The period from the 9th century to the 13th century witnessed a fundamental transformation in agriculture that can be characterized as the Islamic green revolution in pre-modern times. The economy established in the Arab and Islamic world enabled the diffusion of many crops and farming techniques as well as the adaptation of crops and techniques from and to regions beyond the Islamic world. These introductions, along with an increased mechanization 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. This article presents a survey on those issues and others, such as agricultural machinery water Management and farming manuals.
Figure 1. A page from “Kitab al-Diryak. Selciukide/Seljuq Art – See Figure 4 for full page view (Source)
Figure 2. Arabic botanical treatise © Princeton University Library (Source)
This author, just as any person enthusiastic about Islamic civilisation, particularly in the particular field of this article, has to take note one of the best news of recent times, the arrival of an organisation named Filaha: www.filaha.org. This organisation and what it does, available on the internet, is by very far one of the best things in the field to emerge in recent times so good is its output. It truly cuts down the efforts of any scholar interested in the subject. The quality of information especially on Islamic manuscripts dealing with farming is first class. One of course is not going to try and reproduce what Filahaconveys to us, unless one just cuts and pastes the whole site, and that will be it. For anyone, it is simply better to browse through the Filaha webs-site, and glean all that one wishes to glean directly. Readers of the article by this author only need to pick on such matters that the Filaha project people did not deal with, such as in in the first heading (dealing with matters of distortions, and the final headings in part 2, matters at which this author excels).
In the Introduction of the Filaha project we have a map highlighting the Andalusi school of agronomy which is as simple as informative. The picture of the Tribunal of Waters sitting at the door of the Cathedral is so simple an image, and yet powerful, a true symbol of the dialogue of civilisations, and this excellent part of the caption referring to the tribunal:
Probably the oldest extant democratic institution in Europe, the Tribunal of the Waters is thought to have originated in the 10th century under the caliph Abd al-Rahman III. Each Thursday, the court, elected from among the irrigators themselves, meets outside the Door of the Apostles of the Cathedral of Valencia (the site of the old mosque) to settle disputes and discuss matters concerning irrigation in the Vega.”
The site has also a full list of Muslim scholars involved in the subject and countless other pieces of information, which is pointless for us to dwell on here. In words, for any person reading this article, switch to Filaha.org at any moment you can.
This being said, we cannot fail to refer to the scholar who single handeldy revived interest in Muslim farming: Professor Andrew Watson of Toronto. We can safely say that without him, much of what we know, if not nearly everything we know about Muslim farming, we would not know. Professor Watson did not just inform us, he triggered a revival of interest in the subject, or differently put, he opened a new field for everyone to go into. This author remembers how he came across his works in the 1990s and let others know, who then delved into the study of the subject, inspired by, and given the first leads, by Watson. It is perhaps fair to say that much of the enthusiasm for Muslim farming and the abundance of knowledge we have today owes to Professor Watson.
Glick’s works on irrigation in Al Andalus are without a doubt some of the most informative and inspiring. In Spain, in the Valencia region, for instance, Glick elaborates on a complex distribution system of the waters of the River Turia, divided into successive stages, each stage representing the point of derivation of one main canal which drew all the water at that stage, or of two canals, dividing the water among them. In times of abundance, each canal drew water from the river according to the capacity of the canal; in times of drought, the canals would take water in turn, for a commensurate number of hours or a proportional equivalent. The same was true for individual irrigators; and herein lies the genius of the Valencia system, Glick notes: when the canal ran full, each irrigator could open his gate as he pleased, but when water was scarce, a system of turns was instituted. Each irrigator, in turn, drew enough water to serve his needs, but could only do so when every other irrigator in the system had taken his turn, hence insuring a relatively equal distribution of supply, both in times of abundance and of scarcity. This is the sort of attention to detail, written with focus of what truly matters that makes one like reading Glick. His excellent bibliographies and references make the task for anyone interested in the subject a much easier endeavour than it otherwise would be.
Figure 3. Agricultural scene from a mediaeval Arabic manuscript from Al-Andalus (Source)
Lucy Bolens has done considerably in this field, too. Bolens has studied particularly the sections on soils and irrigation in the writings of the Hispano-Muslims. As with other great scholars, the best thing for anyone is to read her directly, rather than this author trying to paraphrase her. Just an instance here, how Bolens reminds us of a crucial element of early Islamic farming:
In the definitions which open the Kitaab al-filaha (Book of Agriculture), this function is said to be blessed by God because it has as its end the production of the sustenance of life. Agriculture consists of restoring to the earth what has been furnished by harvesting from it, by fertilizing, watering and making efforts to avoid the problems caused by excessive heat. This restoration to the soil implies a knowledge of the whole – the soils, the plants, the most suitable tools. Balance (mizān) is the aim, or reciprocity between what is taken from the earth and what must be given back in order to make this vital alliance with Nature endure.”
Lines which express a philosophy, which most unfortunately has deserted not just the Muslim world but the rest of the world as well.
One of the most prolific and most informative author on Muslim farming in Al Andalus is the Spanish scholar Garcia Sanchez Expiracion (École des Études Arabes (CSIC), Grenade (Spain). We will make a good use of one of her works further down. Her works are mostly in Spanish and need to be translated into English. Any institution performing this task would be doing a historical favour to the world of scholarship. We can cite some of her works here:
-La diététique alimentaire arabe, reflet d’une réalité quotidienne ou d’une tradition fossilisée? (ixe-xve siècles)
-Eaux Aromatiques et autres parfums a Al Andalus
-Ibn al-Azraq: Uryuza sobre ciertas preferencias gastronómicas de los granadinos,” Andalucía Islamica, vol. 1 (1980).
-El tratado agricola del granadino al-Tighnâri
-Fuentes para el estudio de la alimentacion en la Andalucia islamica
-Normas dietéticas a través de los calendarios andalusies
-la obra médica de Muhammad al-Ilbîrî
-Traducciones catalanas de textos cientificos andalusies en la Corona de Aragon
-Les traités de ‘Hisba’ andalous: un exemple de matière médicale et botanique populaires
What we can notice easily is that our author leads in one particular area: linking plants with their medical benefits.
Figure 4. A page from “Kitab al-Diryak. Selciukide/Seljuq Art (Source)
Fairchild Ruggles wrote an admirable book on Islamic gardens of Spain, and other works besides. However, in the work on the Islamic gardens, we glean a mass of information summing the whole Muslim farming system. The economy of agricultural production, Fairchild Ruggles points out, was a self-perpetuating cycle of profits accrued from trade, invested in agrarian reforms that produced abundant crops and special plants for the export trade, in turn yielding more profits. The profits were reinvested in the land, which yielded greater profits and drove the engine of economic growth. As Fairchild Ruggles notes, the system of crop rotation, fertilization, transplanting, grafting, and irrigation were implanted so rapidly and thoroughly because the legal code governing land-holding and tenancy provided an incentive to improve farming practices and because the upward spiral of economic growth rewarded investment.
Millas Vallicrosa (1897-1970) remains one of the leading fathers of the subject of history of sciences; a first class scholar, of the calibre of Sarton, Haskins, and Wiedemann, that brand of top scholarship now gone. In our field, we have many works as in this note. Millas Vallicrosa enlightens us on the contribution of many Muslim andalusi agronomists, such as Ibn wafid, al Tignari, and Ibn Bassal. Brief focus here is on his edition of a botanical work in Muslim Spain of the 11th century entitled “The physician’s support for the knowledge of plants”, by an anonymous author. Millas Vallicrosa’s description gives us an idea on the meticulousness that defined early Muslim scholarly works. The author of this manuscript lists the names of all plants, whether medicinal or not, giving a separate entry to each under the name by which it was most usually known in classical Arabic, and providing cross-references under its other names. The main entries, so extensive that in some cases they take up several pages, are classified as follows: botanical genus to which the plant belongs, and its different species and
Figure 5. Andrea Cesalpino, 16th C. Botanist (Source)
varieties; morphological description of each of these, with an analysis of its component parts (root, stem or trunk, branches, leaves, flower, fruit, sap, gum or resin), mentioning the consistency, structure, colour, aspect and other physical characteristics (size. hardness, taste, smell, stickiness, etc.) that distinguish them, defining these by means of comparison with other and more familiar plants and conveying size by the simplest and most obvious analogies, such as the length or thickness of a finger, the height of a man, the length of the arm, and so on. He carefully studies the genus, species and variety of the different plants, gives the names of each plant in different languages, and sometimes he even differentiates between the various local forms of Spanish-al-Andalus (that of Muslim Spain), Galician, the speech of the Upper Marches, describing its geographical location, with particulars of the nature of the soil in which it grows, the regions where the author has seen it or gathered it or ascertained that it is to be found; not omitting the use of any such plants, medicinal or other purposes, and an infinity of detail, and search for perfection which astounds us today. Millas Vallicrosa points out, the work of this 11th century Muslim Andalusian botanist, who was closely associated with other botanists, such as Ibn Bassal and Ibn Luyyun-both of Toledo-makes him an obvious forerunner of the modern system of classification of flora invented by Cuvier, for which the only precedents hitherto encountered-and those very imprecise-had been those in the work of the 16th century Italian botanists, Cesalpino and Matthioli.
R.B Serjeant’s erudition is evident in his diverse works on Islamic subjects. Here we mention his essay on the influence of Muslim farming, a short essay, and yet, one that opens so much scope for anyone seeking to delve into the subject. Serjeant informs us about Islamic legislation in respect to land and water ownership and management. Serjeant enlightens us on the Yemeni contribution to irrigation, their skill in the control of flood waters, and related subjects, including also their influence on the systems of North Africa and al Andalus.
Following the praise to some comes the shaming of others.
Tried and Successful Techniques of Distortions:
It is admitted with difficulty that a nation mostly of nomads could have known any form of agricultural techniques other than sowing wheat and barley. The misconceptions come from the rarity of works on the subject… If we took the trouble to open up and consult the old manuscripts, so many views would be changed, so many prejudices would be destroyed.”
This author has constantly raised the issue of distortions of Muslim history, faith, culture, and civilisation. Whether you read about colonial history of the Muslim world, or the history of the crusades, or the history of history of sciences, or the arts, or engineering, or the history of piracy, or the plight of women, or Black people, that is any subject, the Islamic role in them is fundamentally distorted. The omissions, the errors, the plain distortions, the claims not matching facts, the disappearances of whole periods of history, centuries even, the disappearance of sources, of first class material, of whole collections of archives, in fact, is simply staggering.
Let everybody know: it is not that this author is a genius who has discovered something that others have not. As we just saw with Cherbonneau, many Western authors, and even Prince Charles himself have referred or noted the vast field of distortions of Muslim accomplishments in sciences and civilisation just as in other fields. As brief instances here, Harley and Woodward have noted this in respect to cartography, Hill in regard to technology; Smith in respect to dam construction; O’Connor and Robertson in the field of mathematics; and we can go on and on. Some scholars such as Menocal have also remarked how it is even suicidal academically to try and rectify the picture in favour of Islam. So, to conclude, it is not that his author has made the discovery of the century. He did not. So, here, we look at the techniques used to distort the subject of Muslim farming. We focus on three methods used to distort the subject through specific instances on how it is done, and how reality fundamentally contradicts the claims made by the distorters.
1.Suppression from Knowledge:
This technique is the most common. It consists in supressing from knowledge facts and sources of facts that relate to the role of Islamic civilisation, or anything favourable to Islam. For instance, anyone reading through the history of farming would, in 90% of the literature at least, find no reference whatsoever to any Islamic contribution in the field.
One of the established assumptions is that, just before, or around, the early-mid 18th century, farmers in the English countryside initiated what is commonly known as the agricultural revolution. English landed classes, it is explained, were helped by the enclosure of land (began in 16th century), which gave them both security and institutional foundations to innovate. This led to widespread and critical changes such as crop rotation, improvements in animal husbandry, farm experiment, and further improvements. By the mid-late 18th century, English agriculture, it is explained, managed to release both surplus capital and labour for industry, and provide a wide enough market to give the foundation for the so called Industrial Revolution that began in the late 18thcentury. Further changes (greater and better use of fertilisers, improved animal rearing, mechanisation, and the like) in England and the rest of the Western world took place in earnest and, as time passed, reached a high momentum, completely reversing the picture that prevailed in past centuries, with poor food production now being replaced by large food surpluses. Simultaneously there was an equally momentous reversal on the wider international level, food purchasing orders now came from the southern countries, which have become unable to feed their fast rising populations, whilst as recently as the 19th century, it was the opposite, France, for instance, purchasing wheat from Algeria. In fact it was an unpaid French debt of Algerian wheat that triggered the French colonisation of Algeria.
Figure 6. Ancient Egyptian agricultural knowledge predates that of the West (Source)
How do we get mislead about this subject as others? Simple! If we read about the Western agricultural revolution and not consult anything about Islamic accomplishments in the field we will never know the reality. In this field, as in others, if no Westerner writes about Islamic accomplishments we think they never existed. Let’s take engineering and technology, for instance. Wiedemann, true, wrote about Muslim accomplishments in the field, but that was late in the 19th and early in the 20th. Because nobody wrote anything, it seemed Muslims had accomplished nothing. It only took Donald Hill writing in the 1970s and after for everyone suddenly to realise that the Muslim legacy in the field was considerable, in fact was crucial. The same about agriculture. As we shall see, it is only thanks to Andrew Watson that we suddenly realise that the Muslims have accomplished a lot, indeed, and that they were centuries ahead of the rest.
2. Demeaning Muslim accomplishment/Attributing them to others:
So, besides omissions, there is another technique to distort the subject, by demeaning the Muslim role. Ashtor claims, for instance:
The numerous accounts of these activities do not point to technological innovations within the irrigation system, which the Muslim rulers had simply taken over from their predecessors. The records in the writings of the Arabic historians show that those who drained the swamps and dug the canals were the Nabateans, not Arabs.
The information which the Arabic authors provide us in the methods of agricultural work, besides the irrigation canals and engines, is rather scanty. But collecting these records from various sources one is inclined to conclude that the Arabs did not improve the methods of agricultural work. There is only slight evidence of technological innovations in near eastern agriculture throughout the Middle Ages, whereas the history of European agriculture is the story of great changes and technological achievements.
The Egyptian historian al-Makrizi says that the harvests had diminished so much under Moslem rule that it was necessary to put aside a quarter of even a third of the crop in order to render cultivation profitable. Undoubtedly the Arabic author had the later Middle Ages in mind. But the decrease of the crops had probably begun a long time before he wrote. It was the consequence of neglect, of old tired methods of cultivation, of heavy taxation and the attitude of a short sighted (Mamluk) government.”
Ashtor dwells on Mamluk incompetence, rapacity, neglect, and they being at the foundation of the Islamic collapse, claiming for instance,
The foreign slaves who had become the lords of Egypt and Syria did their utmost to enrich themselves as soon as possible….. and the flourishing economy of the Near East had been ruined through inability to adopt new methods of production.”
Ashtor is promoting fallacies, which the subsequent sections will deal with at great length, but a brief refutation of his views is made here.
Firstly, with regard to the particular claim that Muslim agriculture was a mere copying of Nabatean farming, the following outline will show that nearly all Islamic innovations in farming were accomplished in the medieval period, thus, centuries apart from the Nabatean model. It will also show that they relate to this model hardly at all, and that, the faith itself, the geographical expansion of Islam, besides experiment on the land, followed by the recording of such experiments in farming treatises, and most of all the outburst of scientific activity in engineering, metallurgy, and other fields, which were the real foundations of the Muslim agricultural revolution. Had Ashtor consulted the works by Serjeant and others he would have understood that it was the revolution brought by Islam that was at the foundation of so much that affected the sector. As for Muslim farming being derived from Nabatean agriculture because the work of an early Islamic farming treatise by Ibn Wahshiya (860-ca 935) is entitled Filaha Nabatiya, there is no better way to answer this issue than Watson’s following observation:
A careful reading of the entire text has persuaded this writer (Watson) that a substantial part of the work was composed at the beginning of the 10th C. Only this dating makes it possible to explain extensive parts of the text; the references to Baghdad, Basra, Wasit and Kufa, all of which were to all intents and purposes founded in the Islamic period; the discussions of Islam and of the Arab conquest of Persia; and the frequent mention of new crops, unknown to the region of ‘‘Babylonia’’ in Sasanian times. These sections are not, as suggested, a light overlayer in a text the greater part of which is more ancient. They are on the contrary, deeply embedded in the text and a fundamental part of it. Even the discussions of superstitions which were once thought to be much more ancient can sometimes be shown to belong to the time of Ibn Wahshiya.”
