Since the beginning, Islam encouraged the practice of agriculture. Several verses in the Qur’an are connected to agriculture, as a part of the creation process and life on earth. Likewise, the hadiths (sayings of the Prophet Muhammad) that encouraged Muslims to practice agriculture are abundant. Within the same conception, Muslim rulers paid much attention to agriculture as it constituted then as a major economic activity and a pillar of the Islamic treasury. Therefore, a continuous effort was directed towards reforming lands for cultivation, digging rivers and irrigation channels and, wherever appropriate, pieces of land were attributed to those who lacked them, to cultivate. This became a recorded history .
Figure 1a-b: Two views from Kitab al-filaha of Ibn al-Awwâm: (a) manuscript page (Source) and front cover of the Spanish translation edition by Joseph Antonio Banqueri (Madrid: Imprenta Real, 1802). (Source). The Kitab al-Filahah al-Andalusiyah (The Book of Andalusian Agriculture) by Abu Zakariya Yahya ibn Muhammad ibn al-Awwam al-Ishbili (d. 1185) consists of 35 chapters dealing with agronomy, cattle and poultry raising, and beekeeping. It deals with 585 plants; explains the cultivation of more than 50 fruit trees; and includes many valuable observations on soils, manures, plant grafting, and plant diseases.
In addition, agriculture was considered to be a feature of the human settlement on earth, as whenever people started plowing the earth, planting crops, taking care and cultivating the same would be obliged to settle down and leave the nomadic life. That reason probably incited Omar ibn al-Khattab to initially forbid his soldiers abroad from taking agriculture as a profession so as not to resort to rest, feel calm and leave struggle, but later on he permitted part of them to do so .
In the following article, focus will be laid on three aspects of interest in plants taken in Islamic history: the linguistic aspect, the use of herbs and plant products in medicine, and the development of agricultural science.
2. Agriculture and plants in linguistics and medicine
Linguists paid special attention to collect and record names of plants and technical terms related to agriculture. This endeavour supplied a rich treasure of vocabulary reflected in several specialised dictionaries, such as Al-Mukhassas (The Specialised) of Ibn Sîdah. Whomever has the chance to observe those linguistic essays on agriculture and cultivation will be completely amazed of its punctuality and comprehensive information, particularly in what regards as “Plant Anatomy Science” at present.
In these essays, one can read (in Arabic) a precise description for the plant throughout all its stages of growth. As evidence for the punctuality of the Arabic language on this topic, let us read the following paragraph from Al-Mukhassas:
“When initially planted and that it starts to grow, the palm tree is called al-naqîra’ (throb); al-naqîra is the umbilicus pip. The throb, the linguist Abu Zaid explained, is the tiny hole on the back of the pip from where the palm tree starts its growth. The next phase is the herp (najîma), then the thorn, then the plaitwork then another one and another one; when the palm becomes a tree, it is called mat (al-farsh), when the plaitworks are numerous and widened, it is called the sharp (al-safîfî), then the stripe (‘asîb), then sap (al-nasigha) and finally the pronchial (sha’îb)“.
Figure 2a-b: (a) Manuscript page from the treatise of agriculture by Ibn Luyun (Almería, dated 740 H/1348 CE, Maghribi script, hosted in the Escuela de Estudios Arabes in Granada) (Source); (b) front cover of the book Ibn Luyun: tratado de agricultura by Joaquina Eguaras Ibáñez (Granada: Patronato de la Alhambra y Generalife, 1988).
In medicine, Muslims concentrated on plant preservation in respect to its characteristics and medical features. Dâwûd b. ‘Umar Al-Antaki said about the wild thyme:
“A wild fine leaves almost black plant. There is one kind of it called ‘Donkey or Mountain thyme’, wider in leaves, less in bitterness, but the garden thyme is planted like the mint. It is an antidote medicine against colic and almost all types of poisons. It gives a good taste for all foods and refines blood.”
