How can Muslims stop living in history? GVS Exclusive Interview with Prof. Ahmet T. Kuru

Why the Muslim world failed to democratize? What are the reasons behind the rise of authoritarianism and underdevelopment in Muslim majority countries? Professor Ahmet T. Kuru wrote Islam, Authoritarianism, and Underdevelopment: A Global and Historical Comparison, which has become co-winner of the American Political Science Association's International History and Politics Section Book Award, to answer these important questions. GVS Assistant Editor Farah Adeed discusses these important questions with Prof. Kuru in this exclusive interview. A must-read for the students of Political Science, History, International Relations, and CSS aspirants.

Ahmet T. Kuru

GVS Assistant Editor Farah Adeed sat down with Dr. Ahmet T. Kuru, Professor of Political Science at San Diego State University, USA, to discuss his latest book, Islam, Authoritarianism, and Underdevelopment: A Global and Historical Comparison (Cambridge University Press, 2019), which has become co-winner of the American Political Science Association’s International History and Politics Section Book Award.

Farah Adeed (FA): I had the opportunity to read several of your insightful works on Islam, democracy, and modernity, including your latest book; “Islam, Authoritarianism, and Underdevelopment: A Global and Historical Comparison”, and it is in fact very interesting! What is your argument? More importantly, how is it different from the literature available on the causes of the Muslim world’s intellectual downfall and economic backwardness? How has the response from the readers been so far?

Ahmet Kuru (AK): Thanks! My new Islam book challenges the arguments that point to Islam as the source of the problems of authoritarianism and socioeconomic underdevelopment in 49 Muslim-majority countries. The book also rejects the idea of simply blaming Western colonialism for the rise of authoritarianism in the Muslim world. Instead, it calls for a critical examination of Islamic scholars (the ulema or the mullahs), the state, and the alliance between them.

My book argues that between the ninth and the twelfth centuries, the Muslim world was superior to Western Europe in terms of scientific and socioeconomic development. It was the time when Muslim countries had dynamic intellectuals and merchants, whereas Western Europe was dominated by military rulers and the Catholic clergy. During this period, the ulema were mostly funded by commerce/industry and generally refused to become the state servants.

Around the mid-eleventh century, however, there happened a multifaceted radical transformation in the territories ruled by the Seljuk Empire in Central Asia, Iran, and Iraq. The institutionalization of the iqta system (of land revenue distribution to state officials) caused the shrinking of private lands. The militarization of the state structure also empowered the state control over the economy, which marginalized the merchant class. Economic centralization coincided with the opening of the politically funded Nizamiyya madrasas. These madrasas made the ulema receptive to become state servants and established the institutional basis of the ulema-state alliance.

Later, the Seljuk model of ulema-state alliance spread to western territories—Syria, Egypt, Anatolia, and the Balkans—under the Mamluks and the Ottomans. Later, this alliance largely survived the modernists’ challenges in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. With certain transformations and adaptations, the ulema-state alliance has persisted to be the main actor of power relations in Muslim societies, and it has marginalized the intellectuals and the bourgeoisie. This is the main reason for long-lasting scientific and socioeconomic stagnation in the Muslim world.


In sum, my book, on the one hand, documents that Islam is not the culprit; and, on the other hand, it critically analyzes the ulema’s negative roles, their problematic religious interpretations, and their pro-authoritarian alliances with military state rulers.

So far, its arguments have received the attention of both academic and non-academic readers in many countries. Reviews of and interviews about the book have been published in North America, Western Europe, MENA, the Subcontinent, and Southeast Asia. It is now being translated to Arabic, Bosnian, Indonesian, and Persian. I hope it will be translated to Urdu, too.

FA: In modern times, economic globalization, scientific/technological development, and nation-states have substantially changed the course of human history. How can a book chiefly relying on what happened between the 8th and 12th centuries help us understand the multifaceted challenges of the 21st century?

AK: Great question. I am a political scientist, not a historian. Hence, my book begins with the present while relying on the past events to make an argument. It compares 49 Muslim-majority countries with each other and with the rest of the world, in terms of their current levels of peace, democratization, and development. During this analysis, the book analyzes both the material conditions (such as authoritarian states and oil-based rentier economies) and powerful ideas in the Muslim world. This analysis reveals the importance of class relations, particularly the hegemony of the ulema-state alliance that trivializes intellectual and economic classes. A historical analysis is necessary to analyze the origins of the ulema-state alliance and effectively criticize it; because, for centuries, this alliance has preserved its power.

