The Bazaar in the History of Global Capitalism

By Fahad Bishara

Those of us working in the humanities and social sciences may have noticed that discussions of the history of capitalism have experienced something of a renaissance over the past decade or so; historical materialism is making a strong comeback. Historians are now undertaking new work in political economy that seeks to more deeply understand the interconnections between material and symbolic life. This return to economic history has involved serious critical engagement with the historical phenomenon of capitalism. Part of this has been a move away from earlier, more overtly Marxist approaches to world economic history. Another part, however, is a clear disassociation from the more formalist approaches to economic history practiced by economists, for whom categories like “culture” constitute external variables more than they do inextricable elements of the economic fabric.

For all of its richness and depth, however, the bulk of the new work on the history of capitalism has abandoned the broad scope that had characterized literature that came before it. With the exception of Sven Beckert’s Empire of Cotton: A Global History, in which India, Egypt, Brazil, and other sites feature prominently in the narrative, most of the new work has centered around the Atlantic experience, largely ignoring the place of the Islamic world, broadly defined, in a burgeoning world-capitalist economy. This is all the more jarring in light of the fact that for an older generation of economic historians the trading worlds of Arabia, Asia, and Africa were fundamental to the narrative of global capitalism, even if there was broad disagreement over whether they had become capitalist themselves. For most, the vitality of the trading world of the Islamic world was limited to the pre-industrial era: there is very little doubt, even among the most contrarian of world economic historians, that by the nineteenth century Asia had become yet another victim of the capitalist juggernaut – another frontier in the “global countryside.”

The critique of Eurocentrism or American exceptionalism is an old one, and there is no need to rehash it here. And yet, with few exceptions, the literature on economic life in the Islamic world has not offered historians of capitalism much of an alternative.[1] With only a handful of exceptions, economic historians of the Islamic world have tended to focus on either the medieval period, sidestepping the question of capitalism altogether, or have fallen into the Weberian trap of comparative institutional analysis, asking why Muslim merchants never developed the capitalist institutions that their Western counterparts did.[2] Both variants of the literature, it should be said, have done a lot to advance our understanding of the economic history of the Islamic world and to preserve the debate on the boundaries between Islamic law and commerce. They have had less to say, though, on the place of regional merchants within a burgeoning world-capitalist economy, aside from the general contention that they fared poorly.

How might thinking about the bazaar help us better engage with this narrative of global capitalism? As a metonym for the range of different financial and organizational practices that animated economic life around the Indian Ocean, the bazaar forms a space from which we might consider the shared boundaries between the history of the Islamic world and the changing world of global capitalism. Put boldly, it is from within the bazaar – from thinking through its entanglements with other commercial systems, European or otherwise – that we can begin to understand how capitalism emerged as a global co-creation rather than as a European phenomenon that diffused into the Islamic world. Instead of thinking of Muslim economic actors as passive recipients of practices and institutions that come from elsewhere (or worse, suggesting a narrative of early dynamism that later turned into stasis and inefficiency as the rest of the world took off), what I’m suggesting is that we write from perspectives that allow us to appreciate the ways in which Muslim (and non-Muslim) actors actively engaged with the transformations taking place around them and drew on their repertoires of texts, contracts, and concepts to actively insert themselves into these processes.

How to arrange this into a narrative over the longue durée of Muslim history is, of course, a much more daunting challenge. I won’t pretend to know the answer here, though I do have some thoughts on the matter (but that is maybe outside of the scope of the content of a blog like this one). Truthfully, this sort of work is already being done by different scholars working on different parts of the Islamic world; what is left is to pull that work together and reorient it towards new historiographical horizons.

What there should be no doubt over are the implications of doing this kind of work for how we write and locate the history of Islamic law. By writing a narrative of Muslim legal history from the bazaar, we actively dislodge it from the sorts of texts, discourses, and geographies that have dominated the discussion so far. Historians can write a narrative of legal transformation in the Islamic world that foregrounds legal practice and the many genres of commericio-legal writing through which economic actors in the Islamic world responded to the changing contours of the global economy (this, again, is work that is already being done in various guises). Even when we rely on the canonical texts, then, we can begin to read them – and particularly their discussions of the commercial world – from a different perspective.[3]

More importantly, in thinking about a narrative that unfolds over the Islamic world, one might de-center the Arab heartlands from the grand narrative and more fruitfully draw attention to developments in the Indian Ocean, the Mediterranean, Central Asia, and the Persianate World. For if the historical narrative of Islamic law cannot avoid its heavy emphasis on the Middle East, the same is patently untrue when it comes to the much broader tentacles of the bazaar.

The payoff for bringing the Islamic world more forcefully into the discussion on the history of global capitalism (or world economic history more generally) is perhaps even greater. For rather than allow it to be pushed to the sidelines of a world-historical narrative anchored in Europe, it enables historians of the region to more forcefully push back against the now-teetering (yet invariably resurrected) narratives of the rise of the West in the way that historians of China have so admirably done. But more importantly, writing a narrative of Muslim commerce that makes use of the range of sources that historians have at their disposal would force the broader historical discipline to take Islamic law, and Muslim participation in the global commercial transformations, much more seriously than they have to date.


[1] For an excellent survey of these exceptions, see Omar Cheta, “The Economy By Other Means: The Historiography of Capitalism in the Modern Middle East,” History Compass 16, no. 4 (2018),

[2] I survey this literature in an upcoming article in History Compass entitled “Histories of Law and the Economic Life in the Islamic World.”

[3] Here, the work of Martha Mundy, Yossef Rappoport, and Abraham Udovitch, among others, has been particularly instructive.

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