3. Aspects of the Islamic agricultural tradition
The core of the Islamic agricultural traditions lie in what is referred to in Arabic as “zira’at al-‘ardh” (land cultivation) in the larger sense, which is the main subject of this research. Therefore, it would be more appropriate here to refer to Ibn Al-`Awwam who explained that:
“land cultivation means fixing the land, planting trees, growing cereals and grains and taking care of the same, in addition to a good knowledge of the fertile, semi fertile and useless land. Further, the knowledge of each kind of trees and plants to be planted in a given earth, and the choice of the best kind and proper time, water, insecticides and fertilizer for each kind of plants and trees are essential. How to store the production is also included.”
This wide range of agricultural knowledge needs more than a brief survey. Therefore, in the following article we will only briefly outline some aspects.
3.1. Soils in lexicography
In his famous Kitab al-filaha (Book of agriculture), the Andalusian scholar Ibn Al-‘Awwam states:
“The first thing to know about agriculture is the earth itself, whether good for planting or not. Who is not well aware of that will not succeed [in agriculture] .” This statement specifies clearly that agriculturalists should have vast knowledge regarding the earth, its nature, type, plants and trees which should be planted in the said soil,but also its coldness, heat, degree of humidity, desiccation and the impact of all these factors on the plants.
In spite of the variety and differences among the nature of lands, they could be listed as to their kinds as follows: Mild, hard, mountain, sandy, black, white, yellow, red, rough and reddish .
Among other factors, knowledge should be obtained of the reason for tree decay, which is related to the type of soil. Therefore, it is recommended that the soil should be changed as agronomists do today; in addition, it is also recommends that the soil of the ornamental trees and plants should be changed each six months .
3.2. Irrigation engineering
Some of the methods of irrigation that were followed by Muslims were simple, whilst others were complicated. These methods varied from one country to the other. In Yemen, the historian Al-Hamdani said about Al-Samman (a famous water source):
“The water there was so deep, ranged from 70 to 100 spread arms [bâ’, 4 bâ’-s are equal to 3 m]; there also were artificial wells and small size lakes for water gathering and storage coated on the sides by hard stones .”
The irrigation engineers of Khumarawayh designed a strange method for irrigation. They coated the trunks of the trees with a gold like brass; in between the brass and the tree trunk, lead spouts from where the water flows to ready channels spread through the garden .
The geographer Al-Istakhri reported in his book Al-Masalik wa-‘l-mamalik (routes and kingdoms):
“In Marw, (now in Khurasan, Iran) there was an organized department specially established for water management of 10,000 staff.”
Figure 3: Front cover of Kanz al-Fawa’id fi Tanwi’ al-Mawa’id: Medieval Arab-Islamic Culinary Art, edited by Manuela Marin and David Waines (Beirut: in Kommission bei Franz Steiner Verlag Stuttgart, 1993). An anonymous medieval Arabic cookbook, possibly of Egyptian provenance, compiled sometime during the Mamluk period (1250 – 1517). The book contains more than 800 recipes for the preparation of dishes, sweets, drinks, medicines, etc. from different regions in the Middle East with frequent health references attached to them.
The irrigation legislation and methods inherited from Islamic history were so efficient that their remnants survived the course of time – some are still enforced and in use in some parts of Andalusia in present day Spain. The Water Court of Valencia is still holding weekly sessions every Thursday as was the case during Islamic rule.
Further evidence on the well advanced irrigation engineering science of the Muslims is that present in the building substance found in Fowkhara Gate, on the bank of Al-Nahrawan River, near Samarra, Iraq. Having analysed the material, a scholar reported that the material which was found in the cylinder from where the water was running is made of pure mud and clay as a cofactor for melting. When the cylinder was melted on an initial melting degree of 1050°c., it transformed to another anti-corrosion substance .
In each agricultural book, we may find a description for water types and to what range they are suitable for different kinds of plants. A detailed explanation is also given on how to discover ground water, the manner in which to drill as well as how to conduct tests to find hidden water .
Arab scientists were able to procure the water from the bubbling springs by means of lead pipes. What is more, they used engineering devices to measure the height of the land and to dig irrigation channels underneath the surface of the earth . Finally, they invented machines to measure the levels of river water .
