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Rural life and economy until 1800
andrew m. watson
The lives of sedentary people in the Islamic countryside unfolded in a multifaceted context. Natural, technological, economic, political, cultural and religious
factors all bore on rural life, and were in turn affected by it.
The natural world provided a backdrop of topography, soils, climate and
water, while technologies offered tools, irrigation devices, plants, animals and
rotations. Economic factors such as population densities, urbanisation, monetisation of the economy and long-distance trade further conditioned the
activities of agriculturists, as did the policies of governments concerning
security, land tenure, inheritance, water rights, taxation and the construction
and maintenance of irrigation works. Cultural biases showed in preferences
for different modes of settlement and production, as well as in diets, and both
political and cultural elements were informed by religious teachings. None of
these was a constant.
Not surprisingly there was much variation in agricultural activities over
time and space. To give just one example, Vincent Lagardère has identified
seven types of agricultural undertakings in Islamic Spain, each the product of a
particular situation. These are as follows: (1) the munya, an aristocratic estate
generally located near large cities, and as much pleasure garden as farm,
where year-round irrigation supported orchards and intensive cultivation;
(2) the, a small aristocratic estate, probably resulting from the distribution of confiscated lands to people of high rank, generally located further from
cities and containing irrigated land, which was heavily cropped, and rain-fed
land, mainly given over to olive trees and vines; (3) the janna, or small irrigated
orchard and market garden, often located near towns and owned by towndwellers, typically operated for pleasure and profit by the owners and their
families, sometimes with the help of hired labour; (4) the qarya, usually a
village of around ten to thirty families, who generally owned their farmlands
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but might be the sharecroppers of a great person, producing a wide range of
crops on both irrigated and un-irrigated lands; (5) the d.ayqa, a large estate with
a single owner, which with the help of sharecroppers or hired labourers
produced both crops and animals; (6) the majshar, a privately owned estate
devoted to the production of livestock in hilly and mountainous areas
unsuited to crop production; and (7) other communities specialised in the
raising of animals in marshy or well-watered areas along river basins.1
If one looks beyond Spain to other parts of the early Islamic world one
encounters still more variation, but this is strikingly limited in scope. Two
types of settlement inherited from Antiquity are notably absent from the
above list for Spain, but were found elsewhere. One of these is the larger farms
along river valleys, where seasonal irrigation allowed the production of crops
for subsistence and for sale, the labour being most often provided by sharecroppers. The other, found in many regions, is a community practising mixed,
but hardly integrated, farming: most of its members grew crops, but they also
entrusted flocks to shepherds for grazing on near or more distant pastures.
These appear to complete the list of early Islamic modes of production.
That these same types repeat themselves all over the early Islamic world; that
they appear to have been the only types of agricultural undertakings in early
Islamic times; and that they persisted well into modern times, by which time
several new types of undertakings had appeared, calls for an explanation.
This would suggest that the repetition of the same patterns over vast spaces
and long periods of time was the result of several inherited or emerging
commonalities: similarities in the natural environments in which agriculture
was practised; the region’s common heritage of agricultural technologies
developed in the ancient world; the changes wrought all over this world by
its Arab conquerors; and finally, during the first four centuries of Islam, the
massive diffusion from east to west of crops, farming techniques and irrigation
technologies, which further unified agricultural practice.
The physical environment of the early Islamic world, though extremely
varied, allowed agriculture in very limited areas. Normally, dry farming could
be successful only where rainfall was above 250 millimetres per year; typically,
annual rainfall in cultivated areas was between 300 and 400 millimetres, but in
1 Vincent Lagardère, Campagnes et paysans d’al-Andalus, VIIIe–XVe siècles (Paris, 1993),
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a few places it was as high as 700 millimetres. Nearly all the rain fell in the
autumn, winter and early spring, allowing only a single agricultural season.
The hot, dry summer was almost dead. Where rainfall was adequate, topography might not be: crops could be grown only on plains and on the slopes
of hills and mountains that had retained enough soil to permit terracing;
uncultivable areas, in the plains and on mountain slopes, might be used for
seasonal grazing of animals. If irrigation water was available, this could be
used to increase the productivity of rain-fed areas and to support agriculture in
areas with inadequate rainfall: along river valleys, around oases and in places
where wells or underground canals gave access to ground water.
