The title above is by no means an accurate representation of what contents and subjects this essay will include. Subjects considered here would normally constitute a specific heading; i.e. trade, social, legal and economic organization and political administration. Here, technical requirements and space constraints demand the following set up. Also some issues raised here would normally find their place under headings considered elsewhere (i.e geography, historiography…), or will touch upon seemingly un-related disciplines.
This being said, let’s, first, note the crucial element that in order to know or appreciate most developments of Muslim society and civilization, or to understand the very foundations of Islamic society and civilization, we have to go to the very early history of Islam. Here, we set aside the central role of the faith, Islam, and how it structures or organizes society. This is not our object here. We also set aside the very early history of Islam from the time of the Prophet (PBUH), and how he put in place the very first foundations of Islamic society in Madinah. This is a vast subject, and much beyond the competence of this author, requiring the input of people who not only are strong on the Sirah (Life and Deeds) of the Prophet, but who can also show exceptional ability of reading explaining, and conveying in European language the role of the Qur’an in the formation of Islamic society. On this, the works by the like of A. Salahi or Al Faruqi, especially the latter’s Cultural Atlas of Islam, are beyond equal, and are essential to any person seeking to know on this matter.
Here, we step straight into the period of the Early Caliphate, beginning with Abu Bakr (Caliph 632-634), then Omar (Caliph 634-644), then ‘Uthman (Caliph 644-656), and finally Ali (Caliph 656-661). It is precisely during this period, as history shows us, that some of the fundamental, concretely observable today, or through history, foundations of Islamic society were set up, or put in place. It is during the Early Caliphate, indeed, that we see the emergence of the first cities of Islam, the first legal system on a vast inter continental dimension, the establishment of a welfare state, a system of taxation, an administrative system, all encompassing territories stretching from far inside Asia into North Africa. We see further establishments of diverse institutions, a police force, for instance, also during this period. The first system of land organization, irrigation, rights to land and water use, and also including vast engineering works (such as canal constructions), or organizing pilgrimage routes, and much else also go to that period. The role of Caliph Omar, in particular, was absolutely central to this. As Von Kremer notes:
He (Omar) was the real founder of all those institutions which made the Caliphate for centuries the ruling power of the world.”
Why Omar? The satisfactory answer will require a whole book at least. Needless for this here as such books exist, four of them of immense quality:
-A.M. as-Sallabi: Umar Ibn al-Khattab; International Islamic Publishing House; Riyadh, 2007.
-S. Numani: Umar; Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies; I.B. Tauris; London; 2004.
-I.M. Ra’ana: Economic System Under Umar the Great, S.M. Ashraf; Lahore; 1970.
-B. Rogerson: The Heirs of the Prophet Muhammad; Little Brown; London; 2006.
Anyone is advised to use these excellent works. Here, we can only briefly state that the reasons Omar was essential were simple:
Firstly, he was a scribe/administrator by profession, and from the very first days, even prior to he joining the faith. His reputation in those days was beyond that of everyone, and all tribes used to rely on his expertise in settling matters that demanded skills and proficiency of bureaucratic nature. He was even the ambassador for Quraish to the tribes. Ibn al-Jawzi said:
The role of ambassador fell to Omar ibn al-Khattab who was among the elite of the tribe of Quraysh. Whenever the flames of a feud flared between Quraysh and some other tribe, Omar was always the tribe’s ambassador, speaking in their name and retrieving their rights.”
Secondly, the vastest expansion of Islam took place during his caliphate. The land of Islam by the end of his Caliphate in 644, stretched from as far as modern Central Asia in the east to the frontiers of Libya in the west. Note must be made here that the further expansion took place during the Caliphate of ‘Uthman, and then the Umayyads (661-750). Here it must also be reminded that no further expansion of Islam took place under any other dynasty except under the Aghlabids of Tunisia (who captured Sicily), in Muslim India, under the rulers of Turkish ancestry, and also under the Ottomans subsequently. No territory was added by either Fatimids, or Abbasids, or anyone else. The two North African dynasties of Amoravids and Almohads saved North Africa and Al Andalus from falling under Christian sway between the 11th and 13th centuries.
This being noted, let’s consider the essential elements towards comprehending early Islamic society and the central role Muslim scholars played in our understanding of social sciences (some at least). In order to do this, it is highly crucial to appreciate the sources. Without knowing which sources enlighten on what, readers can spend years meandering without coming across anything of value or interest. Misguided by wrong advice can also cause such readers to squander considerable time and effort. These particular issues in relation to our subject are addressed under the following heading.
Let us first address the view held by many who today are crusading against the use of old sources…, i.e Western historians of the 19th and early 20th centuries, and even earlier, arguing that the more modern sources be given the priority in the study of history. There are even some who claim that only the latest secondary sources ought to be used, i.e those dated after the year 2000. Those who make these claims are of course to be ranked as ignorant individuals, who know nothing of history, and the subject we are looking at here will show it. You do not use sources for the study of history because they are very recent. This is imbecilic. You use sources for historical knowledge because they are first and foremost the best, i.e the most informative, the most trustworthy, least contradictory, and honest. You also use sources that are the nearest to the event or are simultaneous with the event you describe. Any secondary source relating events decades or even centuries later is never as good as the witnesses to the events themselves. Anyone who claims that any historian of the crusades today is better than Ibn al Qalanisi, Ibn al Athir, Albert of Aix, or William of Tyre does not know his or her subject. Anyone who thinks they can describe colonial wars in North Africa better than the French officers who were themselves involved in them is equally an ignorant. And the same can be said about any event or subject in history.
In regard to the subject here, no modern historian can describe or explain to us Muslim society better than its contemporaries such al Ibn Jubayr, al Dimashki, or al Muqaddasi, who is amply dealt with here, as an instance.
Now, in regard to secondary sources, if anyone claims that the more recent the source the better the historical writing, or even more accurate, again this person is making a ridiculous claim. You don’t use a secondary source because it is the most recent, you use good historians, full stop. It is a challenge upon anyone to show a very recent book on the crusades better than Cox’s 19th century’s work, or Mackay also belonging to the 19th century, or the best compilation ever on the subject: Recueil des Historiens des Croisades, also dated from the 19th century. The same in regard to most, if not all subjects. Should anyone claim that there is a better work than Crawfurd’s on the Malay archipelago, or any author today (Leslie excepted,) specializing on China, who can produce something as good as Bretschneider, De Thiersan’s or Drake, again this person is talking nonsense. One goes through today’s work on the latest subject, for instance, and one comes across historical errors of a horrendous nature. The same applies to every other subject, this author being struck by today’s dealing with subjects such as modern Turkish history, the histories of piracy, the slave trade, colonisation, and other subjects on Islam. The errors, the contradictions, the omissions of important and crucial episodes of history are simply beyond the acceptable.
Of course, the object here is not to dwell on these shortcomings. What matters to us is to state the following:
Just as it is impossible today to reproduce the works of a Sarton, a Wiedeman, or a Haskins in the field of history of science, it is impossible in relation to our subject (in this essay), and as we will see, to find works that equal those by Lestrange, Von Kremer, or Muir. Of course, these orientalists, just as most of their colleagues, had little empathy for Islam. Muir, in particular, strongly claims the superiority of his faith, Christianity, over Islam. One will disagree with him on this, but what matters is the historian’s competence, honesty, and the meticulousness of the work, especially in addressing issues very few other scholars have had the competence to address. Western scholars’ or others’ views of Islam and Muslims are their own prerogatives, which they are free to uphold just as anyone is free to uphold any view or opinion they like. After all many early haters of Islam, including Khalid ibn al Walid, ‘Amr ibn al ‘As, and Omar ibn al Khatab, became subsequently some of its greatest servants. Also, whilst we are on this issue, what is more troubling are not the able scholars who bear little empathy for Islam, but those who bear excessive empathy for one section of Muslims (the Arabs/Sunni/Shia/Berber/Kurds… against the other side(s). It is the promotion of sectarianism which has throughout history undone the Muslim world, and it is only the scholars/journalists/elites who preach for one group in particular who are to be the most feared and the least trusted.
The authors on whom focus is applied in this heading, Lestrange, Muir and Von Kremer (via Khuda Bukhsh’s translation), provide us with some of the best information on early Muslim society, which is the result of years, possibly decades of research and sifting through original and contemporary material, besides their own, and others’ meticulous work or editing, translating, organizing, and compiling. Let’s look at aspects of Muslim society (urbanization, financial and administrative organization, the legal system, the welfare state, commerce and trade, and taxation) through the works of these authors, and hence validate the argument made above on how it is necessary to rely on older sources when they are of fine quality. Here, one also accepts that there are errors in some of the old material in regard to names, dates, and some facts, which more recent historians have corrected. But these are normal, and do hardly cause any harm to the value of the old material, and all historians make errors that are (one hopes) corrected by others.