Ibn Al-Hajjaj said: “You should know that if the earth is not fertilized, it becomes weak but if over fertilized it will be burnt” . This theory indicates a farsighted point of view and a shrewd mind. With time, plants exhaust their food stored in the earth and that should be replaced, but not in surplus quantities. For this reason agronomists recommend that that the manufacturers’ instructions labelled on fertilizers containers should be strictly followed.
Figure 4: This illustration of sugar cane is from an Arabic manuscript on natural history. (Source).
Due to the importance of the fertilizers, Ibn Bassal, Ibn Hajjaj and Ibn Al-‘Awwam explained in detail the types of fertilizers and their suitability for certain kinds of earth and plants. They also discussed the use of tree leaves for the soil  and regarding compost fertilizers. Ibn Bassal divided his observations in to three types, one solely being that of a mixture of grass, hay and ash to be placed in a hole. Followed by water being poured over them and subsequently left to rot. Using fertilizers is restricted only on earth and plant reform. Ibn Bassal mentioned that the pumpkin is first planted on fertilizer benches then when it is strong enough, moved to the normal soil .
3.4. Art of planting
It is not an exaggeration to say that the instruction concerning the art of planting in the old Arabic manuals remain valid today. Their authors compiled them from practice and observation of the basic principles of botany and agronomy. Having studied the earth and selected the types of plants provided to suit said earth, they used to prepare the soil.
In this respect, Ibn Bassal said on planting pumpkin: “In cold countries like Al-Andalus, pumpkin should be planted during January in benches covered with fertilizers, then in April when it got strong enough, it should be moved to its permanent soil .”
As to how to plant with the fertilizer, he advised:
“The fertilizer is to be levelled, small holes are to be made with almost 20 cm separating each hole from the other, and four to five seeds with their narrow edges up towards the air are to be placed in each hole. When this is done, the seeds are to be covered by fertilizer five cm thick, then completely covered with cabbage leaves one after the other. The cabbage leaves work as condenser; the heat of the fertilizer goes up, condensed by the leaves, then returns back to the plants as drops of water for irrigation. When the plant grows to a good limit, it will be moved to patches of land surrounded by dikes to rest finally .”
This complicated process reminds us of the modern drip irrigation and greenhouses .
Figure 5: The digital library of the Princeton University Library includes this Arabic botanical manuscript from the 15th century that is from the Robert Garrett Collection donated to the University in 1942. Princeton University Library Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Work on botany in Arabic, Page images. (Source).
Out of the features of the advancement of the art of planting is that they planted some vegetables as spinach around the year . Ibn Al-Faqih Al Hamadhani stated that in Iraq you can find any variety of fruits of vegetables at any time throughout the year .
3.5. Contention of the agricultural diseases
The Arabic experts in agriculture focused on following up the diseases of the plants and wrote about them thoroughly. Even a lexicographer, Ibn Sidah wrote a complete chapter in Al-Mukhassas devoted to the reasons that prevent a plant from growing healthily . He also wrote a chapter about the corrosion disease that affects the plant leaves , ], and a third chapter about the diseases that affect the plants, palm trees and tree trunk.
Plant owners were interested in curing their plants to improve production. Whoever reads the Arabic books of agriculture will realise that they followed a strict method in protecting the trees and plants, however sometimes these theories and/or practices were mixed with superstitions .
To substantiate that, it will be enough to refer here to two methods of treatment that Ibn Bassal reported. The first is that the fungus which hits the trunk of the pumpkin and dries it. This treatment consists in burying the diseased part inside the soil, hoping that a new one will grow. The second was described by Ibn Al-‘Awwam, who quoted from the text of Ibn Hajjaj. He outlined:
“If you see a tree of little production and weak branches with worms inside the fruits and drops the same down more than usual for years, that means that the soil is improper. To treat that you have to dig around the roots 2.5 m away from the main trunk, remove the soil and fill the hole that you dug, with a new one taken from the surface of another soil then press it heavily with wooden sticks. If you find the roots almost rotten, cut those roots then add natural fertilizer, if you found the roots spoiled by worms, add ash to the fertilizer. If you found the soil is too moist, fill the hole with dry red soil or sea (or river) sand mixed with old fertilizer” .
