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Between “Islam” and “Secularity” by Ali El Saleh PDF Print E-mail
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Written by Ali El Saleh   
Monday, 31 January 2011 18:25

Between “Islam” and “Secularity”:

Continuities and discontinuities in the Syrian Economic History

Prepared by M. Ali El Saleh


Clarifying the context

The principal theme of this paper, based on the analysis of the Syrian economic history since the Middle Ages until now, will address the following idea:

Ideology generally, put into practice in the Middle East, could not and cannot wish to impede the development of society from which it emanates and which it inspires. In stating this there is no attempt at machiavelism and deceit, but in fact, more or less, a recognition of the imperatives of the social life in a country like Syria during its long history. Moreover, this does not mean total negation of the influence of ideology, in its religious- or political form, upon social phenomenon including economy. However, as we know, in all great cultures, economic dynamics compel ideology to adjust itself. The opposite is not valid, unless in some details but not on the level of socio-economic superstructures.

I shall confine my self to just few remarks based mainly on the Crusades period, and the succeeding Ottoman interlude, in addition to some economic analysis of the “secular” phase of modern Syria under the French Mandate, ending with “statist” Syria, in the age of global capitalism.

Medieval Syria, on the way to capitalism?

Weber, as well as Sombart, and Marx too, hold that modern capitalism had sprung from the European late medieval commercial and financial capitals. At first look, we find that similar forms of capital existed in the medieval Muslim world. If such were the case, it proves that Islam was not a hindrance in the early stages of the evolution, which led Europe to modern capitalism.

In the case of Syria during the Crusades there existed a clear “capitalistic” sector, as Maxime Rodinson points out as well, including both commercial and financial capitals in the pre-capitalist Syrian society of this period. One should not underestimate this, nor should us over estimate it. In addition, larger economic sectors coexisted too, where self-consumption of the rural population dominated, so that a considerable share of the agrarian production was not available to the market.

Moreover, it is still believed that feudalism was a necessary stage in the human evolution, the only one during which the first features of the capitalist formation could have taken place.

The development of the Muslim State in general and of Muslim Syria in Crusades time in particular, gives rise to the following important remark, namely:

The system to enfeoff (infeodation of) some elements of the military in the exchange for the payment of tributes by them to the state’s treasury, and the resulting “feudal” transformation, did not take place as observed to the beginning of western feudalism, in regression times of an agrarian economy. This development in Syria took place already before the Crusades during a general multisectoral economical upswing, especially in the regional Syrian trade. Later, towards the end of the Crusades, began what might be described as a variation on Feudalism in the shape of a Muslim type “Feudalism” in Syria, with the establishment of the strong centralized Mamluks state, which was governed through a foreign military aristocracy without any feudal hierarchy and fief-like inheritance. The new “Feudal masters” of Syria received the rents of their military fiefs, which were not only of rural but also of urban nature. These rents were always strongly controlled by the state administration.

However, it seems that true “Bourgeois” could never control the cities and less the country sides in Muslim Syria during this period, as was the case in the Italian Town-Republics but also even in the Syrian Crusaders states. When, generally speaking, the Muslim State moved in the direction of feudalism, it was not for the same reasons, which forced it into being in Europe, were the state was right from the beginning lacking in financial resources. The reason was rather that during the Crusades and the Mongol challenge, the financial means at the disposal of the local Muslim state in Syria were insufficient to meet its growing expenses.

This analysis invites a reconsideration of some dogmatic viewpoints concerning the stereotyped relations between the feudal organization and agrarian economy.

On the other hand, there is no answer to the central question whether the domination generally of a late feudal mode of production opposing wealthy capitalists, as was the case in Europe, was alone capable of triggering later the development of the capitalist economic system.

Nevertheless, one can state that religious theory during the Crusades had only a limited effect in practice. In no way did it affect the fundamental basis of the economic activities. When it came to conflict between Islam as doctrine and economic practice, practice largely prevailed.

Islam, generally, did not either prescribe nor did it impose on the individuals, states and civilizations that professed Islam, a specific economic approach. The medieval structure of the Muslim World is largely comparable to those of Europe at the same period, and no doubt to China, Japan and India too before the European impact.

The development that followed in Europe was different from that of the Muslim World and from the other here quoted civilizations. As we shall see, we cannot attribute the causes of this divergence, to the adherence to a specific doctrine. The discussions about this divergence are constantly ongoing. If the economic life of the Muslim community changed, it was due to the influence of temporal events, as it is the case today too: conquests, specialization of production, which is at the very core of a “common market”, globalization, etc.


