This project starts from the following proposition: that the clearest trait that distinguishes society in East and West in the Middle Ages is the very formal aspect that European institutions acquired and that was missing from their Islamic counterparts. This divergence may, in turn, have had very significant consequences, notably for the nature and continuity of practices and power in the political, religious, social, economic, and other fields. Such divergence and its consequences were of significance beyond the Middle Ages and continue to have an effect in the present day. This collaborative project will seek to answer an important and straightforward question with very important implications: why did certain sorts of institutionalisation and institutional continuity come to characterise government and society in Christendom by the later middle ages, but not the Islamic world, whereas the reverse might have been predicted on the basis of the early medieval situation?

Processes of formal institutionalisation took place in Western Europe in many spheres, notably political power and religious organisation. The distinctive processes of medieval state formation or the existence of the Church are obvious outcomes of such processes. In contrast, in societies covered by the expansion of Islam, the refusal of Islamic law to create privileged spheres within the Community of Believers (Umma) seems to have prevented the emergence of social, economic and political organizations with their own distinctive rules and regulations. It is a commonplace to state that in Islam, contrary to what happened in Christendom, there was no centralized institution comparable to the Church. But this lack was not unique to religious organisation and it affected many other fields. Thus, Islamic states did not hierarchize territories in the way that duchies, counties, or margravates did in the west; Islamic cities did not develop bodies of government like the medieval councils or the municipal authorities which mushroomed everywhere in Europe; Muslim artisans or traders did not create such strong organizations as urban guilds.

This does not mean that there were no Islamic institutions: cities were efficiently governed and organized, states administered their territories, and urban classes were a factor to be reckoned with in the day–to–day running of towns and large cities. However, these associations, bodies of government, or political organizations took a different shape from their European equivalents. Whereas the latter achieved a high degree of consolidation, formalization and self–consciousness, which helped to mould the complex political situations of what we call “modernity”, Islamic institutions had a less precise profile. This informal configuration proved to be in many cases extremely effective: lack of a centralized institution did not prevent Islam from shaping a very powerful dogma and a concept of orthodoxy which spread across vast regions; absence of municipal organizations did not impede urban life from becoming one of the main traits of Muslim civilization; centralized authority imposed its reins on scattered populations and regions with notable success in many cases. It should be made clear, therefore, that formal or non-formal institutions cannot be equated with, respectively, efficient or non-efficient institutions, and that the emphasis of this project is not on problems of “institutional failure” but rather on questions of “institutional diversity”.