In respect to the urban system and its growth, from the time of the Early Caliphate, we note how straight after the Islamic advance in the 630s, during the Caliphate of Omar, there appeared garrison towns, some newly built (Basra and Kufa), whilst others were more established: Damascus, Hims, Tiberias, and Lydda in Syria. In Egypt, the conqueror of the country, ‘Amr ibn ‘As, established a permanent camp at old Babylon, the so-called Roman fortification opposite to Memphis, where possibly, even at the time of the Romans, a strong garrison was stationed. Out of this camp, later on, grew up a town which bore the name of Fustat and which remained, until the foundation of Cairo in the 10th century, the capital of the whole country. After the foundation of Cairo, Fustat continued its existence under the name of old Cairo; but it was gradually annexed to the new Cairo by unbroken and continuous settlement. Next to Fustat, Alexandria was the most important gathering place for the troops in Egypt. As the greatest sea-town, it was constantly exposed to the attacks of the Byzantine navy. It was precisely for that reason that it was strongly garrisoned. ‘Amr posted there one quarter of his army, but he changed the personnel every six months; with half he guarded the sea-coast, while the remaining quarter he kept with himself at Fustat.
At this point, we go back to our main argument on the uniqueness of the early sources, here referring to the late 19th century scholar, Lestrange. It is primarily to Lestrange that we owe the best compilation of descriptions by contemporaries of the towns, cities and regions of medieval Islam as they as they saw them and described them. Medieval Palestine and Syria are nowhere better described than in Lestrange’s work devoted to them. Let’s offer some extracts on the town of Acre. Writing in 985, Al-Muqaddasi says:
Akka is a fortified city on the sea. The mosque here is very large. In its court is a clump of olive-trees, the oil from which suffices for the lamps of the mosque, and yet besides. This city had remained unfortified until the time when Ibn Tulun (9th century ruler of Egypt) visited it, coming from Tyre, where he had seen the fortifications and the walls which are there carried round so as to protect the harbour.
Yakut al Hamawi’s description, early in the 13th century, of the method of building with stone-pillars used, as ‘through-bonds,’ is one much used in later centuries by the masons and craftsmen of the Crusaders. The remains of the double mole forming the inner harbour at Acre may still be seen, though centuries later these are almost entirely under water.
Another, and earlier, account of Acre is by the Persian Nâsir Khusraw, who visited the town in 1047:
The Friday Mosque at Acre is in the centre of the town, and rises taller than all the other edifices. All its columns are of marble. The court of the Mosque is partly paved with stone, and the other part is sown with green herbs, for they say it was here that Adam-peace be upon him-first practised husbandry…. The city’s walls are extremely strong; to the west and south lies the sea.
On the southern side is what is called the Minâ (or port). Now, most of the towns upon this coast have a Minâ, which is a place constructed for the harbouring of ships. It resembles, so to speak, a stable, the back of which is towards the town, with the side-walls stretching out into the sea. Seaward, for a space, there is no wall, but only chains, stretching from one wall’s end to the other. When they wish to let a ship come into the Minâ, they slack the chains until they have sunk beneath the surface of the water sufficient to let the ship pass over them (into the harbour); then they tighten up the chain again so as to prevent any strange vessel coming in to make an attempt against the ships.”
The same Lestrange offers us the best compilations in respect to the lands of the eastern caliphate, from Baghdad eastwards. The foundation of Basra and Kufa during Omar’s Caliphate was extremely decisive in the subsequent urban history of Islam. Basra’s name is said to mean ‘the Black Pebbles’ was founded in the year 17H (638), and its lands were divided among the Arab tribes who were then in garrison there following the defeat of the Sassanid (Persian) Empire. The city grew quickly to be, with Kufa, one of the new capitals of Middle Iraq. Basra lay about 12 miles in a direct line from the Tigris estuary, being reached by two great canals, which, with the waters of the estuary to the east for the third side, formed the Great Island as it was called. Its houses extending westward in a semi-circle reached the border of the desert. The houses of the town were for the most part of kiln burnt bricks, the walls were surrounded by rich pasture lands, watered by numerous minor canals, and beyond these lay extensive palm-groves.
The city of Kufa was founded at the same time as Basra and was, thus, intended to serve as a permanent camp on the Arab, or desert, side of the Euphrates, and occupied an extensive plain lying above the river bank. Roads radiated from a central point and men were settled in their tribal areas. Omar is said to have specified the widths of the streets: 20 metres for the main roads, with side streets of 10 to 15 metres, whilst alleys were to be 3.5 metres, which was the minimal width allowed. The city’s population increased rapidly, and the 10th century geographer, al-Istakhri described it as the equal in size of Basra, but the former had the better climate, and its buildings were more spacious; also its markets were excellent, though in this point it stood second to Basra.
These two towns, eventually to grow into large cities, would constitute precedents for the foundation of Baghdad, Samarra, Marrakech, al Qayrawan, and other cities, with, of course, some divergences such as in lay out, structures, additions of local features, and the use of local materials.
Another dominant aspect of early Islamic society was the matter of tax and revenue. Here, it is Von Kremer, as admirably conveyed to us by Khuda Bukhsh, who feeds us with knowledge of value found nowhere else. Initially the state-revenue consisted for the most part of the legal fifth of the war-booty, and the poor-tax (Zakat) payable by better off Muslims, payable primarily for lands or more correctly from the produce of the lands. In greater detail regarding the Zakat, the general rule was that it was payable for arable land, precious metals, and flocks; by ‘flocks’ was meant camels, cattle and sheep.
The level of taxation was, however, reduced according to circumstances. Under Omar, during the times of crises, in order to encourage the import of cereals to Madinah he reduced the tax upon them to half of the tenth (i.e just like the produce needing artificial irrigation). Tax was also levied on moneys received as hire for slaves or rent of houses. Quarries and mines were equally liable to this tax, but with this difference that here it fell due, immediately on the discovery of the mines and quarries, and not after a year, as was the case with the harvested crops.
As early as the time of Prophet Mohammed there was a special state-pasture where herds of camels and cattle and flocks of sheep which came in by way of taxes were kept and looked after. The office of the overseer of the state-pasture (Hima) was indeed, a post of trust and confidence which Omar gave to his freedman. At the time of Omar there was in the state-pasture no less than 400,000 camels and horses. In order to distinguish these from others they were branded with a special mark (Wasm).
A kind of tax was also levied on the mercantile community, but it did not belong to the category of the poor-tax but rather to that of the general state revenue.
As Islam expanded the tax system also expanded. Twofold were the taxes which the subject population of Egypt, Syria, Mesopotamia and Persia had to pay:
(1) The Capitation-Tax (Jizya, tributum capitis).
(2) The Land Tax (Kharaj, tributum soli).
Both these taxes were probably adopted from the Byzantine Empire where they existed under these identical names. Of the Capitation-Tax, we know that it existed even under the Sassanid in the Persian Empire.
In Syria, for each individual community the Capitation tax was fixed at an aggregate amount which continued unaltered, whether the number constituting the community increased or decreased. In Egypt the capitation-tax for every grown-up male, capable of earning a livelihood, was 2 dinars.
The capitation tax (Jizyah) had rules, though. Since this tax was expressly taken as the price for military protection given by the State, whenever the Caliph felt that he could not protect a region any more, he immediately ordered the return of the whole of jizyah collected from that region. Before the battle of the Yarmuk (636), when the Muslim forces withdrew from Hims, Damascus and other advanced posts, the Caliph ordered the return of the whole of the jizyah amount collected from those cities and the adjoining places. When Cyprus was conquered under ‘Uthman, no capitation tax was levied on the Cypriots as he was not yet certain that he would be able to protect them from foreign attacks.
If any of the dihmmis took part in a campaign, or gave some service to Muslim troops his jizyah for that year was dropped.
The principle underlying the system of land taxation comes clearly to light. It was a thoroughly just principle of assessing the taxes according to the nature of the soil and the mode of its cultivation. In taxing their subjects, the early caliphs were always keen to make sure that their Muslim-or non-Muslim subjects were taxed fairly, and not oppressively as was current in most societies of the time and centuries after, whereby the tax collectors resorted to taking away whatever their powers allowed them to do. Omar specially directed his tax collectors not to oppress people and not to take away the best animal out of their flock.
The first letter that ‘Uthman wrote to the zakat-collectors was:
Allah created on the basis of truth and He accepts nothing but that which is based on truth, so take what is due and give people their dues (rights) on the basis of Allah’s teachings. I urge you to adhere to honesty, pay a great deal of attention to it and do not be the first to neglect honesty. Fulfill covenants, and do not wrong orphans or non-Muslims who have a treaty with the Muslims, for Allah will be the opponent of the one who wrongs them.”
We see from this, Von Kremer remarks, how simple were customs of those times and how little did the government then contemplate fiscal oppression.
Throughout history there always dominated the issue of land (as a source of wealth), and its management by the conquering power (s). Whether the British in Ireland, or in India, or the French in Algeria, or the White settlers in South Africa, the land issue has always been a central element of strife, rebellion, rancor, injustice, and its mismanagement has led to countless tragedies some of them of epic proportions, leading to the starvation of millions.
The Muslim advance, on the other hand, hardly if at all records any such problems. This is one principal reason why the Islamic advance to this day has remained unique. In this respect, the role of Omar was of central importance. It was he who laid down the working principle that Arabs should not acquire landed property in conquered territories. On this particular issue, it is William Muir who offers us an excellent outline on how Muslims dealt with the land issue. He notes, for instance, how when Egypt was conquered, Omar rejected the advice of Zubayr and other Companions to divide the land amongst Muslim warriors and their families.
