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Structural Inefficiencies of Islamic Courts: Ottoman Justice and Its Implications for Modern Economic Life

March 7, 2012

791 Barrows Hall

Speaker: Timur Kuran, Professor of Economics and Political Science, Duke University, and member, External Advisory Council of RPGP

The transition to impersonal exchange and modern economic growth has depended on the emergence of courts that enforce contracts efficiently. But courts of the Ottoman Empire exhibited biases that limited the expansion of exchanges in the Eastern Mediterranean, particularly those between Muslims and non-Muslims. Thus, economic modernization in the Middle East required the establishment of secular courts. By investigating Ottoman judicial biases, we may weigh the view that these courts treated Christians and Jews fairly as well as the counterview that they ruled against non-Muslims disproportionately. Biases against non-Muslims were, in fact, institutionalized. By the same token, non-Muslims did relatively well in adjudicated interfaith disputes, because they settled most conflicts out of court in anticipation of judicial biases. Islamic courts also appear to have exhibited biases in favor of state officials. The findings challenge the Islamist claim that reinstituting Islamic law (sharia) would be economically beneficial.