Peter Gran, Islamic Roots of Capitalism: Egypt, 1760-1840 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1979).

One of the most significant tendencies in the study of the Middle East in recent years is the mounting discontent with the predominant Western conceptualization of the region. The Review of Middle East Studies (ROMES) and, more recently, Edward Said’s Orientalism sharply criticize the understanding of the Middle East in terms of an “Islamic society” which experienced a Golden Age after the founding of Islam in the seventh century AD, followed by a long period of decline and intellectual stagnation until confronted by the west during the nineteenth century. Orientalism and most of the articles in ROMES emphasize the conceptual inadequacies and logical inconsistencies in research on Middle Eastern society. While these critiques, serve the crucial purpose of showing the need for a new mode of analysis, they remain at best intellectual hors d’oeuvres. We have come to know what is wrong with Middle East studies but many are impatient to develop new theories and methodologies.

Many critics of Orientalism are young scholars who spent considerable time in the Middle East engaged in archival research, interviewing or in participant observation in rural or urban areas. It is only now that their research is beginning to be published. One of the first such studies is Peter Gran’s Islamic Roots of Capitalism: Egypt, 1760-1840. Through careful argument and impressive documentation, Gran’s study paints a very different picture of Egyptian and Eastern Mediterranean society during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries and, as such, further underlines the profound shortcomings of Orientalist scholarship.

Gran’s study is revisionist in the best sense of that word. Rather than pose a false dichotomy between idealism and materialism, as is the tendency of many students of social change in modern Egypt, he interrelates cultural and material changes. Gran avoids the problem of some early critiques of Orientalism (such as in ROMES) which reduced Middle Eastern history to a vulgar materialism, singled out as significant only world market forces or the internal contradictions of the indigenous mode of production and ignored religion, culture and ideology. In constructing a materialist problematic which sets up a dialectical relationship between changes in ideas and changes in material forces, Gran performs two very important services. In addition to showing the inadequacy of Orientalist interpretations of the onset of modernism in Egypt, he likewise demonstrates the need for leftist scholarship to take the study of culture more seriously. Thus Gran stands within the growing ranks of Marxian political economists who have become increasingly conscious of the “economistic” bias of much of their writing.

Islamic Roots of Capitalism demonstrates that the development of a secular culture which was supportive of a nascent capitalist order was not a result of the Napoleonic invasion of Egypt. Rather it was the outgrowth of an intellectual movement which traced its roots to the middle of the eighteenth century. This does not mean that the author would have us ignore exogenous causes of social change, as quite the contrary is true. Gran divides his study into two periods. During the first period, 1760-1790, Egypt’s commercial revival was the result of the development of a cash economy based on the export of grains to the world market, particularly to southern France. This increase in trade strengthened the indigenous middle classes, especially urban merchants and the ‘ulama’. While the urban middle classes were benefiting from capital accumulation, the strength of the Mamluk ruling class was eroded by its own excesses as well as by the inflation which afflicted the urban lower classes. The increase in retainers and the importation of luxury goods placed a heavy financial burden on Mamluk households. The need to purchase modern firearms and to hire foreign mercenaries to use them squeezed the resources of the state.

The modality of thought which dominated the 1760-1790 period was a revival of hadith studies. It was within this renewed interest in the study of hadith that one finds the beginnings of a secular culture which emphasized utilitarianism and inductive logic in solving problems. After the destruction of the Mamluks and the rise of a strong state under Muhammad Ali Pasha, the dominant mode of thought was rooted in fiqh and deductive logic, as the ruling elite sought to reassert its control over society.

For Gran, Islamic culture cannot be reduced to any simplistic codification, nor can it be seen as simply derivative from Islam’s “Golden Age” or conditioned by Western ideas of science and technology. Between 1760 and 1790, for example, culture played a multiplicity of roles. First, the neo-classical revival helped the native middle classes both to rationalize and interpret rapid social change. In the writing of history, for example, the middle classes spurned the chronicle in favor of more conceptually oriented historical analyses which raised questions of individual and social morality. In this sense, Gran argues, the great historian, al-Jabarti, was not, as the conventional orthodoxy would have us believe, an isolated figure in a dark age of social and intellectual decay. He was raising questions which were being asked by the middle classes as a whole. Culture played a critical role in helping the middle classes to accept the transformation of Egyptian society from one based on corporate institutions, such as the guild, to one based on a modern class structure. Secondly, the revival of hadith studies corresponded with a revival of the Sufi tariqa. The ‘ulama’ encouraged this revival in an attempt to revitalize corporate institutions and to prevent rising lower class discontent from threatening their political and economic hegemony.

From 1815 to 1840, Gran argues, there was an emphasis on fiqh and kalam as the state sought to reassert its control over the middle and lower classes. Secular culture continued to progress but at a slower rate. To show the continuity in the development of secular culture and its different forms in both periods, Gran focuses on the life of a very important but largely neglected thinker, Sheikh Hasan al-‘Attar (1766-1835). Al-‘Attar’s encyclopedic writings, from law to medicine, demonstrate his struggle to advance secular culture within the framework of political and social constraints imposed by the state and opponents among the ‘ulama’. We see that al-‘Attar’s most well-known student, Rifa‘a al-Tahtawi, developed his modernist orientation not as a result of European influence but rather through his association with the sheikh.

Peter Gran’s study supports Edward Said’s argument that one of the pernicious effects of Orientalism has been the conceptualization of the Orient or non-Western world as a passive Other, glorifying and reaffirming the uniqueness of the (Western) Self. To sustain this idea, it has been necessary to show that the distinctive characteristics which have molded Western historical development did not occur outside the West. The notion of the Orient as a recipient of Western culture and hence as merely derivative or reflective of a historical process produced elsewhere can- only reinforce (in Marxist as well as in bourgeois circles) a view of the non-Western world as unable to generate its own history and thus to take responsibility for itself. Such a view may be couched in bourgeois modernization theory, which seeks to transfer Western values and institutions to the Third World, or in a Euro-centered Marxism, which sees the Third World transformed by events in the advanced capitalist countries. Both not only skew our vision and understanding of the non-Western world but are also highly paternalistic. What emerges is an intellectual imperialism which sees the non-Western world as a borrower of ideas. This in turn produces a mode of cultural dependency which parallels and is connected to the economic and political dependency which already characterizes “core-periphery” relations. Although there are notable exceptions, this cultural dependency has led many intellectuals in the Third World to uncritically accept Western theories of change, whether they be of bourgeois or Marxian origin, and to ignore the historical specificity of their own societies. As a result, the possibility for achieving a critical synthesis of Western and non-Western ideas and theories is often lost.

As with most studies which deal with culture, the concept is never explicitly defined. The author uses the term in at least two different senses. In some instances, Gran sees culture in Geertzian terms as a system of symbols through which individuals and groups interpret and attribute meaning to social reality. Elsewhere, Gran seems to be using culture in the Gramscian sense as a hegemonic ideology. This seems evident when he talks about the way in which the middle classes attempted to manipulate the lower classes during the latter half of the eighteenth century or in the ruling-class use of culture to reassert control over the middle and lower classes during the early nineteenth century. Hopefully, given the wealth of material at his disposal and the innovative way in which he treats this material, Gran will pursue in greater detail in the future the ramifications of his book for a better theoretical understanding of the concept of culture.

How to cite this article:

Eric Davis "Gran, Islamic Roots of Capitalism," Middle East Report 82 (November/December 1979).

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