BOOK REVIEW Rulers, Religion, and Riches

Jared Rubin’s Rulers, Religion, and Riches: Why the West Got Rich and the Middle East Did Not is a perceptive and informative attempt to answer the question of: why did Europe, particularly Northwest Europe, become so much richer than the Middle East? Especially given that Islam, in its early centuries, was comprehensively ahead of Latin Christendom in sophistication and level of commercial activity and in scientific enquiry.

As this shift was a case of a mutual reversal of fortunes — one started behind, but ended up ahead — the answer has to be an historical one. It has to be about unfolding processes over time, rather than some innate characteristic or difference operating in an undifferentiated away across the centuries.

Rubin states that the answer is not to be found in the doctrines of Islam, but in developing institutional dynamics, where one has to pay attention to what happened, and what did not happen. The latter points I strongly agree with, the first is less convincing. Rubin himself is advancing a set of propositions which he claims matter because they allow us to make sense of the world. Claiming that the doctrinal propositions of Islam do not matter, especially if they affect how institutions evolve, seems somewhat discordant.

Rubin’s basic argument is that rulers rely on propagating agents, agents in society who propagate their rule. Rule is propagated by some balance of coercion and legitimation. The more one can rely on legitimation to propagate one’s rule, the less coercion is required. Religious elites can potentially provide cheap (i.e., low cost to the ruler) legitimacy.

Rubin argues that Islamic religious elites provided cheaper and more effective legitimation to Islamic rulers than the Christian Church did to Christian rulers. Over time, that led Christian rulers to rely more on economic elites as propagating agents, so economic elites had more bargaining power, so they were able to push for more friendly-to-commerce rules, including more secure property rights, that promoted economic growth in Europe — particularly, post the Reformation, Protestant Europe. Conversely, the strength of religious elites, and the weakness of economic elites, in Spain and the Ottoman Empire led to commercial and economic stagnation.

Rubin has a nice definition of elites as: anyone who can influence how people whom they do not know act (p.29). I would add: who can recurrently influence, but I otherwise agree. More generally, I agree with his answer but not his analysis. Yes, I agree that the capacity for economic elites to bargain seriously with rulers was indeed crucial to the development of Northwestern Europe. This is a case that John Powellson makes powerfully in his 1994 Centuries of Economic Endeavour: Parallel Paths in Japan and Europe and Their Contrast with the Third World. Yes, the role of religious elites was very significant in Catholic Spain and the Muslim Middle East in explaining their commercial and economic stagnation. Yet, I disagree with Rubin’s structure of analysis.

Social bargaining

My disagreement centres on Rubin’s notion of propagating agents. Agents has a double meaning in economics. Economics is the study of purposeful action by agents in conditions of scarcity. Individuals and firms are all economic agents. But an agent can also be someone acting on behalf of an other, as in principal-agent problems.

Economic and religious elites are not really agents of the ruler, unless they hold some official position within the apparatus of the state. Dividing support for the rule of the ruler into coercive and legitimating agents (p.33) obliterates an important distinction between those outside the state apparatus that a ruler bargains with and those who, at least notionally, are under the ruler’s administrative direction.

As a medievalist, the striking absence from Rubin’s analysis is landholders. An analysis that covers priests (the Church), merchants (economic elite) and the king (ruler) but leaves out the landholding warlord class (knights and barons) is a little odd, to say the least. They are not economic elites, in the sense that merchants are, or religious elites and they are not accurately described as coercive agents, they had too much scope for independent action.

When one examines how merchants were typically incorporated in political deliberations (i.e., in overt political bargaining), it was by adding merchant representatives to the assemblies of nobles and Church hierarchy (bishops and abbots) that already existed. Analogous assemblies that did not exist in Islam. Which might be regarded as a bit of a clue.

Yes, there was a tradition of shura or consultation within Islam, but it was consultation with officials and dignitaries, who were included because of their personal standing, rather than their institutional connection. Occasionally, guild or trade representatives were included, but the entire process was far too occasional, limited and advisory to be comparable to the bargaining assemblies of Christendom.

