Schumpeterian ‘Great Gap’ Thesis Revisited – by Abdul Azim Islahi

December 19, 2014

Economics Finance, Islamic Studies


Joseph Schumpeter famously claimed that there is a ‘great gap’ of 500 years in the history of economic thought, from the Greeks to Thomas Aquinas.  In this article, Professor Abdul Azim Islahi argues that this idea neglects some very serious scholarship which took place during those years within the Islamic world.


Economic thinking has been associated with the very existence of man. But the written record available about economic thinking is not so old. Generally the historians of economic thought start with the Greek philosophers, Roman jurists and administrators and Indian scriptures. They also mention some of the early Christian fathers who lived in the first few centuries of Christian era. Then they just leap to the Middle Ages, when Europe came out from the darkness and fresh thinking on different natural and social sciences started, leaving a gap of many centuries.

This has been practice on the part of almost all writers on the history of economic thought. But Joseph Schumpeter has explicitly mentioned it. In his famous History of Economic Thought and Analysis in chapter 2 part ii, after discussing the Greek-Roman economics, Schumpeter begins with a discussion of the ‘great gap’. He says:

So far as our subject is concerned we may safely leap over 500 years to the epoch of St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) whose Summa Theologica is in the history of thought what the south western spire of the Cathedral of Chartres is in the history of architecture.1

The implication of this statement is that for a period of five centuries no worth mention of economic ideas were found. Such a claim of discontinuity in the evolution of human intellect in general and in the history of economic theory in particular, is untenable. Much earlier, Frank Knight, the Chicago economist, while reviewing the book in the Southern Economic Journal 2 pointed out this deficiency of the work saying that

if Schumpeter was writing to start with the Babylonians albeit with only a brief reference, he surely should have been able to make some, even if limited reference to Indian (and presumably other Asian) sources as well 3  (quoted by Mark Perlman in his ‘Introduction’, 1997, p. XXIII).

Harry Landreth wrote in a personal letter:

I … agree … that Schumpeter erred and that modern historians of economic thought have followed Schumpeter in failing to appreciate the Arab-Islamic writings in the approximately 500 years before Aquinas. … the failure of economists on this issue is part of a broader failure of Western scholars to fully understand the important contributions of Arab-Islamic scholars.4

He has included a section on Arab-Islamic thought in the latest edition and provided some references for the interested readers.5

The long established tradition of considering a number of centuries as blank as regards to economic thought and the idea of ‘great gap’ seems to be grossly absurd and a blind spot in the subject.

It is a matter of satisfaction that this missing link in the history of economic thought is now being traced and economic ideas of hitherto neglected scholars are being established. The period termed as ‘the great gap’ is the period of Muslim leadership over the world in politics, science and civilization and it is they who contributed in the field of economics, philosophy, medicine and the natural science. While their work in other branches of knowledge is openly acknowledged, their contribution in the area of economics is still ignored.

In 1987, Mirakhor penned a well-documented paper in which he questioned the Schumpeterian great gap thesis and pointed out to the ‘serious omission in the history of economics of profound contribution made by Muslim scholars’. He showed that ‘both motive and opportunity existed for the Medieval European scholars to be influenced by the economic ideas and institutions developed in medieval Islam and that based on the available evidences, they availed themselves of such an opportunity by using some of the available knowledge to advance their ideas’.6 The echo of this paper was heard at the History of Economics Society Conference in Toronto, Canada, June 1988 in which Ghazanfar presented his study on ‘Scholastic Economics and Arab Scholars: The Great Gap Thesis Reconsidered’. By survey of some major works on the subject, he has also shown that the literature gap is ‘manifest in almost all relevant works in economics’.7

I have discussed economic ideas of scores of Muslim scholars who belonged to the so called period of ‘the great gap’ in my forthcoming book History of Islamic Economic Thought.


For example: Abu Yusuf’s (d. 798) analysis of various forms of taxation, al-Shaybani’s (d.805) emphasis on agriculture, Ibn Hazm (d.1063) on removal of poverty, al-Ghazali’s (d.1111) discussion on the difficulties of barter and his exposure of nature and functions of money and Ibn Taymiyah’s (d.1328) treatment of pricing mechanism and administrative fixation, to name but a few. It shows how Muslim scholars played an important role in continuity and growth of mainstream economics. When Greek works were translated into Arabic, Muslim scholars enhanced their utility by writing commentary over them and added their own views and interpretation. When re-translation activities from Arabic to Latin languages started, they transferred the whole stuff to the West which included their economic ideas as well. Not only translation, but their ideas reached the European West through a number of other channels, such as, education, oral transmission, travel accounts, trade, crusades, diplomatic missions, pilgrimages, etc. and influenced the scholastic scholars.

The Muslims had practical experience of dealing with the economy and state, spread over many centuries. Their ideas bore pragmatic orientation. The scope and subject matter of their economic thinking was not confined only to want-satisfaction, economy of self-sufficient households, division of labor, barter and money; they discussed a host of other problems and developed several new ideas – an account of these major issues has been presented in the History of Islamic Economic Thought. As the Muslim scholars based their ideas on both the revealed knowledge and human reason, they were more suited to scholastic scholars who benefited from them to a great extent. This is clear from the gap which is found between their voluminous body of thought on economic matters and almost no contribution of this from their predecessors, who could not have access to the Arabian sources. Through the scholastic scholars, contribution of Muslim scholars became part, though yet to be recognized, of the family tree of economics.


Dr. Abdul Azim Islahi is Professor at the Islamic Economics Institute, King Abdulaziz University, Jeddah. He has spent more than 30 years in research, teaching and expanding the frontiers of the discipline of Islamic economics. He did his Ph D. from the Aligarh Muslim University, on Economic Concepts of Ibn Taimiyah (Leicester UK 1988). He is a world authority on history of Islamic economic thought. He has to his credit 15 books and more than 100 research papers, reviews and article in English, Arabic and Urdu.  His new book, History of Islamic Economic Thought, is published by Edward Elgar. He can be contacted on or


References as occurred in the text

  1. Schumpeter, Joseph A. (1997), History of Economic Analysis, London: Routledge.
  2. Knight, Frank H. (1955), “Review article on The History of Economic Analysis, by Joseph A. Schumpeter”, Southern Economic Journal, Vol. 21, pp. 261-72.
  3. Landreth, Harry and C. Colander David (2002), History of Economic Theory, 4th edition, Boston, M A, Houghton Mifflin.
  4. Perlman, Mark (1997), ‘Introduction’ to History of Economic Analysis by Schumpeter, Joseph A., London, Routledge.
  5. IAFIE (2000), Islamic Economics Bulletin, (Aligarh, India), Indian Association for Islamic Economics, November-December, 10: 6.
  6. Mirakhor, Abbas (1987), “Muslim Scholars and the History of Economics: A Need for Consideration”, American Journal of Islamic Social Sciences, 4 (2), 245-276.
  7. Ghazanfar, S.M. (ed.), (2003), Medieval Islamic Economic Thought, London and New York, Routledge Curzon.
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