Ibn Hajjaj continued his explanation on the disease probabilities by giving a detailed description of how to contend that disease. It is also worth to state here that these Muslim experts were aware of the importance of the ash in killing the worms and insects which are produced from the rotted fertilizer.
3.6. The art of naturalising trees
The process of naturalising the trees, namely changing their wild nature or kind to a domestic one, was not randomly made. It should be made in accordance with precise rules. This is what we learn from the introduction of Ibn Bassal on naturalization. He said:
“Naturalization needs research and observation as the misfortunes are numerous. The naturalization on the other hand is useful as it speeds the production of the tree. You should know the nature and age of the tree and choose the proper time for naturalization”.
Figure 6: Table of contents of the electronic edition of ‘Ilm al-milaha fi ‘ilm al-filaha, a book on agriculture written by Abdel-Ghani b. Isma’il al-Nablusi, a Syrian writer (1050H-1143 H/1641-1730) (read online here).
Muslim scientists did not only state the rules, techniques and types of naturalisation, but also naturalised the odd types of trees , Examples of this include the naturalising of the fig with the olive and the rose with grapes, apples and almonds . The art of naturalising in Toledo was so advanced that the historian Ibn Sa’id said that he saw multiple types of fruits on one tree .
3.7. Fruits and agricultural products preservation
There are different ways of preserving fruits and agricultural products. We will mention hereafter the oddest ones. Ibn Hajjaj said that the apple, pomegranate, quince, pear, citron and grape can be preserved on trees by means of glass pots with narrow mouths that are wide from inside. This he believed would be enough to contain the fruit when they ripen. The fruit is to then be inserted in the glass pot at the flowering stage, followed by the pot being tied firmly to the branch so as to save it from the wind. If the fruit is to be kept for long in the glass pot, the pot should then be bunched down to let air in .
If fruits are immerged in honey, they will be preserved for a long time with no change . Ibn Bassal said that apples can be preserved in special floor pots laced with pieces of linen cloth where the apples are to be arranged. When the first row is completed, other linen pieces should be place, this is followed by a second layer of apples being placed, and so on until the pot is filled. Finally it is sealed with linen and clay prior tostoring it in a cool place . From our modern experience, one may question is this not the basic idea for preserving apples in refrigerators?
Ibn Al Hajjaj also stated by mixing wheat with pomegranate leaves, galls, and a quantity of oak lumber ashes, wheat may be protected from woodworms and licorice .
3.8. Industrialisation of the agricultural products
It was a widely followed rule that each Arabic agricultural book must include, even if brief, a description on the industrialisation of agricultural products. Examples regarding these include the preparation of raisins, dried fig, vinegar, pickles, jam, sugar, cotton, oils and perfumes.
Ibn Hajjaj further continues to describe how to make raisins. He directed the garden owner to twist ripe bunches of grapes for two or three consecutive nights, followed byleaving them to dry. If one prefers to preserve the raisins, Ibn Hajjaj recommends ensuring dried bunches are placed in clay covered jars with dried grape leaves, and when filled up, to cover them with other layers of dried leaves. Lastly, to make sure they are kept in a cool place devoid of smoke or humidity .
Yemen was famous in producing carrot, citron, pumpkin and peach jams. The solid hadouri honey was a specialty of Yemen and deemed to be a precious gift in Mecca and Iraq . The honey in Yemen was prepared by drying it in the sun and keeping it in cans for several days until it becomes solid. Lastly, the cans are then sealed .
In Marw (Khurasan, Iran), water melon was shredded and exported to Iraq. Olive pickles were combined with honey, oil, vinegar, thyme and coriander for good taste .
The interest of classical agronomists of the Arabic tradition in flowers and roses made the perfume industry an advanced one. The city of Jur was famous in manufacturing and exporting various kinds of perfume . The twelfth chapter of Al-Nuwayri’s book Nehayatu al-‘arab (the most desired) presented many recipes for preparing perfumes and scents by the way of distillation.
