Meet the New Faculty: Timur Kuran

A challenging exploration of Islam and economics

Economist Timur Kuran is helping to build the Duke Islamic Studies Center.

As a brand new Stanford Ph.D. with his thesis on microeconomics approved and a teaching job lined up, Timur Kuran decided it was "an excellent time, before I got back into the grind, to broaden myself, to read some things I wouldn't normally read."

"Wandering in the stacks of Green Library at Stanford, to see who was writing what," Kuran recalls in an interview, "I came across a book called Islam and Capitalism, by the French economic historian, Maxime Rodinson. It had a tremendous impact on my intellectual development and opened up a new world for me."

The effect still resonates for Kuran, who came to Duke in 2007 as professor of economics and political science and the Gorter Family Professor in Islam and the Social Sciences. He teaches Rodinson in an undergraduate course on the economic history and modernization of the Middle East.

Born in New York City, where his parents lived while graduate students at Yale, Kuran was raised from infancy in Istanbul, just off the campus of Boğaziçi University, where his father was president and professor of Islamic architectural history. He graduated magna cum laude from Princeton before going to Stanford for his doctorate in economics.

Rodinson, Kuran says, "asked questions about the connections between economic development and a religion with which I was very familiar." Kuran's search for answers to those questions led him to become a critic of the school of thought known as Islamic economics, a school that aims to redesign economies according to Islamic principles dating from the 7th century.

"There was a void in the literature," Kuran says. "The writings on Islamic economics showed very little understanding of economic principles or of economic history. No one was addressing, for example, the question of why the Middle East, which had once been quite advanced, became economically underdeveloped."

In his book, Islam and Mammon: The Economic Predicaments of Islam (Princeton University Press, 2004), Kuran argues that principles such as a ban on interest and an emphasis on charity, equality and honesty are "part of a broader movement to make Islam the dominant force in people's lives. If Islamic banking -- which has attracted global deposits that now exceed $150 billion -- is successful, it would set a precedent for Islamicizing other domains of life -- including education and women's rights. There would be greater pressure to let religious functionaries define standards for how things should be done."

Opposing this movement is a force that Kuran says he thinks "will ultimately prevail." "People seek prosperity," he says, "which requires making rational economic decisions even when they circumvent religious restrictions. Rodinson looked at the early centuries of Islam and found that people quite easily found ways to circumvent such restrictions as a ban on interest, just as they did in Europe at the same time."

Kuran is now writing a book that explores why the Middle East, once prosperous by global standards, subsequently became economically underdeveloped.

"Certain elements of Islamic law," he says, "account for both the initial economic successes and the retardation that followed. Islam's political and economic agenda was quite rational relative to other social systems of the Middle Ages. And there are quite rational explanations for why that system later declined. It is not that Islam stood against progress or wanted to block economic enrichment or countenanced laziness or fatalism. It is that certain Islamic institutions had unintended consequences. For example, Islam's egalitarian inheritance system, by which every child and living relative gets a share of an estate, had a huge disadvantage in relation to the European system of primogeniture: It prevented organizational development and the creation of large organizations.

"By the 19th century, new technologies emerged that required vast amounts of capital and permanent organizations. The West was able to establish large, durable organizations that could exploit these technologies. The Middle East couldn't, so even though the technologies were not difficult to borrow, it did not industrialize.

"If the reasons why the Islamic world first succeeded and then failed become widely understood, Islamists will lose interest in the principles of Islamic economics that are absorbing so much energy without solving any real problem of the region or the broader economic world."

Kuran comes to Duke from the University of Southern California, where he had taught since 1982. He says he was attracted by the opportunity to teach and do research in several disciplines, including economics, political science, history, and legal studies.

"The administration's vision of Duke is of a place where it is quite easy to have a foot in multiple disciplines and be accepted by the intellectual community," he says. "Interdisciplinarity is not just a buzzword at Duke; it is put into practice."

Kuran will take advantage of collaborations at the Duke Islamic Studies Center, which he said differs from similar centers elsewhere "because the social sciences will play a significant role."

"Given the important role Islam plays in both international and domestic politics, it is essential to know something about it," he says. "The Duke Islamic Studies Center will play an indispensable role in bringing about that understanding."