Figure 7. A Mamluk nobleman from Aleppo, 19th century (Source)
The second claim by Ashtor that the Mamluk rulers of Egypt and Syria did little or nothing to build and maintain engineering works is likewise based on a total disregard for historical facts. Briefly, here, one can cite Lapidus’ thorough study to show the Mamluk role in the construction of canals and other irrigation structures. Aleppo, for instance, had suffered greatly from the Mongol attacks in the second half of the 13th century, and only after 1312 when the danger had passed were water works begun to recreate the city’s former greatness and sustain larger garrisons and a restored or even growing population. Between 1313 and 1331 Governor Sayf al-din Arghun, completed work on a canal from the River Sajur, 40,000 cubits long, costing, according to most estimates, about 300,000 dirhems, but possibly as much as 800,000. Half of the expense was borne by the governor and the other half by the Sultan. No investment on that scale is recorded anywhere in the Christian West, for instance, during that period, and for many centuries after. This basic investment was followed in the next half century by the construction of fountains throughout the city and branch canals to feed them. Most of these fountains were built by emirs and governors. Some canalizations were begun before Timur Lang, but his invasion (1398 onwards) interrupted the projects, before important and vital works continued to be carried out at Mamluk initiative and expense.
Butzer and his followers claim that the Muslims did not fundamentally alter the available range of cultivars and technology, and that if it might seem they brought changes to Spanish farming this was simply due to the fact that before them there was a catastrophic decline. Thus, rather than introducing agricultural changes, Muslims only restored the prosperity that had been lost after the collapse of the late Roman Empire.
Butzer and his group are wrong, for most of the changes the Muslims brought about were completely unknown to the Romans. Had Butzer and his group been correct in their claim that Islam had little to do with the changes in Spain, they would have found a revolution in farming taking place in other places in Christendom equal in tenor to that taking place in Muslim Spain. Yet, this is not the case, whether in pre-medieval or in medieval Christendom. Nowhere do we find any advances comparable to those that took place in medieval Islamic Spain; advances, however, shared throughout the medieval Islamic land from the far east to the far west. Besides, and specifically in relation to irrigation, the Spanish vocabulary in the field demonstrates a very strong Muslim influence, in fact nearly the whole vocabulary is derived from Arabic. Furthermore, as Cowell notes, the Spanish Muslims skills in irrigation and in terracing have resulted in an agricultural productivity far beyond the wit of ‘the relatively barbarous, less cultivated native Spaniards.’ In fact, as will be abundantly shown in this chapter, the changes Muslims made in the field were not just dramatic; the Western agricultural revolution would incorporate such changes as rotation of crops, better use of fertilisers, experimental gardens, and others, only five to six centuries after the Muslim world, from the 16th century onwards.
Also under Islam, agriculture got more produce out of the land by bringing more land under cultivation and by making old land much more productive than in the past. It was highly capital intensive, and highly labour intensive; more capital being invested in the construction of irrigation works, terracing, providing seed and fertilisers, the reclamation of land, which also required heavy investment in labour, as well as in tools, animals and outbuildings. It is necessary to go back to the irreplaceable works by von Kremer, as translated by Khuda Bukhsh, and then find evidence of the vast engineering works for agricultural purposes begun in the times of Omar ibn al Khattab (Caliph 634-64) or under the Ummayads, especially under the stewardship of the Viceroy, al Hajjaj (d.714.) The introduction of new crops by Muslims, as we will see below, had the same effect of increasing production, productivity, higher investment of capital, labour, research, innovations (both on the ground and as recorded in treatises), and better use of the soil. The combination of all such factors brought former dead land into cultivation, and new irrigation techniques and systems also contributed to this.
Another instance of demeaning is by Adams, who in his Land Behind Baghdad, draws the conclusion that the density of settlement in the Diyala Plains in Islamic times, as well as the extent of the irrigation system, never reached the high point of later Sasanian times in spite of considerable reconstruction in late Umayyad and early Abbasid times. His conclusions, however, as Watson points out, are based on inadequately collected data, such as his figures on taxation, which fail to take into account changes in rates of taxation, or efficiency of collection, and that his archaeological data is also inadequate due to his limited choice of samples, and so is Adams’ incapacity to distinguish between the rural pottery of the Sasanian, Umayyad and Abbasid, shortcomings that impact directly on the wider picture and its relation to irrigation, and thus, render his conclusions wholly distorted.
Watson sums up and refutes many misrepresentations relating to Muslim irrigation:
In the vast literature of irrigation history may be found assertions which tend to minimise or even discredit the contribution of early Islamic times to the development of irrigated agriculture, particularly in Spain, North Africa and the Levant. Thus Ribera Y Tarrago, writing in a long tradition which belittles the Muslim legacy in Spain, argues that the irrigation system of the Huerta of Valencia is pre-Islamic, principally on the ground that it does not resemble the undoubtedly Muslim system in the region of Marrakech!In North Africa, Gauckler, following the previous practice of European scholars writing on the region, assigned virtually all the ruined irrigation works of Tunisia to the Romans,an error the enormity of which was finally pointed out in Solignac, whose careful work is a model of this kind of investigation. In Libya, the qanawat (underground tunnels) of the desert were attributed by Beadnell to the Romans,whereas they are almost certainly Islamic. Again, for the Levant, one reads in Benvenisti that ‘with the Arab conquest a period of decline and decay in irrigated agriculture began.’ Such assertions need not be taken seriously. To prove for a particular region whether in early Islamic times irrigated agriculture had progressed beyond its classical antecedents requires very careful analysis, and the results may not be unambiguous.”
3. Knocking Down Muslim confidence:
There is criticism, and there is criticism. If any nation, just as any person, spends their lives without any self criticism, i.e not admitting their flaws, and not trying to correct them, such persons, or nations, never change for the better. In fact nations or individuals who always dwell on their grandeurs when horrendous flaws characterise them, as history, without fail, has shown us, kept deluding themselves until one day they collapsed and never rose again. So, criticism or awareness of one’s flaws is an absolute necessity in order to correct them. However, there is another type of criticism, which aims to create an inferiority complex in the other, making them so much believe in their vileness or meaninglessness. It kills any sense of creativity, or ambition, or aspiration. This is unfortunately what the Muslim nation submits to, or has been submitting to for a quite long time. As we know by now, its accomplishments are hidden away, and its representation is that of a barbaric nation. A number of journalists, politicians, religious figures, scholars, and leaders of opinion, frequently hit Muslims with such virulence that Muslims under the shock are silenced. Let’s here cite a French scholar, Louis Bertrand, a member of the French Academy writes about the Muslim legacy in the field:
Figure 8. Louis Bertrand, French novelist, historian and essayist (Source)
Nothing emerges but the savagery, the brutality, and the cruelty of the new comers. Under their domination poor Spain got used to being ridden over and devastated periodically, in a way that soon became as regular as the alternation of the seasons. It was the regime of the raid, to which northern Algeria was subjected for centuries down to the beginning of the French conquest in 1830.
But not only did the Arabs make a desert there and introduce drought and sterility by their deforestation.
The admirable Spanish peasants who in the distant days of the Roman hegemony, gave Betica its reputation, and who nowadays have succeeded in restoring in French Algeria the fertility destroyed by the carelessness and barbarism of the Arabs.”
Let’s set aside the fact that Bertrand truly dislikes Arabs. Let’s just focus on the fact that, unlike him, others closer to facts and reality could witness directly the Muslim accomplishments. Hence, Jeronimo Munzer, an important nobleman who travelled through Spain in the years 1494-5, when a great many Muslims still remained in Aragon, tells us:
Among all the kingdoms of Spain, Aragon is without a doubt the one that has the greatest numbers of Moors, who are expert farmers. They pay a very high tax comprising the fourth part of their fruit, not counting other levies, and this is why the Spanish proverb says: ‘he who owns no Moors has no gold.’ In Aragon many towns are inhabited solely by Arabs and it is a remarkable thing that in some districts and territories where scarcely fifteen Christians could scrape a living, about sixty Moors live with ease; they have wonderful skill in the management of water and in the cultivation of the land, and as they eat very meagrely they accumulate considerable riches.”
In the 16th century, for instance, King Philip II of Spain’s secretary, Francisco Idiaquez extolled the skill of the descendants of the Muslims in improving the Iberian landscape:
There was no corner or plot of land that should not have been turned over to the Moriscos because they alone were sufficient to bring about fertility and abundance in all the land [and] because they knew how to cultivate it so well.”
In support of the latter views, it is known that such was the Muslim superiority in farming skills, and the dependence on such skills, that following the mass elimination of the ‘Moors’ from Spain in the years 1609-1610, churches and land proprietors lost considerable incomes. The Duke of Grandia suffered especially from this; all the operatives in his sugar mills were Muslims, no one else knew the processes. In Ciudad-Real, the capital of La Mancha, the cloth industry was ruined. Even a large part of the kingdom of Valencia, the garden of Europe, was for years an inhabited wilderness. The tabla de los depositos of Valencia-presumably a bank of deposit-was bankrupted, and the tabla of Barcelona, which was regarded as exceptionally strong, was likewise bankrupted. Such was the scale of the losses that the nobles were annually assisted by the king, as though they were in danger of starving. The Count of Castellar was awarded the sum of 2000 ducats a year, Don Juan Rotla 400, the Count del Real 2000, the Duke of Grandia 8000, and so forth.
Let’s now outline some of the Muslim accomplishments in the field of farming.
The Muslim Farming Revolution
Watson, in one of his shorter works, appropriately entitled ‘A Medieval Green Revolution,’ holds that:
Arab geographers, authors of farming manuals, and other writers from the 10th century onward tell of great changes that came over the countryside of the early Islamic world either before or during their time. Most notably, many new crops were grown and new techniques of growing both old and new crops were introduced. Though unfortunate gaps in the available sources do not allow us to plot accurately the progress of these changes through time and space, it seems likely that their spread began at the time of the Arab conquests or shortly afterward and was largely completed by the end of the 11th century. By then, at any rate, agricultural changes had touched places far and wide, affecting to varying degrees, often profoundly, almost every part of the Islamic world. So impressive was the transformation of agriculture in so many regions that one is justified in using the term-alas, so hackneyed-agricultural revolution.”
Figure 9. The animal-powered sakia irrigation wheel was improved in and diffused further from Islamic Spain (Source)
Medieval Muslim farming, in its dominant traits, methods and techniques, was much more advanced than that of the Christian West. It was to remain so for centuries thereafter. Records show that cereal yields in Egypt were around 10 for 1, yields which were only to be obtained in Europe at the end of the 17th century. At the time when crops regularly failed in Europe and caused terrible famines, the diffusion of new crops and improved cultivation in the Muslim world meant that fields that once yielded one crop yearly before, now yielded three or more crops in rotation. Agricultural products met the demands of an increasingly sophisticated and cosmopolitan urban population, providing it with a variety of products unknown in northern Europe.Throughout the Muslim world, cities were supported by a very advanced farming system that included extensive irrigation works, expert knowledge of agricultural methods, the best orchards and vegetable gardens, the rearing of the finest horses and sheep, ‘the most advanced system in the world,’ says Artz. Arriving crusaders in the East were stunned at the sight of the coastal regions of Syria and Palestine. Tripoli and its surrounding were covered in cultivated fields, and an abundance of orchards and gardens, vast plantations of sugar; citrus trees, banana plants, date palms… all thriving. Dunayat (in northern Syria) was lying on a vast plain, surrounded by sweet smelling plants and irrigated vegetable gardens, according to the same crusader account. Under Muslim rule, the south of Spain became a highly prosperous region, and as described by a poet quoted by Shack:
Where the Arabs set foot on Spanish soil life and water sprang up, the sycamores, pomegranates, bananas and sugar cane intertwined in the glistening labyrinths, and even the very stones blossomed in gay colours.”
The al-Jaraffe district, to the west of Seville, in the 12th century, was, according to all accounts, covered in so luscious fruit orchards that ‘the sun hardly touched the ground.’ In that same country, such was the quality of produce some wheat could keep for a century in adequate storage conditions. In Sicily, Lowe holds, practically all the distinguishing features of Sicilian husbandry were introduced by the Muslims: citrus, cotton, carob, mulberry, sugar-cane, hemp, date palm, safron… the list is endless. Bresc, Glick and Castro also find that virtually all of the technical farming jargon of Spain and Sicily derives from Arabic. Such was the Muslim expertise that in Sicily, agriculture remained in Muslim hands under early Norman rule, and was, according to Scott ‘carried to the highest perfection.’ This expertise meant that every plant or tree, whose culture was known to be profitable and which could adapt itself, was to be found in the gardens and plantations.
Muslim expertise also stretched to methods of fighting insect pests, use of fertilizers, grafting trees, crossing plants to produce new varieties, etc. On grafting alone, according to Scott, the Spanish Muslims employed eight distinct methods. Muslims, according to him, were also able to treat with success diseases of all known species of ‘the vegetable kingdom;’ and were exceedingly skilful in the distillation and refining of essences, and the cultivation of great plantations of flowers for the sake of the exquisite perfumes they afforded, and in preserving fruits for an indefinite period. Horticultural improvements, Sarton notes, constitute one of the finest legacies of Islam, and the gardens of Spain proclaim to this day one of the noblest virtues of the Muslims.Many indices, Bresc says, allow the formulation of the hypothesis that the technical legacy of the gardeners of the Palermo plains has been inherited from the Islamic period, and also brings closer Sicilian horticulture to that of Andalusia.
Muslims introduced many new crops which impacted considerably on the local economies and societies of many places. In West Africa, for instance, villages became larger and more numerous as new crops, introduced in Islamic times, made the soil much more productive than it had been. In Spain and Sicily, under Muslim influence, a silk industry flourished, flax was cultivated and linen exported, and esparto grass, which grew wild in the more arid parts, was collected and turned into various types of articles. Glick notes how the introduction of new crops combined with intensification of irrigation, gave rise to a complex and varied agricultural system, whereby a greater variety of soil types were put to efficient use. In Spain, wherever artificial irrigation was possible, in the Andalusian Vegas, the Huertas of Murcie and Valencia, all crops, including tropical plants, flourished, and brought in huge economic benefits. The same happened in Sicily, where practically all distinguishing features of its husbandry were introduced by the Muslims: citrus, cotton, carob, mulberry, sugar cane, hemp, date palm, saffron…. Many constitute the foundations of the Sicilian economy today. This Islamic impact is highlighted by the fact that the plants grown in Sicily are well elaborated upon in Muslim farming manuals; a rich variety which contrasts with the dearth of crops from northern European farms.
The impact of such new crops on activities, other than agriculture, was equally dramatic. The introduction of new crops first led to sharp rises in employment, most often outside agriculture, and the workers who carried out diverse tasks related to the exploitation and manufacture of such new crops at diverse stages, sold both their products and labour on the market. Other tasks required such a degree of skill or such expensive equipment that they were often carried out by a specialised labour force. The new crops also stimulated the development of new methods and machinery, for as Forbes remarks, they would not have been grown or used with the typically classical agricultural methods. Rice, for instance, could be milled by hand operated querns in the home but also, and most often, the task was accomplished by mills powered by animals, water or wind. The new crops impacted considerably on trade, both local and foreign. Cotton, (and cotton thread and cloth), rice, sugar, coconuts (as well as the fronds, branches, and trunks of the coconut palm), and doubtless other new crops were traded over long distances in the Islamic world. Some were exported on a large scale beyond the Islamic world, sugar and cotton, for instance, were sent to many parts of Christian Europe. This trade generated an important class of intermediaries trading in foodstuffs, and these merchants, in turn, were serviced by transporters, financiers, and warehouse owners.
Figure 10. Ibn al-Baytar (d. 646 H / 1248 AD): Tafsir kitab Diyasquridus fi al-adwiya al-mufrada (A Commentary on Dioscorides’ Materia Medica) (Source)
Trees played a fundamental role in early Islamic civilisation. Prophet Mohammed constantly reiterates the need for protecting trees, and the necessity for planting more. We will look at his sayings in this field which are quite abundant in part 2 of this work. In following the line adopted by the Prophet, medieval Muslims showed an ingenuity, which far surpasses that of any culture to this day. The excellent article by Garcia Sanchez Expiracion: Utility and Aesthetics in the Gardens of al-Andalus: Species with Multiple Uses, enlightens us on this. Gregorio de los Ríos (16th century), in his Agricultura de jardines [Agriculture of Gardens] when discussing those plants that should be included in the garden, wrote:
Fruit trees should not be planted, as we would no longer be dealing with a garden, but rather a vegetable plot or farm: gardens require trees that flower, with aroma and a pleasing form. In rare cases, orange trees, pomegranate trees, dwarf apple trees and quince trees may be planted, because any other varieties would represent a vulgar and even harmful element: trees destroy other plants with their shade and rob them of all the goodness of the soil.”
