to rule.

One thing I like about the author, is that he is an economist. Though, I am not, but he speaks in a language that makes much more sense to me than pure historians. For example, in his framework, the propagating agents have value and cost, and rules are in constant bargain to maximise the value and minimise the cost of these agents.

Propagating agents can provide immense benefits to the ruler, but they also come at a cost: the ruler gives them a seat at the bargaining table in return for their support.

And for the mathematicians among you, this constant bargain is a constrained optimisation problem, since rulers are constrained by their budgets, conflicting agents, etc.

It is just as useful to think of the Ottoman sultan as “solving” a constrained optimisation problem as it was English, Dutch, or Spanish rulers.

The shape of the propagating agents rulers have around them are what shape the future of their nations, their policies and rules and everything.

[For example] any interest group that has a powerful seat at the political bargaining table but does not have interests consistent with economic growth will play a retarding role in a society’s economy.

Now comes the fundamental difference between Islam and Christianity. Aside from its first 10 years, Islam was always in power. Muhammad was the head of the state, same for his successors later on. Christianity, on the other hand, was not in power for ages. And because of this, one religion had more reasons to give more legitimacy to the rulers than the other.

There is nothing in Christian doctrine like the Qur’anic and hadith passages explicitly encouraging Muslims to follow rulers who abide by Islamic dictates and rebel against those who do not.

An important difference noted in this book is that Islam is more conducive to legitimising political rule than Christianity is, a fact that certainly influences the set of changes that are possible in the Middle East.

Personally, I can see the same difference to a some extent between Sunna and Shia within Islam itself. The former were almost always the ones in power, thus their doctrines stress more on giving legitimacy to rules than those of the Shia. Nevertheless, after the Iranian revolution in 1979, Shiism became more of a legitimising agent than before, at least in the Iranian versions of Shiism where religion and power are coupled.

Back to the author’s argument, and using his economical terms. Both religions, Islam and Christianity, are reasonably cheap as a legitimising agents, though Islam is more valuable to rulers due to the fact that it has more passages that explicitly encouraging Muslims to follow their rulers. During the middle ages, the benefits of both religions were more or less similar, yet once their cost increased, one was much more easier for rulers to push aside a bit more than the other.

Since the costs of religious legitimation were similar in the Middle East and Western Europe — costs included tax exemptions, following religious dictates, and financial support — it follows that the ratio of benefits to costs of religious legitimation were greater in the Middle East.

Of course, sometimes acting in accordance with Islamic law meant doing something the caliph would otherwise prefer not to do, but the overall cost-benefit calculation usually weighed in favour of the caliph propagating his rule via religious legitimacy.

Banks and Printing Press

The author focuses on two main differences that resulted in hindering the economic and scientific growth in the Middle East compared to Europe, Banking and Printing Press.

Prior to the 1850s, there was no such thing as a Middle Eastern “bank” that conducted even the most basic of activities we now associate with banking: taking deposits, lending those deposits, and investing in capital markets.

Without a banking system capable of pooling resources, large-scale loans were practically impossible to obtain. Potential entrepreneurs necessarily kept their ambitions small unless they happened to know someone with vast amounts of wealth who was willing to invest in their enterprise.

Even when banks did emerge in the Ottoman Empire in the 1850s, Europeans owned them. The contrast with Western Europe is especially relevant. Modern banking arose in Western Europe through a series of innovations — certain forms of partnerships, family firms, branches, bills of exchange, limited liability, and joint-stock companies — during the medieval and early modern periods.

The interest restrictions persisted for centuries in both religions in the face of commercial expansion. However, the author’s framework tries to answer the question; why did interest restrictions persist for centuries longer in the Middle East than in Western Europe?

Unlike in the Middle East, where the benefits to legalising interest were outweighed by the costs associated with the loss of religious legitimacy, the legitimising relationship was much weaker in Western Europe. The costs of permitting interest were therefore not nearly as great. Western European rulers responded to the growth of commerce by relaxing interest regulations in spite of religious condemnation.

The second reason, the ban on printing press in the Ottoman empire, was new to me. I did not know before reading this book the the Ottomans banned the printing of Arabic text for more 200 years.

The Ottomans’ failure to adopt the printing press is one of the great missed opportunities of economic and technological history. In Western Europe, the press provided a host of new economic and educational opportunities that were simply unthinkable prior to the press.

But, why did the Ottomans ban this technology?

The key is to answer the following questions: To whom was widespread printing in the Arabic script a threat? Was this individual or group powerful enough to convince the sultan to block the spread of printing despite the fact that the sultan was missing out on tax revenue and economic development by blocking this new and important technology?

The printing press threatened the religious establishment’s intellectual monopoly. Under the pre-printing regime, the only people who had access to Islamic knowledge were those who undertook significant costs — a lifetime of training — to learn and memorize the most important religious works. Any works on nonreligious topics had to make it through the watchful eye of the religious establishment. The ijaza was yet another barrier to entry that protected the intellectual monopoly from outside intrusion. Individuals who did not receive an ijaza were not legally entitled to teach the text in question. The printing press would have fundamentally altered this dynamic. The press would have substantially reduced the barriers to entry to the intellectual world of Islam. If the press were available, the written word would have been available to the public quickly and cheaply.

The author then analysed four examples of nations that had different fortunes due to the shape of the propagating agents there. England and the Dutch Republic as examples of nations the flourished economically, and the Ottoman empire and Spain as counter examples.

I cannot recommend this book enough, and although I read it on Kindle, I am planning to buy a paper copy so I can lend it to any of my friends who wants to read it. I also hope it gets translated into Arabic; since we have the ban on the printing press lifted already, wink wink.

All the quotes here are from Jared Rubin’s book, Rulers, Religion, and Riches.



Tarek Amr

I write about what machines can learn from data, what humans can learn from machines, and what businesses can learn from all three.