"Today Muslims are relatively poor, whether the comparison is done to the worldwide mean at either the individual or national level, and there is a long line of scholarship that ascribes this state of affairs to Islam itself. (Of course there is also a literature that lays the blame at the feet of Western imperialism)." Marcus Noland takes up the thorny relationship between Islam and economic growth in "Religion, Culture, and Economic Performance," a paper for the Institute for International Economics (and summarized in today's Far Eastern Economic Review).
But neither of the choices Noland offers – an anti-growth bias inherent to the Islamic religion or Western imperialism – can account for Muslims lagging economically.
- The Islamic religion does not explain economic standing because Muslims were advanced economically a millennium ago and are doing badly now. A static factor like the Qur'an (or a river or color of skin) cannot explain something that changes over time.
- Western imperialism was not limited to the Muslim world but no less deeply affected such countries as China, Singapore, and Chile – all of which are doing just fine economically, thank you.
A better explanation for Muslims today being "relatively poor" follows, rather, from a third factor: the historical experience of the Muslim peoples. I made this argument at length in my 1983 book, In the Path of God: Islam and Political Power (reissued: Transaction, 2002). In a nutshell, two main factors inhibited the Muslim world from emulating the West as have the Japanese, Koreans, Taiwanese, and others: a historic hostility toward Christendom and acute difference in customs. Had modernity come not from the "blue-eyed barbarians" but (say) from China, Muslims might have found it much easier to come to terms with it and modernize. History is the key, but the history of Muslims, not the history of the West. (October 23, 2003)