De los Rios dismisses the ornamental value of the shade provided by trees, which, in stark contrast, was an element that was highly appreciated by Muslim authors, from both an aesthetic and functional viewpoint. Trees were used by Muslims to delimit boundaries, a practice that took place in royal almunias and the gardens of family homes, wherein both aesthetics and functionality played a part, and which involved fruit trees, trees with a long tradition within Mediterranean agriculture and recently acclimatised species. A highly explicit example is provided by the Arab historian Ibn ‘āl sahib al-Salāt (12th century) in relation to the garden and the edifications of the Bukhayra in Seville, the “almunia” that best represents the Andalusian Almohad period, who encouraged the planting of trees of all kinds.
Tree species were planted with the objective of producing shade, resulting in shaded avenues and walkways within and around the city such is the case of the tree- lined avenue constructed in Granada in the 11th century. Descriptions of areas under the shade of tall trees and the sensation of coolness therein provided is vividly reflected in the poetry of the al-Andalus period, particularly the work of Ibn Khafāja (11th century). In addition to providing those frequenting these areas with a sensation of coolness, they protected particularly vulnerable plants from the searing sun, such as certain recently introduced species. Several varieties of trees, fully integrated in the landscape and agriculture of al-Andalus as a legacy of previous eras, are mentioned and defined as being of multiple use by agronomists and botanists. Such is the case of the pine (Sanawbar) and the cypress. Mention is also made of the use of pine kernels in cookery, whilst al-Tighnarī, referring to the medical applications of this tree, states that if its bark is boiled with nigella (shūnīz) and applied as a bandage, it aids dental ailments. In the case of the cypress, certain of the uses assigned to this tree aid the achievement of an ornamental ideal, whereby it acts as a base that improves other recreational elements: for example, its wood, given its insect-repellent properties, provides a perfect source from which to construct the trellis-work that lines the pathways of almunias and gardens. Al-Tighnarī ascribes various medicinal properties to the cypress, involving the nuts leaves and bark of this tree, which, amongst other functions, were used to treat skin infections, to dye the hair black and strengthen nails, as diuretics, as obstruction dissipators, as haemostatics and as a cure for intestinal and stomach ulcers. In addition to the evident ornamental characteristics of the laurel (rand, ghār), “a tree with a beautiful aspect”, that is particularly recommended in gardens containing myrtle and other aromatic species, the agricultural texts assign numerous uses to this plant, which is cited variously as an insecticide, a component in veterinary medicine. The hackberry was one of the most highly valued trees in the gardens, farms and agricultural estates of the Andalusi period, indicating the passage of irrigation ditches and water courses and delimiting paths and boundaries. The elm tree olmo (nasham) is one of the species that is assigned the greatest number of uses: it is attributed with ornamental functions, providing shade over wells, stone benches and irrigation ditches, planted close to garden walls and towards the north and at entrances, in order to avoid damage to garden trees and vegetables. It is also planted in humid areas and open spaces. The elm was also used to manufacture vine arbours and various utensils, given the quality of its wood. Lastly, the elm is cited as a result of its numerous medicinal benefits. Its roots were crushed and applied via a compress in order to disperse tumours and alleviate fractures, pain in articulations and sprains, a method that also proved very effective in the process of accelerating pus drainage from an abscess. The liquid in which the roots were boiled provided very good results in the relief of ailments affecting sight and hearing. The pomegranate tree (rummān) representing one of the plants for which Mohammed expressed his admiration. The uses attributed to this tree by Andalusi agronomists are very similar to the current uses ascribed to the plant and include its employment as an ornamental feature and its use in hedge creation. In terms of the tree’s medicinal uses (in addition to various others, including use in veterinary medicine, agriculture, etc.). Al-Tighnarī cites the following: the juice of the fruit, mixed with additional ingredients, is employed to treat eye conditions (particularly to remove corneal staining) and to combat infection. The syrup of the sweet variety is a remedy for coughs as it relaxes the chest and facilitates expectoration and the evacuation of the bowels, whilst the syrup produced from the acidic variety of pomegranate acts as a stomach tonic and eliminates bile. It is also used as a diuretic and to alleviate heart palpitations.
Figure 11. The Patio de la Acequia Granada, Spain (Source)
Watson sums up for us the remarkable union of wits which once upon a time marked Muslim culture:
Rulers who imported plants for their botanical gardens; their advisers, who urged the importance of a prosperous countryside; jurists, who interpreted legal traditions so as to accommodate the needs of an expanding agricultural sector; botanists, who herborised the length and breadth of the Islamic world; agronomists, who produced a wealth of farming manuals; geographers, who wrote enthusiastically about the agriculture of the regions they visited; peasants and landowners who experimented with new crops; and many other urban and rural dwellers-mostly now lost from view-who showed on their tables their love for exotic foods and told of their love of greenery in their poems and in their gardens.”
We take a simple instance to highlight the infectious character for all that was good that in the past marked Muslims. We refer here to the diffusion of some fruit varieties. Certain varieties of pomegranate, including the ja’farī, also known by names such as safarī [“traveller”] as a result of the tales surrounding its Eastern origin, arrival in al-Andalus and acclimatisation in the cordovan court of the emir Abd al-Rahmān I. Certain authors locate its origin in Baghdad, whilst others cite Medina, stating that it descended from the variety that was planted in this city by the Prophet. All of this is described in minute detail by the agronomist al-Tighnarī and compiled by Ibn al-Awwām. The pomegranate tree (rummān), a species that originated in the Near East, was cultivated and dispersed throughout the Mediterranean basin from a very early stage and numerous varieties of this plant now exist. This tree is highly venerated within Islamic tradition, representing one of the plants for which Mohammed expressed his admiration, stating: “the fruit of this tree dismisses all vestiges of rancour and envy”. Another fruit, the Safari fig, was introduced from Damascus by the chief judge of Cordoba, and a Jordanian soldier named Safar took a fig cutting and planted it on his estate in the Malaga region. This species, called safari after the soldier, subsequently became widely diffused. The agricultural writer Abu al-Khayr (probably 11th century) mentioned that in 225H/840 the poet Yahya al-Jazal smuggled inside a stack of books the seeds of a new variety of fig, called al-Dunaqal, from Byzantium into Cordoba, where they bore fruit. The stories of the Safari pomegranate and the Dunaqal fig, Ruggles points out, demonstrate that plant species did not merely arrive by chance in al-Andalus; they were sought after, procured, and cultivated with great care in experimental gardens until they were naturalized and could grow and be propagated in al-Andalus. We will see in a heading below a whole list of plants introduced and disseminated by Muslims, which literally transformed agriculture. The spirit of experiment that was very much current in the Islamic world, at that time was a spirit common to the astronomer, the chemist, and the farmer. This spirit of introducing, experimenting, disseminating of plants, or curiosity, or anything of the sort, is missing today.
A crucial factor that stimulated not just the Muslim agricultural revolution, but the whole Muslim civilisation was its open, frontier-less, mobile world, which encouraged movement of people for a variety of purposes. Early Islam was, indeed, marked by a great urge to travel, whether to study Islamic tradition, especially from a reputed scholar, or for trade, or pilgrimage. In this vast process of movement by all classes and groups of people, Eastern Muslims took with them to the west, and those in the west took with them to the East, the habits of their homelands, and acquired new ideas, tastes, and objects. Amongst such travellers were peasants and farmers, to whom must be added traders, scholars, and also envoys sent by rulers who sought to enrich their gardens, all such travels accounting for the movement of crops, irrigation technology, and farming techniques, which were carried principally from east to west. This stimulated considerably the rise of agriculture, just as it did with every other science.
Early Muslim rulers were equally passionate about plants, gardens, water and greenery, and such passion played a major part in the rise of Muslim agriculture. An early promoter of farming was the Umayyad ruler, Abd Errahman I (r. 755-788), who, as soon as he took control in Spain, sent an expedition to the Levant to collect material for his garden in Cordova. The Banu Di Nun ruler, Al-Mamun of Toledo (r. 1043-1073), had the magnificent and beautifully named Bustan al-Na’ura (The Garden of the Noria) erected, in which was constructed Qubbat al-Naim (The Pleasure Dome), which fill the lines of poets. Other rulers with a similar passion for gardens and greenery dominated the early centuries of Islamic rule, from the Aghlabid rulers of Tunisia, the Tulunids of Egypt, to the Almoravids of Morocco.
In farming, just as in learning, the faith, Islam, played the defining role. Scott tells us;
How the Muslim, mindful of the precepts of the Qur’an that inculcates industry as a virtue and stigmatises idleness as a crime, was the most laborious and successful of agriculturists, the most skilful of artisans.Constant, indeed, is the Qur’an urge to labour and make the land fruitful.
Pre-Islamic taxes stood in the way of innovations, and favoured both large estates and the serfdom of the peasantry. Tax laws, inspired by the Qur’an and Islamic jurisprudence, on the other hand, affected different types of land and multiple kinds of crops, and compared to pre-Islamic times, or later times, these taxes were relatively low. Low rates of taxation helped stimulate the cultivation of the land and its improvement, and kept alive a class of smaller, independent landowners and a relatively prosperous peasantry. Under such a system of low taxes, landowners and tenants alike were secure in the knowledge that they, instead of the state, benefited most from their hard work, innovations and improvements to the land.
The Islamic legal corpus, once more, brought changes that removed many obstacles to land exploitation. The Prophet ruled that the person who brought into cultivation land that had been “dead” or uncultivated for more than three years should gain outright ownership of this land; moreover, such land, when it began to produce, was to be taxed only at one tenth of its produce and no higher which was otherwise allowable. Canals dug to bring water to dead lands also belonged to those who dug them, and wells and qanats made in dead lands in order to revive them also belonged to those who made them. This law may therefore have been a powerful force favouring the expansion of sedentary agriculture over grazing, and pushing back the frontiers of settlement into the desert.
Figure 12. A qanat tunnel near Isfahan (Source)
Favourable institutional conditions, which prevailed in Islam, also freed the countryside from many arrangements that were economically retrograde. Under Muslim rule, the condition of the serfs was greatly improved, whilst tribute was regulated by law, and ceased to depend upon capricious demands. Lowe observes how, for Sicily, Muslim rule was an improvement over that of Byzantium. There, the latifondi were divided among freed serfs and small holders, and agriculture received the greatest impetus. Thanks to Muslim law, uncultivated land became the property of whoever first broke it, thus encouraging cultivation at the expense of grazing.
Various contractual forms and arrangements inspired by Islam also stimulated agricultural production, such as in al-Andalus, where the worker (‘amil) paid rent to the owner (munasif) in the form of a percentage of the harvest. Since both parties stood to gain from a bumper crop, there were incentives to improve the land and methods of cultivation.
According to Bolens, Muslim farming owed its success to:
The adoption of agrarian techniques to local needs,’ and to ‘a spectacular cultural union of scientific knowledge from the past and the present, from the Near East, the Maghrib, and Andalusia. A culmination more subtle than a simple accumulation of techniques, it has been an enduring ecological success, proven by the course of human history.”
This success followed two guiding principles: experimentation, and diffusion of acquired knowledge. Levi Provencal observes that Muslim farming literature although suffering an unjust neglect on the part of scholarship, is the only literature which has a ‘flavour of the land.’ The treatises reflect, as a rule, both a theoretical and a practical outlook, with a clear balance achieved between a rigorously pursued bookish culture on the one hand and personal experimentation on the other; they exhibit a harmonious and integrated concept of agriculture, considered as a balanced development of nature.’ Ibn Bassal, who was gardening in Toledo when it fell to Christian conquerors in 1085, wrote almost exclusively from his own direct experience.Ibn al-Awwam writes:
I affirm nothing which seems right to me without having proven it in numerous experiments.”
For this purpose he cultivated a short distance from Seville, a farmland called ‘Alxarafe.’ His Kitab al Filaha (Book of Agriculture) was a culmination of both practice and observation, and of high technical interest. Ibn al-Awwam’s countryman, Ali Ibn Farah, also experimented with botanical gardens in the most inaccessible parts of southern Spain, and created a botanical garden in Guadix.
Farming manuals produced by these Muslim scholars played a central role in the agricultural revolution. In Sicily, Bresc notes, the many techniques described or suggested in the contracts of the 14th and 15th centuries were found in Muslim farming manuals. Many ploughing methods to prepare the soil, the use of fertilisers, planting, are found to be shared by Sicilian agriculture and such manuals. It is the sort of information found in Al-Ichbili’s Kitab al-Filaha, which goes into minute detail on how to grow olive trees, treatments for tree diseases, grafting, harvesting olives, refining olive oil, conditioning of olives; or cotton, its required soil properties, soil preparation, use of manure, ploughing techniques, the time of the year for planting, irrigation, care for plants, harvesting, and the like. Ibn Wafid (b. 998-99 or 1008, d. 1075), the author of Collection(Compendium) (Majmu’a), had complete mastery in agriculture and was knowledgeable in its procedures.He deals with soil types; water and how to detect its presence in the soil; the most propitious seasons for building farmhouses; fertilizers; seed selection; things that damage grain (such as hailstorms); when to sow wheat and barley; when to reap; beekeeping, pigeon keeping, and pesticides such as myrtle and cumin.
A major contribution to the advance of farming was the focused study by such manuals on specific crops. In respect to cotton, for instance, Qustus al-Rumi says it requires continuous irrigation, and Ibn Luyun states that it needs weekly watering. According to Ibn Bassal, there are two systems of growing cotton in the Islamic world: the Spanish system, by which the plant is irrigated every fifteen days after it reaches a finger’s height, and the Syrian system, by which the land is irrigated once before planting, again when the plant has reached the height of the palm of the hand, and thereafter every fifteen days until the middle of August.
It was Muslims who combined the use of traditional instruments with newly developed ones, such as the astrolabe, and adapted them to agricultural use. The astrolabe, for instance, is recommended by Ibn al Awwam for the purposes of levelling land. These instruments, of Eastern origin, are usually made of iron, and are also very diverse. A study published in 1990, making a systematic account of all the instruments mentioned in all the Andalusi works (both those edited and those still in manuscript) reveals an enormous variety of instruments, eighty in all, of which sixty are properly speaking tools, while the rest are accessories. Most noteworthy are the tools used to level the ground, like the murjiqa, derived from Spanish murciélago meaning “bat”, which is mentioned by al-Tighnari and Ibn Luyun. This may also be the same instrument that Ibn al-’Awwam (following Abu‘l-Khayr) uses in levelling waters and calls marhifal. Another instrument, used to scratch the earth around the roots of trees, is the shanjul, possibly derived from sanchuelo, a term of romance origin, documented by Abu’l-Khayr to designate a utensil which is “a kind of human hand with three cutting clubs.”
Muslims pioneered in many areas that were later on to be identified with the European agricultural revolution. This outline is not the place to look at Muslim agriculture and its vast accomplishments in detail. The site noted above Filaha.org, Bolens and Watson, in particular, are excellent sources that can be used for this purpose. In the following we will simply aim to sum up some of the major accomplishments of Muslim farming, beginning with how Muslims used and managed their water resources.
Irrigation and Water Management:
A major accomplishment of Muslim civilisation was its legal code around water use and management. As Serjeant points out, a considerable part of most Islamic legal books is devoted to water law, a subject, which incidentally, he notes, has not been studied in Europe to any appreciable extent. This legalistic approach to the resource, once more, derives from the faith itself, the place of water in the Qur’an being one of the most predominant, a great number of verses touching upon it in one form or another. The Prophet himself had said much about rights to water and had settled many irrigation disputes, and from his sayings and rulings, worked over by later jurists, there emerged a substantial corpus of irrigation law which clearly established the rights of the parties involved in all sorts of disputes.
Figure 13. Cross-section of a Qanat (Source)
The Shariah, the Islamic system of law, distinguishes three types of water sources which may be the object of use and ownership: water from rivers, from wells, and from springs. In relation to water taken out of rivers, for instance, where it is possible to cause shortage to other users, by e.g. digging a canal to take water from higher up the river, or where damming or the allocation of fixed times is necessary to provide enough water for irrigation, in such case, the river is normally regarded as the joint property of the riparian cultivators, and the question of how much water may be retained by the highest riparian cultivator depends on differing circumstances, such as the season of the year, the type of crop irrigated, and related issues. After qanats came into widespread use in the Muslim World, a body of customs and law (shari’a) developed to regulate the water-supply system. Although this legislation did not always work towards the optimum economic use of land and water, Watson points out, it was a distinct improvement over the water law of pre-Islamic times of many of the regions affected. In much of pre-Islamic Arabia, for instance, water rights were usually established and transferred by force, and in many parts whole tribes exercised collective rights over wells. By enshrining individual rights and spelling these out in detail, Islamic law undoubtedly encouraged private investors. It also gave them the incentive to conserve water due to the benefits that might accrue from this resource.