To exploit the possibilities of this difficult environment a common body of
agricultural knowledge and practice had emerged in ancient times, and was
inherited by the conquering Arabs. Uniformity was particularly striking in the
Mediterranean basin, where Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans and finally
Byzantines had diffused tools, crops and practices over wide areas, so that
by the seventh century CE there could be found almost everywhere the same
ways of coping with environmental challenges. Generally, rain-fed lands were
planted with drought-resistant permanent crops, such as olive trees, fig trees
and vines, or they were sown bi-annually with winter grains, mostly wheat,
barley and millets, as well as winter pulses such as chickpeas, lentils, peas and
broad beans. In alternate years cultivated lands were fallowed to replenish
moisture and fertility. On irrigated lands a wider range of crops was grown,
including fruits, vegetables and, in warmer areas, date palms. Biennial fallowing was usually suppressed in favour of annual cropping on irrigated land;
sometimes, but rarely, two crops were produced in one year. Depending on
the region and the type of undertaking, some large animals might be raised,
commonly sheep, goats, cattle, camels, horses, mules and donkeys. But in
general the production of animals and the growing of crops were two distinct
activities, carried out by different people on different types of land. There was
no trace of the integrated (or mixed) farming of medieval Europe, in which the
same land and labour were used to produce both crops and large animals.
In the valleys of the Tigris and Euphrates, as well as in the Indus Valley,
some differences from Mediterranean practices are noteworthy in pre-Islamic
times: most particularly in irrigation, which in some places allowed a summer
season, and in range of crops, which included some plants, such as sorghum
and rice, diffused out of India. But to a remarkable degree, even in these
distant regions, a ‘Mediterranean’ mode of agriculture prevailed.
In the regions they conquered the Arabs were in many ways a unifying
force. Their armies and the settlers who came in their wake brought the
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Arabic language, which was the language of Islam and was almost everywhere
to become the language of government, of learning and, in many places, of
vernacular discourse, thus encouraging the development of a common culture
throughout dār al-islām. And they brought a new religion. Though the Qurpān
seems to have a low regard for sedentary rural people and their work, Islam
offered teachings and developed legal traditions which bore on agriculture in
important ways. Islam forbade the eating of pork and the drinking of wine,
proscriptions which banished pigs from the farmyards of Muslims and greatly
reduced – but did not eliminate – their making and drinking of wine. Legal
traditions included laws of inheritance which decreed how estates, including
agricultural properties, should be divided among heirs; there might be a great
many inheritors, resulting in the extreme fragmentation of farms or else their
continued exploitation as a single property jointly owned, but poorly managed, by many absentee landlords. There developed a complex and bewildering body of tax laws explaining how different categories of rural people, lands,
crops and animals should be taxed. There were also rules concerning rights
over irrigation water, including the proscription of its sale; these rights
undoubtedly encouraged investment in irrigation. And there were teachings
and laws concerning the ownership of land, which, depending on circumstances and jurist, was seen to belong to God, to the state, to the Muslim
community, to institutions and to individuals. Although in time different
schools of law emerged with somewhat different rules concerning taxation
and the ownership of land, and although realities increasingly diverged from
the teachings of jurists, at least in the early centuries Islamic law contributed
significantly to the uniformity of rural life across the Islamic world.
Further homogenisation of agriculture occurred in the first four centuries
of Islam through the widespread diffusion of old and new technologies. The
principal direction of flow was from the eastern part of the caliphate – the Sind
and the valleys of the Tigris and Euphrates – to the Mediterranean basin.
These were regions that in earlier times had had little contact but which, as a
result of the Arab conquests, were brought under a single rule. Over the
length and breadth of this world there was much travel by pilgrims, scholars,
merchants, fighters and settlers, who carried the agricultural knowledge and
food preferences of their homelands to new places. Among the crops diffused
westwards were rice, sorghum, sugar cane, cotton, various citrus trees (Seville
oranges, lemons, limes and shaddocks), bananas, plantains, watermelons,
spinach, aubergines, colocasia, mango trees and coconut palms. With the
exception of mango trees and coconut palms, which could be grown only in
tropical or semi-tropical zones, these new crops were diffused to all regions of
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the early Islamic world and many became economically important. One
irrigation technology was also carried westward: the qanāt or kārı¯z, an underground canal which brought water, often over long distances, from aquifers at
the base of mountains to fields, villages and towns. At the same time, two
water-lifting devices, which had been known to the Romans but were little
used until the labour shortages of the fifth and sixth centuries, were widely
diffused through the early Islamic world. These were the noria or waterwheel, which was driven by the flow of streams and rivers, and the sāqiya or
chain of pots, powered by animals.