Many readers have asked why the clergy-state alliance has preserved its power in the Muslim world for such a long time, while it eventually lost the dominant status in Western Europe. First of all, this is not due to the so-called essential teachings of Islam and Christianity. In both cases, religion-state relations show certain changes that cannot be explained by “theological essences.” Second, the clergy-state alliance has been the norm throughout the world history. What Muslim countries achieved between the eighth and mid-eleventh centuries and what Western European countries have achieved since the late 18th century, in terms of certain levels of clergy-state separation, is something rare and precious.

Since the mid-11th century, a major reason for the persistence of the ulema-state alliance has been the teaching of the ulema. They have declared their alliance with the state as a religious necessity, by arguing that it is ordered by the Quran (by the verse (4:59): “O you who believe! Obey God and obey the Messenger and those in authority [uli’l-amr] among you”). Yet the historical analysis shows us that this is not true. The phrase “uli’l-amr” was interpreted differently in early Islamic history. Only after the mid-eleventh century the ulema and state authorities imposed their particular understanding to ask obedience from Muslim masses. In its influential book, Al-Siyasah al-Shar‘iyah, Ibn Taymiyya interpreted this verse (4:59) as if it asks obedience to the ulema and the umera (rulers).

Therefore, it has been very difficult to challenge the clergy-state alliance in the Muslim world. There have been voices that resisted this alliance, but the ulema have declared many of them as apostates. Ataturk and some other modernist politicians weakened the ulema in the twentieth century, but these military reformists could not solve their countries’ problems, because they were also generally anti-intellectual and anti-bourgeois.

In short, I had to conduct a historical analysis because the Muslim world is largely stuck in history, in terms of the main class relations and quasi-religious ideas. Only after a critical analysis of the historically established class relations and ideas, and an understanding of diversity, creativity, and competition existed during the early Islamic history, Muslims can stop living in history and make peace with their current conditions.

FA: As your “theoretical approach emphasizes the connections between ideas and material conditions”, it raises an important question. Max Weber attributed the rise and development of capitalism to the rise of Calvinism in Western Europe. Do you think there is any such trend in Islamic theory that potentially encourages competition?

AK: Another important question. There were many trends in Islamic thought that encouraged competition and toleration. But by the mid-eleventh century, the Sunni Orthodoxy was established by the joint efforts of two Abbasids caliphs (Qadir and Qaim), certain ulema (including Mawardi and Ghazali), certain bureaucrats (such as Nizam al-Mulk), and some rulers (Mahmud of Ghazni and later Seljuk sultans). This orthodoxy declared Mutazilis and various other non-orthodox Muslim groups as apostates to be killed. Later, in the sixteenth century, the Safavid shahs and Shia ulema established their own Shii orthodoxy by converting most Iranians from Sunni to Shii Islam through coercion. This is the unfortunate story of eliminating alternative thoughts under both Sunni and Shii rules.

There also occurred a more peaceful and discreet transformation. Abu Hanifa (699–767) defended the importance of ray (a jurist’s reason-based opinion) as an important source of jurisprudential authority. Two generations later, however, Shafii developed the jurisprudential method (usul-u fiqh) that prioritized the literal understanding of the Qur’an and hadiths followed by the consensus of the ulema, limiting the role of reason to mere analogy.

Read More: Faith or Scientific inquiry? Muslim world in disarray 

Initially, Shafii’s methodology was one of the many alternative approaches. Nonetheless, after the establishment of the ulema-state alliance in the mid-eleventh century, his methodology became the main pillar of the Sunni orthodoxy. Ultimately, Hanafis adopted this methodology, as did Malikis and Hanbalis. The hegemony of Shafii’s methodology has restricted reason to making analogies on points where the literal meanings of the Quran and hadiths offer no clear ruling, and where there is a lack of consensus among scholars. It has also turned consensus of the ulema into an entrenched authority, which weakens alternative views.

If Abu Hanifa could see the world today, he would be surprised to see that Hanafis left his reason-based methodology and embraced Shafii’s literalist methodology. This is basically why we do not see a major trend of Islamic theory encouraging competition today.

FA: Prof. Kuru, you argue that the alliance between orthodox Islamic scholars (the ulema) and military states hindered intellectual and economic creativity by marginalizing intellectual and bourgeois classes in the Muslim world. How is it different from Modernization Theory? Do you think the capitalist economic model is a prerequisite for democratization?

AK: This question deserves a several-page-long answer. Let me briefly note two points here. First, modernization theory argues that the Western European experience of moving from “traditional” to “modern” society is a universal model. All societies will follow the model as they continue in the path of industrialization. I am not proposing a Western model to Muslim societies. Instead, I propose to Muslims their early history until the mid-eleventh century, an era of intellectual and economic dynamism, as a model.

