A friend asks me — “Do you think many of the poorest countries are poor because of Islam, or are they Islamic because they’re poor? Or is it a chicken and egg question?”
The answer is quite definitely the former. But not because the precepts of Islam are egregious — indeed Muslims of old were much more caring of their orphaned children and the elderly than medieval Christianity was. There were extensive almshouses attached to every mosque until relatively modern times. For several hundred years, Islam in the Middle East and all along the Great Silk Road into China was immensely prosperous.
The answer applies to any country which is still basically agricultural — and, usually, when the soil has become impoverished. They have all acquired a fatalistic religious culture — Buddhism, Judaism, Hinduism, Christianity — which allows them to be ruthlessly objective when faced with a poor harvest and, sometimes, a string of them. That is, not all of the population can survive in good heart, some of them will have to suffer. The natural pecking order rigidifies during those times.
It is only in countries which became prosperous that care for the poor much more fully came into its own. The highly prosperous trading cities of northern Holland in the 17th century is a good example where a new skilled working class with leisure arose — meaning that there was time for intellectuals such as Spinoza and Erasmus to philosophise — just as in prosperous Greece at around 500BC — and to spread a secular form of liberalism which transformed objectivity, even in bad times, into a sense of progress.
It was only when the Dutch King William became the English King William in 1688 that liberal ideas first became implanted in England and prepared the scene for the industrial revolution.
The Islamic countries remain poor because their religious rulers are fighting tooth and nail to prevent liberal ideas from spreading into their general population.