Leave it,’ said Omar, ‘in the people’s hands to nurse and to fructify.“
The rules were clearly established between Muslims and non-Muslims. There were no evictions or spoliations of the non-Muslims’ rights. Therefore, much to the discontent of many Arabs, not only were the confiscated lands held undivided, but, from the border of the Syrian desert to the mountain range of Persia, the sale of any portion of the soil, whether confiscated or not, was absolutely forbidden. Thus there arose a double protection to the native tenants who, under no pretext, could be evicted from their lands. The country also, remaining in the hands of its own cultivators, was nursed, and became a rich and permanent source of revenue.
The same Muir enlightens us on one of the most decisive breakthroughs in human society: the establishment of Bayt al mal (Treasury) and the rise of the Welfare State. To Caliph Omar is popularly ascribed the establishment of the Diwan, and offices of systematic account. There was no institution of Treasury (Bayt al Mal) to speak of during the Caliphate of Abu Bakr. For most of his Caliphate, the Caliph lived at Al Sunh, then, finding it at an inconvenient distance from the Great Mosque, where, as in the time of the Prophet, the affairs relating to the state continued to be transacted, he transferred his residence, and with it the Treasury, thither. The Exchequer of Islam was in those days but a simple small room that needed neither guard nor office of account. After Abu Bakr’s death, Omar had the treasury opened; and they found therein but a solitary golden piece, which had slipped out of the bags.
Now, how was the welfare state first established? This followed a census of the population. This Census of the Muslim population was apparently done with great care. Every Arab tribe, with its members, was entered on a special list and changes, due either to birth or death, were very scrupulously noted. To carry out this vast project, a Register had to be drawn and kept up of every man, woman, and child, entitled to a stipend from the State — in other words, of the whole Arab race employed in the interests of Islam. This was easy enough for those well known persons, but ‘a herculean task for the tens of thousands of ordinary fighting men and their families who kept streaming forth from the Peninsula; and whose numbers were fast rising.’ But the task was simplified by the strictly tribal composition and disposition of the forces. Men of a tribe, or branch of a tribe, fought together; and the several corps and brigades being thus territorially arranged in clans, the Register assumed the same form. Every individual was entered under the stock and tribe and clan whose lineage it claimed. It is reported that on one occasion Caliph Omar went personally over with the register to the Khoza tribe and invited its members to come and individually receive their share from him. Later under Mu’awiya an overseer was appointed who recorded births and deaths.
The Register included the relatives of Prophet Mohammed, those who had served the cause of Islam and the soldiers with their wives and children. The Register itself, as well as the office for its maintenance and for pension account, was called the Diwan or Department of the Exchequer.
The first charge was for the revenue and civil administration; the next for military requirements, which began soon to assume a sustained and permanent form; the surplus remained (as has been now set forth) for pensions and other forms of state distribution of wealth. The whole revenues of Islam were thus expended as soon, almost, as received; and Omar took a special pride in seeing the treasury, in accord with this principle, emptied to the last dirhem.
Here, we return to Von Kremer, who adds further details. Omar, in assigning annuities, made no distinction between the full-blooded Arab (Sarih), the half -Arab (Halif) and the client (Mawla). He would have all Muslims treated alike without distinction. He instructed his commanders to treat them on precisely the same footing as Muslims of Arab nationality. There was to be no difference between them in point of rights or of duties either. This is the concise order he issued to an Arab governor who, while refusing to the clients, granted annuities to the Arabs:
It is wicked in a man to despise his brother Muslim.”
Even to non-Arab converts did Omar assign annuities: to various Persian landlords in Mesopotamia and to ‘a quondam Christian’ of Hira.
To foreign converts and their clients he even permitted that they should constitute a special tribe of their own governed according to the very same principles which applied to the Arab tribes in matter of annuities. 10 Dinar each he assigned to the wives and children of soldiers who had either fallen in battle or were actually engaged in active service. This measure was confirmed by ‘Uthman and the later Caliphs.
Not even the Muslim slaves did he leave unprovided for. An annuity of 3,000 Dirham each he assigned to the three slaves who had fought at the battle of Badr. Apart from the annuities he appears to have distributed fixed rations every month among the troops and the inhabitants of Madinah: for every man, including his slaves, 2 modd of wheat and two kist of vinegar.
In the management of the ever expanding land of Islam, there took place the appointment of governors. The Prophet had already appointed some governors during his life, and so did Abu Bakr. But it is with the vast expansion under Omar and ‘Uthman that the issue of appointment of governors took a special consideration. Here, both Muir and Von Kremer (the latter still via Khuda Bukhsh translation) give us details, which, again, we can find nowhere else. In the more important governorates, the judicial office was discharged by a functionary who held his commission immediately from the Caliph. The control of all departments remained with the governor, who, in virtue of his supreme office, led the daily prayers in public; and, especially on Fridays, gave a sermon, which had often an important political bearing. Military and fiscal functions, which, like all other powers, were placed in the governor’s hands, came eventually to be discharged by officers specially appointed to the duty. Men of religion were also commissioned by the State. From the extraordinary speed with which cities and provinces were converted, risk of error rose, in respect both of creed and ritual, to the vast multitudes of new believers.
During the Caliphate of Abu Bakr, Syria was divided into four military districts (Damascus, Hims, Urdun, Filistin). In each district the Officer commanding the troops was invested with the powers of a Governor. But, as a whole, Syria stood under the control and supervision of the Commander-in-Chief of the entire army who collected the taxes. In Arabia the Governors had their seats at Makkah, Ta’if (in North Arabia), San’a, Zabid, Janad and Jorash (in South Arabia). Governors resided also in the provinces of Khaulan, Najran and Bahrain. Finally a Governor was appointed at Duma’t-al-Jandal, which lay on the great commercial route to Syria and Iraq and was an important centre of gathering. It is obvious that Abu Bakr very carefully watched the interests of South Arabia. While, in later times, only one governor sufficed for the whole of Yemen, Abu Bakr appointed governors for all the larger towns.
In consequence of the victorious campaigns under Omar, the circle of governorships was enlarged. The conqueror of Egypt, ‘Amr ibn al ‘As, was appointed its governor, but at some point, Omar also appointed a Special Governor for Upper-Egypt. In Damascus Mua’wiya was given that appointment. Omar, however, restricted the powers of the Governor of Damascus; for, while formerly the governor was not merely the Chief Commander of the troops but was also at the head of the government exercising all the religious and judicial functions of the Caliph, such as administration of justice, and leadership at the public prayer, Omar appointed for Damascus and Urdun a special Qadi (Judge) to whom he entrusted the performance of religious functions and leadership of the prayers. Similarly he appointed a Judge for Hims and Kinnisrin. Besides, in Syria, a second governorship was created for Hims. Iraq was divided into two governorships one having its seat in Kufa and the other at Basra. For Mesopotamia, conquered in the last years of his Caliphate, Omar made a special arrangement. He appointed two governors: one in charge of military officers and the subject races and the other in charge of the Arabs. In Arabia, the number of governorships was reduced to five: Makkah, Taif, Janad, San’a, Bahrain.
Under ‘Uthman, the number of governorships increased of necessity as Muslim territory extended more and more. The main province was Syria which Mua’wiya administered. ‘Uthman wanted to reduce the absolute powers of the Governor of Egypt by withdrawing from his jurisdiction the collection of taxes. He wished to limit his jurisdiction to military affairs and political administration. For the collection of taxes he appointed a special officer.
The governors of the various provinces repaired to Makkah to perform at that season the same religious obligation; and the Caliph used the opportunity for conferring with them, as they returned by way of Madinah, on such provincial business as needed his attention. The occasion, in fact, served the purposes of an annual report delivered orally of local government.
The capacity of the various governors and officials to respond in times of crises was tested in the year 639, whilst ‘Amr ibn al ‘As was still in Palestine. As famine hit Arabia hard, Omar sent letters to the governors abroad, who promptly responded. Mu’awiya, himself, came with four thousand beasts of burden laden with corn from Syria, which he is said to have distributed with his own hand amongst the starving people. ‘Amr dispatched food from Palestine, both by camels and by shipping from the port of Ayla. Supplies came also from Iraq. The beasts of burden were slain by twenties daily, and served, together with their freight, to feed the citizens of Madinah.
Von Kremer, again relying on early sources and his vast erudition informs us that by assigning salaries to officers and appointing judges, Omar laid the structural foundations of administration of justice. The 9th century Muslim historian Al-Baladhuri (d. 892) tells us that he appointed a judge for Damascus and the Jordan, and another for Hims and Qinnasrin, which makes him the first to establish the institution of judgeship. However, neither under ‘Uthman nor under Omar was there any such thing as general appointment of Judges. Judges were appointed only in important towns where a large number of Arab troops were quartered and where gradually a Muslim settlement grew up; namely, in places such as Kufa, Basra, Damascus, Qinnasrin, and in Fustat. It is not improbable that these judges appointed subordinate judges and deputies within their own jurisdiction.
Here, we end this outline on the role of older secondary sources in informing us on the building of early social institutions in the land of Islam. More could be added but enough has been stated to underscore the value of sources, which remain today, in 2017, as excellent sources as they have always been since their inception, and no serious or clever student of Islamic society dares dismiss them.
