Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Timur Kuran: Shariah and Weak Civil Society

(Image from Wikipedia)

I've previously blogged on Timur Kuran's critique of Islamic law for its deleterious effect upon economics due to its rules concerning inheritance, as reported by Nicholas Kristof, but Kuran has his own article now, one worth noting on the negative consequences of Shariah for civil society: "The Weak Foundations of Arab Democracy" (New York Times, May 28, 2011). In this article, he begins by noting the role of dictators in keeping civil society weak within Arab lands, but he goes on to observe that:
. . . the handicaps of Arab civil society also have historical causes that transcend the policies of modern rulers. Until the establishment of colonial regimes in the late 19th century, Arab societies were ruled under Shariah law, which essentially precludes autonomous and self-governing private organizations. Thus, while Western Europe was making its tortuous transition from arbitrary rule by monarchs to democratic rule of law, the Middle East retained authoritarian political structures. Such a political environment prevented democratic institutions from taking root and ultimately facilitated the rise of modern Arab dictatorships.
As in the previous article by Kristof, which I blogged about on March 8, 2011, Kuran notes that:
Strikingly, Shariah lacks the concept of the corporation, a perpetual and self-governing organization that can be used either for profit-making purposes or to provide social services. Islam's alternative to the nonprofit corporation was the waqf, a trust established in accordance with Shariah to deliver specified services forever, through trustees bound by essentially fixed instructions. Until modern times, schools, charities and places of worship, all organized as corporations in Western Europe, were set up as waqfs in the Middle East.

A corporation can adjust to changing conditions and participate in politics. A waqf can do neither. Thus, in premodern Europe, politically vocal churches, universities, professional associations and municipalities provided counterweights to monarchs. In the Middle East, apolitical waqfs did not foster social movements or ideologies.
Kuran makes other related and fascinating points about Shariah's shortcomings in preventing Islamic Civilization from entering into the modern world, and he's the sort of scholar one ought to read as Shariah becomes a larger, potent force around the globe, for he is of an Islamic background, an ethnic Turk born in New York City to a scholarly family, and cannot easily be dismissed as an 'Islamophobe'.

I really ought to read more of what he's written, his scholarly work, for instance . . .

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