Thus similarities in physical environment, commonalities in agricultural
heritage, the imprint of the Arab conquerors and of Islam and, finally, a
massive diffusion of agricultural technologies from east to west: these seem
to account for the limited variety of agricultural forms found throughout the
early Islamic world.
Only later, when Islam moved outwards into new areas, or when new
forms were introduced by invaders or migrants coming from outside, or when
new modes of production slowly evolved within the Islamic world in response
to new conditions, did greater variation appear. Just three examples out of
many will be given here to illustrate the growing complexity of agriculture in
later times; several other cases will be treated later in this chapter. As Islam
spread into sub-Saharan Africa, it came to embrace quasi-sedentary communities whose members burned stretches of the savannah for shifting cultivation.
In some of the lands of the Balkans conquered by the Ottomans, for instance
on the plains of Wallachia, another mode of exploitation appeared: this closely
resembled the medieval European manor, which may well be its origin, with
share-cropping tenants who cultivated their own holdings, performed labour
services on the owner’s demesne and grazed animals on common pasture
lands. Finally, in parts of Central Asia there is evidence in the fifteenth and
sixteenth centuries of what Jürgen Paul has called a communité villageoise, a
seemingly more ancient type of settlement in which villagers collectively
controlled the construction and maintenance of irrigation works, the distribution of water and, apparently, the allocation and reallocation of farmlands
which individual cultivators were not allowed to alienate. Whether such
communities were introduced by conquerors or migrants coming from outside or evolved within the Islamic world is not clear, but the principle of
collective management suggests a nomadic origin.2
2 Jürgen Paul, ‘Le village en Asie centrale aux XVe et XVIe siècles’, Cahiers du Monde Russe
et Soviétique, 32 (1991).
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Interfaces: cities and nomads
Rural people in the Islamic world had crucial relations with two nonagricultural elements of society: city-dwellers and nomadic pastoralists.
Together, these involvements were in large measure – though certainly not
entirely – responsible for the rhythm of growth and decay that periodised the
region’s agricultural history.
Between the cities and the countryside there was a flow, in both directions,
of money, services and goods. Funds moved from agriculturists to cities in the
form of taxes, rents and other dues, which were the main support for the
bureaucracy, the military and a land-owning rentier class. There was a return
flow of money to the countryside, as landowners and urban moneylenders
provided loans to allow farmers to buy inputs, to tide them over till harvest
time and to get them through years of bad harvests; the frequent inability of
borrowers to repay on time was one factor leading to the build-up of great
estates. Funds might also flow from the cities as governments took an interest
in the construction and repair of large irrigation works, though often the
labour needed for such work was provided by corvées. The city – more
precisely the government – was also the main source of whatever protection
could be given to rural dwellers against invaders, marauders and Bedouin. In
the other direction, the countryside sent to the city some of its excess of labour
to seek seasonal or long-term employment in households, services and industry. Trade saw the cities exporting some industrial goods to the countryside,
most notably textiles and tools, while the agricultural surplus of crops and
animals was, in large measure, sold to the cities. Indeed, the cities depended
almost entirely upon the countryside for their food supplies and for many of
their industrial raw materials; and as cities grew they drew into their orbits
ever larger hinterlands where agriculture became increasingly specialised and
intensive. When hinterlands could not increase their surpluses at prices that
were economic, the growth of cities was blocked – unless long-distance trade
could offer alternative sources of supply. Thus although city-dwellers and
agriculturists are often seen as opposing worlds in Islamic belief, the former
favoured over the latter by the Prophet and his religion, in fact they lived in a
close symbiotic relationship. The spectacular rise of cities in the early centuries of Islam was possible only because of a corresponding development of
Contacts between sedentary rural people and nomadic pastoralists – often
referred to as Bedouin – were perhaps more limited. Indeed, to some extent
the worlds of these two peoples who shared the countryside seem
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diametrically opposed. They had different modes of production, different
cultures, different values, different dress and different diets. At the margins
they competed for land. Yet for this very reason there were periodic shiftings
of people and land between these two ways of life. As Bedouin populations
rose or the yield of their pastures fell, or as the protection of sedentary
agriculture became lax, they might extend their pastures onto cultivated
lands. When sedentary agriculture was contracting, for whatever reason,
farmers might become nomads. Those who could most easily make the switch
were those already engaged in animal production; they had the necessary
skills and they often lived in regions where farming was most at risk.