Ottoman Syria:origins of modern and contemporary “peripheral capitalism”


The Ottoman Empire, the state, which was until the nineteenth century the heart and stronghold of Islam, and which contained the majority of non-colonized Muslims, was also the first to take early-determined steps on the way of "Europeanization" involving sometimes a complete infraction of religious rules.

Significant for our analysis is the attempt of the Ottomans to try reinforcing the central power of the state again between 1700 and 1914, in response to the European political and military pressure. This movement was accompanied then by a gradually emerging of a “peripheral capitalism” in the Ottoman provinces:

The need to raise revenues to pay for an enlarged and modernized military establishment pushed the Ottoman state towards conversion of timar land (fief- like estates) from the seventeenth century into hereditary private land, while tax-farmers (multazims) gained heritable and salable rights to their territories.

The privatization of the states domain that we usually associate with direct colonial rule was well under way before European powers carved up the Middle East.

There is no gainsaying that the mid- to late nineteenth century is a turning point in both state and society in the Ottoman Empire. The search for revenue led the state into new domestic taxation devices and into accumulating external debt to European banks. The general tendency was to develop the legal infrastructure of private property; the European creditors of the Empire argued that stable titles to land and wealth would not only increase the tax base of the Ottoman state but would also attract foreign capital to export oriented agricultural production in parts of the Empire. Accordingly, an imperial firman was promulgated in 1851-2, regulating interest rates to pay without referring to religious prohibitions about this matter.


The situation concerning the appropriation of the rural surplus in Ottoman Syria was more complicated and more various. In the case of Syria, it was the local Syrian provinces themselves that performed certain key roles such as the introduction and enforcement of low tariffs and new systems of commercial regulations long before European political intervention was organized on a regular basis.

Meanwhile, large sums were to be surrendered to the Central Treasury. The exported profits made by foreign companies, and the part which was accrued mostly by big landowners and merchants, represent additional constraints. So only, a tiny part of the rural surplus was to be directed towards productive investments. The result was a process that was infinitely more complex than most economic models either of growth through trade or of the consequences of links with European markets allows.

It is obvious that the major trigger behind the restructuring of the Middle Eastern economic life during this period could be shown to have come from a world economy harnessed to European needs and political challenges; Religion was in no way a hindrance to economic transformation.

More importantly is to emphasize that modern capitalism in the Middle Eastern countries was imported and imposed from “above”. The state did try, following its own traditions, to reactivate the old “capitalistic” sectors of its economy and to go forward with vital reforms but in vain. However, when it became obvious beyond any doubt, how important industrialization was, it was too late. The military and the economic power of the European imperialists rendered it very difficult, if not impossible, to follow the Egyptian example under Mohammad Ali. The European supremacy imposed the penetration of European capital, and it was this factor, which began the industrialization of the Muslim Orient including Syria, but at start to its own advantage.


Syrian experience with “Secularity”


The Syrian colonial state that was implanted after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire was only autonomous from the society it governed. France as the mandatory power was firmly convinced that the achievement of a program of economic development could not be left to the initiative of the mandated Syrian “secular” state. France’s concern to benefit from the privileges of the Mandate Charter and to reduce the costs of its occupation of the country proved an obstacle to any overall planning which would meet the real needs of the Syrian economy. The major achievements consisted in consolidating the financial position of politically reliable absentee landowners and that of their allied emerging entrepreneurs. France helps also in midwife the birth of the new “class” of white collars.

The postcolonial national Syrian state went much further than either the Islamic or the “secular” colonial state in redrafting the social structure of the country but not in reshuffling its economy properly and less to realize adequate political reforms:

The Syrian Ba’ath before coming to power, recruited heavily among professionals of rural origin, particularly among religious minorities, but also among the urban petite bourgeoisie trading segments, not to mention pan Arab intellectuals. From their ranks emerged the cadres and leaders of this secularist party.

They were by default the seedbeds for a new dominant stratum of a new expanding state system: the Syrian “statist” state. The military had again been the prime path for their ascent.

The expansion of the state apparatus led to the formation of a large and inefficient public-managerial stratum. The concentration of investable capital among a great number of dependant private-sector businesses, the rent-seeking behavior, corruption, and twisted deals with the private sector were and are in turn part of the decay of bureaucratically managed development strategies implemented in Syria during the last forty years.