3.9. Gardening and other arts
Islamic culture did not neglect the aesthetical nature of plants; hence the attention of humankind was brought through the marvellous beauty of nature that in turn reminds us of the glory of God. Therefore, a special interest was given to gardens, where different kinds of roses, plants and flowers were planted. The famous historian Al-Maqrizi said, in describing the garden of Khumarawayh:
“He planted various kinds of trees in his garden. He planted palm trees of different heights. A standing man can reach the fruit of some trees while a sitting man can reach some others. The taste was even different. Roses and saffron were also planted, in addition to other plants and a garden keeper was also appointed to take good care of them .”
Withstanding other agricultural arts that attract attention in the Arabic tradition, the production of different types of grapes e.g. seedless grapes , and year-round roses, as well asapples also struck the interest of scientists in Muslim civilisation. They were also able to control the color of roses and flowers ; In addition, they also configured how to select the colour of flowers ; lastly, they placed oranges in basins surrounded by water tanks so it appeared as if it they were planted from inside these tanks .
Muslim scholars scored other marks of success to be registered in their glorious register. Having taken into consideration the climate conditions and the type of natural soil, they tamed some wild plants and nurtured them in gardens as a result. These plants were first planted in special pots at different times of the year and in different types of soil .
3.10. Spreading of agricultural products
In a series of noteworthy research results published since 1974, Andrew M. Watson, from Toronto University, recorded the history of the radical transformation of agriculture production in the Islamic world and the spreading of the agricultural products in the geographical sphere with which Muslims traded . The author also indicated the role of Muslim agriculture in acclimatising tropical plants when uprooting them to the territories of the Middle East. Thus spurring the development of new types of corn and citrus fruits in order to better suit the hot climate. The author listed 726 plants that were given Latin names derived from Arabic origins .
The investigation of A. M. Watson set the stage for a paradigmatic shift in considering the real impact the Islamic agricultural tradition had on three continents (Asia, Africa and Europe) during a long period, until the 13th century. The author named this shift as the Medieval Green Revolution (transformed later to the “Muslim Agricultural Revolution”, “Islamic Agricultural Revolution”, and “Islamic Green Revolution”) . All those expressions correspond to the same reality postulating a fundamental transformation in agriculture from the 8th century to the 13th century in Muslim lands .
Watson argued that the economy established by the traders of the Muslim world across the Old World enabled the diffusion of many crops and farming techniques among different parts of the Islamic world. This was in conjunction with the adaptation of crops and techniques from and to regions beyond the Islamic world. Crops from Africa such as sorghum, crops from China such as citrus fruits, and numerous crops from India such as mangos, rice, cotton and sugar cane, were distributed throughout Islamic lands, which, according to Watson, previously had never nurtured these crops. Watson listed eighteen such crops being diffused during the Islamic period. Some writers have referred to the diffusion of numerous crops during this period as the “globalisation of crops” . Watson argued that these introductions, along with an increased mechanisation of agriculture, led to major changes in economy, population distribution, vegetation cover, agricultural production and income, population levels, urban growth, the distribution of the labour force, linked industries, cooking, diet, and clothing in the Islamic world .
In a limited scope, we mention also the flowers which were brought to Europe by the Arabs : Jasmine, blue and yellow roses, red and white camellia amongst others. As evidence of the impact of the Arabs on spreading plants, Mustafa Al-Shehabi confirmed the existence of a number of roses and plants names in the French language .
To conclude, it may be interesting to state that the story we find in some Chinese ancient documents date back to the 13th century. Unearthed by Hui-lin li, a professor of botany in the American University of Pennsylvania, these documents state that navigators originating from the Islamic world reached America prior to Christopher Columbus, where they brought various kinds of plants. This theory was the fruit of 9 years of research Dr Li dedicated in tracing multiple destinations throughout the world. The aforesaid documents confirm that Muslims brought and raised the papaya, pineapple, pumpkin and the Indian corn in a region named “Molan-pi”, which may correspond to some part of the Americas .