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Review of "Muslim Civilisation: The Causes of Decline and the Need for Reform" by


4 June 2011

Within 100 years of the death of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) Muslim armies had conquered most of the Middle East, North Africa and Spain, and ventured into France. For approximately the next 600 years Islamic civilisation was far ahead of Europe in its intellectual development, military prowess and legal organisation. However starting around 1700 Europeans progressively colonised virtually all Muslim majority countries which did not gain their independence until the mid-20th century. Today most Muslim majority countries are relatively backward compared with the countries of Europe, North America and Japan.

This naturally invites the question "What went wrong?" I have encountered two external reasons from many Muslims which I regard as invalid:

  • It was the fault of European colonialism. This explanation gets the chronology wrong. European colonisation of Muslim majority areas did not start until after 1700. However Islamic civilisation ran out of intellectual steam around 1300 or 1400.
  • It was the destruction caused by the Mongols. While the Mongols wrought massive damage in some Muslim majority areas, culminating in the sack of Baghdad, most Muslim majority countries were untouched by the Mongols. Furthermore physical damage is typically quick to repair.

There is a related question which I have rarely seen asked. After Admiral Perry's “Black Ships” visited Japan in the mid-19th century, the Japanese immediately realised how far they were behind the United States. Accordingly Japanese society transformed itself with the Meiji Restoration and threw itself into a frenzy of modernisation which was so successful that by 1905 they were able to defeat Russia in battle on land and sea. Why did Muslim majority countries which were adjacent to Europe and therefore fully informed how far Europe was pulling ahead not behave in a similar manner?

All of these questions are important not just as a matter of historical interest but because they potentially have lessons for how Muslim majority countries need to change today. The issues are complex and need careful consideration.

This short book (less than 200 pages excluding the index and references) will provide the reader with a light introduction to the subject. The author Umer Chapra is a professional economist and an expert on Islamic finance who I had the privilege of meeting a few years ago when we spoke at the same seminar. He has written a very readable book which is divided into nine chapters plus an introduction; in this review I will dip into some of the more interesting points.

As a preliminary matter, the book was published in 2008 and appears to have been completed on 27 May 2007 which is the date of the author's preface. Obviously it predates the 2011 "Arab Spring" but the intervening time does not detract from the book's relevance.


The author points out that what he refers to as the Muslim world:

“…has more than one fifth of the world’s population and is rich in natural resources, it produces only around 8% of the world's purchasing power adjusted GNP. It is plagued by illiteracy, poverty and unemployment and extremely difficult macro-economic imbalances. It is far behind major industrial, and even some developing countries, in almost all fields of life, including the economic, political, educational, technological and military."

The author also proceeds to point out the moral failure of Muslim majority countries with deep-rooted inequalities of income and wealth, conflict and disunity. The masses live in poverty alongside small elites who live in luxury.

The author considers that an explanatory model is needed for the development and decline of civilisations and societies. He mentions a number of European thinkers such as Gibbon, Spengler, Toynbee and Kennedy before focusing on Ibn Khaldun (died 1406). He spends several pages discussing Ibn Khaldun's model of dynastic rise and decline before proceeding to apply it to the problem in hand.

In my view this need to depend upon a thinker who died 500 years ago epitomises the intellectual stagnation of Muslim thought during the intervening period.

Ibn Khaldun's theory of development and decline

In this chapter the author explains Ibn Khaldun's concepts of statecraft which are condensed into eight points:

  1. The strength of the sovereign does not materialise except through the implementation of the Shariah.
  2. The Shariah cannot be implemented except by the sovereign.
  3. The sovereign cannot gain strength except through the people.
  4. The people cannot be sustained except by wealth.
  5. Wealth cannot be acquired except through development.
  6. Development cannot be attained except through justice.
  7. Justice is the criterion by which God will evaluate mankind.
  8. The sovereign is charged with the responsibility of actualising justice.

The author points out that this is a cyclical model where each part impact upon every other part. In view of the interdependence, the failure of any part of the system can cause society to decline. He writes:

"This implies that the trigger mechanism for the decline of the society may not necessarily be the same in all societies. In Muslim societies, with which Ibn Khaldun was concerned, the trigger mechanism was the failure of the political authority which, unfortunately, continues in most Muslim countries until the present time…, and has led to the misuse of public resources and their non-availability for the realisation of justice, development and general well-being."

