Musings On The Collapse Of The Islamic Empires In The 18th Century

In reading Karen Armstrong’s “Islam: A short Story” 1 I could not help, but notice the upturns and downturns of the various Islamic tribes and empires based on its economic developments, which sort of fuses with Joseph Tainter’s conception of the collapse of complex societies based on internal economic constraints2, and David Harvey’s representation of the Marxist view on the internal contradiction of capital accumulation, which forces the capitalist system to run on a dead end.3 It might be a little harsh to draw solely economic inferences from a mostly historical account of Islam, and how it unfolds in relation to its political, legal and economic system. But Armstrong does strongly suggest that any social system is grounded on the existing economic circumstances, namely that the main reason why Islamic societies have not been able to overcome their empire demise in the 1700s is that the agragrian economy has natural constraints to economic and military expansion at the same time as the introduction of Western capitalism led to the dramatic acceleration of production, which gave the West the decisive edge in financing its imperial endeavors, including the conquest and subjugation of the formerly Ottoman, Moghul and Saffavid empires stretching from the Balkans in Europe, over Northafrica, over the Near and Middle East into the Indian subcontinent.

Hereby I want to quote some noteworthy passages in Armstrong’s book, reflecting on the internal economic weaknesses of the Ottoman Empire (I really am incapable to make assessments of the religious, spiritual aspects raised in her book). I am looking at collapse scenrios, because they are more exciting than emanation scenarios, displaying the high-times and the short-lasting exuberance such as America has witnessed twice, once after the German and Japanese defeat in WW II and second after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The former ones arouse more excitement, because they show that states of well-being are ephemeral, and rational thinking would make us want to sustain a comfortable status quo as long as possible. If we can’t, we need at least be able to understand the causes of collapse.

“By this time [late 17th century], the [Safavid] empire had succumbed to the fate of any agrarian economy, and could no longer keep pace with its responsibilities. Trade had deteriorated, there was economic insecurity and the later shahs were incompetent. When Afghan tribes attacked Isfahan in 1722, the city surrendered ignominiously.” p123

“By the end of the [17th] century, it was clear that the Moghul Empire had begun its decline. The army and the court had both become too expensive, the emperors still invested in cultural activities, but neglected agriculture, on which their wealth depended. The economic crisis came to a head during the reign of Aurengzebe, who believed that the answer lay in greater discipline in Muslim society. His insecurity was expressed in murderous hatred of Muslim “heretics” as well as adherents of other faiths. He was supported in his sectarian policies by those Muslims who, like Sirhindi, had been unhappy with the old pluralism. Shii celebrations in honour of Husain were suppressed in India, wine was prohibited by law (which made socializing with Hindus difficult) and the number of Hindu festivals attended by the emperor was drastically reduced. The jizyah was reimposed, and the taxes of Hindu merchants were doubled. Worst of all, Hindu temples were destroyed all over the empire. The response showed how wise the previous tolerance had been. There were serious revolts, led by Hindu chieftains and Sikhs, who started to campaign for a state of their own in Punjab.” pp127-128

“Even the mighty Ottoman Empire was not proof against the limitations of agrarian society, which could not keep pace with its expnaison. Military discipline weakened, so that the sultans found that they could no longer wield absolute power. The foundering of the economy led to the corruption and tax abuse. The upper classes lived in opulence, while revenues decreased; trade declined as a result of more effective European competition, and local governors tended to line their own pockets. Nevertheless, the empie did not collapse, but retained a vigorous cultural life throughout the seventeenth century. By the eighteenth century, however, the decline was evident, especially in the peripheral regions. There local reformers tried to restore order by means of religious reform.” p135

“The three great empires [Safavid, Moghul and Ottoman] were all in decline by the end of the eighteenth century. This was not due to the essential incompetence or fatalism of Islam, as Europeans often arrogantly assumed. Any agrarian polity had a limited lifespan, and these Muslim states, which represented the last flowering of the agrarian ideal, had simply come to a natural and inevitable end. In the pre-modern period, Western and Christian empires had also experienced decline and fall. Islamic states had collapsed before; on each occasion, Muslims had been able to rise phoenix-like from the ruins and had gone on to still greater achievements. But this time, it was different. The Muslim weakness at the end of the eighteenth century coincided with the rise of an entirely different type of civilization in the West, and this time the Muslim world would find it far more difficult to meet the challenge.” pp137-138

Where I would like to point attention to are the political consequences of a floundering economy. The internal constraints of agrarian society, the inability to reproduce resources endlessly, on Armstrong’s line, and the rising competition of the industrialized West led to more corruption, elite opulence amidst wide-scale poverty and tax abuse, because the elites are incapable of surpassing the barriers an agrarian economy poses. It would be difficult to tell the Ottoman elites that they should develop industries, when those tools were not available for them. In class-based terms, these conditions, these inadequate yet understandable responses to the economic deterioration, explain the ever more frantic distribution of goods and services. Reduced tax revenues lead the rulers to increase tax rates, which depresses production. The elites are mostly insulated from the scarcity of the masses, and so those few in power instead of caring for the common good- for the common good can not be assured- rake in as many riches as possible. In the case of the Moghul empire, cultural and religious divisions were made even worse. During economically flourishing times, the Islamic monarch had an easy time promoting tolerance of all religions, but since economic constraints were beginning to matter taxes on Hindu merchants were increased, and Hindu temples were destroyed. The latter measure probably as a reaction to the failure of the first measure.

The political bickering and the violently religious fervor need not exist so long as the economic system can provide all the goods and services for the people, and much of it is based on tapping new resources or using new technology. Capitalism furnished such abundance, but mostly at the expense of the freedom of workers and the colonized people. For the Islamic empires and successor states, whose borders were arbitrarily drawn up by European world powers, it meant a blow and a humiliation for the general population that was so surprising that the current economic and political arrangements with the added factor of oil as a precious resource in the Middle East become explicable. The lack of many alternative industries in the present-day Middle East- meaning the incomplete incorporation into the capitalist system- and the gross inequality in income and wealth distribution give rise to massive discontent which manifest itself in those uprisings against the ruling regime. That is also not to say that capitalism is the end of all forms, for there are certain limitations to it, which Armstrong would not admit to (it would be irrelevant for her argument, because she only needed to prove the economic constraints of the 17th century Islamic empires by pointing to the comparative advantage of a capitalist economy, i.e. not the absolute advantage of a capitalist economy for that is an analysis in itself). The imminent ecological disaster, the limitednees of specific natural resources and the discontent of inequality- the elites abandoning the project of advancing the common good and their determination to pocket as much wealth as possible until the system snaps- will point us to those current economic constraints.

1 Armstrong, Karen. Islam: a Short History. New York: Modern Library, 2000. Print.
2 Tainter, Joseph A. The Collapse of Complex Societies. Cambridge, Cambridgeshire: Cambridge UP, 1988. Print.
3 Harvey, David, and Karl Marx. A Companion to Marx’s Capital. London: Verso, 2010. Print.

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