The failure of the old Ba’ath ideology led the state leadership to explore other horizons. One realizes that the state elaborate system of controls, regulations, licenses, administered prices, and inflexible exchange rates drove much of the economic activity underground where it could not be monitored, oriented and taxed. Paradoxically, liberalization can thus be seen as the only means by which the state can regain control over the direction of the economy!

The new rural and urban entrepreneurs and the new middle classes have been largely created, as already mentioned, because of the state policies. They are already strong enough to constrain state initiatives in several domains. Would they be able or wish to press ahead with changes? I doubt it.

Besides, what happened in Iraq for instance does not give them much choice if they have to face on their own the so-called “liberal” rules of American free market competition policies.

In view of this, one can repeat once more that the public and private sectors in Syria share a symbiotic, not an adversarial, relationship and that the retreat of the state will not be uniformly welcomed, or encouraged.




In winding up this subject, I am of the opinion that Islam in the past and less in the present did not seek to mobilize people for economic purposes. Nowhere, did we observe any mobilization for an economic change or transformation on the social level, at least not in Syria. However, it is clear that Islam as was understood in the tenth century was not precisely that of the Koran and that Islam of the twenty-first century is not the same as that of the tenth century, etc. and that all of this must be associated with social evolution. One might also draw attention to how modern conditions have strongly changed the manner of how the majority of Muslims interpret and practice their religion now.

On the other hand, the Syrian experience with imported "secular" ideologies was as so far, not conclusive enough.

A society is generally not built around “interpretations and symbols”, but around essential tasks without which it could not be able to sustain itself. The relations of production are primary, simply because they structure the main functions of the society, while ideologies, religions, philosophy, etc. and similar think-tank instruments and intellectual frameworks seek to think, to interpret production, reproduction, and their structures; they think also society and other many things.


What is extremely important now besides other pressing matters is what kind of action is intended for example by the G8 concerning their so-called project of “Greater Middle East Initiative”, including Syria. It is important to realize and to affirm here that one cannot change societies by merely trying to change their consciousness and their culture from outside, in other words change them by sheer will. One cannot command a society or the natural world without complying with their inherent rules. It is simplistic to consider ideological motivations as a “reflection” of “rational” motivations.

The American war in Iraq, the ghettoizing and starving out of the Palestinians, are further classic examples of political actions with “ideological” motivations. These driving forces, more or less, blend with other prosaic motivations, such as those embraced by individuals in terms of Armageddon and absurdly the expectations of gratitude on the part of the Iraqis for their "liberation".

However, on the collective social level, the war was planned and executed at a fixed date, in conformity to engineered projects, plans and calculations. In other words, the war focuses on “rational” and extra-moral factors, the target being the political and economical control of Iraq and the Middle East.

This example is worth mentioning as an example of the type of rationalization specifically occidental, mentioned by Max Weber and others, which parades as well as sheltered under the guise of western ethics.

There is not much evidence of the clash- of values or of civilizations here. The problem seems to be rather simpler. The Arab and the Muslim Worlds do not mind American and European values, but they cannot stand American policies and by extension these policies when embraced or tolerated by Europeans.


The above is reflections and ongoing discussions not needing academic reference.
















El-Saleh, M. Ali:

Handel u. Wirtschaftsstruktur Syriens im Zeitalter der Kreuzzüge, Inaugural-Dissertation, Tübingen 1974.

Kienle, Eberhard, Ed.

Contemporary Syria, British Academic Press, London, 1994.

Meouchy, Nadine,Ed.

The British and French Mandates in Comparative Perspectives, Brill, Boston, 2004.

Owen, Roger

The ME in the world economy 1800-1914, Methum and Co., 1981.

Rodinson, Maxime

Islam et Capitalisme, Ed. Du Seuil, Paris, 1966.

Rodinson, Maxime

Entre Islam et Occident, Entretiens, Les Belles Lettres, Paris, 1998.

Schilcher, Linda

Damascus, in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century, Arab translation by Mallah, Amr, Damascus, 1998.

Waterbury, John

A political Economy of the ME, West view Press, 1990.







Mohamed Ali El-Saleh studied Economics in Tübingen / W. Germany and his doctoral thesis submitted in 1974 was on the subject of commerce and the economic structure of Syria during the Crusades.

Since 1974, he has been working in Damascus as a consultant economist.

From 1978 to 1985, he was engaged in research on the Israeli economy, at Al Ard Institute in Damascus.

Since 1998, he has been an independent researcher associated with the French Institute for Arab studies (IFEAD-IFPO) in Damascus, and is now working on the economic history of Syria under the French mandate.



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