To account for economic disparities between Muslim countries and the West, Wayne Dynes cites the history of hawala, an informal money-transfer system based largely on trust and honor:

[In the Middle Ages], before the Great Divergence, the hawala system spread far and wide. That the first bankers in Italy were familiar with it is shown by the loan- word avallo, which is simply an Italian version of hawala. Yet the European bankers went far beyond their model, to introduce the wide-ranging innovations that we are all familiar with. The Islamic world kept to the more primitive institution of the hawala.

Today, of course, Western banking (sometimes disguised under the rubric of Islamic banking, which is simply Western banking with a few rhetorical changes) flourishes in Islamic countries. So does hawala. That this dual system, with one foot in the past and one in the present, is the norm is one indicator of the way in which Islamic economies are lagging.

We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to letters@theatlantic.com.