Conversely, there were periods when settled communities, usually with
government support, might take over fertile pasture lands or Bedouin might
be settled on these lands; typically, Bedouin settlements would be of the
majshar type, producing mainly animals which grazed on common pastures,
or else they would consist of small villages where crops were grown and
animals entrusted to herders for transhumant grazing.
Even when the balance between sedentarism and nomadism was stable
the frontiers between these two opposing worlds were porous, allowing for
a peaceful flow of goods in both directions. Bedouin typically sold a part of
their surplus production of animals, milk products, hides and wool to settled
rural communities, most particularly to those that did not produce large
animals, and especially at the times of the great annual feasts when large
numbers of sheep would be slaughtered. And Bedouin obtained a good
part of their grain supplies from sedentary farmers. In many parts of the
Islamic world these exchanges were effected in rural markets, which as yet
have been little studied. These gathered weekly or monthly on sites lying at
convenient distances from a number of villages and near to the nomads’
pasturelands. Through the week the markets in a region might rotate from
one site to another, so that on most or all days of the week there was an
operating market.
Partly because of the dependency of farmers on city-dwellers and Bedouin,
and partly for very different reasons, farming was an uncertain, risky undertaking, and in many regions agriculture itself was fragile. Rural prosperity
depended on the behaviour of various elements in the cities: on the ability and
willingness of rulers to tax fairly, to maintain the larger irrigation works and to
provide protection to settled communities, their lands and their trade; on the
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interest in their estates or the neglect of these on the part of landowners
living in the cities; on the size of markets, near and distant, which varied as
urban populations waxed or waned and as trade routes opened or closed.
Rural producers were also at the mercy of urban rulers, bureaucrats and
merchants who might unscrupulously manipulate grain supplies and prices.
On the interface with the Bedouin other vulnerabilities appeared. In fact, the
Bedouin were an ever-present threat in most regions, particularly in the many
places where settlement was discontinuous or bordered on nomadic grazing
lands. Even in the best of times such communities could not easily be
protected against Bedouin razzias, transhumance or longer-term incursions.
The trade routes on which agriculturists depended might be even more
difficult to defend.
To complete the list of rural vulnerabilities, it is important to note that
farmers were also subject to the vagaries of nature and they were, moreover,
in many times and places, the victims of their own excesses. Nature might
strike in many ways. There were great year-to-year fluctuations in rainfall,
river flows and temperatures; and there could be harsh winds, hailstorms,
infestations of rodents and insects and attacks of plant and animal diseases.
Perhaps for these reasons the Qurpān views good harvests as a gift of God
rather than the fruit of human labour endowed with agricultural skills developed over eight or more millennia. And certainly there were many years
when harvests failed over smaller or larger areas. Michael Dols has stated that
between 661 and 1500 there are records of 186 major famines in the Islamic
world, a figure he thinks is ‘far too low’ owing to the incompleteness of the
sources. Famines could cause high death rates in the cities, and also in the
countryside where, even in good times, peasants often lived barely above
the subsistence level. When starvation was followed by disease, as often
happened, mortality rose still further.3
Finally, the activities of agriculturists themselves might in the long term
damage agriculture. Over-cultivation could deplete soils of their fertility;
over-irrigation could lower water tables or lead to salinisation of soil, especially in Iraq; and over-grazing degraded the vegetation of pasture lands, often
leaving little that animals would eat. Furthermore, over-cultivation, overgrazing and deforestation left land more vulnerable to erosion by rainfall,
winds and floods, and in not a few places the soil cover on which agriculture
depended was lost. Whether these human activities also caused climate
3 Michael Dols, ‘Famine in the Islamic world’, in Joseph Strayer (ed.), Dictionary of the
Middle Ages, 13 vols. (New York, 1982–9), vol. V, pp. 1–3.
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changes affecting agriculture, or whether there was any change in climate for
other reasons, are questions that cannot yet be answered.
In any case, these dependencies of agriculture – on urban dwellers, Bedouin,
natural phenomena and the practices of farmers themselves – are responsible for
short-term fluctuations in rural prosperity. And they are also in large measure
responsible for the longer-term cycles of agricultural progress and decline.