It is easy to miss the continuity involved in the addition of merchant representatives to consultative assemblies within Christendom, as adding merchant representatives established the representative principle, which clearly would come to have great significance. But paying too much attention to the beginnings of the representative principle misses the continuity of bargaining assemblies.

Indeed, if one was looking for something that both Northwestern Europe and Japan had that Islam did not, it was a landholding warrior class with a clear corporate identity that regularly engaged in political bargaining with rulers. It is demonstrably much easier to add economic elites into political bargaining processes that already exist than to create such processes ex nihilo. Something that adversely affected China’s ability to cope with the challenge of the Eurosphere Powers. Japan which, unlike China, had a long and rich tradition of political bargaining did much better. The Japan-China comparison is a useful test of any general thesis about Islam/Middle East and Christendom/Europe.

As is comparison with Brahmin India, the other civilisation, apart from Islam, where law was dominated by a religious elite. (Hindu is a term I do not much like, as it covers a very eclectic set of religious traditions and obscures the remaking of the Vedic religion in the face of the challenge of Buddhism.)

Both Islam and Brahmin India generated fluid autocracies: autocratic states that came and went but generally left remarkably little enduring effect on the institutional landscape of their civilisations. The reason being that, in both cases, law was based on revelation and overwhelmingly in the hands of the religious elite. While this did not mean law was rigid, it did reduce its flexibility. One can make new precedents, or decree new rules. One cannot make new revelations with remotely the same facility.

Moreover, what can’t be entrenched in law is not likely to have enduring institutional power and it is very hard to entrench new things in law if it is based on revelation, on connection to the eternal. Especially new things that are to operate in one place but not another. The strength of local custom varied within Islam, but that was more about the circumstances of how Islam reached an area, and the strength of the local ulema, the religious scholars, rather than a more explicit process of legal adjustment.

Nor is political bargaining, certainly not explicit political bargaining, likely to be a prominent part of the political and institutional landscape, if political bargains cannot be entrenched in law. Political bargains that cannot be entrenched in law are not likely to be worth the effort and risks to engage in, or agitate for. In Christendom and Japan, political bargaining did not require any overturning or by-passing of the institutional structure of law. In Islam and in Brahmin India, it did.

States such as Wessex->England-> United Kingdom, France, Denmark and Japan have far longer institutional histories than any Islamic (or Brahmin) state. Apart from Denmark, they have longer institutional histories than Islam itself. The first historically attested tenno of Japan being Kinmei (r. 539–571, though he is counted the 29th Emperor), the first ruler of Wessex being Cedric (r.519–534) and of a united France being Clovis (r.509–511). Denmark only claims as far back as Gorm the Old (r.936–958).

It is important to note the difference between bargaining and resistance. The ability to resist the imposition of rules can generate a process of implicit bargaining. As economic historian Timur Kuran has so informatively laid out, there was plenty of implicit social bargaining involved in the evolution of Sharia. Notably in the evolution of the zakat, the Islamic charity tax. Chinese Emperors similarly engaged in implicit social bargaining with the gentry and merchant elites. Such implicit social bargaining has been a normal part of rulership down the ages.

Getting active agreement to new rules requires explicit bargaining. That has been less common. It was not a feature of Islam or of Brahmin India, due to religious elites dominating law, and the provision of mediating services, precisely because law was based on revelation. Nor was explicit social bargaining a feature of China, where the political model was autocracy administered by a meritocratic bureaucracy. The only explicitly hereditary element was the Emperor, the landed aristocracy having been euthanised out of existence during the Song Dynasty (960–1279). Conversely, explicit social bargaining was a pervasive feature of samurai Japan and of medieval Latin Christendom.

This was due to two inter-related factors. The first was that law in Christendom and Japan was explicitly human made. Even the canon law of the Christian Church, though it took revelation as a key source, was explicitly a human thing and possessed no inherent primacy over secular law. Christianity, Buddhism and Shinto are not legislating religions in the way that Islam, Judaism and Brahminism are. This is a doctrinal difference that generates major institutional differences.

