27th February 2011
In the Middle Ages, the Middle East was at the forefront of optics, metallurgy, and mathematics. Its largest cities, libraries, and marketplaces dwarfed those in Europe. Subsequently, over the next half millennium, the Middle East slipped behind Europe in many realms, including science and medicine, finance and business, and literacy and living standards. But just as Confucianism and Taoism could not explain China’s failures, Islam, often blamed for the Middle East’s shortcomings, raises more questions than it answers. If Islam’s supposedly retrograde system of beliefs explains the Middle East’s recent failures, what accounts for its earlier successes?
Until the 1700s, the East and the West remained politically independent of each other, regardless of which side was ahead, and neither side enjoyed unchallenged military supremacy. The last reversal, moreover, had another unique trait: self-reinforcing growth. In both regions, the level of development had been constrained for millennia by the limitations of agrarian life. Since 1700, when world trade fell under European control, the West has developed at a dramatically accelerating rate. Today, its development, as measured by Morris, is over 20 times as high as its 1700 level. The East, with some lag, has also developed to unprecedented heights: Morris calculates its level of development to be about 13 times as high as its record level before 1700.