Throughout the Muslim land, institutions were set up for the purpose of water management and distribution. In Damascus, the management of water was granted to the Sheikhs, that is the trusted and learned, leading figures of the city. In Fes, Morocco, the qwadsiya (workmen devoted to the maintenance of the qadus), that is the system of supply, were placed under the control of the Consul of water. Water disputes in that same city were the prerogative of a special committee composed of representatives from all groups of such users taking counsel from a mufti (learned religious figure). In Valencia, disputes and violations were the prerogative of a special court chosen by the farmers themselves, sitting at The Tribunal of the Waters on Thursdays at the door of the principal mosque (ten centuries later, the same tribunal was still sitting in Valencia, but at the door of the cathedral.) In Iraq, a whole ‘Water Service’ was devoted to the task of supervision and maintenance, and an army of functionaries and other personnel was also involved. The management of the qanat system (under-ground canal) was quite complex. The qanats were scrupulously policed and maintained, and included in their management skilled personnel, and even diving teams.
Under conditions of water scarcity, Islamic society devised a complex system of distribution, in which technical knowledge played a central role. The division of water between several users was assured by a variety of mechanical devices, distributors, or runnels with inlets of a fixed size, and by the allocation of fixed periods of time. Where water is divided by a weir between a number of villages or users, the size of the weir varies according to the share of the water permanently allocated to the different users. During the period of water distribution, shares were defined in terms of days, hours, or minutes, and were allocated to the different districts, villages, fields, or plots of lands watered by the source in question. In the Beni Abbes region of Algeria, in the Sahara, south of Oran, for instance, farmers use a clepsydra to determine the duration of water use for every farmer in the area. This clepsydra times by the minute water use, night and day, throughout the year, taking into account seasonal variations. Each farmer is in turn summoned for his turn, and has to take necessary action to secure most efficient supply of water to his land. In Iran and Egypt, similarly, sand glass and water gate systems measured both time and volume of water used by each farmer. Leo the African speaks of the filling of water clocks when they are empty at the end of the irrigation time. In general, the scarcer the water, the more detailed and complicated the distribution, and the greater the fragmentation of ownership of the water, the more meticulous and elaborate the organisation of its distribution. In the case of qanats, the rotation period could be lengthened in periods of water shortages, and the amount of water per share reduced.
A decisive contribution of Islamic civilisation was to seize on the existing, pre-Islamic systems, and bring them to advanced levels, most of which have survived to our day. The old, decayed systems were repaired, and new networks were constructed. Iraq, for instance, on the eve of the Muslim arrival, suffered from neglect of irrigation, exploitative taxation and crippling wars with the Roman Empire. In southern Iraq, before Islam, the irrigation works were allowed to degenerate, and in the years 627-8, a major agricultural disaster took place, which was followed by devastating floods of the Tigris River which burst its dikes. Soon Muslim rule provided stable government and major hydraulic works were carried out, including drying swamped lands, reclamation of salt marshes, and new irrigation schemes were put in place in the Upper Euphrates region.There was vast reconstruction work of irrigation systems under the viceroy Al-Hajjaj (d. 714). In the Diyala Plains, at least, and probably over a much larger area, the restoration and reconstruction of Sasanian irrigation works took place through the late 8th and early 9th centuries. In Egypt, the work of bringing back into cultivation abandoned lands was begun by Qurra Ibn Sharik in 709-14, and continued throughout most of the 8thand much of the 9th centuries, and in Spain, we learn of the same initiatives. At the same time, land, which had never before been irrigated, or cultivated, or which had been abandoned, was provided with irrigation systems. There is evidence for the extension of irrigated farming from practically every part of the Islamic world in the early centuries of Islam.
As they expanded the surface of irrigated lands, Muslims devised new techniques so as to catch, channel, store and lift the water (through the use of norias (water lifting devices), whilst new ingenious combinations of available devices were put in place. Rainwater was captured in trenches on the sides of hills or as it ran down mountain gorges or into valleys; and surface water was taken from springs, brooks, rivers and oases, whilst underground water was exploited by creating new springs, or digging wells. The Muslims also dammed more rivers, and improved irrigation by systems of branch channels. Engineering expertise remained central to the system, one account explaining how a mountainside near Damascus was tunnelled through to allow the passage of a stream. Distribution of water was also adapted to every soil variety, two hundred and twenty four of these, each with a name, and each with its water requirements. Techniques were also adapted to specific natural conditions. The impact was obviously to make irrigation more economical, and to make lands hitherto unused productive.
Like every dominant aspect of Islamic civilisation, the practical and the scholarly were once more brought together in a vast literature devoted to matters of water, its use, management, storage, and preservation. All Kitab al-Filahat (Books of Agriculture), whether North African, Andalusian; Egyptian, Iraqi, Persian or Yemenite, Bolens says, insist meticulously on the deployment of equipment and on the control of water. Thus, Abu’l Khayr (fl early 12th century) of Seville, the author of a book on farming (Kitab al-Filaha) proposes four ways to collect rain-water, and other artificially obtained waters. He recommends such recovery for growing olive trees, and also explains techniques for maintaining soil moisture. In his treatise, Ibn al-Awwam (fl Seville end of 12th century), speaks at length of the watering process for each crop; in the case of rice, for instance, offering advice for each stage, before planting, and after, and also irrigation and drainage once the crop has grown. Ibn Mammati (d. 1209) implied that in areas where year-long irrigation was available summer crops might be grown after winter crops and income would thereby be doubled. Other treatises deal with the same subject and include Ibn Wafid’s (d.1074) Majmu’ fi’l Filaha (Compodium of Agriculture); Ibn Hajjaj (fl 11th century) Al-Muqni fi’l Filaha (the Satisfactory Book of Agriculture); and Al-Tighnari (12th century): Kitab Zahrat al Bustan (Book of the Flowers of the Garden). The same literature also gives good focus to engineering works aimed at the storage and supply of the resource. Ibn Mammati suggests that the construction of a retaining dam on the Alexandrian canal and the consequent provision of perennial irrigation on lands lying below the dam would achieve an increase in income.
Figure 14. Probable diffusion of Qanat technology (Source)
A particular interest is given to the Qanat, that is the underground water system, which conducts water from its source to a distant location. Qanats (subterranean tunnel-wells) are extremely important in the history of irrigation and human settlement in the arid lands of the Old World. In modern times, more than twenty terms are used to identify these horizontal wells; the Arabic word qanatt meaning “lance” or “conduit” is used in Iran, kariz is used in Afghanistan, while in Syria, Palestine, and North Africa fuqara (pronounced foggara) is the most common term. In all of these regions, tunnel-wells are still being constructed in the traditional manner, and many settlements depend on them for irrigation and domestic water. In brief, a qanat consists in reaching for a water source, and transporting water through an under ground canal from its source to the point of distribution over what often are very long distances of 50 miles or so. A series of vertical shafts, resembling but not acting as wells, are constructed along the line of the qanat to allow access for maintenance and removal of spoil.The qanat system allows the sound management and protection of a scarce and precious resource from evaporation and also pollution. It also helps, Guichard notes, to stimulate the prosperity of whole regions that would otherwise remain barren. Oliver Asin in this Historia del nombre Madrid seems to have presented a good case for the Muslims having made it possible to develop what has become the city of Madrid by introducing a sort of qanat system to supply the district with water. Parts of this apparently still exist, and Asin links the actual name Madrid to it. The qanat system has survived to this day in many parts of the world, including in the Algerian Sahara, under the name Fogarras, modern Spain, Central Asia, western China, and on a more limited scale in dry regions of Latin America, where it has a substantial impact on the local farming.
In Iraq, Al-Kharaji (11th century) wrote Inbat al-miyah al-khafiyya (The Extraction of Hidden Waters), describing not only the application of geometry and algebra to hydrology but also the instruments used by master well diggers and qanat builders. The work deals with surveying instruments, methods of detecting sources of water and instructions for the excavation of underground conduits. It devotes various chapters to specific issues, such as notes related to underground water (chap 3); description of mountains and rocks which reveal the presence of water (chap 4); study of grounds with water (chap 5); plants that signal the presence of water (chap 6); description of dry mountains and arid soils (chap 7); on the variety of waters and their tastes (chap 8); how to purify polluted waters (chap 10) etc. There is also an anonymous work, also from Iraq: Kitab al-hawi li l-a’mal al-sultaniyya wa rusum al-diwaniyya (Book Comprising Public Works and Regulations for Official Accounting). Cahen has published the part of this treatise dealing with irrigation. It includes large extracts on norias, gharrafas and other water raising machinery; sections on instruments, techniques of levelling and canals, and their digging, water retention structures, and related subjects.
The Muslim legacy to the West in this field is strong particularly in al Andalus. Witness of such an impact is the considerable Arabic vocabulary in Spanish irrigation (acequia, alberca, arcaduz, noria….) for instance.Another aspect is the prevalence of Muslim techniques, and not just in Spain and Portugal, but also in their former American colonies. In Majorca, there still remain extensive tank irrigation schemes constructed by the Muslims. Remains of Islamic water systems can also be seen in the surviving dams. Many such dams as on the Turia River are now over ten centuries old, and still meet the irrigation needs of Valencia; and they are so effective as to require no addition to the system. There was a similar impact in Sicily, where the study of philology clearly highlights the Arabic etymology of Sicilian vocabulary related to irrigation.
Land Use and Management:
Under Islamic law, if one ceases to manage land responsibly, one can lose ownership of the land.
Land, water, air, fire, forests, sunlight, and other resources are considered common property, not merely of humans but of all living creatures.
Following Muslim rule [Le Strange notes] lands of the realm were measured, records were systematically kept, roads and canals were multiplied or maintained, rivers were banked to prevent floods; Iraq, formerly half desert, was again a garden of Eden; Palestine, recently so rich in sand and stones, was fertile, wealthy and populous.”
Just as with water, the arrival of Islam considerably altered land ownership, and more crucially, land use. Following the conquest of Egypt (639-645), Caliph Omar (Caliph 634-644) rejected the advice of Zobeir to divide the land amongst his followers. ‘Leave it,’ said Omar, ‘in the people’s hands to nurse and to fructify.’The Muslims, Durant notes, could have devastated or confiscated everything, like the Mongols or the Magyars or the raiding Norse; instead they merely taxed. Conquered lands, while forming a part of the public domain, could not be acquired by those who had conquered them, and continued to be occupied and tilled by their former proprietors.
Islam legalised individual ownership of the land in contrast to tribal institutions which made the hima (the land which was kept as a preserve, sacred territory, or land reserved for the exclusive use of a tribe or a tribal chief) common to all members of the tribe. By furthering concepts related to land reclamation and distribution, Islam transformed the Arabs from nomadic people into a civilisation of land owners. Although this Islamic conception of land ownership was connected with the actual possession of the land, it did not preclude the other concept that property is God’s to give, and so is the land, and that people can use and exploit both.Individual ownership of the land was, however, neither absolute nor unconditional, for Islam laid down some regulations, which limited its absolute character. Since the concept of ownership was to encourage people to make use of land, and since land was granted for both individual and communal benefit, the right of ownership would cease to function if the cultivation stopped. Accordingly, both the Prophet and Caliph Omar took back land which had been granted to some of the Companions who were unable to exploit it. Omar took back from Bilal ibn Al-Harith al-Muzni some of the land that the Prophet had granted to him, saying:
God’s messenger has not granted you this land so that you should merely prevent other people from holding it: he granted it to you in order to work it. Take whatever you can cultivate, and return the rest.”
Among the rights which were acknowledged by Islam for the purpose of individual land ownership is the reclamation of waste land, defined as land without any owner, and without any trace of cultivation or development. According to one of the Muslim jurists, Abu Hanifa, ownership only holds if the former owners are unknown, and this ownership through reclamation becomes established only when the reclaimer begins the process of reclaiming it by cultivation or digging it, or surrounding it with walls, but if he ceases to work it, he would only have priority but not ownership, and he stipulates a period of three years as a proof of working.However, Caliph Omar, once more, cancelled the practice of placing a stone or digging a ditch around a piece of land, prohibiting reserving any part of it. The Islamic jurist Al-Shafi’i explains that if the ruler grants a piece of land, or if someone reserves for himself a piece of dead land and prevents anyone from developing it, the ruler has the right to tell such person that if he develops such land, it is his, if not, it will be taken from him and given to another Muslim who would be willing to develop it.
The Islamic legal corpus also gave great incentives to land improvement. One such incentive was in exempting or taxing at only half the normal rate lands planted with permanent crops which had not yet begun to yield, which, no doubt, encouraged investment in tree crops, such as bananas, citrus, mangoes and coconut palms, which ultimately yielded far higher returns than the traditional crops.
Security of ownership, the obligation to improve estates, and other measures gave the incentive to Muslim farmers to innovate. One principal way this worked was by the introduction of new crops (more on which further on), which had a dramatic impact on land use. This was accomplished by planting such new crops on hitherto dead lands. Sorghum, for instance, though requiring moderate amounts of water around and after planting time, produces best results in a dry heat, whilst watermelons and eggplants can also give satisfactory yields with very little water. Some of the crops were useful in pushing back the frontiers of dry farming into areas which in earlier times had been considered too hot, too arid, too infertile to be cultivated regularly or at all, sorghum, once more, doing very well on hard, sandy soils, inhospitable to other crops, even improving the quality of such soils. Hard wheat, and watermelons could grow on sandy soils, whilst sugar cane, coconut palms, colocasia and eggplants could be grown on saline soils, and thus made possible the expansion of cultivation onto swampy lands along sea-coasts, the mouths of rivers, into lands watered by brackish water, and into lands that after centuries of cropping had become too salty for other crops.
Figure 15. Water “metering” through a distribution weir on a foggara in Algeria (Source)
Soil, or more properly, arable land, is a vital resource, and its protection is essential, especially in countries where such a resource is rare, Muslim countries in particular. If you take a country such as Algeria, for instance, only a strip of land in the far north is useful in terms of farming, corresponding to less than 3% of the country’s entire territory. The rest cannot be farmed, or in some extreme situations can be but at immense cost. Even countries such as Turkey, which are at first view rich in farming land are in fact not, in view of a variety of factors, which are common to the whole Muslim world (Indonesia and Malaysia excepted) and which will be looked at partially here and mainly in part 2 of this article. In view of the scarcity of such a resource, its protection by all means, including the force of the law should be the priority in every Muslim country. This is far from the case, though; rather the opposite, the destruction of farming land is one of the dominant realities of Muslim countries (together with the destruction of the other two precious resources: woodlands and water).
The importance of farming land is not just due to its economic role in earning revenue for the nation, it is crucial in its simple and obvious role: feeding the population. Tourism or hydrocarbons can never feed a nation permanently. Land can. The religious text just as early Muslim legislation and measures seen above, stress the preciousness of land. Just as other natural resources, especially forests and water, farmland is the shield from desertification and possible starvation. The map in part 2 of this essay will show us that the Muslim world is located in the most vulnerable part of the planet, on the edge of deserts. The destruction of these three sources will cause the Muslim world to melt into the desert. This author has worked and written a lot on this subject, especially on North Africa, and his home country, Algeria, throughout the 1990s. At the present rates of destruction, it is very likely that nearly the whole Muslim world will turn desert in less than a generation. One day such a destruction will be regretted and quite bitterly.
Farming land can also be lost to other factors, including climatic, but again, the hand of man, or humans, is the principal agent in increasing soil loss to erosion. There are elements that are essential for the management of land, especially in arid and semi arid regions where most of the Muslim world is located, and where the dangers to soil are extreme. Soil is washed away by various factors, and the land is slowly impoverished until it becomes arid. Again, it is very complex to enter these issues in detail, and a consultation of good works on soil loss will enlighten the readers of what one means, and how extremely vulnerable the Muslim world is to this. This author can fill this article with his own stuff on this subject, but this is not the venue, and enough has been said to highlight the destruction of soil and arable land, which is leading the Muslim world to a catastrophe.
Why is the author saying all this? One reason is to warn, although it might be too late for many, already. The main reason, though, as far as this article is concerned is to show that early Muslims were aware of the preciousness of the soil, or farmland, and the necessity for its preservation. Careful soil management and its enrichment remained a central concern to Muslim farmers, and this was accomplished through a variety of methods. First, Muslims were very careful not to harm the resource in the first place. They established their urban structures on ground not useful for farming, and never on grounds covered in vegetation of any sort, including forests, which they preserved preciously. Each town, each city was surrounded by a green belt. All accounts by Western travellers to the Muslim world, from the medieval times until the colonial period in the 19thcentury speak of the care Muslims gave their lands, and the beauty and richness of Muslim orchards, gardens, and green belts surrounding every town and city. Not a single green belt exists today in any part of the Muslim world, and if they do, they are not only scorched, vandalised, and half urbanised by revolting looking structures, they are also swamped in waste and trash.