Periodisation: ups and downs
In this necessarily very brief treatment of agricultural history over a vast
expanse of the earth’s surface and over a very long stretch of time it will
not be possible to describe in detail, let alone attempt to explain, the long-term
fluctuations in rural fortunes. Only the most cursory overview can be offered.
Once the disruptions caused by the Arab conquests were over, the early
centuries of Islam were nearly everywhere a time of sustained agricultural
progress, in which the area of sedentary agriculture expanded and the productivity of most categories of agricultural land and labour rose. Backed by
policies of the Umayyad and qAbbāsid caliphates, local pastoralists and conquering Arabs in many regions were persuaded to become sedentary farmers.
Thus, for instance, in several parts of Ifrı̄qiya and the Maghrib nomadic
Berbers and other transhumant tribes began constructing huts to replace
tents and cultivating fields at the expense of grazing. According to recently
published archaeological evidence a large region in the central Euphrates
Valley, which on the eve of Islam was virtually uninhabited, had 103 villages
by the early ninth century.4 In this process of sedentarisation the widespread
construction of irrigation works – canals, embankments, weirs, dams, dykes,
reservoirs, terraces and water-lifting machines – was often critical. These
brought more water to more land over more months of the year, and quite
often perennial irrigation was achieved. One outstanding example of many is
the large-scale water-engineering projects undertaken by the governor of Iraq,
. ajjāj ibn Yūsuf (d. 714) in the region of Wāsit., which he founded. Similarly,
Ziyād ibn Abı̄hi (d. 680), the governor of two other new cities, Bas.ra and Kūfa,
each surrounded by newly irrigated hinterlands, ordered the construction of
two large canals connecting Bas.ra with the Shat.t. al-qArab. Still other important
irrigation and land-reclamation works in the Sawād were undertaken by
private developers.
4 Sophie Berthier et al., Peuplement rural et aménagements hydroagricoles dans la moyenne vallée
de l’Euphrate, fin VIIe–XIXe siècle (Damascus, 2001), passim.
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The new crops also played an important role. Some, such as sorghum and
watermelons, were relatively drought-tolerant and thus encouraged the
advance of agriculture into drier areas. Many other new crops were either
permanent crops – such as citrus and banana trees – or were summer crops;
both required heavy irrigation during the summer months and thus
went hand-in-hand with progress in irrigation. Together, the traditional
and new crops permitted new rotations in which land could be cropped
two or more times a year without fallowing; the greater flexibility of
rotations allowed farmers to take special advantage of micro-climates and
local soils.
The gains in productivity achieved in these ways are bound up with general
economic development, demographic growth and the spread of the money
economy into the countryside. More particularly, they are linked, as both
cause and effect, to the impressive rise of cities.
But in many places growth was not to last. As early as the ninth century,
when agriculture was still prospering in most of the Islamic world, settlement
retreated from the western fringes of the desert in the H.ijāz, in Transjordania
and in much of Syria. In the eastern part of this desert, along the middle
Euphrates, there was a dramatic decline of settlement as many communities
were abandoned. The causes of this early decline are obscure: possibly it is due
to climate change, or perhaps settlement had pushed into regions where
rainfall and river flows were too low and too variable for viable agriculture,
or perhaps the slow decentralisation and decline of the powers of the caliphate
left the government unable to protect sedentary agriculture in these regions.
Whatever the explanation, the eleventh century saw new threats to agriculture, as nomadic invaders overran large areas in the eastern and western parts
of the Islamic world. In the west, the Banū Hilāl, a nomadic people from
northern Arabia, devastated agriculture in Cyrenaica and Tripolitania, and
then, in 1052, moved on to Ifrı̄qiya and the western Maghrib, where they
destroyed most inland settlements and forced a retreat of sedentary agriculture back to coastal regions; the littoral towns were obliged to turn to Sicily for
a large part of their grain supplies. In the eastern part of the caliphate the
Saljūq Turks, another nomadic people, established an empire based in Persia
in 1040; after raiding Anatolia repeatedly in the early part of the century they
fought the Byzantines, and won a decisive victory in 1071. This was followed
by a massive movement into Anatolia of nomadic Turcomans, who were
largely unsympathetic to sedentary agriculture. In the century that followed
the frequent battles with Byzantines and Crusaders prevented agricultural
recovery in most of Anatolia.
