Islam and poverty is not a chicken and egg question

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.

One thought on “Islam and poverty is not a chicken and egg question

  1. I suppose, as well, the Islamic countries that haven’t experienced this great acceleration are largely countries that haven’t embraced the qualities that engender progression-explosions, namely liberalism, free trade and competition (and also, oddly, scientific investment, which is a peculiar retrogression given their origins in the medieval period). Their hardship is as much about what they haven’t done as what they have. The Islamic influence is evident in its subjugation of women, which starves the nations of an awful lot of ideas, views and talent. Also when you’re in an country under the thrall of oppressive rulers you lack a lot of the basic freedoms that can engender innovation, particularly if you’re not permitted to think and express yourself too openly.

    Islam is a pretty scientifically unfriendly religion too, as most deny evolution, and of course it’s very antithetical to other human rights too (as anyone who is gay knows too well). I suppose add to that other factors such as being hostile to Jews which is bound to negatively affect outside investment, and the fact that nations with theocratic regimes and social unrest are lower down in the aspiration-list of foreign investors, and that historically many Arab countries have had a Soviet alliance, which meant a lot of those countries in the Middle East and Africa had a top-down Marxism and high levels of corruption with little democratic accountability, and there are plenty of things against their progress.

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