2. Modern Scholarship and Muslim Social Sciences:
There are many branches of Muslim subjects and their specialists. It takes a long experience to be able to dissect this and come out with the who deals with what, and who truly provides the readership in these days of time scarcity with the best information, at the fastest. Should you as a reader make the mistake to go into the wrong author in seeking some information that would mean days, if not weeks, of time lost. So, here, are some general comments on this issue, before is outlined, as succinctly as possible, the matter of who deals with what in respect to Muslim social sciences.
Figure 2. al-Jahiz Kitab al Hayawan (Book of Animals), 9th Century, Basra. (Source)
First, let the audience know, that should you seek to know about Muslim sciences in general, these days, there are no better sources than Sezgin, D.C. Lindberg, Lyons, Rashed’s Encyclopaedia, and Burnett. The latter is by far the best source on any subject relating to Muslim impact on the West. In respect to astronomy, no need to look beyond David King and Julio Samso, and also Lorch and Kuznitch especially in relation to the study of the stars and other matters. If one sought to know about Muslim nautical sciences, Casale is the source, and on the Ottomans, he and Ozbaran are beyond enough. In regard to geography, the excellent multi-volume work by Harley and Woodward, articles by Tibbetts, the old and unequalled works by Ferrand, and very recent writing by Karen Pinto, are fully informative. Should one seek to know about pirates and piracy and all myths and lies related to the subject, Fisher, Earle, Matar and Vitkus stand their ground. On Western perceptions of Islam, nothing better than Daniel and J.V. Tolan, and also Blanks and Frasseto. As for mathematics, Rashed, Berggren, and Djebbar are the sources, whilst Hogendijk should be a great source on a variety of related subjects. In regard to Islamic arts and architecture, Blair, Bloom, Sweetman, Howard and Harvey are the most obvious sources. In relation to most other subjects especially Islamic history, stick with the old. Nothing of worth is being written these days by anyone (with the exceptions of H. Kennedy and A. Kaegi). The same applies to the history of modern Turkey: stick with the old with a couple of exceptions: J. McCarthy, the Shaw (husband and wife), M. Uyar and E.J. Erickson. The latter two are exceptionally good, in fact without equal, in regard to anything to do with the military aspects of the subject.
Now, as far as our subjects of social sciences are concerned, we have a vast array of first class sources. When it comes to farming, Watson, Bolens and Glick are the must use sources. Glick, together with Levi Provencal (for those fortunate to understand French) are by far the best sources for Muslim society of Al Andalus, and for a primary source, of course, al Maqqari. Here mention must also be made to A. Castro, a source of first class quality. As for Sicily, here, the master of the subject remains Amari, dated, but unequalled, but amongst the modern, Metcalfe, Taylor, Bresc, and Abulafia are great sources, too. In regard to finance and trade, here, again, the choice is stunning, as represented by Gene Heck; Hobson; Udovitch; and Goitein. The best compilation on the subject and the impact of Islam on trade and finance is the little known work by Paul Egon Hubinger. Lombard is also an exceptional source on these and related subjects. Constable is an excellent source on Muslim trade and traders, especially in al Andalus. North African society is best depicted by French scholarship. Talking of French scholarship, Jean Claude Garcin, Sourdel, Miquel, Marcais, together with Levi Provencal, have offered us a great scope of knowledge on Muslim society, especially its urban system. An outstanding scholar of Islam is R.B. Serjeant, little publicized or known (depending from which perspective he is looked at), unfortunately, but whose output is one of the best. In this particular respect, everyone is advised to seek out and use his edition of the Islamic City (Paris, UNESCO, 1980). Lapidus, despite some her claims strongly opposed by this author (and which cannot be dealt with here due to the specific remit of this article), still remains a good source on the later medieval Islamic urban system. In respect to some particular Muslim crafts and early industries, here, we have a very good list headed by the likes of Carboni on glass, Engle on the same subject, Frothingham, Lane and Caiger Smith on pottery, ceramics and related crafts, and Bloom on paper.
Let’s offer a view here on the genesis and the use of the cheque relying on some modern sources to appreciate the Muslim role. As noted already, the use of the cheque was one early Islamic breakthrough, with Arabia as the centre of diffusion. The cheque, in Arabic Saqq (Sakk), as Udovitch explains, is ‘functionally and etymologically the origin of our modern cheques.’ The use of Saqq was born out of the need to avoid having to carry money due to the dangers and difficulties this represented; the bankers took to the use of bills of exchange, letters of credit, and promissory notes, often drawn up so as to be, in effect, cheques. Cheque payments were made in the very early stages of the Islamic state. Ibn Abd al-Hakam indicates that Omar Ibn al-Khattab paid for the grains delivered to state warehouses by cheque. He also states that the Caliph would pay governmental wages by cheque prepared by his scribe/secretary, Zayd b. Thabit, which were written on papyrus and certified on their reverse sides by seal, and that this practice was perpetuated into the Umayyad era (661-750). Indeed, the contemporary use of such cheques in private business dealings appears to have been quite substantial, and taxes to the government were also commonly paid in that manner. For any such personal cheque to be valid, it had to be cosigned by at least two witnesses. By the 8th-9th centuries, it seems, cheques had become a common feature of everyday economic life. The cheques of then, of course, did not strictly resemble our cheques today, and may have taken a plurality of forms. The main point is that some letters of credit were for the huge sum of 40,000 dinars in the Saharan oasis of Sijilmasa, many examples of such letters were found at Cairo Genizah. There are reports that the Abbasid fiscus in 316H/928 received 900,000 dirhams in revenues from its Persian provinces via letters of credit drawn upon local banks. This confirms that these instruments of credit were always scrupulously and strictly honoured. This is in conformity with the Islamic religious requirements.
Later on, through Italian merchants trading with Muslims, this innovation was passed on to the West, beginning in the 12th century. The word saqq leading to cheque in both French and English, and it is worth adding that the German and Dutch words for the same thing (Wechsel, wissel) also derive from Arabic.
Constable, referred to above, and who died a few years ago, has left us some memorable knowledge not just on traders but also on some institutions which marked medieval society. Here we rely on her to show one defining aspect of Islamic civilization, how it inherited some aspects of civilization (here the Byzantinepandocheion) and transformed them or improved them. In the final heading of this essay we will look at how the same institution, once transformed by Muslims into Funduq, was appropriated by the same Byzantines, and then the rest of the West, and how the institution played a crucial role in the rise of modern trade and commerce. The focus on the Funduq is not just due to its role in the rise of modern trade and commerce but also because it precisely illustrates a fundamental, if not the fundamental aspect of Islamic civilization, how Muslims were no mere borrowers, but were borrowers who transformed and improved what they borrowed, and then passed it on in such a form as to initiate the rise of our modern sciences and civilisation. The instance of the pandocheion/Funduq is to be generalized to all sciences and other aspects of civilization. It explains the movements of ideas; and the rise of modern civilization becomes much easier to understand, and makes complete sense. This example also shows us the utter inanity of the claim that the West recovered Greek learning and began its journey to civilisation. The West recovered the Islamic improved from Greece and elsewhere and then began the journey.
Cross-cultural exchange – of both words and things – will occur wherever two groups come into contact, but it is most evident in areas where there is long-term contact or some degree of shared heritage. The more that is held in common, despite dissimilarities and even hostilities, the greater the chance of meaningful adoption. The medieval Mediterranean world provided an ideal scenario for such exchange. Communications and on- going contact around the sea were fostered by a shared heritage_ of both monotheism and Greco-Roman culture. It is no accident that both the Arabic funduq and the Latin fonticum sprang from a Greek root, and that the latter came into Latin by way of Arabic, not directly from Greek. Both medieval institutions shared aspects inherited from their classical ancestor, but their form and function were influenced by their subsequent use, heritage, and circumstance.
Pandocheions provided paid lodging for all sorts of people… Although they certainly lodged merchants, they were not designed as commercial facilities; unlike their later counterparts, there was little emphasis on security or storage. Indeed, their open doors and seedy reputation may have discouraged commercial travelers.
With the arrival of Islam, in the seventh century, the pandocheion merged into the Islamic sphere as the funduq. This became a characteristic facility in Muslim cities from Syria to Spain, and served the lodging, commercial, and fiscal needs of traders, pilgrims, and rulers. … While the funduq preserved important functional aspects of its Greek predecessor, it also evolved to fill new charitable and mercantile roles in the Islamic world. People from all walks of life stayed in funduqs, but these hostelries increasingly catered to the needs of commercial travelers, often becoming associated with certain groups of traders and particular types of goods. At the same time, rulers and local governors took an interest in these facilities, seeing not only their fiscal capacity as points for the control of trade and collection of taxes, but also their charitable and religious potential as sites for lodging pilgrims and poor wayfarers. These shifts are evident not only through the many references in Arabic and Judeo-Arabic texts, but also in archeological and architectural data.”
We leave this matter at this level, and will return to it under the last heading to show how what Islam had borrowed and improved was taken over by Western Christendom in order to begin its journey into the modern Renaissance.
