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Op-Ed: Keith Rosenberg 2003


What is it that caused the Islamic peoples to fall so far behind the European peoples technologically, socially and culturally? When the Middle Ages ended the two cultures were, for all intents and purposes, equal. Religiously the Catholic Church was the only church in Medieval Europe and had essentially the same problem that Islam had, and still has, with corruption and abuse of concentrated power. This will attempt to explain some of the things that were responsible for the differences between the two cultures today.


The word "corporation" derives from Roman words (corpus and corporatio) often used for the upper echelons of Roman guilds. The word "college" derives from another Roman word for (collegium) guilds in general. Since guilds were where most people obtained any form of education, the word college is quite apt. So is corporation. Neither colleges nor corporations were really a part of Islam prior to the 20th Century. It is almost certain that the leaders of Islam focused on religious education rather than a secular education which would foster technical education and economic growth.

The guilds in Europe were in some ways secular governments or possibly even were the progenitors of secular government in some places. In Islam there was not really a guild system in the European sense though there were some localized ones in Mamluk Cairo and probably a few other places. Religious, craft, commercial, trade and social guilds were all in existence in Medieval Europe. Some of the social guilds were like the non-profits of today and organized to take care of specific needs like funeral expenses. Worker guilds would be more like unions of today. Merchant and trade guilds would be much like the commercial associations of today. Even wet nurses fell under guild rules concerning pay scales. Think of the Hanseatic League - a trade organization less controlled by the church than kingdoms were. Most guilds, especially craft, commercial, social, and trade, were essentially secular and enjoyed significant freedoms from both church and government though they had to maintain a dynamic equilibrium between the church and state. The guild's economic and, in some cases, social power generally meant that they had a fair amount of power and influenced both Government and Church. Guilds could get the Government to make laws that provided benefits to the guild and its members. The limits to this power meant that sometimes the government nearly destroyed the guilds or put them at a disadvantage.

The guilds, like weaving and the various smiths, provided many services that governments today provide. Among them were quality control, price controls, setting wages (usually by the piece or some unit of time), apprentice training, and other sophisticated rules to cover problems we still grapple with today. They even had the equivalent of the business license that a master had to pay to become a member of the guild or go into business. Guild rules sometimes included rules against renting tools to those who were not guild members. Some construction guilds actually had variable wages - more in the summer when there was a lot of work and less in the winter when there was far less construction happening. Social guilds promoted social reforms or provided services like funeral insurance. The power of the church meant that guilds were generally required to give employees Sunday off as well as other religious holidays - some 80 or so days a year. This rest meant better workers, though perhaps not realized at the time. Masters were required to make their goods to a standard, but were not usually constrained as to how they actually did it. This allowed each master to develop new and more economical methods. Guilds also provided a secular ethical system which reduced cheating and promoted consumer confidence. An ethical competition between guild masters fostered advancements in technology.

It appears that it was in the medieval period that wage labor became common and part of the law, or at least guild rules. There appeared to be three general types of labor then. The first was coerced labor (slavery), rapidly going obsolete. The second was apprentice labor where the apprentice agreed to work for a period of time, usually 3 to 5 years but sometimes more, for little or no wages in exchange for training by the master and basic room and board. The third type is wage labor. The workers were paid wages, usually set by the craft or workers guilds, based on piece work or a unit of time. Wage labor has enormous efficiency advantages over coerced labor. Slavery persisted in Islam for a long time after it was becoming obsolete in Europe. It may be that slavery is actually more expensive than wage labor. First there was the cost of buying the slave that had to, in all probability, be brought from long distances which added to the cost. Then the "owner" had to feed, clothe and guard the slave. And slaves were less efficient being coerced rather than under a system where incentive was the main reason people worked. Slaves in Nazi Germany actually carried out acts of sabotage.