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The subsequent history of the rural economy in the Islamic world is the tale
of periods of recovery, and even advance, followed by further decay, in which
regional variation became more evident. In general, agriculture continued to
suffer from the successive waves of invaders who, with almost monotonous
regularity, overran different parts of the Islamic world: the Crusaders,
Ayyūbids, Mongols, Tı̄mūrids and Ottomans in the east, and the
Almoravids and Almohads in the west. Like the Banū Hilāl and the Saljūqs,
these later conquerors were mostly nomadic or semi-nomadic peoples, more
familiar with grazing and extensive grain cultivation than with the intensive,
irrigated agriculture that had developed so brilliantly in the early Islamic
world. In the course of their conquests they often destroyed settlements and
irrigation works, and their victories were usually followed by large-scale
immigration of nomads into the conquered areas. The usually short-lived
regimes they established often showed little interest in promoting agriculture.
Particularly devastating were the conquests of the Mongols in thirteenthcentury West Asia: these were followed by massive slaughters of city-dwellers
and rural folk alike, neglect or destruction of irrigation works and widespread
abandonment of cultivated land, triggering what I. P. Petrushevsky has called
a ‘colossal economic decline’.5 Recovery was thwarted by the Black Death,
which, through the second half of the fourteenth century, reduced population
by perhaps one-third in territories formerly ruled by the Mongols (and indeed
all over West Asia, North Africa and al-Andalus), making intensive agriculture, in most places, unnecessary and uneconomic.
To be sure, after the initial damage of the conquests some of the conquerors
were able to create governments that were sufficiently strong and stable to
support agriculture; and in fact the strength and stability of their governments
depended in considerable measure on prosperity in the countryside. One such
example is Spain under its Berber conquerors, the Almoravids and the
Almohads, where not only did intensive agriculture flourish in many places
but agricultural science was advanced on botanical gardens and experimental
farms, and scholars wrote extensively on the emerging science of agriculture.
Other examples are Egypt under the Bah.rı̄ Mamlūks (1240–1382), Iran during
the rule of Ghāzān Khān (1295–1304), Yemen in the time of the Rasūlid kings
(early thirteenth century–1428), the Ottoman empire from 1470 until the end
of the rule of Süleymān the Magnificent in 1566, and Iran during the reign of
5 I. P. Petrushevsky, ‘The socio-economic condition of Iran under the Īl-Khāns’, in The
Cambridge history of Iran, 7 vols. in 8 (London and New York, 1968–91), vol. V; J. A. Boyle
(ed.), The Saljuq and Mongol periods, p. 483.
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Shāh qAbbās I (1571–1629). In general, these were periods when governments
were sufficiently strong to provide the support needed by agriculture and
sedentarisation of nomads was encouraged; they were also usually times
when trade flourished and money supplies were relatively abundant, factors
which may have contributed to the strength of governments. Agricultural
revival in the early modern era may also have been fed by new crops arriving
in the Islamic world following the voyages of discovery: from China came
sweet oranges and from the New World were brought maize, potatoes, sweet
potatoes, capsicum peppers, tomatoes, tobacco, New World cotton and
haricot, runner and lima beans. Although maize (fed at first to animals and
later to human beings) spread quickly through the early modern Islamic
world, the other crops seem to have been diffused more slowly; they may
nevertheless have given some new strength to agriculture, even in its periods
of decay.
Recovery from invasions, regressive policies and epidemics grew increasingly difficult as new landholding and taxation arrangements became more
widespread and more pernicious. The earliest of these was tax-farming.
Adopted in the qAbbāsid caliphate in the ninth century, the delegation of tax
collection to provincial governors allowed them to collect, and largely keep,
the taxes from their jurisdictions. Collection in some regions was soon
decentralised further as individuals were allowed to buy the taxation rights
over smaller or larger areas of the provinces; rates of taxation tended to rise
and become more arbitrary in such areas, and peasants had little recourse. The
second of these harmful institutions was the iqt.āq, introduced by the Būyids
and the Saljūqs in the eleventh century and widely adopted in later centuries.
