November 15, 2008

al-Ghazali, Economist

I was a bit surprised to find a link to a blog post on ancient Islamic economics over at Economist's View, but that's exactly what the post is about: the famed Muslim theologian al-Ghazali (1058-1111), author of The Incoherence of the Philosophers and other works, had written on the topic of the division of labor that is mirrored by the writings of Adam Smith, author of The Wealth of Nations, which was published well over 650 years later, in 1776.

The post highlights several examples where al-Ghazali's writings are mirrored by Smith's, including a comparison between al-Ghazali's 25-step process for the making of needles vs. Smith's famous example of 18 steps in the manufacture of pins. However, a more interesting comparison is where al-Ghazali writes about the vertical division of labor; for example, How many people does it take to make one loaf of bread?

For a bread, for example, first the farmer prepares and cultivates the land, then the bullock and tools needed to plough the land. Then the land is irrigated. It is cleared from weeds, then the crop is harvested and grains are cleaned and separated. Then there is milling into flour before baking. Just imagine – how many tasks are involved; and we here mention just only some. And imagine the number of people performing these various tasks, and the number of various kinds of tools, made from iron, woods, stone, etc. If one enquires, one will find that perhaps a single loaf of bread takes its final shape with the help of perhaps more than a thousand workers.

Smith provided a similar example for the question, How many people does it take to manufacture a woolen coat?

How many different trades are employed in each branch of the linen and woollen manufactures, from the growers of the flax and the wool, to the bleachers and smoothers of the linen, or to the dyers and dressers of the cloth!:

Observe the accommodation of the most common artificer or day-labourer in a civilized and thriving country, and you will perceive that the number of people of whose industry a part, though but a small part, has been employed in procuring him this accommodation, exceeds all computation. The woollen coat, for example, which covers the day-labourer, as coarse and rough as it may appear, is the produce of the joint labour of a great multitude of workmen. The shepherd, the sorter of the wool, the wool-comber or carder, the dyer, the scribbler, the spinner, the weaver, the fuller, the dresser, with many others, must all join their different arts in order to complete even this homely production. How many merchants and carriers, besides, must have been employed in transporting the materials from some of those workmen to others who often live in a very distant part of the country! how much commerce and navigation in particular, how many ship-builders, sailors, sail-makers, rope-makers, must have been employed in order to bring together the different drugs made use of by the dyer, which often come from the remotest corners of the world! What a variety of labour too is necessary in order to produce the tools of the meanest of those workmen! To say nothing of such complicated machines as the ship of the sailor, the mill of the fuller, or even the loom of the weaver, let us consider only what a variety of labour is requisite in order to form that very simple machine, the shears with which the shepherd clips the wool. The miner, the builder of the furnace for smelting the ore, the feller of the timber, the burner of the charcoal to be made use of in the smelting-house, the brick-maker, the brick-layer, the workmen who attend the furnace, the mill-wright, the forger, the smith, must all of them join their different arts in order to produce them.

Could Smith have read al-Ghazali's work prior to his writing The Wealth of Nations? Allahu alim; I have no idea.

The full post can be read here.

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