Factors that contributed to the rise of the Muslims

Before considering the reasons for decline it is logical to consider the reasons why Muslim civilisation was successful for such a long period. In the author's opinion:

"What Islam did was to activate all the developmental factors in a positive direction. It gave maximum attention to the people, who constitute the primary force behind a society's rise or fall. It tried to lift them morally as well as materially, make them better human beings, and reform all the institutions that affected them. Its revolutionary worldview changed their outlook towards life by injecting a meaning and purpose into it. It made all individuals equal in their position as vice regents of the Supreme Being Who created them as well as the whole universe. This gave dignity, equality and self-respect to all of them, irrespective of their race, sex, wealth or position. It also made this ideal an effective reality by firmly establishing positions of leadership on those who earlier had been oppressed and weakened. It provided sanctity to life, property and individual honour and gave a prestigious place to knowledge by emphasising its importance in the very first revelation of the Quran. It accorded to women a respectable position in society by declaring them to be a "trust from God" and sisters [not slaves] of men, and enjoined men to treat them well."

The author goes on to discuss how this was associated with advances in agriculture, the development of cities, trade and intellectual advances.

Factors responsible for Muslim decline

The author starts by asking, if Islam was the trigger for the rise of Muslim civilisation, why did Muslim societies decline? The author looks at three Islamic institutions which have been alleged by Timur Kuran to be inimical to growth: the inheritance system which does not allow primogeniture, the absence of the concept of limited liability and juridical personality, and the institution of the waqf. He considers each in turn and rejects them as an explanation for economic underperformance.

He then asks whether political illegitimacy was the trigger for the decline. The author points out that Ibn Khaldun and many other classical Muslim scholars have held the view that Muslim history took a wrong turn when the period of the rightly guided caliphs was brought to an end by the accession of Muawiyah in 661. However this appears rather simplistic since dynastic caliphs were in power throughout the greatest periods of Muslim civilisation which did not start to decline for another six hundred years.

Economic decline

The author proceeds to point out the excessive levels of taxation and government expenditure of the Ottoman period when enormous amounts of money were spent on the standing army. He presents a number of statistics to make this case quite convincingly.

However what this analysis fails to do is to explain why at a time when European economies were developing strongly, the Ottoman economy failed to do so.

Decline in education, science and technology

The author points out that the rise of Muslim civilisation was associated with a great flowering in education, science and technology. He then asks the natural question about why this did not continue.

He points out that the state financial support for education diminished as the royal courts and corruption led to resources being wasted on the luxury of the court and warfare. In particular he charges the Ottomans with giving low priority to education and other nation-building activities.

Potentially much more significant is the conflict between the rationalists and the conservatives. The author explains that the rationalists came from two main groups: the Mutazilites and the Falasifah.

The Mutazilites were religious scholars who wanted to provide convincing rational arguments for religious belief. In that regard, they acquired expertise in philosophy, logic, the sciences and scientific methods and developed a systematic method of logical reasoning. The Falasifah who were influenced by Greek philosophy were primarily intellectuals rather than religious scholars. At that time, philosophy and the sciences were closely related so most of the Falasifah were recognised authorities in sciences such as mathematics, physics, chemistry, astronomy and medicine.

There is  a detailed discussion of the conflict between the rationalists and the conservatives, which by itself makes the book well worth reading.

The author points out that the Mutazilites exploited the political patronage and financial backing of some caliphs, in particular Mamun Al Rashid (died 833) and his immediate successors. At that time dissenters were punished. When they fell out of favour, there was an intellectual backlash with two consequences:

  1. Separation between the state (in the person of the Caliph) and the definition of Islam. Instead Islam has since been defined by consensus within the community in the author's view.
  2. The alienation of most religious scholars from philosophy and science. The author regards this as the source for the failure of science and technology to develop within Muslim societies. He may be correct although there is a chronological challenge because science continued to develop amongst Muslims for many years after 833.

Social decline

Originally state authority and religious authority in Islam were combined, both with the Prophet (pbuh) and with the rightly guided caliphs. However after the period of the Mutazilites there was a split and the religious scholars ceased to be closely involved with the government. The author considers that this was the main cause for the stagnation of fiqh (Islamic law).

"This led to a paradox in Muslim societies. On the one hand, there was a desire for the realisation of justice and general well-being in keeping with the demands of the Shariah, and an emphasis on the need for the state to play an important role in this and for the ulama [religious scholars] to guide and help the state in fulfilling this role. On the other hand, the ulama who were associated with the state were considered to be self-seekers and this-worldly.

Avoidance of the echelons of power by pious and competent ulama has harmed Islam in a number of ways. First, it deprives the Muslim world of political reform. If righteous and prominent ulama and Sufis had struggled for political reform and the rights of the people instead of secluding themselves away, they may have been able, gradually over the centuries, to influence and effect the creation of democratic institutions. This might have helped impose checks and controls on rulers' powers, and reduced inequities, the misuse of state resources, and the appointment of incompetent people to senior positions. If ordinary people struggle for their rights, it is easier for despots to crush them. However, if well-respected ulama, with a substantial following among the masses, struggle for people's rights, rulers may not find it so easy to suppress and eliminate them."