The second was that the military elite was a landholding elite. Yes, both Japan and medieval Christendom developed the notion of land as being held in return for service. Over time, however, the landholding became more entrenched, with other levers being used to create a quid pro quo for military service. A landholding elite is an elite worth bargaining with: both because they are in a strong position to resist rules and because their active endorsement has value. Moreover, a landholding elite that is interested in increasing its income from its estates has reason to support effective property rights.

Islam did not develop such a landholding military elite due to the Sharia inheritance laws, which required property to be shared among all a father’s legal children. Yes, sons got more than daughters and older siblings got more than younger siblings. But inheritances still had to be divided. This made creating a landholding warrior elite impractical, given how expensive supporting a mounted armoured warrior was, because a landholding large enough to support such a warrior would not last beyond a single generation. Instead, Islam developed tax fiefs (iqta, timar and similar). A mounted armoured warrior would collect taxes from their land grant as payment for military service.

You don’t bargain with your tax agents in remotely the same way that you might bargain with warrior landholders with castles and military retainers. Nor do tax agents, who might be moved at any time, have anywhere near the interest in property rights that landholders who want their estates to be productive, and to be inherited by their son, do. Which is why Islam did not have the assemblies of nobles and bishops that Latin Christendom had, and could then add representatives of the merchants to. The institutionalisation of the doctrines of Islam had powerful effects on the social evolution of Islamic societies.

It is notable that the most successful Islamic State, the Ottoman Empire, the longest lasting major Islamic state, was a revealingly partial exception from these patterns. That is because the Ottoman dynasty developed the practise of re-issuing the kanun, the decrees, of previous Sultans, at the start of the reign of each new Sultan. This created an enduring body of administrative law that gave the Ottoman state considerably more institutional resilience than other Islamic states.

Muslim rulers were able to issue decrees in the silences of Sharia: mainly matters of state administration. As Rubin and others have pointed out, Ottoman rulers were able to use their ability to appoint and dismiss judges, and otherwise provide favours to the religious elite, to push the boundaries of kanun rather further than other Islamic rulers. But this was a difference at the margin, it did not change the fundamental dynamics. At least, not until late in the history of the Empire, when there were some (largely abortive) experiments with Parliamentarianism.

As what states were expected to do expanded in the C19th, so did the role of administrative law. This gave Muslim rulers a wedge against religious law in the face of the widening, and increasingly obvious, gaps between the capacities of the Muslim world and those of the Eurosphere states.

Sharia inheritance laws not only blocked the development of a landholding warrior elite, they also undermined the development of any merchant elite capable of long-term political bargaining. The wealth of successful merchants also had to divided among all their children. And as successful Muslims tended to have multiple wives, that often meant lots of children. If wealth is constantly being divided, that strongly militates against the development of the merchant dynasties that were such a prominent feature of Latin Christendom. This generated coordination and time-horizon difficulties that reduced the potential value of merchant elites as political bargaining partners. Even if those bargains could have readily been entrenched in law, which they generally could not be.

Sharia has only narrow restrictions against incest — that Muhammad’s first cousin and first convert, Ali, had married Muhammad’s daughter Fatima, rather militated against expansive incest rules, given that the life and example of Muhammad is a fundamental source of Sharia. The consequence of narrow conceptions of incest, and law being based on revelation, was that kin groups were very strong in Middle Eastern Islam, as alternative social cooperative mechanisms were weak or hard to construct. Once the Abbasid Revolution of 748–50 had overthrown the Arab tribal confederacy of the Umayyad and Rashidun caliphate, Islamic rulers faced the problem that locally-sourced troops would be colonised by local kin groups. They therefore turned to slave soldiers, as slaves are separated from any kin connection. This created military elites further separated from the local populace.

By contrast, the Christian Church, particularly the Latin Church, had extremely expansive bars on incest. That, along with other features of Christian doctrine, militated strongly against kin groups. The effect was particularly intense wherever manorialism was adopted, as holders of manors (the Church, princes and the landholding elite) had an interest in not having kin groups interfering with their management of their manors. Both Church and rulers also had a strong interest in not having their organisations colonised by kin groups. The result was that kin groups disappeared from Christendom, except in the Celtic and Balkan fringe. A rich structure of alternative mechanisms of social cooperation developed, mechanisms that could be readily entrenched in law.

