Islam and the Humanities

Conference 2014

Timur Kuran

Professor of Economics and Political Science, Duke University
Gorter Family Professor of Islamic Studies, Duke University

Institutional Roots of Authoritarian Rule in the Middle East: Political Legacies of the Islamic Waqf

In the pre-modern Middle East the closest thing to an autonomous private organization was the Islamic waqf. Paradoxically, this non-state institution inhibited political participation, collective action, transparency in governance, and rule of law, among other indicators of democratization. For a millennium, it delayed and limited democratization through several mutually supportive mechanisms. Its activities were essentially set by its founder, which limited its capacity to meet political challenges. Being designed to provide a service on its own, it could not participate in lasting political coalitions. The waqf’s beneficiaries had no say in evaluating or selecting its officers. Circumventing waqf rules required a court’s permission, which incited corruption. Finally, the process of appointing officials promoted and legitimized nepotism. Thus, for all the resources it controlled, the Islamic waqf contributed minimally to advancing the rule of law or building civil society. As a core element of Islam’s classical institutional complex, it perpetuated authoritarian rule by keeping the state largely unrestrained. Therein lies a major reason why in the Middle East, democratization is proving to be a drawn out process.

Timur Kuran is professor of economics and political ccience and Gorter Family Professor of Islamic Studies at Duke University. His research focuses on social change, including the evolution of preferences and institutions. His most recent book, The Long Divergence: How Islamic Law Held Back the Middle East (Princeton University Press, 2011), addresses the role that Islamic institutions played in the economic rise of the Middle East and, subsequently, in the institutional stagnation that accompanied the region’s slip into underdevelopment. Some of the archival work on which this book was based has been published as a ten-volume tri-lingual set entitled Economic Life in Seventeenth-Century Istanbul, as Reflected in Court Registers (İş Bank Cultural Publications). Kuran’s earlier publications include Private Truths, Public Lies: The Social Consequences of Preference Falsification (Harvard University Press, 1995) and Islam and Mammon: The Economic Predicaments of Islamism (Princeton University Press, 2004), each translated into several languages.