Early Muslims were careful to keep the soil productive, and preventing its loss of nutrients. Throughout the Muslim world, fertilisers of all sorts were used in accordance with much advanced farming requirements.Animal dung was widely used, and so was vegetal matter of many sorts, including sediment from olive oil, lees, straw, husks, leaves, and mineral matter such as different kinds of oils, chalk, marl, crushed bricks, and other substances. The geographer, Yaqut al-Hamawi (d.1229), for instance, informs us that the town refuse of Basra was systematically brought as manure to the sugar cane. Watson remarks that the range of fertilisers used by Muslims was much larger than in ancient traditions, and that the fact that night soil was used was of great importance since it made available very large supplies of a fertiliser not used in European agriculture, and thus reduced or eliminated the need to pasture animals on fields. It seems likely, Watson adds, that it is for this reason that communal rights to graze on stubble did not develop in the Islamic world, and hence the rigid village wide rotation of medieval Europe did not appear. Muslim cultivators were, thus, left free to develop rotations which suited both soil, moisture, and market conditions.
Many techniques for upgrading different types of soils were also implemented, including the use of special crops to increase soil fertility. Sorghum, trimester wheat, legumes, beets, sugar cane, rice, various grasses and many other crops were appropriately designed for the enrichment of specific kinds of soils. One other way in which Muslim farmers were able to increase soil productivity was through a closer matching of crops to soil, climate and water, and in doing so, they had more scope than their predecessors, for they had more crops to choose from, the old ones, new strains from them, and also the new crops, which the Muslims introduced.The Muslim farmer understood the requirements of these crops better than his predecessors, identifying many different kinds of soils, each suited to particular kinds of plants, and differentiating them further by taking into account the soil’s moisture and temperature through the growing season. The Muslim farmer also had a more sophisticated understanding of the effects of climate on plant growth, which took account not only of rainfall and air temperature but also the effects of various winds. Thus, the Muslim farmer was informed how barley could grow in lands where wheat does not, and how it succeeds in soils that are saline, fine, soft, loose, weak, seeping and perspiring; or that the lime tree likes loose earth with a little salinity or red, aerated earth.
In the delicate environments that formed (and still forms) the Islamic geographical space, soils were enriched and protected from erosion at once thanks to subtle and well elaborated techniques. Soils were enriched by varying methods of ploughing (normal and deep), hoeing, digging and harrowing. Bresc states that farms of Norman Sicily, which were still probably in the hands of Muslim cultivators, were ploughed four times before planting. Turning and breaking the soil were seen as partial substitutes for both fallowing and fertilising, and on occasions preferable. Even as late as the 19th century, Muslims understood this principle. In North Africa, the swing plough, Bolens explains, was preferred over the heavy Brabout plough of the French colonist; because the rule is not to expose the deep beds of cultivated land to erosion and intense heat ‘the golden rule of ecology in Andalusia.) In the golden Andalusian age, this protection of the Mediterranean soils was subject to laws of a scrupulously careful ecology. The mishā, a heavy, hand- held spade was the tool for restoring the soil, for the object of such agriculture was closing the soil, not opening it. For those who don’t understand how soils work, let’s briefly and simply explain to them how there are many living organisms at different layers of the soil, doing their task, fertilising the soil. If you break the soil and pull up what belongs twenty centimetres further down, you destroy such an equilibrium by bringing the organisms which live twenty cms below ground to the surface. Indeed, nature, whether soils, waters, trees, or animals, birds, bees, and all that the Almighty has created obey and fit in a very precise organisation, and play a very particular role which is part of a grander harmonious system. Once you break such an equilibrium, you break the cycle of life, and once you break the cycle of life prepare yourself to pay the consequences. This is the fundamental reason why taking care of one’s natural resources is not just an act of confidence in the great design of the Almighty, and is not just because if you leave nature alone you keep the real beauty, it is also, and fundamentally crucial. Indeed, once you deforest, once you pollute, once you concrete madly, or apply chemicals madly, you disrupt the overall equilibrium, and hence begin the destruction of your own land and yourself, and of your future generations.
Figure 17. Ibn Wahshiyya’s 985 CE translation of the Ancient Egyptian hieroglyph alphabet (Source)
Muslim farming treatises provided a significant amount of knowledge on land use, management, and soil improvement. Ibn Wahshiya remarks that ‘the earth does not keep form but changes over time,’ and changes in the quality of the soil,’ he adds, ‘this could be effected by the cultivator.’ He proposes many treatments for earths categorised as saline, sweet, bitter, acid, foul, delicate, clayish, sharp, heavy, and astringent, treatments, which often involved the addition of various kinds of soils, appropriately chosen, as well as the right kind of animal and green manures, correct watering, much ploughing, and the choice of suitable crops in the early years of cultivation. Ibn Bassal’s text lists four types of water (rain, spring, river, and well) and ten types of soil (soft and light, mountainous, sandy, black and well manured, white, and so on) and the plants that prosper in each. The third chapter covers seven types of fertilizer (horse, mule, sheep, pigeon, and human manure as well as garbage and ashes from bathhouse furnaces). The fourth chapter discusses soil preparation and the method and tools used in leveling the earth so that water will flow evenly through the garden plots. Ibn al-Awwam did not neglect the crucial issue of soil salinity, whilst Al Ichbili’s Kitab al-Filaha explains the required soils for each crop, tasks preceding planting, soil preparation, use of manure, ploughing techniques, their frequency, soil preservation etc. Al-Maqrizi and Ibn Mammati, for their part, explain the forms, manners and frequencies of ploughing in sugar cane farm-lands. Ibn Mammati says that land to be planted with summer crops should be ploughed two or three times.Whilst some such techniques were possibly uneconomic, many, however, permitted vast improvements to the soil quality, and allowed a much greater use of dry land and expansion of Muslim agriculture into lands hitherto uncultivated. The extension of farming also went hand in hand with the protection of what was seen as both a fragile and precious resource.
Introduction and Diffusion of New Crops:
Central to the (Islamic) agricultural revolution, Watson writes, was the introduction of many new crops into the early Islamic world and their widespread diffusion, crops which include rice, hard wheat, sugar cane, cotton, artichokes, and lemons. In addition to these, many other useful plants were diffused in the same period: food and fiber crops or plants grown as sources of fodder, spices, condiments, medicines, cosmetics, perfumes, garden flowers, ornamental plants, and, also, many new strains of old and new plants were developed and diffused. In his larger work on the subject, Watson devotes most chapters to such crops, and describes at great length the process of collecting plants, their growth in different environments, and their general diffusion between places. He focuses on the principal crops that were diffused by the Muslims: Sorghum, Asiatic rice, hard wheat, sugar cane, cotton, sour orange, lemon, lime, shaddock, banana, plantain, coconut palm, watermelon, spinach, artichoke, colocasia, eggplant, and mango tree. Watson explains the patterns of diffusion, the diversity in the agents of diffusion, the facilitating elements, which include institutional, social and economic factors, and also, the experimentalist nature of the Muslims, as well as the impact such plant diffusion had on the local economies.
Figure 2. Al-Dinwari, Manuscript (Source)
Muslim authors devoted a vast interest to the study of plants, their composition, structure, and also their uses for varied purposes. Al-Dinawari (d. 895) deals with a wide variety of plants, and describes their transformations and changes during their growth. From his predecessors, he derives knowledge on aromatic plants, plants used in dyes and for other purposes. He also devotes one chapter to the classification of plants (tajnis al-nabat). Ibn Wahshiya’s Filaha Nabatiyya (Nabatean Agriculture), one of the earliest of the sort, makes a comprehensive classification of plants. Another early work on the subject is the anonymous Umdat al-tabib fi ma’rifat al-nabat li-kull labib, which was a pioneering attempt at the classification of plants by genus (jinse), species (naw) and variety (sanf). Ibn Bajja (d. 1138,) in Kitab al-Nabat (Liber de Plantis) also deals with the physiology of plants, whilst emphasising their infinite variety. Ibn Wafid Majmu’ fi’l Filaha(Compendium of Farming) focuses on the naming and uses of many of the new plants being introduced into Spain. The geographer Ibn Battuta (d.1377), as he recounts his travels, offers extremely detailed descriptions of plants, fruit and vegetation of India, Java, the Maldives, and other places. He includes not just the common: apricots, quince, grapes, watermelons, sweet oranges, but also the exotic: coconuts, mango trees, cinnamon, Brazil nut, benzoin, camphor and clove amongst others.
The diffusion of some such plants, such as sugar cane and cotton, as we see here, had a decisive impact on farming, society, and, above all, on industry. Muslim geographers describe the cultivation of sugar cane and use in great abundance. An account by al-Istakhri (c. 950) runs:
I have travelled on the river Masukran from Asker-Mokkaram by way of Ahwaz… of its water not a drop is lost, and it is all used for watering palm groves, grain and sugar fields… In all this great area there is no place in which sugar cane does not grow, and this is brought to Asker Mokarram for manufacture. The cane of this town itself is also that of Tuster and Sus, and does not contain much sugar; it is eaten direct and is not crushed. But all the cane of Masukran is brought to Asker-Mokarram, and all the people get their living out of sugar cane. It is partly used as food and partly made into sugar.”
In Egypt, Al-Idrisi, about the year 1150, pictures the whole area around Cairo as one well watered cane field, and mentions Caus, Miniet, Chamain, Terfet and Sennista in the Fayyum (the district south of Cairo and extending about 200 miles upstream) as centres, as well as the oasis in Lower Egypt, about 100 miles further south.
Cotton had a vast impact on both farming and industry. Some of the best writing on this subject is by Lombard who explains how cotton was planted, transported between places, and used in manufacturing. Syria, once more, took a leading place in the farming and manufacture of the crop. Following the arrival of Islam in that country, cotton from Higher Mesopotamia was acclimatised there, and Syria, soon, became the largest medieval cotton producer of the whole Mediterranean world. Cotton also thrived in North Africa. It was grown under irrigation on the northern parts of the Sahara, and also around Carthage and Tunis from where it was carried to the manufacturing centres of Al-Qayrawan. Cotton was abundantly grown in Morocco, especially around Fes and Tangiers, and it supplied the many workshops, which in turn manufactured clothing items that were much in demand in the export trade. It is from North Africa that cotton was introduced into both Spain and Sicily, its first mention in Spain dating from 961 in the Calendar of Cordova. Ibn al-Awwam offers plentiful information on the manners, time, and places it was grown. Andalusian poetry, likewise, includes many allusions to cotton, its whiteness a metaphor for jasmine blossoms and snow. The progress of cotton, Watson observes, owes mainly to the fact that wealthy people copied what had become the manner of dress of many Egyptians. The fashion set by the rich was sufficiently widespread, and hence the demand for cotton was great enough to induce some landowners and peasants to experiment with its cultivation. Thus cotton moved from Egypt farther west, across North Africa into Spain and to successive Mediterranean islands.Manufacture of cotton was first introduced into Muslim Spain during the rule of Abd Errahman III.
Figure 3. Cumin and dill from an Arabic book of samples (ca. 1334) (Source)
Rice, although known in many pre-Islamic places, was diffused into such parts more widely in the early Islamic era, and also in places where it was not known, and then into Europe. Iraq produced vast quantities of rice in the areas watered by the Euphrates and the River Sura, and in Batiba, in the Jamida region, downstream from Wasit and west of the Tigris. Cultivation of rice is also reported in the region of Baysan in Palestine, Tarsus in Cilicia, and also in Egypt, in the Fayyum and Sa’id (Upper Egypt). It was so intensively grown in the Fayyum, that it became a large export centre of the commodity. Rice was also farmed further to the East, in Khuzistan, and in Khurasan, and in the lowlands south of the Caspian Sea.
A major contribution to the advance of farming was the focused study by manuals on specific crops, and in regard to rice, for instance, we find a vast literature, which Canard has proficiently outlined in an article in French, and which can now be found in an excellent English translation. Muslim authors such as Ibn Khurradadhbih (d. 912) inform us about the regions where rice is grown, its surface areas, the quantities produced, and so on. We are also told that rice is a summer crop, and depends much more than winter crops on irrigation being available. According to Ibn al-Awwam, however, rice may be sown twice a year. Muslim works give numerous details on how to choose the right soil to grow it in, on the right way of planting, thinning out, watering, and cutting and threshing it, on the right time of the year for planting, and other matters. Ibn Bassal advises on the choice of soil, its preparation, the use of manure, and time for planting, whilst Al-Ichbilli dwells on the amount to be sown on any given surface, and the manner it ought to be done.Ibn al-Awwam focuses on irrigation, timing, and the amount of water needed at any given phase, as well as its frequency. Field drainage, fighting pests, clearance of weeds, and other matters, are elaborated upon; and so are harvest, storage and even culinary uses of the commodity.
The Islamic diffusion of plants was not just geographical but also qualitative, through the crossing of plants. Al-Jahiz states that in the 9th century, 360 kinds of dates were to be found in the market of Basra, while in the following century, Ibn Wahshiya wrote that the varieties of dates in Iraq could not be counted. According to Ibn Rusta, who wrote in the early 10th century, there were 78 kinds of grapes in the vicinity of Sanaa (Yemen).The Baghdad based scholar Abd al-Latif (13th century) refers to species crossed between each other leading to an infinity of varieties. Al-Ansari writing after 1422 in Ceuta (Morocco) talks of local orchards producing 15 varieties of apples, 17 varieties of apricots, 28 of figs, 14 of prunes, 36 of pears, 9 of walnuts, and 65 of grapes. What seems certain, Watson notes, is that the range of useful plants available to the cultivator-and to the consumer-was greatly increased in the early centuries of Islam by the diffusion of new plants and the development of new cultivars. Crossing species to produce new ones certainly responded to the spirit of experiment that was very much current in the Islamic world, at that time a spirit common to the astronomer, the chemist, and the farmer.
Central to the advance of farming was the productive rotation of crops. Here, too, Islamic expertise was centuries ahead of other regions, and was abundantly developed in literature. Where various rotations are given, Ibn Al-Awwam, for instance, explains that, contrary to ancient practice, wheat should not be grown in successive years on the same land but should be followed in rotation with barley and other crops. Bolens shows how Islamic farming insists on the importance of legumes, turnips, trimester wheat and cash crops.Leguminous plants, such as broad beans, chick peas, French beans, peas, lentils and lupins, occupy a paramount position in Andalusi agriculture, since, in addition to their use in fixing nitrogen in the soil and thus aiding the system of crop rotation, they also played an important role in the nutrition of the Andalusi people.Among the sequences found by Bolens in the manuscript of Abu al-Khair is the following: turnips, flax, broad beans, barley, wheat.
The frontier-less, unified land of Islam allowed crops (rice, hard wheat, sugar-cane, watermelon, spinach, lemons, citruses…) to be taken from India and Persia to the Near East and North Africa, and to Europe. Many crops were probably found on the Indian sub-continent, such as the province of Sind, where the Muslims had a foot-hold. Many products also came from China, and were carried west. Oman may have been a halfway-house in which new plants were acclimatised before being passed farther to the north and, of course, further west. The eastern part of the Islamic world was thus ‘the gateway’ through which passed on their westward journey all the crops, with the exception of the tropical ones, then across the Maghreb, into Spain, and Sicily, and from one Mediterranean island to another. In southern Europe, Eastern plants were acclimated in Muslim Sicily as had happened in Spain.
Figure 4. Gardens from Alcázar of Seville (Source)
Experimental gardens were the privileged setting for adapting and studying plants. It was in Muslim Spain in the 11th Century, that the first royal botanical gardens of Europe made their appearance, five centuries ahead of similar ones in Western Christendom. These were both pleasure gardens and also trial grounds for the acclimatization of plants brought from the Near and Middle East. Many accounts of such gardens have come down to us. The contemporary Almerian historian and geographer Ahmad b. ‘Umar al‘Udri (d.477/1085) describes al-Sumadihiyya, in the outskirts of Almeria, where al-Mu’tasim constructed a garden (bustãn) of artistic appearance with beautiful palaces. In this garden, in addition to the usual plants, exotic fruits are grown, like the various kinds of banana, and sugarcane. Royal and experimental botanical gardens were often in the charge of leading scientists. In Spain, agronomists had at their disposal botanical gardens and trial grounds where they experimented with exotic plants, and tried to create new varieties of fruit and flowers. The literature around this subject, Armesto notes, is prolific. A veritable school of court gardeners flourished, unparalleled elsewhere in the medieval West. They knew each other and read each other’s works, and dealt with practical agriculture. ‘Their common background was in royal patronage, their common formation in the lush experimental gardens of powerful sybarites in Toledo and Seville, where they were employed on every project that might enhance luxury, from concocting compost to inventing recipes for foie gras.’ They were learned men and keen, practical gardeners, too. Hence, Al-Tignari, the author of a farming manual, made botanical gardens for a Spanish Taifa king and then for the Almoravid prince Tamim. In the garden of a sultan of Seville, the anonymous author of a botanical treatise domesticated rare plants and acclimatized exotic ones. In the 12th century the botanist and physician al-Shafran collected plants from many outlying regions of Spain for the garden of an Almohad sultan at Guadix. The Huerta del Rey in Toledo was directed by two of Spain’s leading agronomists: Ibn Bassal and Ibn Wafid, both of whom carried out agricultural experiments and wrote the important manuals of farming that have been repeatedly referred to. Ibn Bassal eventually fled from Toledo in 1085, when it was captured by Alfonso VI of Castile, for Seville, to the court of Al-Mu’tamid for whom he created a new royal garden. The gardens of the medieval Islamic world, and particularly the royal gardens, were, according to Watson, places where business was mixed with pleasure and science with art.These gardens linked together the agricultural and botanical activities of distant regions, and played one of the greatest roles in the diffusion of useful plants.