The European guilds also influenced or controlled much, if not most, of the of the trade that was happening in Europe. Trade (taxed by the locals) really passed through Islamic areas from the far east rather than being part of an economic system. The Islamic areas did not produce much of interest to European consumers. Also about that time the Europeans began exploring trade routes around Africa thus allowing them to eventually avoid the high transportation charges passage through the Middle East meant. Blue water seamanship and ship building was a technical battle Islam lost before it had hardly began. This eventually weakened Islam by divorcing it from one of its primary sources of outside income. This income was of a passive sort, very much like their oil income of today. This passive income does not create capital like manufacturing does, unless invested wisely. Passive income does not create an economic tradition either and often puts tremendous amounts of money and power in the hands of a few a serious problem today in a few Islamic nations. Pass through trade was the economy in a significant way in the Middle East rather than a means to an end as it was in Europe. It was also at this time that the English, and also European, monarchs began to allow free travel for important guilds (usually in specific cities) thus freeing them from the road Tolls levied by the crown.

The guilds meant that anyone might become a guild master (a relatively rich position in society) if he was skilled enough at his trade and could get a patron or investor. This was not true in Islam to nearly the same extent if at all. Women were members of European guilds, though to a far lesser extent than men were, and therefore had far more economic freedom than Moslem women who were essentially chattels. While there were not that many women in European guilds (less than 10% in most cases), there is no similar record from Islamic areas. This relative freedom of opportunity for European peoples had to have been a powerful force in the European economy.

Guilds stretched across national boundaries with the freedom that gave them to spread ideas and culture. And the economic efficiencies and secular freedoms that guilds fostered would eventually bring about the Industrial Revolution and the social revolution it required. Revolutions that left Islam far behind.

Mass communications.

The invention of the printing press with movable type in 1440 AD brought cheap education and communications to the masses in Europe. The leaders of Islam did not allow the printing press to be used so the Moslem masses were not educated technically to nearly the same level Europeans were. Education for the masses is an economic, military and cultural force multiplier of great power. Islam only had distance, the desert and a militant faith and these were eventually overcome by the Industrial Revolution and universal secular education.

Prior to the invention of moveable type, the Catholic Church essentially controlled the creation of most publications and thus controlled access to information. This was in part because the Church had the only large group of literate people with the ability and the time. The printing press allowed a free press to arise since anyone could publish far more cheaply than hand written publications could be. Such cheap printing meant a huge distribution of reformative information, ideas and other secular information. In Islam they controlled the masses access to information by suppressing the printing press. While this is changing, generally Moslem nations still do not have a truly free press. Like their distant predecessors, the religious leaders in Islam today also fear what modern education and access to secular information will do to their power and they still react in the tradition of their ancestors. Salmon Rushdie knows this first hand.

Geography and natural factors.

The high proportion of desert in many Islamic countries meant a smaller agricultural base per capita than Europe. Resources allow a civilization to advance technologically. Islam did not have the excess resources to allow it to advance as fast as Europe. Masses of cheap timber in Europe allowed the construction of large numbers of bulk carriers that could not be as easily matched by the Islamic nations without significant timber forests. And Europe, having these bulk carriers, eventually had the entire world to draw resources from accelerating change further.

Europe was relatively compact with interior lines of communications. Islamic cities and states were not close as European ones and generally had a much lower population density as well. The compact geography and population density of Europe allowed high efficiency in trade and other forms of communication. Islamic areas were farther apart with significant transportation problems. Some areas of Islam would be, and still are, better than others, like the fertile crescent and the Nile valley, but their separation by vast areas of hostile terrain made each an economic island until the coming of modern transportation systems like the Suez Canal. In the 19th Century the Suez Canal would solve one of the biggest transportation problems, but it was Europe that would give that boon to Islam and the world. Today Egypt gains significant revenues from the Suez canal, but it is only a passive form of income. The many large rivers in Europe became economic highways which allowed for the relatively cheap transportation of goods inland. While there are some rivers in the Middle East and North Africa, they are generally smaller and fewer and not nearly as useful.