3. Three Muslim Scholars: Al Dimashki; Al Muqaddasi, and Ibn Khaldun:
As noted above, primary Muslim sources are the first recourse for any understanding of the subject. This is highlighted by the next few instances
We begin with Al Dimashki, in respect to a major issue that has yet not been addressed in this essay: the pioneering Islamic role in harnessing the forces of nature for economic purpose, specifically in the construction of windmills. Al Dimashki offers us one of the best descriptions together with an illustration. It reads thus in translation:
In Sijistan there is an area where wind… are frequent. The people living there use the winds for turning the mills… To construct the mills which turn in the wind they proceed as follows. They erect [a building] as high as a minaret, or they take a high mountain top or a similar hill or a castle tower. On these they construct one room above the other. In the upper room there is the mill (raha) that turns and grinds, in the lower one there is a wheel (daulab) that is turned by the wind, which has been harnessed. When the wheel below is turning, the mill on the wheel above turns. No matter what kind of wind blows, those mills turn, although only a single [mill]stone is present, and the picture of it looks like this …”
“When they have carried out the construction of the two rooms as shown in the illustration, they make four embrasures in the lower room like the embrasures in the walls (aswar), only here the embrasures are the other way round, as their broad part is turned to the outside and their narrow part to the inside, [thus forming] a channel for the air so that through it the air enters inside with force as in the goldsmith’s bellows. The broad end is situated towards the mouth and the narrow one towards the inside so that it is more suitable for the entry of the air which enters into the room of the mill, from whichever area the wind may be blowing.”
Figure 3. (Left) A 14th-century manuscript by Al-Dimashqi shows a cross-section of a typical windmill whose vertical vanes rotate around a vertical shaft, (Right) Windmills in the Iranian region of Nishtafun Right (Source)
Another geographer, Al Himyari, from Muslim Spain (writing in 866/1461) mentions, among the special features of the port of Tarragona, the existence of mills driven by wind power.
In the following are addressed a variety of social issues with focus on al Muqaddasi and Ibn Khaldun. Before beginning with al Muqaddasi who in time preceded Ibn Khaldun by a few centuries, necessity requires us to mention that although al Muqaddasi was excellent at description, in terms of putting social theories or analysis, here, the master remains Ibn Khaldun. It was he who shaped the whole subject, laying the foundations upon which his successors built, not just in terms of methodology and contents, but also structure and approach. As Toynbee notes:
In his chosen field of intellectual activity Ibn Khaldun appears to have been inspired by no predecessors and to have found no kindred souls among his contemporaries and to have kindled no answering spark of inspiration in any successors, and yet in his Prolegomena (the Muqaddima) to his Universal History he has conceived and formulated a philosophy of history which is undoubtedly the greatest work of its kind that has ever yet been created by any mind in any time and any place.”
Islamic social scientists of Islam prior to Ibn Khaldun would hence, if a rigorous modern methodology or approach were pursued, not be included in the same realm as modern social scientists. Their writing often evolved outside a structured methodology. This, however, is the case of every science, beginning first with rough edges, and then gradually being refined by the time and labours of its practitioners.
Al-Muqaddasi (or Al-Maqdisi), (b. 946-d. end of 10th century), originally from Al-Quds (Jerusalem), hence his name, is by far one of the most instructive of all early writers on Islamic society. His works can generally, be found under the subject of geography. His best known treatise Ahsan at-Taqasim fi Ma’arifat Al-Aqalim (the best divisions in the knowledge of the Climes) was completed around 985 CE. A good summary of it is given by Kramers, extracts of which can be found in Dunlop‘s Arab Civilisation. In this work, Al-Muqaddasi gives an overall view of the lands he visited, and gives the approximate distances from one frontier to the next. Then, he deals with each region separately. He divides his work in two parts, first enumerating localities and providing adequate description of each, especially the main urban centres. He then proceeds to other subjects: population, its ethnic diversity, social groups… moves onto commerce, mineral resources, archaeological monuments, currencies, weights, and also the political situation. This approach is in contrast with his predecessors, whose focus was much narrower; Al-Muqaddasi wanted to encompass aspects of interest to merchants, travellers, and people of culture. Thus, it becomes no longer the sort of traditional ‘geography’, but a work that seeks to understand and explain the foundations of Islamic society, and not just that, the very functioning of such society. Out of this, excellent information, regarding many subjects can be gleaned.
Water as a social indicator:
On the subject of water management and hydraulic technology, much can be learnt from Al-Muqaddasi’s treatise. In Egypt, the description of the Nilometer attracts most attention:
It is a pond in the middle of which is a tall column whereon are the marks in cubits and fingers; in charge of it is a superintendent, and around it are doors that fit together tightly. A report is presented to the ruler every day of the amount the water has risen, whereupon the herald proclaims, `God hath augmented today the blessed Nile by so much; its increase last year on this day was so much; and may God bring it to completeness!” The rise is not proclaimed until after it has reached twelve cubits, it is announced to the ruler only, for at twelve cubits the water does not extend to the cultivated villages of the countryside. However, when the height of the water reached fourteen cubits, the lower portion of the region is watered; but if it reaches sixteen cubits, there is general rejoicing, for there will be a good year.”
In Biyar, in the Al-Daylam region, he notes the drier conditions, pointing out that water is distributed by water clock, whilst the millstones are below ground, and the water flowing down. This being the desert, he observes, there is no other choice. And in Al-Ahwaz, in Khuzistan he notes:
On the stream is a number of wheels which the water turns, and they are of a kind called na`ura. Here also the water flows in raised canals to reservoirs in the town. Some channels flow to the gardens. The main stream flows from beyond the island about shouting distance to a reservoir, remarkably built from the rock, and here it forms a pool… On the reservoir are gates which are opened when the water rises… At the lower portion at a place called Karshanan, whence the boats sail to Al-Basra. There are some remarkable mills on the river.”
Still on water, but on a more anecdotal note, Al-Muqaddasi makes the following observation:
Should you want to assess the water of a place, visit their cloth-makers and druggists, and scrutinize their faces. If you see water in them, you may know that the excellence of the water is in proportion to the freshness of countenance; if they appear to you like the faces of the dead, and you see their heads are drooping, make a hasty retreat from there!”
Fiscal Issues and Finance
Currency, its uses, and its users, as well as its fluctuations, constitutes a major area of interest for Al-Muqaddasi. Dinar, Dirhem, their multiples, and sub-multiples, as well as each region‘s local currencies are dealt with in their most intricate functions. Thus, for the Maghrib region, Al-Muqaddasi states:
The coinage: in all the provinces of this region, as far as the boundaries of the province of Damascus, the standard is the dinar, which is lighter than the mithqal by a habba, that is to say a grain of barley. The coin bears an inscription in the round.
There is also the small rub`, (quarter of a dinar); these two coins pass current by number, [rather than the weight]. The dirham also is short in legal weight. A half dirham is called a qirat; there is also the quarter, the eighth part, and the sixteenth part which is called a kharnuba. All of these circulate by number [rather than by weight], but their use thus does not bring any reduction in price. The sanja (counterpoise weights) used are made of glass, and are stamped just as described about the ratls.
The ratl of the city of Tunis is twelve uqiya (ounce), this latter being twelve dirhams (weight).”
Exchanges from one currency to the other also receive attention from the author, as well as their emission, control, regulations, and much else. The wealth of those involved in currency dealing is also garnered.
Figure 4. Umayyad coins, 693CE (Source)
Prices, their fluctuations, varying in relation to size and wealth for every market place, are considered; Cairo, Al-Muqaddasi notes, has such low prices as to greatly surprise him.
Al Muqaddasi could hardly ignore taxes, being himself a trader on occasions, finding them light and bearable in some places, and perverse and disastrous in others. Thus, in parts of the Arab peninsula, he observes that:
At Adan, merchandise is appraised in terms of Zakawi dinars, then one tenth of the value is exacted in Athari dinars. It is estimated that one third of the wealth of the merchants reaches the treasury of the ruler, for here the inspection is strict. The levies at places on the coast are light, except at Ghalafiqa. Tolls are levied by land: on the caravans going between Judda and Makka, at Al-qarin, and batn marr-at each place half of a dinar… The ruler of Saíada does not levy a tax on anybody, except that he takes the quarter of the tithe from the merchants.
In Uman a dirhem is levied on every date palm tree. I have found in the work of Ibn Khurradadhbih that the revenue of Al-Yaman is six hundred thousand Dinars; I do not know what he means by this, because I did not see it in Kitab Al-Kharaj (the Book of Tribute). In fact, rather, it is well known that the Peninsula of the Arabs is on a tithing system. The province of Al-Yaman formerly was divided into three departments, a governor over Al-Janad and its districts, another over Sanaía and its districts, and a third over Hadhramawt and its districts. Qudama bin Jaíafar Al-Katib has noted that the revenue of Al-Haramayn (the two sacred cities) is one hundred thousand dinars, of Al-Yaman six hundred thousand dinars, of Al-Yamam and Al-Bayrayn five hundred thousand dinars, and of Uman three hundred thousand dinars.”
Weights and Measures
For weights and measures, Al-Muqaddasi shows the same attention to specific detail. For each province, he names, measures, compares and explains the fluctuations and variations in each measure and weight. . He would also dwell on the history of each; and so minute it all becomes in the detail, that it ends like the finance page of a broadsheet newspaper, with values, stocks and shares exhibited in all their minute variations, so tedious for the general reader, so fascinating to the expert.