A number of agents contributed to these developments, and Muslim rulers should be assigned an important role. Abd Errahman I was so passionately fond of flowers and plants, he sent agents to Syria and other parts of the East to procure new plants and seeds. He planted a beautiful garden in imitation of the Rusafah Villa of Damascus. We read about him:
One of the great works that Abd al-Rahmān b. Mu’āwiya had carried out at the beginning of his rule was the orchard of the Arruzafa … He built a splendid royal palace, and laid out extensive gardens in which exotic plants and trees from all parts were planted. He ordered the planting of stones from special fruits, as well a rare seeds brought by Jazīd and Safar, his ambassadors in Syria, so that with the benevolence of destiny and careful cultivation, the surrounding gardens became the home of luxuriant trees producing exotic fruit, which shortly spread to all parts of al-Andalus, where the supremacy of these fruits over other varieties was soon recognized.”
Figure 5. Sugar cane depicted and described in an Arabic manuscript on natural history (Source)
Abd Errahman III (912-961) promoted the culture of the sugar cane, rice, and the mulberry. By the 10thcentury, the royal gardens at Cordova became botanical gardens, with fields for experimentation with seeds, cuttings and roots brought in from the outermost reaches of the world. Other royal gardens, in Spain and elsewhere, also became the sites of serious scientific activity as well as places of amusement. A recently discovered manuscript by al-Udhri informs us that al-Mu’tasim, a Taifa king (11th century), brought many rare plants to his garden in Almeria, which even included banana and sugar cane.
Turkish rulers were great garden lovers, and by their direct or indirect influence, the West gained considerable numbers of plants. Under Sultan Ahmad III (1703-1730), in fact, as Harvey points out, Turkey became the floricultural centre of the Western world, his reign famous as the Lale Devri (Tulip Period). The sultan’s tulip fields in a summer pasture high in the Sipylus Range above Manisa are still remembered, and there may be significance in the fact that the great botanist William Sherard (1659-1728) was British Consul at Smyrna (only some twenty-five miles from Manisa) from 1703 to 1716. Sherard’s garden at his country home in Seydikoy (‘Sedekio’), a few miles south of Smyrna near the Ephesus road, must have played a part in the transmission of plants to his brother James in England and to other botanists.
The Yemeni element in Muslim Spain played a large part in the development of farming and in plant diffusion. The Yemenis had a long tradition of farming in their country of origin, and as they settled in Spain, they brought with them their irrigation techniques, laws and administration, and also new crops and systems of more intensive land use. As Serjeant observes, so many south Arabs, to judge by their names, Tujibi, Himyari, Kindi, Ma’afiri, settled in Spain, that it is attractive also to think that they may have influenced the development of the mountain districts of Spain.
Watson also speaks of thousands of mostly unknown individuals from many levels of society who moved plants over shorter or longer distances for many different reasons. The “agents of transmission” were traveling scholars, pilgrims making the hajj to Makkah, and merchants traveling along trade routes buying grains, dried fruits, and herbs in one place and selling them in another. Whether ‘great or humble,’ they unwillingly collaborated in a vast undertaking that was to enlarge considerably the range of useful plants available over a large part of the known world. They also prepared the stage for still further migration of these same plants in the early modern era.
Behind the diffusion of plants certainly lay the attraction of profit; however what also stimulated such diffusion was, according to Watson, the large and unified region, which for three or four centuries, and in places still longer, was equally receptive to all that was new, and was able to diffuse novelties, ‘both to effect the initial transfer which introduced an element into a region and to carry out the secondary diffusion which changed rarities into commonplaces.’ Even when the so-called Muslim empire was politically broken (Abbasids in the East, Umayyad in Spain…), there was still a great cultural, social and economic unity within the disparate lands such as Spain, the Yemen, and Central Asia. These regions, although equally very much disparate in terms of climate, soil, water resources, and other specificities, did not prevent Muslim farm experimentalists from devising ways whereby crops from one region adapt to another.
In this instance, we find the very factors that centuries later stimulated the expansion of agriculture, trade and industry in the West, used in the same way in the Islamic setting. Many of the new crops, first, came to be known in the Islamic world as luxury imports, at the outset as medicines for the rich, and later as food-stuffs served on the tables of rulers and their courts. Demand for these products widened, and as wealthy people in the capital and great provincial cities imitated the eating habits of those rulers and their courts, and were themselves imitated by those further down the social ladder, eventually a critical point was reached whereby domestic production replaced imports. And as skills were acquired, costs were cut, demand rose further, leading to further innovations and greater supply. As the Islamic world split into various centres of power, this had the impact of scattering tastes concentrated in one place over a wider geographical area.
Figure 6. A page from “Kitab al-Diryak. Selciukide/Seljuq Art (Source)
Impact on the West
Figure 7. A distillation plant in Damascus consisting of multiple units for producing rose water (13th century ms) (Source)
Wickens notes how the West’s borrowings from the Middle East form practically the whole basic fabric of civilisation, including agriculture; the domestication of animals for food; drainage and irrigation; plants and crops etc. From the Muslims, Spain, for instance, received (apart from a legendary high culture), and she in turn transmitted to most of Europe, all manner of agricultural and fruit-growing processes, together with a vast number of new plants, fruits and vegetables that we all now take for granted. Amongst these were sugar cane, rice, citrus fruit, apricots, cotton, artichokes, aubergines, and other products. Carra de Vaux points out to the large variety of flowers, plants and animals that came from the Orient, and are used in agriculture, pharmacy, gardens, luxury trade, and arts. He lists tulips (from Turkish: tulpan,), hyacinths, narcissi from Constantinople, Lilacs, jasmine from Arabia, roses from Shiraz and Ispahan, peaches from Persia, the prunes from Damascus (brought in by the Crusaders), figs from Smyrna, silk, cotton, and also plants and products used for dyeing. De Vaux also dwells on animal species, focusing his interest on ‘one of the great glories’ from the Arab world: the pure blood Arab horse, highlighting the Arab affection and expertise in breeding and caring for their horses.
It is Turkey, most particularly, which, as Harvey shows, was the main agent of diffusion from the Muslim world to the West of a great variety of plants, flowers and trees. Considered from the viewpoint of plants-manship, he remarks, the question is: just what plants could be found in the gardens of Constantinople and the other royal cities of the Ottomans Adrianople and Bursa, Manisa and Smyrna? By a process of deduction, based on the species known to have been introduced, we can be sure that before 1600 the West had derived from or through Turkey the great bulbs: Crown Imperial, Hyacinth, Lilium candidum, Var. cernuum, L. chalcedonicum, Muscari moschatum, various Narcissi and Tulip; the brilliant Anemones, Carnation, Iris pallida and I. susiana, Love-in-a-Mist, Ranunculus asiaticus and the shrubs Cherry Laurel, Lilac and Syringa (Philadelphus coronarius), and the Oleaster (Elaeagnus angustifolia). At earlier but unknown dates the West had received the Oriental Plane tree, the Black Mulberry and, indirectly, the Walnut; Hollyhock, White Jasmine, Scarlet Lychnis, ‘Female’ Peony and Opium Poppy. Within another generation there had been added the Horse Chestnut, Cloth of Gold Crocus, Galanthus plicatus, Byzantine Gladiolus, Day Lily, Purple Primrose (Primula acaulis rubra P. sibthorpii) and the Sweet Sultan. Soon after 1650, the West received the Cedar of Lebanon; Sir George Wheler dispatched Hypericum calycinum in 1676; the Weeping Willow arrived in 1692. Then came the Oriental Poppy by 1714 and Arbutus andrachne ten years later. In 1735 the West received the Turkey Oak, later in the century Daphne pontica and, in 1793, Rhododendron luteum (Azalea pontica).Within the last hundred years or so to 1976, Anatolia has again yielded a splendid harvest: Galanthus Elwesii in 1874, Chionodoxa luciliae found by George Maw in 1877, Crocus ancyrensis in 1879, and several of the best dwarf iris, from Iris Bakeriana of 1887 to I. histrioaintabensis of 1934.
Most plants were diffused from the Muslim world into the Christian West in the high medieval period. Shallots derive their name from Ascalon (Cepa Ascalonia), and were imported during the crusades (1095-1291).Spinach was imported first to Spain, where it was largely witnessed in the 11th century, from where it was diffused to the rest of Europe. It was one of the earliest such crops to be received into Europe, but it did not appear until the 13th century when it seems to have made rapid progress. Aubergines, which spread into Italy in the 14th century, came from Muslim Spain. Sorghum, too, is mentioned in Italy by the late 12th and 13th centuries, by which time it had arrived in the south of France. Durum wheat probably appeared in the 13th century. Rice was not entirely unknown to the Europeans, but it was the Muslims who grew it on irrigated fields in Sicily and Spain, whence it came to the Pisan plain (1468) and Lombardy (1475). Other crops which the Muslims either introduced or intensified considerably include the mulberry tree and saffron: the first was necessary for silk worm husbandry and industry; the second was appreciated in cooking, and also in the medical sciences. Sour oranges and lemons appear to have spread slowly through parts of Italy and Spain in the 13th and 14th centuries. Sub-tropical crops such as bananas and sugar cane were grown on the coastal parts of Spain in the Muslim period, and subsequently were taken to the Spanish colonies in the Americas.
It is worth dwelling a little on two particular crops, sugar and cotton, and how their diffusion impacted on modern farming and manufacturing.
The Muslims developed the cultivation of sugar on a large scale throughout their territory. By the 10thcentury sugar cane was cultivated all over North Africa, from where it crossed into Spain. There, it was cultivated and sugar produced according to all crafts of the trade. Then the Muslims acclimated the crop in Sicily. The name ‘massara’ which is given to sugar mills in Sicily is, of course, of Arabic origin. Although sugar was produced in the West, this was still in the Muslim parts of Europe. It was only in the wake of the crusades that Western Christians discovered the industry. Early in the crusades, the Europeans took over regions such as Tripoli (in 1109), the first place where they came across the crop, and where they enjoyed it with delight. Other places on the Syrian-Palestinian coast where they came across sugar were Tyre, Sidon, and Acre. William of Tyre speaks enthusiastically of the great sugar plantations of Sur (Tyre). In the Holy Land, the cane was grown at Nablus, around the Lake of Tiberias, and especially in the Jordan Valley, including Jericho at the head, and the district of Kerak, at the extreme south east of the Dead Sea, in all these places irrigation from streams and rivers being available. The Syrian industry is of great interest as it was here that the Crusaders first saw it and became acquainted with this sweet substance other than honey. Fulcherius Carnotensis, thus, says:
On the fields of Laodicea we found certain reed-like plants called Cannamella, because from them is obtained, as I believe, an elaborate manner mel silvestre. On accounts of its sweet juice we chewed it against thirst.”
The Crusaders were very careful to maintain production which brought them considerable wealth. The Lord of Tyre, for instance, enriched himself thanks to his sugar plantations. The Syrians were great experts at refining the product through an elaborate process to extract sugar, and the Crusaders followed exactly the same processes and methods. As they, themselves, lacked the skills, Muslim prisoners were used in the manufacturing process. The crusaders also adapted the same terminology in the manufacturing process, using massara to describe their mills.
When the Crusader States fell in 1291, the plantations and production of sugar were transferred to Cyprus.The land there became covered with sugar cane plantations, especially around Baffo and Limisso, which were placed under the direct control of the local rulers. The Cornaro, an illustrious Venetian family, possessed in the Limisso region vast plantations, whilst the Knights of Rhodes possessed vast farms on the Colossi lands. In order to run the industry on the Island, Muslim craftsmen, Syrian specialists, in particular, were imported. Between the years 1400 and 1415, about 1,500 Muslims were captured by the Cypriots; the King of Cyprus refused to return these on the grounds that they were essential for the cultivation of sugar cane.
Cotton played a central role wherever it was introduced due to its vast impact on both farming and industry. Some of the best writing on this subject is by Lombard who explains how cotton was planted, transported between places, and used in manufacturing. During the crusades, Christians in the Antioch region grew it on vast areas, and by 1140, Genoese merchants imported considerable quantities of the stuff. From Syria, cotton reached Cyprus, where it was planted on the island’s Central Plains, and also reached Mesorea, as well as Crete.
It is from North Africa that cotton was introduced into both Spain and Sicily. From Spain, cotton manufacture spread across Europe between the 12th and 15th centuries as far as England, particularly in the form of fustian, a cheap cotton cloth with a linen warp, which derives its name from the Cairo suburb of Fustat.
Many of these crops and the industries based on them relied on Muslim skills. In Sicily, following the upheavals that affected the island in the mid to late 12th century, the skills for growing henna, indigo and refining sugar had disappeared as Muslims took flight from the lands they cultivated, and some left the island altogether. Frederick II had then to send to the Levant for ‘duos hominess qui bene sciant facere zuccarum’ (two men who can manufacture sugar). This might have coincided with a request from Spain. There, in the Christian kingdom of Valencia, it seems that the farming of both cotton and sugar cane had disappeared after it was taken from the Muslims in 1238, and following the dispersal of its Muslim population, since Jaime II sent to Sicily for ‘duos sclavos sarracenos quorum alter sit magistro cotonis et alter de cannamellis’ (two slaves, expert in the production of cotton and sugar) as well as for the seeds of cotton and sugar cane.
Figure 8. Antonio de Mendoza y Pacheco (Source)
The Spanish reliance on Muslim skills lasted for centuries, and land-owners and other barons resisted strenuously the demands by the Church to expel their Muslim workers. When that eventually happened, in 1609-1610, the results were disastrous. In the dioceses of Valencia, Saragossa and Tarazona the income was cut down to one half. Diminished incomes of churches and land proprietors were only a symptom of permanent injury to agriculture and industry, resulting from the exile of so large a body of its most efficient workers.
Understandably, many crops and the techniques and skills associated with them (that had begun their life in Europe) found their way to the colonies of Spain and Portugal. Silk production was taken from Grenada to Mexico by Hernan Cortes, and was developed there by the Viceroy Antonio de Mondoza, who himself came from Grenada. Many other sub-tropical crops such as bananas and sugar cane, that were grown on the coastal parts of Spain, also found their way there. Pacey notes, that it was the organization of the sugar plantations which was novel at this time, and both cultivation methods and cane processing technology used by Europeans in Madeira and later on the Caribbean islands had been acquired from the Islamic world, and from Sicily.
The Muslim introduction of many crops into Africa is interesting in many respects. The spread of Islam on the continent caused the converted to begin to wear clothes-as religion enjoined, which in turn stimulated the growth of cotton in many places to meet fast rising demand. It was the Muslims who introduced sugar cane into Ethiopia, and who made the East African island of Zanzibar famous for its high quality sugar. Other crops were diffused by the Muslims in medieval times as reported by both Muslim travellers and by the Portuguese later in the 15th century. It is almost certain that in medieval times West Africa received other than cotton and sugar cane, colocasia, bananas, plantains, sour oranges and limes, Asiatic rice and varieties of sorghum, which were all decisive in impact since the range of crops previously available was extremely limited. Most of the crops were probably brought from the Maghrib over the caravan routes which crossed the Sahara. There is also linguistic evidence supporting the Muslim role, for the names of several of the new crops in the languages of the interior of West Africa seem to be derived from Arabic names. Mauny notes that before agriculture became established in this region, gathering of wild fruit, leaves and roots were main products for subsistence. Many of the indigenous crops also gave little nutrition in relation to the amount of land or labour required. The introduction of new crops by the Muslims had thus far reaching consequences, not just then, but even today in view of the place taken by such crops in the modern African economies.
Finally, it is worth pointing out that the crops introduced by the Muslims also had a major impact on the local economies of Spain and Sicily to this very day. It had been said, Sarton, insists, that the gardens and orchards of Spain were the best part of her Islamic heritage. Gabrieli notes that the crops which the Muslims introduced remain up to the present day one of the foundations of the Sicilian economy. The new plants also created many changes in consumption and land use. These plants became the sources of new fibres, foods, condiments, beverages, medicines, narcotics, poisons, dyes, perfumes, cosmetics, and fodder as well as ornamental objects.