This was a benefice granted to high-ranking officers; in return for military
service, the holder obtained the right to collect and retain taxes over considerable areas of agricultural land. Originally granted for a period of years or for
a lifetime, the iqt.āq thus encouraged short-term maximisation of revenue with
little reinvestment in land or irrigation works. In some regions it became
hereditary and the holder began to assume ‘feudal’ rights over lands and
people in his benefice, thus obscuring the locus of land ownership and sometimes extinguishing individual property rights. Finally, the institution of the
waqf had further damaging effects on agricultural production. By the tenth
century this had become a means of granting lands in perpetuity to charitable
institutions, such as mosques, schools and caravanserais. Typically, the recipient had little agricultural knowledge and little interest in managing the lands
received; and as an institution’s endowments grew in size its holdings became
increasingly scattered and difficult to supervise. Many waqf lands also escaped
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taxation. Because they were in principle inalienable, the progressive accumulation of such endowments was difficult to stop: by later Ottoman times it has
been estimated that the dead hand of the waqf had touched three-quarters of
the empire’s agricultural land. Thus all three arrangements tended to undermine enlightened management of lands by peasants or owners; by eroding
state revenues they also weakened the ability of the state to govern and hence
to promote agriculture. As these institutions spread, further decline seemed
inevitable. Recovery, when it occurred, was usually incomplete and often
Indeed, from the early or mid-seventeenth century onwards the general
trend was downwards: rural areas were slowly depopulated, trade faltered,
and agricultural output and productivity fell. Only with the arrival of the
colonial powers did matters change, but then the change did not always
benefit peasants or landowners.
Probably the most powerful engine of agricultural progress was trade. It led to
the specialisation of land use in those activities for which land was better
suited. It also encouraged specialisation of the labour force, which thereby
improved its skills. The pressure to increase productivity occurred not only on
the lands shifted to commercial production but also on the reduced areas
available for subsistence agriculture. Where these latter became insufficient
for a community’s needs, it would start buying part of its sustenance from
other villages; these would then try to increase their productivity. If land or
labour was scarce, the ripples could travel far.
It is probable that in the Islamic world, at all times and in all places, there
were few rural communities that did not trade. In the panoply of types of
agricultural undertakings described by Vincent Lagardère and outlined above,
probably none was near to self-sufficiency. They all traded, most on a considerable scale; indeed, without trade they could not have survived, and the
modes of agricultural production would have been very different and less
productive. The munya and janna were clearly involved in production of fruits
and vegetables for sale in urban markets, and their inhabitants must have
bought meat, and probably grains, from elsewhere. The appears to have
produced few or no large animals, and its inhabitants must have procured
small amounts of meat – and perhaps wool, skins and milk products – from
other estates. The majshar and other communities raising animals seem to
have produced no crops at all, and must have obtained these from others.
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Although the inhabitants of the d.ayqa and the qarya may have been more selfsufficient than those on other types of undertakings, almost certainly they too
depended, to varying degrees, on markets. Trade occurred not only at the
rural markets described above, where settled communities could trade with
one another and with Bedouin, but also at markets on the outskirts of towns,
where agriculturists, Bedouin and city-dwellers could all exchange their
Specialisation of the rural labour force seems to have been carried further
by the fact that household industries in the countryside – both usufacture and
market-oriented industries – appear to have been negligible. While rural areas
did have some non-household industries, such as mining, and considerable
amounts of raw and spun silk were indeed produced in rural households, the
overwhelming part of industrial production seems to have occurred in cities.
As far as one can tell from the sources, even the production of textiles, pottery
and baskets, as well as much of the processing of foods, was carried out mainly
in urban workshops. Rural dwellers, therefore, seem to have depended on the
cities for most of their tools, cloth, pots and much else. This division of
industrial labour in turn put pressure on rural dwellers to produce still greater
agricultural surpluses: in order to buy industrial products, in addition to a part
of their food supplies, they had to sell more.
As cities grew in the period from 700 to 1100, sometimes reaching unprecedented sizes for their regions, rural specialisation increased. Thus in Ifrı̄qiya
in the early eleventh century, the expanding hinterland of the capital,
Qayrawān, encompassed what Claudette Vanacker has called a ‘juxtaposition
of specialised zones’. The region of Fah.s. al-Darrāra sent grains and fruits to the
capital; the lands between Qayrawān and Sfax produced olives; the area north
of Gafsa specialised in animal production; the oasis of Tozeur exported
northwards (according to al-Bakrı̄) a thousand camel-loads of dates almost
every day; a number of areas sent saffron for the city’s textile industry; and
other localities provided pistachios, figs, silk cocoons and flowers. These and
other specialisations were held in place by the ability of the zones to trade with
one another and with the capital.6
Some regions of agricultural specialisation traded not only with nearby
cities but with more distant markets. Where conditions permitted, such
longer-distance trade could lead to much larger areas of agricultural land
6 Claudette Vanacker, ‘Géographie économique de l’Afrique du Nord selon les auteurs
arabes, du XIe siècle au milieu du XIIe siècle’, Annales: Économies, Sociétés, Civilisations,
28 (1973).
