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Why Islamic Productivity Lags Behind the West

Part of the underlying theme of my soon-to-be-published book, Muslim Mechanics, is that Western capitalism is much more robust, more impactful than Islamic capitalism. I maintain that Muslim business concepts in a Western world only slow down economic growth. In the following two blogs, this week and next week, I will share two stories that I think will help explain why Muslim productivity has lagged behind the West.


This first history lesson explores how the Ottomans restricted the use of the printing press for almost 300 years. Most people don't realize the disastrous long-term impact it has had on bringing Islam into the 21st century. Here is that story.


The Ottoman Empire guided the direction of Islam from 1299 to 1922, a period over 700 years. The printing press spread quite rapidly throughout Western Europe after Gutenberg introduced his invention in 1450. By 1480, over 110 publishers were operating in Germany, Italy, France, Netherlands, Belgium, Spain (still with Islamic conclaves), and England. However, in 1485, Sultan Bayezid II banned printing in Arabic characters throughout Ottoman territories.


Interestingly enough, Jewish immigrants could publish the Torah and other books in Hebrew characters, and Armenians could print their Bibles in the Armenian alphabet. Still, Muslims were not allowed to publish the Qur'an in Arabic characters. To enforce this mandate, Ottoman officials regulated printing press access with lethal penalties.


This restriction was not because the Ottomans feared new technology. The Ottomans were quite adept at recognizing and incorporating technology into their society. Their most prominent achievement was the incorporation of military technology, notably gunpowder. The Turkish military not only kept pace with developments in gunpowder, firearms, and cannons, but they pioneered organizational skills for the establishment of a permanent standing army (the Janissaries). They showed great success in assimilating military technology into their army and navy. They achieved logistical and firepower superiority over their Western and Eastern adversaries by the fifteenth century.


So, why limit the printing press?

There were indeed advantages to employing the printing press. Studies have shown the indirect effects of mass printing would have been beneficial through economic development. Likewise, there is a high correlation between reading ability and human capital formation. Introducing the press would have ultimately increased productivity through its effect on human capital. Access to readable material would have encouraged investment in literacy. Historians have established low literacy rates somewhere in the Ottoman empire's 2-3 percent range as late as the nineteenth century. Compare those ranges to Western Europe in the sixteenth century when literacy was 10 to 30 percent. With the rise of literacy, the transmission of knowledge changes from oral to written. With that change, authority changes also.


By altering the transmission of knowledge from oral to written, mass printing diminishes the advantage of religious authorities influencing people. The Reformation proved that issue. Bibles and, more importantly, religious pamphlets were printed and read to the public in town gatherings by unofficial religious scholars. The leaders of the Protestant reformation were able to use the press to undermine the Catholic Church despite low levels of literacy. The Ottoman sultans were well aware of what was happening in Europe, and the fear of similar events played a role in their imposing regulations on access to printing presses.


In 1802, the ban on Islamic printing was lifted. Within 50 years, Ottoman territories had established schoolbooks, official newspapers, and various administrative publications.


The ulama, or religious scholars, were the officials most affected. Their roles changed from being highly sought-after interpreters of religious thought to merely place holders in the religious bureaucracy with no authoritative powers. Because of the influx of Western ideas, their role has changed to one of guidance, assisting groups and individuals on incorporating Western concepts into Muslim usage and acceptance.


The repression of the printing press has caused dominant Islamic countries to rely on the oral tradition to relay and transmit cultural values and information. The literacy rate in Islamic dominant countries is still relatively low as compared to Europe and America. Numerous Islamic dominant countries still have a school system of madrassas that rely on memorization of the Qur'an as their main priority.

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