Transfer of Irrigation Skills
Muslim irrigation skills were passed on primarily to Spain, which subsequently took many of them to its South and Central American colonies. The earliest agents of diffusion of Islamic techniques to neighbouring Christian parts were the Mozarabs. It is they who diffused waterwheels which they carried as early as the 9th and 10thcenturies in the Asturias. Other elements of this Mozarab influence are also prevalent in 887 in the documentation of the Monastery of San Vicente de Ovideo, with expressions relating technical terms from Andalusia referring to agricultural techniques of irrigation in the Valley of the Nalon.
Figure 9. Albolafia irrigation water wheel, Córdoba, Spain (Source)
Muslims living under Christian rule were the main diffusers of Muslim know how. Following the Christian re-conquest of Spain in the 13th century, and for generations and even centuries all Christian farmers had to do, Liazu insists, was to widen the irrigation system and the land reclamation techniques inherited from the Muslims. Reclaiming lands taken from Muslims or from a hostile nature, would not have been possible without Muslim know how in mastering irrigation, nor without the use of skilled Muslim labour. Generally, Muslim irrigation systems, Glick points out, were maintained intact, and in the case of large, interlocking regional systems with long canals and complicated distribution procedures, the Christians had to take pains to learn the customs from the indigenous population. In the Crown of Aragón the procedure was for a nobleman to hold an inquest at which Muslim irrigators would explain how the system worked and then to issue an ordinance continuing the customary arrangements. Thus in 1106 Fortún Aznárez issued a disposition concerning the distribution of the water of the Irués canal, near Tarazona, based on how the water “used to run in the time of the Moors and as he discovered the truth … from old Moors.” The document then describes the system of turns among hamlets on the canal, the word for “turn” expressed with the Arabism `adowr.’ The canal was administered by Muslim style officials: the çavacequias (sâhib al-sâqiya) (The Master of the Canal) of the city of Tarazona and the local alamis (from Arabic amîn), who oversaw the day-to-day functioning of the canal. The ‘Syrian-style’ distribution system continued unchanged, and in many towns along the eastern coast, a standard stipulation was that water distribution arrangements should continue as they had been “in the time of the Moors.”
The big water wheels at Toledo also date back to the Muslims. This heritage was eventually taken over by the Christian conquerors who diffused it widely in their colonies. The noria had a much wider impact as Glick explains. Because of its universality, the noria became the model and point of reference for all geared machines. In a treatise on clocks prepared for Alfonso the Wise, Isaac ibn Sid (Ben Cid) first describes the construction of a main wheel, by fashioning four arms to be assembled in the form of a cross, “just like norias are made;” the equalizing and bell wheels are then to be constructed in the manner of an aceña, the paradigm of a dentate wheel (cena=tooth in Arabic). The Christian conquerors also kept Muslim legislation in matters of irrigation as shown by various documents, such as document No 101 ‘hec est carta del agua de Hyruese… como deve andas at como andava en tiempo de Moros.’
Many Islamic engineering structures have survived till our day. Spanish Muslim dams had hardly had any repair in a thousand years. They still meet the irrigation needs of Valencia, requiring no addition to the system. According to Oliver Asin’s Historia del nombre, Madrid seems to have presented a good case for the Muslims having made it possible to develop what has become the city of Madrid by introducing a sort of qanat system to supply the district with water. Parts of this apparently still exist, and Asin links the actual name Madrid to it. Linguistically, there is a considerable amount of Arabic words in the Spanish vocabulary related to irrigation; expressions such as: Acequia: canal of irrigation; Alberca: artificial reservoir. Aljibe: container; arcaduz: water conduct; Azuda: water wheel; Almatriche: canal; Alcorque: hole dug in front of tree for irrigation purpose…. The same legacy is also observed in Sicily, as philology allows the tracing of Arabic etymology to Sicilian vocabulary related to irrigation.
Other aspects of impact
In Sicily, farming know how, in its wide variety, shows a direct Muslim influence as is visible in the use of Arabic terminology. Notary acts of the 14th-15th centuries related to sugar farming and horticulture highlight the powerful Arabic presence (in italic), terms such as catusu: Qadus (pipe of cooked clay); Chaya: taya (hedge, or garden wall); Fidenum: fideni (sugar cane field); Fiskia: fiskiya (reservoir); Margum: marja (inundated field); Noharia: nuara (irrigated cottage garden); Sulfa: sulfa (advance of credit granted to farmers); and so on. To this day Malta and Gozo preserve such Islamic influence, the more technical the jargon, the more purely Arabic the terms become.
The Muslims also brought new instruments that made possible the introduction of the new crops, which would otherwise have been impossible with the typically classical agricultural methods. This legacy is obvious in the technical jargon as well. To take a glance at the philological correspondences alone, Serjeant points out, –aretrum the plough is obviously related to the Arabic root haratha, sulcus a furrow to the word saliq, and iuguma yoke with ingerum an acre (though less than an English acre) is evidently the same word as South Arabian haig a yoke of oxen or, by extension, an acre, the amount they can plough in a day.
The Muslim tax system played its positive role, too. Low rates of taxation helped keep alive a class of smaller, independent landowners and a relatively prosperous peasantry. Prior to Islam, taxes crippled both effort and innovation, pushing the tendency for large estates to dominate the countryside and for the peasantry to be enserfed. The Muslims also introduced a legal corpus in irrigation to protect individual rights, and applied lower rate of taxation for land watered by the Noria than by hand, leading to the prevalence of small holdings of share-croppers and free farmers, as opposed to the latifundia of antiquity with their scores of slaves.
How, and whether, these changes impacted on future Western forms of land ownership and management is difficult to evaluate. What can be said, though, is that they were centuries ahead of similar transformations in the Christian West.
Figure 10. Jardín de la Alcazaba de Málaga (Source)
Experimental gardens, in the end, became part of a network which linked together the agricultural and botanical activities of distant regions. They, thus, played a role of great importance in the diffusion of useful plants. Only many centuries after Islam did Europe possess botanical gardens which acted as the same kind of medium for plant diffusion. The earliest botanical gardens in Europe appear to have been planted by Matthaeus Sylvaticus in Salerno (c.1310) and by Gualterius in Venice (c.1330). Other places followed centuries later; Pisa: in 1543; Padua, Parma and Florence in 1545; Bologna in 1568; Leyden in 1577; Leipzig in 1580; Konigsberg in 1581; Paris (Le Jardin Royal du Louvre) in 1590; Oxford in 1621, and so on.
A great number of farming treatises (and related sciences) were completed by authors such as Al-Ishbili, Ibn al-Awwam, Ibn Bassal, and others. Most, if not all such treatises were translated into either Latin or other vernacular languages at one point or another before impacting on local Western farming. Amongst the late translations is a treatise on horses, horse riding, and veterinary matters by Abu Yusuf Kitab al-Furusiyeh, and a veterinary treatise by Abu Bakr, which were translated into French by Perron. Medieval translations include De Animalibus of Ibn Sina by Michael Scot, which in the 13th century introduced in the West important zoological texts. The Majmu’ fi’l Filaha (Compendium of farming), attributed to Ibn Wafid (Abenguefith) but in fact a work by Al-Zahrawi, had two translations in romance languages: Catalan and Castilian. This work had great influence on the ‘Renaissance’ work of agronomy, the Agricultura General of Gabriel Alonso Herrera (d. c. 1539). The 11th century farming treatise by Ibn Bassal of Toledo, which in its abridged form was published at Tetuan in 1955, was also translated into Castilian in the Middle Ages. These books contain instructions on how to grow crops, how to improve the soil, irrigation techniques, and multiple aspects which now passed into Western hands. In some of these books there are even illustrations to accompany the text.
Kitab al Filaha (Book of Agriculture) of Ibn al-Awwam (fl. end 12th century) was translated into Spanish early in the 19th century by Don Josef Antoine Banqueri. A French translation followed in the second half of the same century. The treatise was of particular interest in Algeria (as it was in Spain). This treatise by Ibn al-Awwam has 34 chapters covering 585 plants, explaining the cultivation of more than 50 fruit trees, making observations on grafting, soil properties, manure, plant diseases and their treatments, irrigation, affinities between trees, animal husbandry and bee keeping. It seems it had no earlier impact than the 19th century. And yet, Lopez asks what, for instance, will a comparative study of farming manuals of Ibn al-Awwam and Pietro de Crescenzi give. Pietro dei Crescenzi, born in Bologna (1230-33 died in 1320) is an Italian writer on husbandry. Although citing Ibn Sina, Al-Razi; Ishaq al-Israili, and Ibn Sarabi, he makes no mention of Ibn al-Awwam. Yet, the two works are extremely similar. Sarton points out that translation was not absolutely necessary, for there remained in Spain until the beginning of the Renaissance a goodly number of people who could read Arabic. Furthermore, it has been shown that Fray Gabriel Alonso Herrera, who wrote Agricultura general, has in his text many correspondences of Ibn al-Awwam, and he actually studied in Grenada and often alludes to the Grenadan Moors.
Muslim farming manuals contain considerable knowledge which was very often applied straight onto the ground, or could be found in other practical manifestations. In Sicily, Bresc notes, there can be found many techniques described or suggested in the contracts of the 14th and 15th century, which were also found in Muslim farming manuals. Many ploughing methods to prepare the soil, the use of fertilisers, planting, and other tasks are also shared by both Islamic farming manuals and practice on the island. Equally the plants grown in Sicily are well elaborated upon in Muslim farming manuals, a rich variety which, most importantly, contrasts with the absolute dearth of crops of northern European gardens.
Aftermaths of Islamic Farming:
The decline of Muslim farming, just as that of other aspects of Muslim civilisation, was in considerable measure caused by invaders, from the Banu Hillal invasion of North Africa (1050s), to the Crusaders (1095-1291), the Mongols (13th century), Timur Lang (late 14th century), and colonial powers. These invasions, on top of their human toll, destroyed crops and orchards, closed down trade routes, destroyed irrigation and water supply, and caused surviving farmers to take flight.
Wherever Muslim power faded so did their social status and their farming skills. In the East (the Holy Land and Cyprus), during the crusades, most of the Muslims who had converted to Christianity were made into serfs or slaves, and Muslim slaves were added from time to time to the labour force. In Spain, in the wake of the loss of their centres of power (Valencia, Seville, Cordova, and other places) in the 13th century, Muslim farmers lost their lands, and those who tended some farms became over taxed by their new Christian masters; in the Kingdom of Valencia the Muslims who remained were mainly in mountainous regions where grazing and non intensive agriculture were practiced. In Sicily, too, following the Norman conquest (1060 onwards) the Muslims lost their lands, and gradually became concentrated largely in mountainous regions. Most of the rural population became enserfed whether under religious or secular Christian authority.
When, eventually, the Muslims were removed from both Spain and Sicily, their system perished with them. Writing early in the 20th century, Scott reminds how, in Spain, ‘where once were endless plantations of valuable trees are now dreary wastes destitute of all vegetation, incapable of supporting animal life.’ Lane Poole, earlier had held, that:
So little did the crown think of the fertile country about Granada that in 1591 the royal domains there were sold, because they cost more than they could yield. In the time of the Moors the same lands were gardens of almost tropical luxuriance.”
Figure 11. Painting depicting Muhammad XII’s family in the Alhambra moments after the fall of Granada (Source)
The particular instance of the sugar industry illustrates this decline. The industry reached its peak in the 14thcentury in Almeria, Granada and Malaga, which were then still under Muslim control. Balaguar y Primo estimates that at the time the area was 400,000 marjales in those parts, and 180,000 marjales in the rest of the coastal area (the marjal is given by him as 0.05 ha or 0.125 acre, and he states that the yield accepted by the Muslims was 290 arrobas (7,250 lb., of cane per marjal, which reduces to 26 tons per acre; thus a yield of 206,761 tons of sugar or 11.2% on cane). After the conquest of Grenada in 1492, and the expulsion of the Muslims from that city, the industry languished, even though attempts were made to continue its cultivation with African slaves. A further setback was caused by the expulsion of the Muslims from Spain in 1609. Of this period Balaguer y Primo writes:
In proportion as the Moriscos left our soil, so began a great decadence in sugar production, which continued to fall rapidly for this reason, and for others, which there is no reason to mention here. Motril alone between the 16th and 18th centuries lost many mills, and at the beginning of the 19th century there did not remain in Andalusia more than 9,700 marjales (1,225 acres) of cane, reducing according to Bowles, the number of mills from the seven mentioned above to four by 1800. During the 18th century there disappeared the rich cane fields of Castellon de la Plana, and those of Valldigna, Bennerda, Benipeixar and Grandia grew less in area, and at the close of the century (in 1779), the factory near Lobres was closed.”
The Islamic farming legacy, already in decline, was finished off by modern Western colonisation. This final intrusion, which began with the Portuguese in the 16th century, and then accentuated in the mid-late 18thcentury, seriously upset the traditional agricultural balance in order to increase profitability for the colonisers.Wolf explains how the victory of the East India Company (1750s and after) over the Mughals gave it and its officials the means to subordinate Indian resources for ‘the process of accumulation in the home country,’ thus siphoning wealth out of country, and impoverishing the local industry. England also reorganised Indian land tenure and land taxation to make Indians pay not just for the expenses of warfare, but also to cover the cost of continuous English occupation. Land and tax reform were also used to reorient Indian agriculture toward the production of profitable commodities, such as raw cotton and opium, to enhance England’s commerce with China. These measures, and the looting of the country’s riches led to terrible famines, which claimed millions of lives amongst Muslims and Hindu alike.
Wolf also expands on the effects the Dutch had on their most prized possessions in the southern seas, the Moluccas, which were the source of cloves, nutmeg, and the nutmeg fleece called mace. To ensure control, the Dutch in 1621, exterminated or deported the local people to Batavia, to be replaced by Dutch colonists who were granted land tracts planted with nutmeg trees, together with the services of Company slaves for cultivation.
In Algeria, on arrival, in 1830, the French found a much greener country than the one they left 132 years later, and a population living more or less in harmony with its environment. In their wars of devastation against Algerian resistance (1830s-1840s), the French destroyed garden rings surrounding towns and cities, and cut and uprooted trees and orchards on a vast scale. When one reads the accounts by the French generals involved, and those of Europeans travelling with the French army, one’s lecture is that of ceaseless acts of destruction, aimed at starving Algerians, and passing the land to Europeans. The German, Clemens Lamping, describes the stunning villas and dwellings he and the French army came across in the vicinity of Algiers.Villas with very beautiful gardens, watered by numerous springs, water conducted through earthen pipes, which creep below the surface of the earth, conveying a fresh and plentiful supply of water. He describes Blida, west of Algiers, where for miles westward there extended a beautiful orange grove, ‘the largest I ever saw, not even excepting that of Seville.’ When he reaches Medea, he sees the same, a town surrounded by the most splendid fruit gardens. And then the same Clemens Lamping laments the destruction of the orchards and all the produce of the land. The same type of descriptions is found in all other accounts. Marshal Bugeaud in countless reports tells us of foodstuffs taken from Algerians, leaving them destitute. In one, he wrote:
In a week two thousand five hundred quintal measures of corn, and almost as much straw were stored at Mascara (about 1200 quintals).”
In another correspondence, on 30 June, 1841:
If 4000 to 5000quintals of wheat and 5000 quintals of straw are taken into the fort, you may be well assured it will do more to subdue the country than winning ten battles, and then going back to the coast.”
Colonel Montagnac constantly speaks of his razias, in their tens, maybe hundreds. Letter from Mascara begun 19 Dec 1841, completed 2 Feb 1842:
At 2 pm we reach the spot of land full of silos. Earth opens up, and everywhere we uncover the hidden treasures: here it is barley; there wheat, and every other imaginable produce. Everyone is busy filling up the sacs; our mounts are fully loaded… On the 21 we pounce on a tribe, which thought itself safe in the difficult terrain, two hours later we had captured 614 cattle, 684 sheep, and hundreds more beast, besides 18 prisoners, men, women, children… then, after that, we set everything on fire.
From the 19th of December till 17 January we deprive the enemy of beasts, women, children, wheat, barley, everything.”
Dawson Borrer, also marching with the French army:
Onward we marched, trampling beneath our feet vast extents of corn almost ready for the sickle: smiling fertility before us, — devastation in our rear. Every blade and every head of corn was crushed to earth.”
It is impossible to put the exact figure of all the livestock and other farm produce looted and destroyed by the French. It is literally all green belts, most orchards, most palm and olive trees, besides all corn fields which were looted and then destroyed. The starving of the Algerian population through the destruction of its natural environment is one of the most tragic episodes in human history.