During his visit to the bustling port of Old Cairo, al Muqaddasi narrates:
I was one day walking on the bank of the river, and marvelling at the great numbers of ships, both those riding at anchor, and those coming and going, when a man from the locality accosted me, saying: “Where do you hail from?” Said I, “From the Holy City”. Said he, “It is a large city. But I tell you, good sir—may God hold you dear to Him—that of the vessels along this shore, and of those that set sail from here to the towns and the villages—if all these ships were to go to your native city they could carry away its people, with everything that appertains to it, and the stones thereof and the timber thereof, so that it would be said: “At one time here stood a city.”
The Islamic urban setting, its evolution, diversity, complexity, economy and politics is what attracts most of the attention of Al-Muqaddasi. It re-occurs in each chapter, for every region and place he visits. A. Miquel offers an excellent summary of Al-Muqaddasi’s interest in the subject but in French. Al-Muqaddasi differentiates between town and city by the presence of the great mosque, and its minbar, symbols of Islamic authority. In connection with this, he adds:
Now, if someone should say: `Why have you considered Halab the capital of the district, while there is a town bearing the same name? I reply to him: `I have already stated that the capitals are compared with generals and towns with troops. Hence it should not be right that we assign to Halab, with all its eminence, and its being the seat of government and the location of the government offices, or to Antakiya with all its excellence, or to Balis, with its teeming population, the position of towns subordinate to a small and ruined city.”
Al-Muqaddasi focuses most particularly on the defensive structures of every city. Walls, their height, thickness, distances between each, fortifications, access in and out, their location according to the general topography, and in relation to the rest, artificial obstacles, in particular, attract his attention. And so do daily concerns such as trade and exchanges, markets and the urban economy as a whole.
Al-Muqaddasi studies markets, their expansion and decline, providing also a bill of health for each, the revenues derived from them, both daily and monthly, and how such revenues are distributed. He also studies carefully how a location is run, and its citizens act, dwelling particularly on such factors as order, cleanliness, morality and state of learning, all of which he considers for each and every place visited.
Considering the links between topography and urban expansion, he notes that in places such as Arabia, it is the sea alone that explains the presence of towns and people, opening up frontiers beyond the sea itself for trade and exchange. Thus on Adan, in the Yemen, he notes:
It is the corridor of Al-Sin, the seaport of Al-Yaman, the granary of Al-Maghrib, and entrepot of kinds of merchandise. There are many mansions in it. It is a source of good fortune to those who visit it, a source of prosperity to those who settle in it… The Prophet- (God’s peace and blessings be upon him) gave his blessing to the markets of Mina and Adan.”
The impact of space and climate on physical features are well observed, too, the author noting that colder places, such as Ferghana and Khwarizm, thicken beards and increase amounts of fat in bodies. Local customs form a major point of his interest; Al-Muqaddasi narrates one from Pre-Islamic and Newly Islamised Egypt which is of particular interest:
It seems that when Egypt was conquered, its people came to Amr Ibn Al-As during the beginning of the month of Bawna and they said: `Oh Prince, regarding this Nile of ours there is a practice embodied in tradition without which it will not flow. On the twelfth night of this month we select a virgin girl who is the firstborn to her parents, and we recompense them both. We dress her in jewellery and raiment the best there are, then we cast her into the river.’ Said Amr to them, `This will not come to pass, ever, because Islam supersedes what was there before it.’ So they waited that month, and the next month, and the following month, but the Nile flowed with not a little and not a lot. As a result the people were on the point of emigrating, on seeing which Amr wrote to Umar bin Al-Khattab on the matter. He replied, `you acted correctly in what you did, for Islam supersedes whatever preceded it, and he sent a slip of paper within his letter, saying to Amr, `I have sent you a slip of paper which you should throw into the Nile.’ When the letter arrived, Amr opened it and perceived what was on the slip of paper: `From the servant of God, Umar, Commander of the Faithful, to the Nile of Egypt, now then! If you flow by your own power alone, then flow not! If, however, it be the One God, the Conqueror, that causes you to flow then we ask Him-exalted be He-to make you flow. Amr threw the paper into the Nile before the festival of the Cross, for the people had been preparing to emigrate. But when they arose on the morning of the Festival of the Cross, God had caused the river to flow so that it reached a height of sixteen cubits. God had thus prohibited that evil custom among them to this day.”
Diets, clothing, dialects, differences of all sorts, form other elements of study for the many ethnic groups of the vast Muslim lands. A diversity in union, which Miquel notes in his conclusion, was to be completely shattered by the Mongol irruption.
Nearly four centuries would elapse after Al-Muqaddasi before Ibn-Khaldun enters the frame of Islamic scholarship to set up the foundations for our modern social, economic, historical and political sciences. There is no need to go into the life and works of Ibn Khaldun here; so much good quality material is available elsewhere, which is needless to repeat here. Should we even try to sum up Ibn Khaldun’s accomplishment, a whole large book is necessary, which is far beyond the remit of this essay. There are a couple of web-sites devoted to him and his works, some of them quite good, and a few excellent. These are to be consulted by any person seeking to know more about Ibn Khaldun. Here, we only focus on a couple of points or issues which take priority. First and foremost many people tend to set aside the fact that the Muqadimah is only part of the voluminous work Kitab al Ibar. The latter refers to the whole work of Ibn Khaldun including the Muqaddima. Its long title is as follows: The Book of Lesson (Ibar) and Achievements of Early and Subsequent History, Dealing with the Political Events Concerning the Arabs, Non-Arabs, and the Supreme Rulers who were Contemporary with Them. The Kitaab al-Ibar is a multivolume effort that, in his words, sets forth “the record of the beginning and the suite of the days of the Arabs, Persians, Berbers, and the most powerful of their contemporaries.” Its Introduction, Butterworth competently sums up:
Consists of six very long chapters that explore the character of human civilization in general and Bedouin civilization in particular, as well as the basic kinds of political associations, and then the characteristics of settled civilization, the arts and crafts by which humans gain their livelihoods, and, finally, the different human sciences.”
Ibn Khaldun starts by explaining the merit of history and how to go about writing it, and also the purpose for writing it;
[To get] “at the truth, subtle explanation of the causes and origins of existing things, and deep knowledge of the how and why of events.”
Ibn Khaldun acknowledges a problem with the way history has come down to us:
Many unqualified people have trammeled with the books of history written by competent Muslim historians; they have introduced tales of gossip imagined by themselves as well as false reports. Moreover, other historians have compiled partial reports of particular dynasties and events without looking to the way things have changed over time, without looking at natural conditions and human customs. Consequently, Ibn Khaldun considers his task to be that of showing the merit of writing history, investigating the various ways it has been done, and showing the errors of previous historians. What needs to be known, and thus what he sets out to make known, are “the principles of politics, the nature of existent things, and the differences among nations, places and periods with regard to ways of life, character, qualities, customs, sects, schools, and everything else … plus a comprehensive knowledge of present conditions in all these respects … complete knowledge of the reasons for every happening and … [acquaintance] with the origin of every event.”
In a work published in 1975, Shrait, the author, judiciously noted how Ibn Khaldun’s
Eminence in medieval civilization has to be linked to his adherence to the pure Islamic intellectual tradition to which he was exposed in the Muslim Maghreb. The Muslim Mashreq was less immune from the widespread distorting influences from mythical, magical and metaphysical Greek, Israelite, Persian or Christian doctrines and beliefs. The purer Islamic cultural context in the Maghreb must have played a significant role, [according to Shrait] in producing the clarity, the Positivism and the originality of Ibn Khaldun’s sociological thought.”
Here, as Dhaouadi remarks, Ibn Khaldun sees Islam as a corrective social force, or a force for the good of society, and Islam’s manifestly hostile position with regard to excessive materialism reinforces Ibn Khaldun’s belief in the validity of his cyclic theory of civilizations. Islam in its essence, let alone through the behaviour of the Prophet and his Companions, Abu Bakr and Omar, in particular, utterly shuns excessive material possessions and rabid consumption. In fact, whether the Prophet, or the first two Caliphs, they all distinguished themselves not just by their probity but also their simplicity. In regard to Omar, for instance. at the height of Islamic power, when the immense riches of Byzantium and Persia were reaching Madinah, the Caliph retained the same modest needs. When one day he was entrusted chests filled with precious stones from the treasures of the Great Persian King, the Caliph in earnest asked the messenger to take the chests away, sell the contents and distribute the proceeds among the soldiers. Prisoners-of-war brought to Madinah ‘expected to see palaces and imperial pageantry such as they had witnessed in Constantinople or in (Persia’s) Ctesiphon. Instead, in the glaring, dusty square of a little mud-brick town, they would find a circle of Arabs sitting on the ground. One of them, a tall lean man, barefoot and wearing a coarse woollen cloak, would prove to be ‘the world’s most powerful emperor,’ Caliph Omar. He slept on a bed of palm leaves and had no concern other than the maintenance of the purity of the faith, the upholding of justice and the ascendancy and security of Islam. Ibn Khaldun himself led a life of utter simplicity, nothing is known of him having ever owned even a house, or any sort of possession, his science, in fact, his only possession. Ibn Khaldun does compare and consolidate his own theory of human civilization’s downfall with the Qur’anic statement, spelled out in the Muqqaddimah:
When we decide to destroy a population, we first send a definite order to those among them who are given the good things of this life and yet transgress; so that the word is proved true against them: then We destroy them utterly.”