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being given over to near monoculture. Thus, for instance, although cotton
was grown widely over almost all the Islamic world from 800 onwards, certain
zones of intense specialisation appeared: a wide stretch of land in the highlands
of Syria reaching from Aleppo south to H.amā; a southern extension of this
zone around the lake of al-H.ūla, where 200 villages were said to be given over
to cotton production; the lower Tigris and its dependent canals around Bas.ra;
and the area in the upper Euphrates Valley around Nahr H.abūr. Equally
concentrated production of sugar cane could be found from the tenth century
onwards in the Sind, in Khūzistān, on much of the Levantine coastal plain,
in the Jordan Valley, along the Nile and in its Delta, and in the Sūs in southern
Morocco. The cotton and sugar produced in these regions were exported in
many directions, sometimes to very distant markets. As trans-Mediterranean
trade opened up from 1100 onwards, cotton bought by European merchants
in the eastern Mediterranean supplied a growing textile industry in northern
Italy and later in Germany; and sugar of various types began appearing in
Barcelona, Marseilles and the northern Italian cities, whence some of it made
its way to markets in north-western Europe.
Whether the specialisation in land use induced by such extensive trade led
to changes in the mode of production is not clear from the sources, which
have little to say on the subject. It seems, however, that large and small units,
using family, tenant and wage labour, could all successfully compete in the
production of speciality crops for sale. Quite possibly, in the absence of
agricultural slaves and colonial overlords, there were no economies of scale
to be derived from large-scale production of the plantation type. We do learn,
however, that in fourteenth-century Egypt the Banū Fud.ayl family planted
2500 feddans of sugar cane every year. In both Egypt and Syria Mamlūk amı¯rs,
viziers, princes and even sultans were deeply involved in the production of
sugar cane on their estates. As they paid little or nothing in taxes they had an
advantage over other producers, whom they partially displaced; and on the
sultan’s estates this advantage was increased as tenants became liable to
corvée on lands he exploited directly. Mamlūk producers came to exercise
greater control over the industry through vertical integration: many acquired
their own sugar presses and refineries. Carrying this process one stage further,
the Sultan Barsbāy (1422–38) attempted to establish a state monopoly over
both the production of cane and the manufacture of sugar. Perhaps indeed we
can see here the beginnings of a plantation mode of production.
While incorporation into the emerging world economy undoubtedly
increased incomes from agricultural activities, these gains came at a price.
Not only were the rewards unevenly distributed, so that the returns to labour
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in some cases hardly changed, or even fell, but dependence on overseas
markets also created new vulnerabilities for peasants, landowners and merchants. All found themselves at the mercy of events in distant places over
which they and their rulers had no control: trade cycles, wars, changes in taste
and competition from other sources of supply could all adversely affect
markets and prices, and sometimes markets simply dried up. In the fifteenth
century the Spanish and Portuguese introduced sugar cane into the islands of
Madeira, the Canaries, Santiago and São Tomé; and by the sixteenth sugar
from these islands was flooding onto European and Arab markets. By then,
too, the voyages of discovery had opened sea routes to continents with vast
tropical and semi-tropical regions, where sugar cane, rice, cotton, bananas and
other crops of tropical origin could be grown more cheaply. By the end of
the seventeenth century these crops had largely disappeared from the
Mediterranean basin, where they had once been so important, as well as
from some parts of West Asia. In the eighteenth century the British shifted
their source of raw silk from Iran to India. By the end of that century coffee
production – long the exclusive domain of Yemen – had spread to India,
South-East Asia, the Indonesian archipelago and Central and South America.
Where European trading companies still sought agricultural products from
Islamic regions, as they did from Islamic parts of West Africa, India, SouthEast Asia and the Indonesian archipelago, there was every danger that they
would try to maximise profits by monopolising first the export and then the
production of the goods: they could then buy more cheaply and sell at higher
prices, thus capturing monopoly profits from both production and trade. To
establish and enforce their monopolies they usually found that political control was needed, and regions exporting key agricultural products to Europe
became prime targets for colonial rule.
Thus, in the early modern period, as the world economy tightened,
agriculturists in many parts of the Islamic world had a foretaste of new
vulnerabilities. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries there was
worse to come.
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