Religious Legal Institutions and Economic Performance in Comparative Jewish-Muslim Perspective

AHA Session 27
Thursday, January 6, 2011: 3:00 PM-5:00 PM
Grand Ballroom Salon B (Marriott Boston Copley Place)
Daniel A. Schiffman, Ariel University Center
Ghislaine Lydon, University of California, Los Angeles

Session Abstract

There is a growing literature on the relationship between religious legal institutions and economic growth. Recent research emphasizes the complex interactions between law, religion, culture, and preexisting institutional arrangements. In the past, scholars tended to attribute economic development to discrete factors; today, scholars reject such explanations as overly simplistic.  As Timur Kuran (2009) writes, it is important to explore “the mechanisms that govern economic performance, without any commitment to the notion that one social sphere—legal, religious, or culture—drives the others.”
Which religious legal institutions are likely to impact growth and development? Examples include inheritance laws (which allow business enterprises to outlive their founders), usury laws, tax laws, laws of courts and testimony (which are critical for contract enforcement and property rights), laws concerning the treatment of religious minorities, laws of slavery, and laws with respect to education and freedom of inquiry (which encourages scientific innovation).
Given that certain religious legal institutions inhibit economic growth, how persistent are these institutions in the face of changing circumstances? To what extent do religious legal systems allow for reinterpretation, so that the laws can be adapted to new economic and financial realities?
The topic of religious law and economic institutions has attracted strong interest in recent years. At least two journals have devoted special issues to the topic (Journal of Institutional and Theoretical Economics, March 1997; Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization, September 2009). Two conferences were held in 2007 alone (by the USC Institute for Economic Research on Civilizations, and the Global Economic History Network; The JEBO special issue includes a subset of the papers from the USC conference). The European Social Science History Conference (Ghent, April 2010) will feature three sessions on interfaith commerce; many of the presenters will address legal themes. Furthermore, Oxford University Press will be publishing handbooks on Judaism and Economics, Christianity and Economics, Islam and Economics, and Hinduism and Economics; these volumes are expected to incorporate religious law as a central topic.
The proposed session explores the relationship between religious law and economic growth in both Judaism and Islam. The Jewish and Islamic legal systems (Halacha and Shari’a) have been chosen because they deal extensively with commercial law (unlike the system of Canon Law in Christianity). The session will appeal to a multidisciplinary audience, including researchers in the following specializations:  history of religion, economic history, institutional economics, comparative legal studies and social anthropology.
The presenters will be as follows: Jeffrey Callen will address the marketability and valuation of intangible assets in Jewish Law. Metin Cosgel will explore the connection between the Islamic oral tradition and the Ottoman ban of the printing press. Hamid Hosseini will describe the Iranian variant of contemporary Islamic Economics, and how it differs from Islamic Economics in other Muslim countries. Daniel Schiffman will explain how 19th century rabbis circumvented the ban on agriculture in Palestine during the Jewish Sabbatical Year.

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