This meant that a much richer variety of institutional arrangements developed in medieval Europe, given that bargaining is a path-dependent process, so produced varying institutional patterns in different places. So the selection processes of history had much more to work with in Latin Christendom than they did in Islam. (Or, indeed, any other civilisation.) Social and political bargaining was more entrenched in the society, there were more potential bargaining partners, and more reasons to bargain. With the difference between Christian and Islamic doctrine, and their institutional expression, being a key factor.

The circle of justice

The concept of the circle of justice that Islamic thought adopted from pre-Islamic civilisations — one well known form claimed to be from a letter by Aristotle to his pupil Alexander, another version claim to be a statement by shahanshah Khosrow Anushirvan (r.531–579) — expressed a notion of just order that implies protection and regularity by the ruler, but not political bargaining. In his Muqaddimah (An Introduction to History), pioneer historical sociologist ibn Khaldun (1332–1406) reports the alleged words of Aristotle as:

The world is a garden the fence of which is the dynasty,
The dynasty is an authority through which life is given to proper behaviour,
Proper behaviour is a policy directed by the ruler,
The ruler is an institution supported by the soldiers,
The soldiers are helpers who are maintained by money,
Money is sustenance brought together by the subjects,
The subjects are servants who are protected by justice,
Justice is something harmonious*, and by it the world persists,
The world is a garden . .

(*Franz Rosenthal translates this, ma’luf, as familiar, but notes it may mean harmonious, which works better in context.)

One does not bargain with servants. (Other renditions of Aristotle’s alleged words use the term slaves.) The version ibn Khaldun cites as coming from shahanshah Khosrow is even more direct:

Royal authority exists through the army, the army through money, money through taxes, taxes through cultivation, cultivation through justice, justice from the improvement of officials, the improvement of officials through the forthrightness of wazirs, and the whole thing in the first place through the ruler’s personal supervision of his subjects’ condition and his ability to educate them, so that he may rule them, and not they him.

Of ibn Khaldun’s three stated versions of the circle of justice, the first he quotes is the alleged words of a Mobedhan, a Zoroastrian priest, to Bahram b. Bahram (either shahanshah Bahram II, r.274–293, or Bahram III, r.293):

O King, the might of royal authority materializes only through the religious law, obedience towards God, and compliance with His commands and prohibitions. The religious law persists only through royal authority. Mighty royal authority is accomplished only through men. Men persist only with the help of property. The only way to property is through cultivation. The only way to cultivation is through justice. Justice is a balance set up among mankind. The Lord set it up and appointed an overseer for it, and that overseer is the ruler.

Unsurprisingly, the version put in the mouth of a priest explicitly endorses religious law, and God as the source of authority, but does not explicitly mention the military.

The notion that the ruler sustains his own authority by sustaining rightful order, while long predating Islam, received extra power in a civilisation where law was dominated by the religious elite and predominantly based on revelation.

Ibn Khaldun saw royal authority as the key force giving structure to society, including being the greatest source of demand for goods and services. He wrote that:

Mutual aggression of people in cities and towns is thus averted by the authorities and by the government, which hold back the masses under their control from attacks and aggression against each other. They are thus prevented by the influence of force and governmental authority from mutual injustice, save such injustice as comes from the ruler himself.

For ibn Khaldun, the creation, sustaining, and breakdown of social order was very much about the rise, persistence and decay of dynasties, of royal authority. The fluid autocracies of the Islamic world were very well captured by his analysis.

Islamic dynasties show, over the longer-term, very different patterns than do the dynasties of Christendom, who ruled over much more institutionally persistent states. From 800–1500, the reigns of Christian rulers in Western Europe generally tended to lengthen over time and, with some bumps, tended to have declining chances of being deposed. The duration of their reigns also show no particular pattern within dynasties. Over the same period, the reigns of Islamic rulers generally tended to decline, have a generally increasing chance of being deposed, with their reigns tending to shorten towards the end of dynasties. (The trends in reign length, chance of being deposed and patterns within dynasties is from here.) The difference between rulers whose bargaining could be entrenched in law (i.e., institutionalised), and rulers whose power was more salient (i.e. more apparently dominant), but with much less capacity to make, and institutionalise, supporting social bargains.