Figure 5. An autograph of Ibn Khaldun (upper left corner) in a manuscript held in Istanbul (MS C, Atif Effendi, 1936). (Source)
Whilst being strongly opposed to quantitative materialistic development, Ibn Khaldun believes, in what Dhaouadi terms ‘qualitative development: the preservation of the primitive (innate) goodness of human nature, strong social solidarity and religious ethics.’
Related to this is another central element of Ibn Khaldun thought. He explains that the rise of the Arab-Muslim civilization was the result of a combination of true Bedouin forces (al-asabiyya, bravery, and similar traits) and of the new forces (Muslim brotherhood/solidarity, sacrifice for the greater cause) which Islam had brought with it to the New Society. Bedouin lifestyle was essentially good by nature, as well as moderate in its materialistic needs, hence close to Islam, which, as described in the Qur’an, is the religion of al-fitrah (innate human goodness) and also of moderation.
Sedentary society, on the other hand, compares poorly in Ibn Khaldun’s view. He finds that a sedentary, over-materialistic environment corrupts human nature and, consequently, undermines the basis of Islamic values, which eventually led to decline of Arab-Islamic civilization. Ibn Khaldun insists that both religiosity and bravery are greatly undermined by sedentary environmental conditions. In his view, excessive materialism has negative effects not only on human civilizations and societies, but on the personality of the individual as well. In such civilizations and societies, the individual tends to become more egoistic; his own materialistic interests take priority, which hence causes an increased rate of deviance and crime in materialistic societies. Under the pressure of satisfying their materialistically oriented needs, sedentary individuals often appear to be ready to do away with society’s means of social control. Thus, the breakdown of the socio-cultural rules in sedentary societies is strongly linked in the Arab/Muslim society of Ibn Khaldun’s time to the materialistic over domination of the individual.
Ibn Khaldun writes:
Corruption of the individual inhabitants is the result of painful and trying efforts to satisfy their needs caused by their luxurious customs; the result of the negative qualities they have acquired in the process of satisfying (those needs), and the damage the soul suffers after it has obtained them. Immorality, wrong-doing, insincerity and deceit for the purpose of making a living in a proper or improper43 manner has increased among them. The soul comes to think about (making a living), to study it, and use all possible deceit for that purpose. People are now devoted to lying, gambling, cheating, fraud, theft, perjury, usury… Thus, the affairs of people are disordered, and the affairs of the individual deteriorate one by one, the city becomes disorganized and falls into ruin.”
Ibn Khaldun clearly insists on the following, though. Compared with Bedouin life style, Islam as a system has more to offer for the qualitative development of society. On the materialistic side, the Islamic faith asks for the practice of moderation, not the severe restrictions by which the Bedouins were obliged to live. While the Bedouin community is a somewhat inwardly closed system, Islam, as a religio-social system, is outwardly open to all humans, regardless of their language, colour, creed, and other distinctive features. To Ibn Khaldun, finally, societies cannot survive if their existence was not monitored and controlled by religious ethics; these can help maintain the social order of a civilization, keeping it in balance.
Ibn Khaldun on Taxing Farmers
Extracts from Ibn khaldun’s Muqqadima on his passage on the cause which increases or reduces the revenues of empire, in Bulletin d’Etudes Arabes, Vol 7, pp. 11-15, derived from De Slane’s edition, vol II, pp. 91-4:
The text on Ibn-Khaldun‘s attitude towards taxing farmers is simple and yet perfectly constructed as to the aims and the construction of the argument.
In an empire that has just been founded, taxes are light, and yet bring much revenue. However, when it (the empire) approaches its end, they become heavy and bring very little revenue. Here is the reason: if the founders of the empire follow the road of religion, they only apply the taxes authorized by Divine law, that includes Zaquat (alms), Kharaj (land tax), and Djizia. The amount of each is not too hard to bear, as everybody knows that tax on corn and livestock is not heavy; it is the same for Djizia and Kharaj. The rate of such taxes is fixed by law and so cannot be raised. If the empire is founded on a tribal system and conquest, civilisation must have been first that of a nomadic sort. The impact of such civilisation is to engage the rulers towards kindness, forbearance, and indifference towards the acquisition of wealth, except in rare cases. Thus, taxes and personal duties which finance the revenues of the empire are light. This being the case, the subjects carry their tasks with energy and enthusiasm. Work on the land grows because everyone wants to make the most of the lightness of the taxes, and this in turn raises the numbers of those engaged in the task, hence raising the revenues of the state.
When the empire has endured a rather long period, under many successive sovereigns, the heads of states acquire more ability in their business, and lose with their habits (links with) nomadic life. Then simplicity of manners, forbearance, and casualness which characterised them hitherto disappear. The administration becomes more demanding and harsh; sedentary customs promote shrewdness amidst state employees, and they become more able men of business. And as they experience well being and pleasure, they also indulge in a life of luxury, and acquire new needs. This drives them to raise taxes on all, including farmers. They want taxes to bring in more revenues to the state. They also impose duties on farm products on sales in towns and cities.
Expenditure on luxuries gradually rise in the government, and as the needs of the state increase, taxes rise further, and become heavier to bear by the people. This charge appears, however, as an obligation due to the fact that the increase has been imposed gradually, without it being too much noticed, and who did it remaining unseen. The increase, thus, taking the form of an obligation long accustomed to. With time, taxes grow beyond the bearable, and destroy in farmers the urge and love for work. When they compare their charges and expenses with their profits, they become disheartened; and so many leave farming. This leads directly to a fall in taxes collected by the state, which affects its revenues. Sometimes, when the heads of states notice such a fall, they believe they can resolve it by raising taxes further, and so they do more and more until the point is reached whereby no profit could any longer be made by farmers. All charges and taxes leave no hope whatsoever of any profit. In the meantime, the government is still raising taxes. Farming is now abandoned. Farmers leave the land which has become worthless.
All ill consequences fall upon the state… The reader thus gathers that the best way to make agriculture prosper is to reduce as much as possible the charges that the state imposes. Then farmers work with enthusiasm knowing the great benefits they derive-and God is the Master of all Things.
Ibn Khaldun and the Right Ruler
Ibn Khaldun is realistic enough to realize we don’t live in a perfect world, far from it in fact. The vagaries of life must have taught him some harsh lessons, which without making him profoundly cynical, had left a touch of realism in his thought which might ‘offend’ purists and idealists. We see this in respect to his view of the right, not perfect ruler.
He explains that a noteworthy example is his observation that a good political leader should be neither too stupid nor too clever. Excessive intelligence and cleverness renders him incapable of understanding normal people; he then tends to make demands on his clients that they can neither comprehend nor meet.
An alert and very shrewd person rarely has the habit of mildness … The least of the many draw- backs of alertness [in a ruler] is that he imposes tasks upon his subjects that are beyond their ability, because he is aware of things they do not perceive and, through his genius, foresees the outcome of things at the start … The quality of shrewdness is accompanied by tyrannical and bad rulership and by a tendency to make the people do things that it is not in their nature to do. The conclusion is that it is a drawback in a political leader to be [too] clever and shrewd. Cleverness and shrewdness imply that a person thinks too much, just as stupidity implies that he is too rigid. In the case of all human qualities the extremes are reprehensible and the middle road is praiseworthy.”
4. A Word on the Islamic Impact in the Field
First, return must be made to Constable and the subject of Funduqs seen above. Once the Muslims had borrowed and transformed the institution, then, there happened the crucial shift: the West (and in this case Byzantium, too) borrowing from Islam that same item, and then drawing the full benefits out of it.
Meanwhile, pandocheions became less common in regions still under Byzantine rulers. In the eleventh century, however, a new commercial and regulatory facility called the foundax appeared in Byzantium. This was modeled on the contemporary Arabic fonduq rather than on the earlier Greek pandocheion, and it demonstrates the ongoing ability of words and institutions to be transferred back and forth across linguistic and cultural borders.
Western European merchants encountered the fonduq when they began to do business in Muslim markets in the eleventh and twelfth centuries…The arrival of foreign Christian traders led to the development of specialized facilities (fondacos), modeled on the fonduq, to accommodate, regulate, and segregate western business in Islamic ports. These new fondacos facilitated commercial exchange, profit, and taxation, provided space for foreigners’ lodging and storage, ensured security for both Europeans and local communities, and gave foreign communities autonomy under the oversight of Muslim authorities. Although fondaco buildings were owned and maintained by local administrations, western merchants were allowed to practice their faith, follow their own customs.
Western fondacos in Muslim cities were critical elements in enabling the cross-cultural exchange that fueled the medieval commercial revolution in Europe, and their presence helps to explain why European Christians were able to operate in an Islamic context… Christian traders found it both profitable and congenial to do business in Muslim markets…. In contrast, European cities were not well adapted to providing for the needs of non-Christian traders. With few exceptions, a visiting Muslim in Mediterranean Europe would have had nowhere to stay that was acceptable to him and to the local population, nor any of the religious and dietary facilities necessary to make his visit comfortable.
