Murat Iyigun on Monotheism, Conflict, Europe, the Ottomans, and the Blues
Date: July 26th, 2015

Are monotheisms better at establishing sociopolitical stability than civilizations with polytheistic religions?  And to what extent do monotheistic civilizations influence the socio-economic development of one another?  In particular, did the Ottoman Empire change the course of European history via its military advances into southeast Europe at a key moment in time?  Prof. Murat Iyigun, the Stanford Calderwood Endowed Chair in Economics at the University of Colorado, answers these questions and discusses other interesting historical findings that he published in his new book, War, Peace, & Prosperity in the Name of God.  And if that isn’t enough, Murat — an accomplished blues guitarist — treats us to an original “arabesque blues” tune at the end of our interview.  Up your knowledge of history with our discussion, and then get down and funky with Prof. Iyigun’s musical stylings!

Our conversation begins, as usual, with a bit of background about our guest.  Prof. Iyigun explains what cliometrics — one of his academic specialties — is and also how he became interested in the study of religion and economics.  He notes that the events of September 11, combined with new advances in institutional economics, prompted him to look into the role that informal cultural institutions play in history.  He also gives credit to his mentor — Herschel Grossman — at Brown University for inspiring him to look beyond the typical empirical fare of economics.

We then jump into Murat’s new book and he lays out the three central questions that he seeks to answer: 1) Why and how did monotheism spread so rapidly and become swiftly intertwined with political authority?; 2) What has been the role of religion and ideology in conflict historically?; and 3) What were the lasting sociopolitical and economic effects of religiously-motivated conflicts?  As for the first question, we walk through Murat’s empirical study showing that, ceteris paribus, monotheistic civilizations tend to last longer than polytheistic ones and generally have greater territorial reach (a proxy for governing effectiveness).  Tony probes some of the methodological difficulties in measuring these phenomenon and Murat provides convincing answers as to why his study does show a significant effect for monotheism.  He then reviews some of the reasons why monotheisms might be better for obtaining sociopolitical stability, including the ability of ecclesiastics to provide credibility to rulers and lower the discount rate of individuals thus allowing for longer-term policies.

Turning to one particular monotheistic civilization — the Ottoman Caliphate — Dr. Iyigun provides some background information about how the Ottomans were able to rise to power and conquer a vast territory, extending across North Africa, into the Arabian peninsula, and eastward towards central Asia.  He discusses the “Gaza ideology,” which promotes the basis for an offensive military strategy allowing for conquest, which then becomes its own engine of growth, allowing for a further extension of rule.  The height of Ottoman rule from the mid-15th to the 17th centuries also has an important impact on Europe.  With the Ottomans pushing into the Balkans and close to the gates of Vienna, Europeans had to reduce their own territorial infighting in order to address this external existential threat.  Murat notes that while the Roman Church’s monopoly had come under challenge prior to the Protestant Reformation (e.g., the Hussites and Lollards), the definitive Protestant break fostered by Martin Luther was catalyzed by the Ottoman threat.   While acknowledging the role of the printing press and other explanations for Protestant success, Prof. Iyigun argues that military advances by the Ottomans forced Europeans to temper their own intra-faith hostilities and conflict, which in turn gave Christian dissenters a chance to take hold and expand on the continent.  His empirical work on the frequency and duration of intra-European conflict compared against Ottoman advances, along with qualitative evidence in the documents of Prince Ferdinand and others, shows this hypothesis to be rather convincing.

We move next to a set of miscellaneous (albeit important) questions about how this may have impacted the different economic development trajectories of the two regions — Europe and the Middle East.  Tony asks whether the threat of Europe, particularly in the form of The Crusades, might have played a similar galvanizing role in Ottoman economic development.  Interestingly, it does not and Murat explains what happens when the dominant power in the region faces such threats.  He notes three phases — denial that a threat exists, a conservative revival to “restore historic greatness” leading to a reliance on old institutions not suited for a new reality, and then finally emulation of the institutions of the rising power.  We also talk about another interesting facet of his book — the role of harem politics.  While most of his book is macro-historical, he does devote time to looking into the micro-foundations of military decisions in the Ottoman Caliphate and develops a fascinating thesis.  Here he argues that the nature of dynastic succession relied upon births that were from captured concubines and slave women, often from Christian lands (sometimes as far away as France).  He tests whether the heritage of the mothers of various sultans played a role in determining where military campaigns would take place.  Interestingly, valide sultans (queen mothers) who came from Christian regions (although who also converted to Islam), had an influence in tamping down military incursions into Europe.  While only a side chapter in Murat’s book, this may be one of the most interesting and surprising findings of his study (at least to Tony, who notes that “Moms matter” in history).

Prof. Iyigun finishes off with some broad lessons he learned from his decade-long study of this topic.  He notes that institutional, particularly informal (cultural) institutional, context is very important for structuring political and economic histories.  He also notes that while economic competition in a globalizing world is often viewed positively, cultural/ideological competition should be viewed the same way.  Finally, he learned that in a globalizing world, religion may become a more important focal point for bringing people together than nationalisms, a thesis advanced earlier by Samuel Huntington but which Murat intends to explore further in a more rigorous fashion.  And last, but not least, Murat talks about his love of the blues and how he came to play in the band Barrel of Blues, and then treats us to his own composition — Muqarnas.  Enjoy!  Recorded: July 8, 2015.


Prof. Murat Iyigun’s personal website and CU bio at the University of Colorado Dept. of Economics.

War, Peace, & Prosperity in the Name of God: The Ottoman Role in Europe’s Socioeconomic Evolution, by Murat Iyigun.

Barrel of Blues (great tunes can be found here).


Jared Rubin on Christian and Islamic Economic History.

Timur Kuran on Islamic Law & Economic Development.

Timur Kuran on Islamic Economics.

John Owen IV on Confronting Political Islam, Historical Lessons.

Matthew Derrick on the Geography of the Umma.

Mark Koyama on the Economics of Jewish Expulsions.

Rodney Stark on the Crusades.

One Response to “Murat Iyigun on Monotheism, Conflict, Europe, the Ottomans, and the Blues”

  1. […] Murat Iyigun on Monotheism, Conflict, Europe, the Ottomans, and the Blues. […]

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