Second, modernization theory is theoretically materialistic. It claims that changing economic modes of production through industrialization will bring cultural and political transformations. Instead, I take ideas very seriously. My book has a detailed analysis of the ideas of Mawardi, Ghazali, and Ibn Taymiyya, as defenders of the ulema-state alliance, and those of Ibn Rushd, Tusi, and Ibn Khaldun, on their alternative perspectives. Moreover, I analyze the role of intellectuals and their ideas in the rise of Western Europe.

Regarding the capitalist economic model: I do not consider it as a necessary condition of democratization. But I regard the protection of private property as a necessary condition, which, unfortunately, does not exist in many Muslim-majority countries. My book does not simply emphasize the importance of the bourgeoisie. Yet it stresses how intellectuals and the bourgeoisie were able to balance the power of political and religious authorities in early Islamic history and late European history. It does not necessarily favor a version of capitalism that rejects social policies.

FA: While discussing the works of Mawardi, Ghazali, and Ibn Taymiyya, you suggest that these “unapologetically authoritarian (and patriarchal) theories” should be treated as “historical texts” but they should not inform “Muslims’ political thought in the twenty-first century”. You also suggest, “Muslims should establish competitive and meritocratic systems”. Prof. Kuru, how do you see the role of religion in public life if the system you have proposed shall ever established?

AK: I consider the ideas of pre-modern Islamic scholars as reflections of their historical conditions. On such issues as the separation of political powers and women’s rights, the medieval Islamic scholars’ ideas are clearly authoritarian and patriarchal. Similarly, my ideas reflect my conditions in terms of time and space. We should not take human interpretations of religion as sacred.

I am hoping to see a new socio-political system based on justice, fair competition, and meritocracy, instead of injustice, unfairness, and nepotism. Islamic ethics is perfectly compatible with such a system. I also support a certain level of separation between religious, political, academic, and economic classes in a way that each could have its own autonomy, productivity, and dignity.

FA: You link socio-economic development with freedom of thought and independence of both intellectual and economic classes. However, as we see the annual Global Competitiveness Report of the World Economic Forum shows that “major autocratic regimes – such as China and Russia– have risen on the index since 2008, and now rank among the top third of countries worldwide”. The share of global GDP accounted for by autocratic states has risen from 12 in 1990 to 33 percent in the contemporary world. How do you explain these trends?

AK: Russia is not an economic success story, but China and some other authoritarian East Asian countries are. Understandably, this seems to have challenged my emphasis on democracy in development. I want to emphasize two points. First, Muslim-majority countries and East Asian countries currently have different types of authoritarianism. In the Muslim world, authoritarian states have been rentier, militaristic, and/or in alliance with the clergy to various and changing degrees. They also have ineffective governance and insufficient investments to education. In contrast, in East Asia, most authoritarian states have focused on export-oriented production, not rentierism; have concentrated on developmental policies and economically expansionist goals, rather than military policies and goals; and have embraced secular regimes, rather than clergy-state alliances. They also have effective governance and substantial investments to education. Thus, even if authoritarianism co-exists with economic development in East Asia, this does not necessarily imply such a co-existence in the Muslim world, where the type of authoritarianism is very different.

Read More: Imam Khomeini: Continuing Influence on Muslim World?

Second, even in East Asia, particularly in China, the coexistence of authoritarianism with development may be a short-term experience. Today, China is becoming increasingly more authoritarian, as seen its ethno-religious cleansing of millions of Uighur Muslims, by putting them in concentration camps and destroying thousands of their mosques. This trend may eventually restrict China’s capacity for further development. The Soviet Union was regarded as an economic success story for a while, but it eventually ended up with an economic crisis.

FA: My last question is not about your book; rather, it is about the piece you recently wrote on the “Emergence of a New Secularist Generation in Turkey. “A populist Islamist regime” with the ongoing promotion of “Islamic discourses” in public life gives you hope for the emergence of “a staunchly secularist new generation”. Why do you think so? Moreover, do you hold the same view about other Muslim majority countries?

AK: Thanks for all of your timely questions, including this one. I do not “hope” for the emergence of a staunchly secularist generation; instead, I am afraid of it. As I explained in my first book, Secularism and State Policies toward Religion: The United States, France, and Turkey (Cambridge University Press, 2009) assertive secularism was associated with authoritarian state policies in Turkey for decades. The rise of the new populist Islamist regime led by Tayyip Erdogan depends on conservative Muslims’ reaction to old assertive secularism. Secular worldviews now seem to be increasingly popular among young people in several Middle Eastern countries, including Iran and Turkey. I hope the new generation in Turkey will not embrace authoritarianism and assertive secularism as a reaction to Erdogan.