By Stelios Michalopoulos
Karl Marx linked the structure of production to the formation of institutions. According to Marx, religion is like any other social institution in that it is dependent upon the economic realities of a given society, i.e., it is an outcome of its productive forces. In contrast, Max Weber highlighted the independent effect of religious affiliation on economic behavior. Weaving these insights together, my research with Alireza Naghavi and Giovanni Prarolo of the University of Bologna proposes that geography and trade opportunities forged the Islamic economic doctrine, which in turn influenced the economic performance of the Muslim world in the preindustrial era. Since Islam emerged in the Arabian peninsula when land dictated productive decisions, the arrangement of Islamic institutions had to be compatible with the conflicting interests of groups residing along regions characterized by a highly unequal distribution of agricultural potential.
In particular, we argue that the unequal distribution of land endowments conferred differential gains from trade across regions. In such an environment, it was mutually beneficial to establish an economic system that dictated both static and dynamic income redistribution. The latter was implemented by enforcing an equitable inheritance system, increasing the costs of physical capital accumulation, and rendering investments in public goods, through religious endowments, increasingly attractive. These Islamic economic principles allowed Muslim lands to flourish in the preindustrial world but limited the potential for growth in the eve of large-scale shipping trade and industrialization. In a stage of development when land attributes determine productive capabilities, regional agricultural suitability plays a fundamental role in shaping the potential of a region to produce a surplus and thus engage in and profit from trade. Based on this idea, we combined detailed data on the distribution of regional land quality and proximity to pre-Islamic trade routes with information on Muslim adherence across local populations.