By Shamsudeen Sani

Author: Ahmet T. Kuru

Date of publication 2019; 303 pages

It is likely this book may not be very popular in many circles. I read it last month and felt someone might still find it interesting. The author had a personal conviction from childhood to prove a case against the notion of blaming Islam for the predominantly high levels of authoritarian regimes and socioeconomic problems in 49 Muslim majority countries. It’s being claimed to be one of the most bibliographically dense books written on the subject.

Ahmet argues that the nexus between state and ulema undermines Muslim majority countries bringing all facets of underdevelopment-both social and economic-and also foster authoritarian regimes. The book took a major bite to debunk arguments by 3 groups of people. First are the essentialists or rather Islamophobes that blame Islam for all the ills in the Muslim majority countries. This is followed by the anti-colonialist argument to which the author did acknowledge they (the colonialists) caused destruction but that doesn’t explain or take us to the heart of the problems. He concluded with the 3rd group -in a nicer way though- the institutionalists. The latter are the protagonists of integrative institutions such as Daron Acemoglu, co-author of Why Nations Fail.

The book was categorized into 2 parts. In Part I, preceded by an elaborate introduction, the author had a sweeping take at the impact of the Western colonization and occupation, refuting the anti-colonialists claims of downplaying the role of non-Western countries’ own domestic and regional dynamics.

Then, the discussion continued with allusion to how misinterpretations of Islam by Ulamas did contribute to violence and why the essentialists arguments of singling out Islam as being pro-violence is evidently flawed. Similar approach was given to authoritarianism and socioeconomic underdevelopment in Muslim majority countries. Overall, this segment of the book, provided a detailed review of how ulama and their alliances with authoritarian states contributed to the problems of violence and underdevelopment in Muslim majority countries.

Part II of this book essentially dealt with the historical perspective of the current quagmire affecting Muslim majority countries. It began by highlighting the familiar narrative of the substantial civilization around intellectual achievements and economic prosperity associated with Islamic history that culminated in the Golden Ages. This was followed by a historical analysis of how the current ills of underdevelopment started right from the 11th century of the Islamic world.

The writing style makes this book a very interesting read for 2 reasons. First is the major categorization into 2 parts that provide refutation of the 3 critical schools of thought as to why Muslim majority countries exhibit high level of authoritarianism and socioeconomic underdevelopment and then followed by historical comparisons. Second reason is the provision of conclusive summary at the end of each subsection that allows reader to recap and digest more carefully the arguments presented in the preceding pages.

One major question that was ignited in me after reading this book was the historical role played by one of the Abbasid rulers towards setting up the Baitul Hikma. Would such a huge intellectual historical endeavor have been successful if there were no successful State-Ulama alliance? I would love to hear what others think here.

Ahmet T. Kuru, originally Turkish, is a Professor of political science at the Centre for Arabic and Islamic Studies at the San Diego State University, USA. The book has been translated into Bahasa Indonesia, Arabic and many other languages.

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