Bill Hartley considers a curious contention
Early Islam and the Birth of Capitalism, Benedikt Koehler, Lexington Books, London 2014, 212pps
The Prophet Muhammad was a businessman and entrepreneur. This is one of the many interesting facts revealed in Benedikt Koehler’s book. Indeed, Koehler has the Prophet fully immersed in the business world of his era before spiritual matters took precedence. In addition to this he tells us that early Islam created a single market, encouraged entrepreneurship, promoted the property rights of women, religious minorities and foreigners. According to the author, the Islamic world was the creator of financial instruments that we take for granted today, such as charitable trusts and tax exemptions. To the 21st century reader it begs the question; when did it all start to go wrong?
Apropos capitalism, Koehler emphasises the comparative economic under development of Europe. He also suggests that because there was no literature of consequence on economics bequeathed by Rome nothing much was happening there either. However one can infer a great deal about economic activity in the Roman Empire from a study of its legal system. Roman contract law was very sophisticated suggesting that it had evolved to underpin and regulate business activity.
These caveats aside, Early Islam does cast light on the commercial life of Arabia during this period and reveals a sophisticated civilisation which had been trading with the wider world long before Muhammad’s birth in 570.
The book is at its best when Koehler considers how the geographical position of Arabia allowed it to trade with China and across the Peninsula to Byzantium and the Levant. Particularly interesting are the short sketches covering trade with Italian city states such as Venice and other maritime republics plus the use of the commenda or convoy system for speculators to fund and equip ships in profit sharing enterprises. These were essentially a maritime version of the camel trains which moved in and out of Mecca.
Yet ultimately I was unconvinced that early Islam was the originator of many of the commercial devices familiar to us today and I suspect that those with a knowledge of Ancient Rome and Egypt could make similar claims. Human ingenuity being what it is there was an obvious incentive to find ways of making commerce easier. The presence of a legal system to help regulate trade is as powerful an indicator as writings on economics.
The characterisation of Muhammad as a businessman begins to unravel when the book moves seamlessly into a description of his ability to run successful raiding parties. The author may seek to add a veneer of commercial respectability to this sort of activity with terms such as ‘managing logistics’ and ‘setting incentives’ but I believe the correct term is somewhat different. On the same subject, ‘performance related payments’ equates to dividing up the loot.
Two final criticisms – an aspect of the book which definitely did jar was the author’s use of modern business language. Terminology changes rapidly in the corporate world and what seems fresh and immediate now may soon become hopelessly dated. Most economic historians accordingly avoid using the latest business terms. Finally there was scarcely any mention of the slave trade, which I believe was an Arabian “niche activity”, as we would say today.
William Hartley is a freelance writer from Yorkshire