Figure 12. Fighting at the gates of Algiers in 1830 (Source)
In order to accommodate European settlers, the French authorities forced Muslim farmers out of their lands, pushing them on to marginal lands, whether in the vicinity of the desert, or into forested areas, thus causing their permanent degradation. Later, during the war of independence (1954-62), the French army set ablaze millions of acres of forests, besides ravaging the rural economy; and then France departed, leaving a legacy of bareness and even hostility to greenery from which the Algerians have not yet recovered.
Environmental Disasters and Threats for the Future of Muslim Farming
And do not corrupt in the earth after being tilled, and invoke Him in fear and longing. Surely the mercy of Allah is near to the fair-doers.” (Qur’an 7:56)
And when he turns away, he [diligently] endeavours about the earth to corrupt in it and cause the tillage and stock to perish; and Allah does not love corruption” (Qur’an 2:205)
As this author is no erudite scholar when it comes to Islam, the faith, one trusts those who are better than one. In this field, amongst others, there is an excellent article by a group of scholars from the University of Jeddah, in Saudi Arabia. The article by Abu Bakr Ba et al., reminds us
God’s wisdom has ordained to grant man inheritance on earth. Therefore, in addition to being part of the earth and part of the universe, man is also the executor of God’s injunctions and commands. And as such he is only a mere manager of the earth and not a proprietor; a beneficiary and not a disposer or ordainer.
God has granted all of us the inheritance of all sources of life and resources of nature. Thus, the utilization and sustainable use of these resources is, in Islam, the right and privilege of all people. Hence, man should take every precaution to ensure the interests and rights of all others since they are equal partners on earth. Similarly, he should not regard such ownership and such use as restricted to one generation above all other generations. It is rather a joint ownership in which each generation uses and makes the best use of nature, according to its need, without disrupting or upsetting the interests of future generations. Therefore, man should not abuse, misuse or distort the natural resources as each generation is entitled to benefit from them but is not entitled to own them permanently.
The right to utilize and subjugate natural resources, which God has endowed upon man, necessarily involves a commitment on man’s part to conserve them both quantitatively and qualitatively. God has, indeed, created all the sources of life and resources of nature so that man may realize the following objectives:
— Contemplation and worship; — Inhabitation and construction; — Utilization; — Enjoyment and appreciation of beauty.
It follows that man should not distort the environment because it must remain permanently suitable for human life and settlement. Nor should he use natural resources irrationally or in such a way as to destroy living resources or spoil their habitats and food bases.
The attitude of Islam to the environment, the sources of life and the resources of nature is a positive attitude in as much as it is based on protection and prohibition of abuse and destruction.”
A very good scholar, Emma Clark, equally enlightens us on this crucial aspect, noting how
In order to regain this primordial state of unity with God, man needs all the help possible to remind him of his theomorphic nature and his role as vice-regent (khalifat ‘Allah) of God on earth. Human beings are forgetful, becoming so immersed in the details of earthly existence that we no longer recognize the signs that can jolt us back to remember what it means to be human.One of the greatest of these signs is Nature herself. The Qur’an points out many times over, the importance of ‘signs’ or ‘portents’, ‘symbols’ or ‘similitudes’ (variously translated from the Arabic word aya) in the natural world, none of which are too small or too trifling to be a reminder of God — from a date-pip to a gnat (‘God is not ashamed to strike a similitude even of a gnat or aught above it’, Quran, 11:24).Nature, as a sign of God, both veils and reveals. So the beauty of the natural world is one of God’s greatest symbols and through meditation on its glories we can, as with all true sacred art, retrace a path back to Truth.”
Islam sees nature as teleological, harmonious, and dependent. Because such traits represent its original state and God’s continued intention for it, Islamic belief supports an attitude of moral obligation in regard to human interaction with nature. The human role is one of khalifa (trustee) and the human duty is to maintain the appropriate purpose, harmony, and dependence that Allah imputed to natural systems.
The Almighty is the best informed over the matters of humans, who more than often think themselves to be too smart. If the Creator insists that humans are trustees over what he gifted them with, and in respect to this subject, we say water, soil, and wooded cover, He understands why. The damage to these not only leads to desertification eventually, but possibly to starvation. We will look at this issue in a moment.
Prophet Mohammed emphasizes the idea that to nurture plants or trees that produce food is an act of charity.
No Muslim, who plants a shoot, except that whatever is eaten or stolen from it, or anyone obtains the least thing from it, is considered [like paying] almsgiving on his behalf until the Day of Judgment.”
Figure 13. A Hadith manuscript of al-Bukhari, Mamluk era, 13th century (Source)
There is another Saying of the Prophet that if you are planting a tree and you see the Hour (of Judgment) coming, then you should continue with your planting.
Prophet Mohammed also constantly stressed the same point to not harm nature in all its forms, and constantly insisted on the role of trees:
The world is beautiful and verdant, and verily Allah, be He exalted, has made you His stewards in it, and He sees how you acquit yourselves.”
The early caliphs abode by the same line. Abu Bakr, the First Caliph, in his instructions to the Muslim armies heading for Syria, in the year 632, said:
Do not kill a woman, nor a child, nor an old man; do not cut down fruitful trees; do not destroy; do not kill a goat or a camel unless for food; do not flood palm trees nor burn them down …”
Ali ibn Abi-Talib, the fourth Caliph, in relation to land use:
Partake of it gladly, so long as you are a benefactor, not a despoiler; a cultivator, not a destroyer.”
How Muslims should behave in conformity with the will of Allah is well summed up by Ibn Taymiyah:
What is required is to safeguard all benefits and bring them to perfection, and to eliminate all detriments and minimize them. And if they prove irreconcilable, it is to safeguard the greater good by the exclusion of the lesser, and to remove the greater harm by acceptance of the lesser. This is the mandate of the Law.”
The environmental balance or care that the Almighty constantly reminds the faithful with, that early Muslims, beginning with the Prophet, adopted, and that few exceptions aside, most Muslims today, whether those with power, or the ordinary, whether the learned, the ignorant, the wise, the unwise, the religious, the secular, about all, take no heed of in view of the lamentable situation in every Muslim country, without exception, is not just a call to take care of His gift. It is necessary for the survival of natural beauty which is the greatest beauty of all, for it is created by Him, and not by lousy humans. It is necessary to take care of nature for the survival of many species of fauna and flora which are going extinct at a high speed, flora and fauna which are necessary to the balance of our lives, besides other benefits such as medicinal plants, or flowers for bees, and birds and fish species and so on. Of course lack of care for our nature means deforestation on a grand scale for whatever lousy projects adopted by imbecile deciders, destruction of arable land, destruction of water resources, pollution of such resources, turning many natural sites into waste dump of a scale that stuns the mind and eyes of those, such as this author, who come across them daily, as if our Muslim society is only made of consumers who daily consume and trash, and otherwise contribute not a jot that is good to humanity. Caring for our natural resources is our salvation, for should we lose our land, forests, and water, the desert is awaiting, and in it we will dissipate with our cars and masses of filth, we call possessions, we have hoarded throughout our lives.
First, let’s remind Muslims of one central fact, which, without a doubt only ten or so amongst them, at most, are aware of: their location on earth, as shown by this map:
Figure 14. Global desertification vulnerability map (Source)
This map shows the Muslim world is vastly arid, is very vulnerable to desertification, and will get more arid with climate change. As a result, the problems of today of soil loss, water scarcity, pollution, agricultural failure, as well as other problems will be compounded tens of times in the next decades. Even a slight worsening of the situation would mean the end of many Muslim societies, especially those that are already quite vulnerable to droughts, water scarcity, land loss, and so on.
This author is no just a geographer, specialising on environmental degradation, he is a historian too. And, he can categorically claim that history confirms geography 100%. He can now inform everyone that many of the lands yellow and arid on the map, where once green. Of course cyclical changes in weather helped turn the green into yellow. But the main factor that made green into yellow was the action of humans. It is people who by their fast rising numbers who caused most of the destruction. More people always means more pressure on anything and more destruction. It is people who deforested and misused, or over-used, or mismanaged their environment that caused the green to turn yellow, and for lands that were once rich in wheat, and trees, orchards and flora and fauna, lakes and rivers have now turned barren. So, history is here to help us conclude that what is green today will turn yellow tomorrow if you mismanage/destroy what is green today. Hence, here, we discover the wisdom of the Almighty, and here, one discovers a further reason why one truly finds in Islam the real answers to all that is of immense nature, and that you try to be smart and destroy what He has created at your own risks.
As an environmentalist, this author has studied this issue throughout the 1990s, and has, and confidently and unfortunately concluded, that the whole of North Africa, Algeria, most particularly, are heading to irremediable disaster. He is not going to cram this article with details of that. Those interested need to seek the gloomy works elsewhere. Here, we can say that any study for any specific Muslim country is also raising the same concerns, the situation in some quite alarming indeed. We take one country we hardly talk about:
Senegal has endured 17 years of drought from the last 30 years. This situation of chronic drought spawned a process of desertification that is quasi irreversible. This is because of the extent of the degradation of ecosystems that followed the drop in agricultural yields and consequent rise in deforestation and rural poverty and exodus…rainfall has dwindled by 30 to 40% over the last three decades”
This case, as we will see in a couple of paragraphs, is not unique. It concerns all Muslim countries with hardly any exception. As the excellent Senegalese scholar, Tony (Cheikh Amadou Tijaan) Cisse reminds, us, the majority of studies and research carried out indicate that it is the countries of the South who find themselves confronted, in the most acute way, by the global environmental crisis. And this crisis hits farming and food supply more than any other area. We will see why as this heading progresses.
Once farming collapses, and countries dry, no charitable effort on the part of the richer Muslims would resolve the problem of these societies. The rich could share all their wealth, or give away all of it, tens of millions of Muslims will be doomed. Now, the solution is not in small, localised projects to answer localised problems. The problem is on a gigantic scale. The solution is and must be grandiose, vast, a far reaching solution that can answer the problem whilst there is still time. It is highly urgent for the Muslim world to take steps and regain its landscape, or win the battle for its landscape, if not, the whole structure of many Muslim settlements in drier parts, whether small towns or large cities, are under threat of extinction.
Trees are the first system of defence. But let’s look at UN figures of who is planting what: These are the most recent (2011) figures for the ten leading tree planting countries worldwide:
China 2.8 billion, India 2.1 billion, Ethiopia 1.6 billion, Mexico 785 million, Turkey 716 million, Nigeria 612 million, Kenya 455 million, Peru 246 million, Myanmar 191 million Cuba 137 million.
One notes the absence of Arab countries, which are the most threatened by desertification. Even Turkey’s figure needs to be balanced against the destruction of tree cover in the said country, which is on a vast scale, some projects such as that of the Third Bridge and Third Airport having wiped out one of the most beautiful wooded areas in the country. Also, as anyone who knows one or two things about trees can tell you in simple language, destroying 1000 old trees is not the same as planting even 150,000 new ones. 1000 old trees can do more benefit to your soil, micro climate, and water resources than 1 million new trees. One is putting it simply in order to avoid entering complex matters. Trees are the only defence of the soil, and against creeping aridity or desertification. No Muslim country is immune from the curse of destruction of forests or wooded areas. And in fairness to Turkey, it not only leads the Muslim world in terms of replanting, it is also doing something in other areas, too. According to the latest data, published by the Daily Sabah (5 June 2017), waste recycling now contributes about TL 3.5 billion ($1 billion) to the economy, a vast increase on the TL 60 million share to the economy in 2003, and the country is aiming to reach zero waste levels by 2023. This would be a most remarkable accomplishment, not just from an economic point of view, but also from curing one of the worst ills of Turkey: the dumping of waste all over the country. In this respect one can only salute the Turkish effort to enhance the beauty of an otherwise extremely beautiful land.
Figure 15. Aral sea, Kazakhstan (Source)
Now, let’s move to another resource: water. Let’s avoid the 2014 World Bank study whose title is utterly frightening Natural Disasters in the Middle East and North Africa: A Regional Overview. Let’s also avoid this author’s own works, dating from the 1990s which only speak of doom awaiting the Muslim world, beginning with his own country, Algeria, which he saw galloping into utter desertification when he was living there thanks to the rabid destruction of woods, rivers, waterways, farming lands, and anything natural that stood. Let us cite more sober sources: first John Vidal of the British daily, the Guardian. He informs us that: Water supplies across the Middle East will deteriorate over 25 years, threatening economic growth and national security and forcing more people to move to already overcrowded cities, a new analysis suggests. New World Resources Institute rankings place 14 of the world’s 33 most water-stressed countries in the Middle East and north Africa region (Mena), including Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Palestine, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Iran and Lebanon. As more people will move to cities this will further strain supplies. In the Sana’a basin in Yemen, the groundwater table is falling nearly six metres per year and government has debated moving the capital city. Water shortages are already common across the region with supplies restricted to only a few hours a day, but this year many smaller cities have run out of water completely. One reason why water is so scarce is because farming wastes so much. In addition, many rich people across the region have dug their own wells to tap into aquifers, leading to over-pumping and pollution of groundwater in cities like Damascus. Regarding pollution from various wastes, throughout the Muslim world, it is now destroying water resources on a permanent basis. In the Tigris River it is caused by the discharge of drainage water from agricultural areas and sewage discharge.
Let’s ignore Vidal for a moment, and take another totally different source, Syeda Mariya Absar: The Future of Water Resource Management in the Muslim World in Journal of Futures Studies, March 2013, 17(3): 1-20.
She writes: The categorization of the Muslim world into distinct water zones was based on the global data on water consumption and availability for specific geographical regions published in FAO’s Statistical Year Book (2009) and the Pacific Institute’s The World’s Water 2008-2009, coupled with case studies from the Muslim world.
The first zone includes all the Muslim countries that are rich in oil and are located in the arid desert belt of the Middle East and Western Asia including but not limited to Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Oman. This is one of the driest regions of the world and gets only 1% share of the world’s renewable fresh water resources. According to the 2010 report of the Arab Forum of Environment and Development, the precipitation in the region is expected to drop by 25% and evaporation to increase by 25% by the year 2015. As a result, the average crop yields in the region will drop by 20%. Some of these countries have annual rainfall as low as 29mm per annum (FAO, 2009). To meet the growing demand for water especially in the agriculture sectors, most of these countries are augmenting their water supply by tapping into non-renewable transboundary groundwater aquifers, and investing in sea water desalination and waste water treatment. The increased dependence on groundwater has lead to a decline in aquifer water levels and saltwater intrusion is contaminating the aquifers and causing disturbance of the dynamic equilibrium among aquifers, a decline in agricultural productivity and an increase in migration away from rural areas. Tapping nonrenewable groundwater sources or fossil water also means that there may not be enough water left for future generations.
Syeda Mariya Absar adds: The Muslim countries with low GDP and low fresh water access of North Africa and parts of South and Central Asia including Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, the Central Asian countries of former USSR and Afghanistan, among other countries. They are experiencing physical or are approaching physical water scarcity. Physical water scarcity occurs when water resource development is approaching or has succeeded sustainable limits. Physical water scarcity relates water availability to water demand and implies that dry areas are not necessarily water scarce. In this region, more than 75% of river flows are withdrawn to meet the world’s agricultural, industrial and domestic needs, with irrigation taking up the larger share. Substantial resources have been diverted to expansion of the irrigation systems and water management. However the mounting demographic stresses and climate change are reducing the available water supply.
Even countries such as Turkey and Malaysia, However, although water supply per capita is adequate in this zone, some social and environmental problems still exist in the river basins, such as population growth, non-point source pollution and degradation of water resources quality.
One is not going to indulge in further depictions which are equally foreboding utter disaster and collapse of the whole ecosystem, including farming, of course. Now this author wishes he were wrong, and all will be fine. His motto, though, is better safe than sorry. And his advice is this:
Stand by what the Almighty tells us, and by what his Prophet and the early followers of Islam did.
Start by putting an end to all forms of destruction, and put in place a culture that truly cares for the natural and cares less for the crass stuff that you find in a shopping mall and that your smutty television channels bombard the minds with.
Protect your forests, your land and your water, and at all costs.
Clean your land and your water ways, and fine hard the transgressor that transgresses.
Start by trying to re-green what can be re-greened whilst maybe there is still time.
Here, we must conclude with these great lines by the Senegalese scholar, Cheikh Amadou Tijaan
Islam, in its common perception prevalent in the world today, among both Muslims and non-Muslims alike, is not generally associated with issues of environmentalism. In the popular imagination it is not concerned with the extremely serious issues of environmental degradation and global warming. It is rare to hear reported prominent Muslim scholars speaking out on what are now called ‘green’ issues. Examples of good environmental stewardship are not prominent amongst Muslim countries, Mustafa Abu-Sway, in a lecture presented at Belfast mosque, argues that; “no government in the Muslim world…is paying attention to this question at a serious level”.Muslims and Islam itself is not visible in the leadership of environmental movements and yet the Qur’an and the Hadith are emphatic about protecting the environment as a central feature of faith.”