October 25, 2017 ABOUT 1,000 years ago, when Europe was supposedly traversing through its dark ages, the Muslim empire was the envy of the world. Its wealth and material standards were such that Cordoba alone was pronounced as the ‘ornament of the world’ by Hrotsvitha, a mediaeval German writer and nun. By 1500, it was […]
ABOUT 1,000 years ago, when Europe was supposedly traversing through its dark ages, the Muslim empire was the envy of the world. Its wealth and material standards were such that Cordoba alone was pronounced as the ‘ornament of the world’ by Hrotsvitha, a mediaeval German writer and nun. By 1500, it was China and India whose riches and wealth became the stuff of fables. By the 17th century, the tide had started turning in favour of northern European nations. By the mid-19th century, this turnaround was complete. What accounts for this transformation?
The literature on this topic, suffice to say, is so vast as to be almost incomprehensible. One can, though, make a general distinction. Some of this literature concerns the question of ‘how’, the other concerns the question ‘why’, with the remaining being a combination of both. In this article, I want to briefly share the findings of two excellent new books on this topic by Jared Rubin (Rulers, Religion and Riches) and Joel Mokyr (A Culture of Growth), that tackle the question of ‘why’.
Rubin’s book concentrates its analysis on the divergence between the West and the Muslim world (especially the Middle East), and what factors gave rise to disparity in development outcomes. He debunks the idea of ‘backwardness’ of the Islamic faith, which supposedly held back the Muslim world. If that were the case, he argues, there never would have been a wealthy Muslim Spain. In general, he traces the great divergence between the West and the Middle East in the way that religion and government interacted over time.
The separation of religion from statecraft set the stage for European ascent.
Before the divergence began, the Christian West and the Muslim East used to derive their authority and legitimacy from religion. The real source of power lay with religious figureheads like the pope, followed by the rulers and their cohorts. Whatever economic activity there was, it was shaped in a way to benefit these entrenched groups. But then Europe gradually broke away from religion as its source of legitimacy. As the tight bond between religion and state loosened, economic and financial concerns became top priorities.
As nation states like Britain and the Netherlands adopted the parliamentary system of governance, the hold of the entrenched classes started to relax since parliamentary legitimacy required participation of the common man. This participation meant they could now stake a claim in the state’s riches, and also realise it through good policies.
What accentuated this break between religion and the state in Europe? One of the most iconic inventions of history, the printing press! In 1440, Gutenberg invented the printing press, revolutionising the spread of knowledge and ideas. Once restricted to only the church, knowledge now began to spread to all parts of Europe as books and pamphlets became easily available to the public. This, over time, gave rise to a movement (reformation and enlightenment) that gradually withered the grip of papacy and kings.
This marvellous invention, however, did not make it to the Muslim world till 1727 as leading religious figures saw it as a threat to their monopoly. They convinced successive sultans not to let this ‘un-Islamic’ invention enter their blessed lands. This 300-year gap, Rubin argues, is one of the most important factors (though not the only one) in explaining the divergence in wealth between the West and the East. At a time when Europe moved towards economic empowerment, technological change and inclusion, the Muslim world’s energies were focused on preserving orthodoxy and exclusion of people from the fruits of knowledge and empowerment.
Mokyr’s book, in contrast, focuses on reformation and enlightenment that drove Europe ahead of others. Why did these not occur in China or the Muslim world and only in Europe? His narration revolves around the political fragmentation in Europe that beset it in the wake of the rise of nation states. Political fragmentation gave rise to fierce competition, not just in commerce and trade but also in ideas which spread as innovations like the printing press made their presence felt.
Nation states, as they raced to embrace science and technology, also competed for leading scholars and thinkers. This spawned a culture of openness, not just in science but also in ideas. No longer did it remain possible to repress ideas and criticism since critics could now always find refuge in another state open to ideas and criticism. This cycle of openness became unstoppable with time, and complemented advances in technology and knowledge. This, argues Mokyr, explains to a large degree why European nation states were able to leave others behind.
To summarise, for Rubin, the answer lies in legitimacy derived from religion changing to legitimacy derived through people. This was made possible by inventions like the printing press, which tilted the balance in favour of trade, commerce and the people. For Mokyr, the answer is to be found in a cultural change brought on by the rise of nation states, their intense competition in various spheres of life and political fragmentation within Europe. Importantly, a common strand in both these books is to be found in the separation of religion from statecraft which set the stage for European ascent.
The above is but a tiny fraction of the wealth of knowledge available on this particular topic, and in no way does justice to such an important question. Interested readers can access hundreds of books and other material to contemplate this issue, such as the outstanding Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond, or How the West Grew Rich by Nathan Rosenberg. What can be concluded is that there is no single factor that can explain the rise of the West. It’s the coming together of a host of factors that propelled economic growth. What we also know is that almost 500 years since this divergence in Europe’s favour is supposed to have begun, the pendulum is now again swinging towards the East (China and India, for example). Their rise is another interesting story, perhaps worthy of a future column.
The writer is an economist.
For the first time in my life I have been seriously enlightened by such wisdom from a mere man. I wouldn’t say much, I love your wisdom and pray God grants me more wisdom as this. – @Boasiako_Gh (about.me/jpkabo)
We’ve only got 3 weeks left in our As Jesus Did series, and next week we will announce the series that we will do until our Christmas party, so don’t miss it! Let’s keep repeating the characteristics we’ve looked at so that they stick with us each and every week: “Whoever claims to live in […]
The House on the Embankment housed hundreds of Soviet leaders. Eventually, it was the former house of hundreds of purge victims.
Have you seen our rivers?Have you seen our natural green vegetation which represents Green in our national flag?
Have you seen what is going on?
Must we go on like this?
Should we kill ourselves like this?
So where’s the river we used to play and swim in.
Ah, so you don’t know you’re killing Ghanaians and Africa as a whole?
Why have we been wicked to ourselves like this?
Do you realize we will be in drought if all our rivers, lakes & streams dry up?
Are you ready to be drinking from the same water bodies the cattle, sheep and all other farm animals drink from?
Our Grand-Fathers, Our Fathers, Children, and Grand-Children are crying for a stop to this crime.
Mr. Politician and Chiefs of our Country, let us speak so these crimes will not eventually kill us at all.
Mr. Chinese or Black Man, do you realize you’re felling the trees without replacing them?
Do you want us to be like some other countries who import water into their country than soft drinks?
Do you know if you quit galamsey today you have saved the lives of so many Ghanaians?
Especially we the current generation, the upcoming generation and the yet unborn.
Together we can put a stop to Galamsey.
Let us share the need to end this menace. For we are one people and we need our water bodies and the green vegetation to survive with.
We should cherish our lives so much so that, the giver of all these creation will indeed continue to smile in his heavenly Kingdom.
I have taken it upon my self to help Ghana kick Galamsey away!
I have indeed decided to be a citizen not a spectator!
Galamsey Must Surely Die!