The other feature of having law not dominated by the religious elite, is that law can develop secular discourses of legitimacy. Indeed, as James Franklin points out in his excellent The Science of Conjecture: Evidence and Probability before Pascal, legal reasoning can be the basis of a wide range of intellectual spin-offs. Especially if it is not constrained by constant referring back to revelation.

Rubin treats legitimacy as a support for rule. Legitimacy is, however, a somewhat fraught concept. As political scientist Xavier Marquez has pointed out, it can be a bit of a catch-all filler as a concept. How do we know X was legitimate? People supported X. How do we know X lost legitimacy? People stopped supporting X. Legitimacy becomes rather like phlogiston: a postulated theoretical entity without independent evidentiary support.

Legitimacy has two senses. The first is doctrinal legitimacy: follows the accepted rules, procedures and other precepts of some normative system. The second is public legitimacy: is within the political (or other) system’s operative rules of deference and authority, it’s public normative structure. Public rituals, public speech, public acts, private and public sanctions, are all means to establish those public norms of legitimacy. Rituals of submission, for example, publicly display that people submit. Failures to follow doctrinal legitimacy becomes socially significant if and when it affects people’s behaviour. That is, if it is an operative social norm, which normally includes effective sanctions. Being able to grant or withhold legitimacy, in a way that affects people’s behaviour, thus becomes a powerful social lever.

It is a social lever based on normative mechanisms. Norms are very much a social phenomena, as Cristina Bicchieri has carefully analysed; notably in The Grammar of Society and Norms in the Wild. Are economic elites purveyors of normative mechanisms? Not remotely in the sense that religious elites are. This is another distinction that the concept of propagating agents flattens.

The question of rival normative mechanisms to those of religious elites does, however, point back to the role of law in establishing norms of legitimacy. But also the processes of bargaining. Parliaments, Cortes, Estates-General, Diets, etc., could be legitimating mechanisms. One that religious elites were represented in, but were far from dominant in.

As previously noted, the incorporation of economic elites in political bargaining within Latin Christendom was not a self-contained dramatic institutional shift. It was an inclusion within, and extension of, bargaining structures that already existed.

If we go back to the break-up of kin groups and the Catholic marriage system (no concubines, no divorce, one wife, strong sanctions against bastardy), the full effect only came about where the secular elites went along with it. Which, anywhere manorialism extended to, they had a strong interest in doing. The Celtic fringe lacked manorialism, and so the Church was never strong enough to impose its marriage system on the Celtic fringe until the English-cum-British state smashed the power of the clan chiefs (Wales, Ireland) or bought them off (Scotland).

Which again takes us back to what the landholding warrior class was doing. The class that did not really exist in Islam, or in China, but did in Europe and Japan. A class that rulers definitely did bargain with, where it existed.

So, I agree with Rubin’s answer concerning the centrality of social bargaining and sources of legitimacy, but not his structure of analysis.

There is, however, much to recommend Rulers, Religion and Riches. Rubin is a very clear writer. He has intelligently and perceptively absorbed a great deal of material. He has thought seriously about the normative power of religious elites. Though incorporation of Cristina Biccheiri’s work on social norms, especially in The Grammar of Society and Norms in the Wild, would have been very beneficial to his analysis.

Rubin is also very good on the telling detail. His discussion of why the Ottoman rulers came to rely more on local notables I found particularly informative and insightful, for instance. Rulers, Religion, and Riches is a very worthy addition to the growing literature of comparative institutional analysis.




An accidental small businessman who reads a lot and thinks about what he reads, sometimes productively. Currently writing a book on marriage.

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Lorenzo M Warby

Lorenzo M Warby

An accidental small businessman who reads a lot and thinks about what he reads, sometimes productively. Currently writing a book on marriage.

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