The Long Divergence: How Islamic Law Held Back the Middle East

In This Review

The Long Divergence: How Islamic Law Held Back the Middle East
by Timur Kuran
Princeton University Press, 2010
424 pp. $29.95

This is a book to be not just tasted but chewed and digested. Instead of facile claims that Islam is the solution or Islam is the problem, readers get a detailed history of economic institutions in the Middle East as compared to those in the West. Kuran shows that the Islamic law and practices underlying Middle Eastern commerce worked well for a long time and were much more flexible than usually assumed. In time, however, they were overtaken by Western corporations, banks, and trading companies, which could assemble greater capital and survive longer, unlike Islamic partnerships that dissolved after the death of a partner. Kuran also turns his attention to primogeniture in the West, comparing it to the sundering of estates prescribed by Islamic law; Western trade treaties with Middle Eastern powers; and the Middle East's efforts to catch up to the West beginning in the nineteenth century. Clearly presented quantitative data and illuminating anecdotes (such as one about the late-sixteenth-century Egyptian merchant who, "anticipating Starbucks," opened a chain of coffeehouses) add up to a fine feast.