The Black Plague depopulated Europe to the extent that labor was at a premium for generations. This meant there was less resistance to labor saving technology like the printing press. The workers were also richer and therefore had more leisure time in which to invent things and more money to buy the products of their neighbors. Islam, being mostly in areas where there were low density populations of both rats and humans, was not affected as much by the black plague with correspondingly less effect on their society and economy.

Culture & Philosophy (Religion).

Islam, more than most, was and still is a static and insular mono culture that is far less flexible when change is needed. Because of this religious philosophy, Islam was (and still is) less accepting of other cultures and ideas. This meant that new ideas and technology from other peoples were slower to be accepted. Along with the geographical problems Islam was slower to advance in almost every respect. Despite the modern technology present in many areas, Islam remains more in the 14th century than the 21st.

Starting in the 16th Century a major schism happened to the Catholic Church In Europe. It came about because there was a great deal of corruption and abuse of power within the Church. The Catholic Church could and did control many governments for its own interests and with such great power corruption was nearly total. The Church instituted the Inquisition in an ultimately futile attempt to hold onto its power. There is an Islamic inquisition to this day (think of how Salmon Rushdie is being treated), but there has yet to be the inevitable backlash as happened in Europe. In 1517 Martin Luther wrote his 95 theses in an attempt to change the church. His intent was not schism or a new Christian faith. These theses soon resulted in the founding of Protestantism with several branches anyway. With several branches of Christianity a healthy, almost commercial style, competition came about. No one Church could get too powerful and each had to better serve its flock resulting in profound change. The reformation vastly reduced the power of the Catholic Church and this allowed governments to eventually be secularized. An informal and mostly unrecognized system by which each branch of Christianity monitors the other branches in a modern balance of power system came about. Islam, despite having some branches, has never been in a competitive situation that forces the reformation of the whole; and it has not had a successful Martin Luther. As a result Islamic religious philosophy and society is still medieval in many ways. Islamic treatment of women and infidels is often literally medieval and very rigid. The Taliban government in Afghanistan is an example of everything that happened in Islam after the Middle Ages. This rigidity means that half of all Moslems are not fully available to help militarily, economically, technologically, or culturally which explains some of why economic and cultural activity in Islamic countries is lower than it should be. In Taliban Afghanistan, economic activity fell below subsistence levels as a result of an extreme Islamic philosophy and the exclusion of women and "infidels". The same happened after the Middle Ages on a larger scale.


During the Middle Ages guilds were part of the reason why secular government would come about in Europe. However in a real sense Islam was the only form of government permissible for Moslems and without any significant non-religious organizations as a counter balance, Islamic religious leaders gained near total power over their flock and claimed unquestioned authority derived from God. The absolute leaders of a faith of warriors would determine how the Islamic nations interacted with the world and how it would develop.

Without significant reformative influences the powerful leaders in and of Islam became corrupt. This has lasted without significant change to the present day in much of Islam. Many present day leaders of Islamic nations have gained enormous wealth but have yet to provide adequate investment in lasting capital improvements for the benefit of their people. Here and now it is probable that the reformative pressures and influences of the non-Islamic world and some farsighted people within Islam are now providing to Islam what changed the Church in Europe during the Reformation.

Concluding statement.

While things beyond their control like geography played a part, the extreme philosophy and corrupt reactionary leadership in medieval Islam, continuing down to the present day, essentially prevented the reformative changes and advancements that happened in Europe. Islam will experience, and probably already is experiencing, reformation. It will be the making of Islam if Moslems want it that way.

Partial Bibliography.


Wage Labor and Guilds in Medieval Europe. By Steven A Epstein

Civilization & Capitalism 15th-18th Century, 3 Volumes. By Fernand Braudel.

Cathedral, Forge and Waterwheel. By Frances & Joseph Gies


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