The author considers that the seclusion of the ulama from political power and their abstention from the physical sciences following the earlier conflict with the Mutazilites and Falasifah were the primary reasons for the stagnation of fiqh. Until secular colleges and universities were established during the colonial period, there was no systematic teaching of science in Muslim lands, and the new colonial schools led to a dual system of education, one concerned with teaching old religious texts and the other with modern sciences. He considers that Muslim societies need a fusion of the two systems of teaching.

As a further factor in social decline, the author points to the declining status of women in Muslim societies which fell far below their status in the early days of Islam.

Some lessons from Muslim history

The author draws five lessons from his earlier analysis.

  1. Rulers need to be held accountable to their people if they are to perform their tasks effectively. However the dynastic caliphate precluded this.
  2. The lack of political accountability led to the loss of freedom of expression, inequality before the law and the formation of a privileged class. This led to slow economic development and excessive taxation.
  3. The political authority cannot impose its own worldview on people as it tried to do during the Mutazilite period.
  4. Once the people are alienated, the government has to depend on external military force which is ultimately self-defeating.
  5. Islam is not the cause of Muslim decline but has itself been a victim of lack of political accountability, corruption and repression.

Failure to learn the lessons

The author emphasises the parlous state of Muslim majority countries today. Of the 57 member countries of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, only 13 have democracy. He also considers that even with those countries that have democracy, the electoral system is primarily formal and powerful vested interests succeed in getting elected and re-elected.

He also points out that only 4 Muslim countries have freedom of the press, 14 have a partly free press and 39 do not have a free press. He mentions the "Corruption Perception Index" prepared by the Berlin-based organisation Transparency International. This includes 159 countries with scores ranging from 10 (least corrupt) to 0 (most corrupt). A score of five indicates a borderline country and only six Muslim countries were above that borderline with the highest score being 6.3. Meanwhile 42 countries fell below the borderline score of five. Six of the 10 most corrupt countries are Muslim including all three of the most corrupt.

The need for reform

As the author says, the challenge is where to start?

"The call for comprehensive reform in Muslim countries to reverse the cycle of circular causation, brought into operation by the end of political accountability and the intensification of authoritarian rule, automatically raises the crucial question of where to start? The best place to start would be where the Prophet himself (pbuh) started – the reform of human beings."

Accordingly the author emphasises moral reform at the level of the individual. He then goes on to discuss the importance of the alleviation of poverty, widening education and micro-finance. Although the author is a leading economist, there is no detailed discussion of how the performance of economies in Muslim majority countries can be improved.

The key question which the author discusses is how to bring about political reform and whether peaceful struggle to establish democracies in Muslim majority countries can be successful. Finally he goes on to ask whether Islam can play a catalytic role once again. He looks at the example of Turkey where government attempts to undo the influence of Islam led to a situation where true power rested with the military despite the outward facade of democracy. Surprisingly the author does not go on to discuss the impact of the Justice and Development Party in Turkey even though it had been in power for five years at the time the book was written.

The author also calls for reform in the understanding of Islam:

"The fact that Islam has not been the cause of Muslim decline does not necessarily mean that there is no need for reform in the present-day understanding of Islam. The Islamic emphasis on justice, the brotherhood of mankind, and tolerance seems to have become substantially diluted in certain sectors of Muslim societies as is its emphasis on character building. This may perhaps be due largely to historical factors arising from centuries of political legitimacy, lack of educational facilities, socio-economic decline, and inequities, followed by long foreign occupation. It may not even be possible to correct the situation without creating a proper understanding of Islam. This would demand a substantial change in the curricula of all educational institutions and, in particular those of the madrasahs."

Concluding comments

This short book can only scratch the surface of the issue. In my view it is to be commended for focusing on the fact that the decline of Muslim civilisation came from internal factors rather than seeking to place the blame elsewhere as do so many Muslims. The author is also right to focus on the importance of eliminating corruption which ultimately requires individual Muslims to behave with greater integrity. He is also right to focus on the importance of education in modern sciences and the need for democratic accountability of governments.

While it is too early to tell how the revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt and the uprisings in other Arab countries will turn out, they have the opportunity to transform a stagnant Muslim majority region. Meanwhile Malaysia has for several decades been demonstrating how a Muslim majority country can advance, and since the fall of Suharto it has been joined in this by Indonesia and by Turkey since the Justice and development party came to power. The demonstration effect of these countries must have an impact in other Muslim majority countries.

Muslims and non-Muslims alike will find this book of interest as it provides a very readable introduction into this important intellectual conundrum.



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