Starting in the eleventh century, at the same time as Christian commercial growth in the Mediterranean world, Christian political and military expansion in Spain, Sicily, and the Latin east brought Islamic cities and their urban institutions (including the fonduq) under new Christian governments. Christian rulers, like their Muslim counterparts, immediately perceived the utility of fonduqs and judiciously preserved elements of their fiscal and regulatory function…. In the Iberian Peninsula, through the late thirteenth century, Ferdinand III and Alfonso X of Castile, and their contemporary James I of Aragon, incorporated albondigas and fondechs within the economic administration of their newly expanded kingdoms…. Similar integration occurred in the wake of political change in Sicily and south Italy, where rulers from Robert Guiscard to Frederick II took a vantage of preexisting fonduqs by reforming them to fit current needs. In the Crusader states too, fondes and fondacos in Acre, Tyre, Antioch, and other cities played an important role in the commercial and fiscal administration of the realm.”
Whilst Islam borrowed and improved, and then passed on, there were also, as is very often forgotten, or disregarded, specific elements of modern sciences and civilization which were purely Islamic from the first to the last, directly inspired by the faith in particular, the life and deeds of the Prophet, and also, to some degree, the Arab milieu. Let’s look at the subject of trade, and how the whole matter would have never been the same without Islam, and how Islam stands at the very centre of the rise of modern trade. Of course, a whole book would be necessary if a detailed analysis was made. As mentioned a few headings above, such books such as by Gene Heck, and Paul Egon Hubinger already exist and cover a great deal. Here is only the briefest of outlines.
Beginning with the Qur’an, which, is full of summons encouraging Muslims to trade as to mention commercial profit under the name of ‘God’s bounty’ (62: 9-10). The Prophet is also reported to have said:
Merchants are the messengers of this world as well as the trusted servants of Allah on earth.”
“The trustworthy merchant will sit within the shadow of Allah’s throne on Judgment Day.”
Cahen points out to some interesting issues:
Islam was born in a mercantile milieu. Muhammad was a merchant and was not troubled by it. Several of his companions were merchants, and if evidently certain practices of the surrounding states were unknown to them, the reverse was perhaps also true. In any case there was no question of a basic Muslim incapacity to trade.”
The recording of business transactions is a central element in the Qur’an (surah II, verse 282 ff). This practice of recording was bound to impact on commercial relations. This, Lieber insists, was one most important contribution of the Muslim world to medieval economic life, as it led to the development of commercial methods based on writing and recording. This was made possible by the high degree of literacy of the Oriental merchant of that time, which, in its turn, was encouraged by the fact that relatively cheap writing materials had long been available in this part of the world.
Islam did not just revive and stimulate trade it also provided the very fundamentals and mechanisms of modern trade. Chance, Braudel holds, has preserved letters of Jewish traders of Cairo from the times of the First Crusade (launched in 1095), which show that all methods and instruments of credit, and all forms of trade associations were known already, and were not invented subsequently in Europe as was asserted by many. Udovitch insists on the fundamental point that it is Islamic law and the customary practice in the Muslim world, which provided merchants and traders with the commercial techniques to structure and facilitate trade and exchange. Long before the West, Udovitch adds, Muslim merchants had at their disposal accepted legal mechanisms for extending credit and for transferring and exchanging currencies over long distances. The “credit transfer” (hawalah) was a highly flexible monetary instrument. Often used in conjunction with the mudarabah, the medieval Muslim investor could employ it as a debt transfer mechanism as well as a credit documentation tool, using it to empower an agent to collect a loan repayment from one of his debtors, and then immediately committing the proceeds to a mudarabah investment, thereby creating a hybrid “debt/credit” commercial contract. Al-Shaybani explains that a business agent could legitimately employ such a document because it was part of “conventional merchandising practice,” and it also appears to have been a highly effective instrument for facilitating capital flows in international trading as well.
The burgeoning demands for credit occasioned by very rapid commercial expansion led the function of “money-changer” (sarraf) to evolve into that of full-fledged banker (jahbadh). Such bankers were not only involved in financing private sector economic ventures, it seems, but also in providing “tax anticipation notes” to government – advancing large sums to pay current bureaucratic expenses secured by future tax revenues. During the rule of Harun al-Rashid (r. 786-809), under a highly developed system, a Muslim businessman could cash a cheque in Canton on his bank account in Baghdad. The main role was played by Jewish bankers who, in the entourage of both Caliph and ministers in Baghdad, were entrusted with the keeping of both the jewels of the crown and prisoners of the state. The title of Court bankers (Jahabidhat al-Hadra) was granted by the state chancellery under Caliph Muqtadir to two or three Jewish bankers in Baghdad. In fact the development of international banking, Massignon explains, has origins with that Jewish element serving the Abbasid Caliphate in the 9th century. This was about five centuries before a banking system of worth appeared in Western Christendom.
Islamic banking impacted directly on the West via the commercial transactions between the East and the Christian world. The Jewish communities took their practice from the Muslim milieus into that of their communities in the Christian West, especially as Jewish bankers associated themselves with others from their own community to form groups of investors willing to support large ventures that included regular caravan journeys and maritime expeditions to Africa, India and China.
Very early in Islam, business was generally conducted through the medium of brokers or agents, who were well versed in the trading usages of the place. It was essential to obtain advice concerning the trustworthiness of local merchants, since sales were often on credit, or goods were purchased for future delivery. These brokers sometimes enjoyed a semi-official status, according to Al-Muqaddasi, who wrote in the 10th century While in the Eastern world the services of a broker were mandatory for the foreign merchant in his dealings with the customs authorities and with local traders, the appointment of a dragoman and broker for the local Italian communities was, by custom, subject to Italian approval. The brokers, known as simsar in Arabic, were organized in powerful guilds. The institution was taken over by the Italians, together with its name, and although the first reference is to a censarius, in Genoa in 1154, henceforth the brokers were generally known as sensali. In Venice the Germans had to transact all their business through the sensali, on whose appointment, however, they had no influence. The Arab commodity broker dealing in such risks, the simsar has, thus, become the sensali, whose function, to sell products at public auction, in Arabic called halqah, became in Italian galega.
Figure 6. Title page of an Arabic manuscript copy of al-Khwarizmi’s Kitab al-jabr wa-‘l-muqabala (Source)
There is a rich Muslim literature dealing with commerce, which eventually was at the source of similar Western (Italian, primarily, literature). Rosen in his 19th century translation of al-Khwarizmi’s (780-850) algebra, makes the point that al-Khwarizmi intended to teach:
What is easiest and most useful in arithmetic, such as men constantly require in cases of inheritance, legacies, partition, lawsuits, and trade, and in all their dealings with one another…”
Leonardo Fibonacci’s Liber Abaci of 1202, which was largely inspired by al-Khwarizmi is divided into fifteen chapters, some chapters dealing specifically with, as follows: Chapter 8: Prices of goods; 9: Barter; 10: Partnership; 11:Alligation; 12: Solutions to Problems.
During the 12th century the Pisans, Florentines, Genoese, Venetians, and Sicilians had trade establishments in the main city ports of the Maghrib including the Algerian city of Bejaia. Genoa had in 1164 appointed a regular official at Bejaia to supervise trade there; he, perhaps, acting as the first ‘colonial official’ of modern times. Pisa immediately followed suite. The Pisan office had an important repercussion on European culture, for in 1175 its holder was one Bonacci. It was his son Leonardo (c. 1170-1248) who was to show himself the most gifted mathematician of the Middle Age. Leonardo wrote Liber abacci in 1202 where he advocates the Arabic system, which was the first European scientific appreciation of the method. In his Liber abacci Leonardo gives, amongst his examples, a method for calculating the capacity value of alum in a cargo. Arabic numerals were first used in Europe precisely around that time by notaries charged with drawing up commercial contracts for use in the Islamic world.
Al-Khwarizmi’s is hardly the sole treatise dealing with the issue. Sarton mentions four Spanish Muslim works on mu’amalat (Commercial Dealings Involving Arithmetic) that include works by Al-Majriti (d 1007) wherein it is said that he wrote a book on the whole of the science of numbers which is called among us al-mu’amalat. Al-Zahrawi (936-1013), al-Majriti’s contemporary, wrote Kitab sharif fi’l mu’amalat al tariq al-burhan (the Noble Book on Mu’amalat in the Demonstrative Manner). The other two were Al-Tunbari (d. 1025) and Ibn al-Samh. Sarton insists that due to the fact that all four works came from Spanish Islam, they might well have been very influential on the development of medieval commerce and the transmission of Muslim commercial methods to the Christian world; a transmission which is very much substantiated by the presence of many Arabic words in the Spanish vocabulary.
There is also a considerable amount of Muslim writing defining, economic activity, besides establishing early known economic laws. As Gene Heck points out, Muslim writers such as Muhammad B. Hassan al-Shaybani in Kitab al Iktisab fi al-Rizk al-Mustalab and al-Dimashki in Kitab Al-Ishara Ila Mahasin al-Tijara began formulating then very novel and profound free market economic precept-economic theories that would shape the then known intellectual world- and then, more than half a millennium later, would be invented by Adam Smith and others in the Renaissance reformationist Christian West. Al-Dimashki’s guide: Kitab al-Ishara (The Book of Guidance) begins with an essay on the true nature of wealth, and then proceeds to discuss the necessity of money; how to test a currency; how to evaluate commodities; their prices; how to discern good from defective merchandise; investment in real estate; handicrafts and manufactures; advice for salespeople; the advantages of business; the different types of merchants and their duties; how to avoid fraud; how to keep records, wealth protection, and so on and so forth…. Lewis, in this respect, remarks:
It would be easy to assemble other traditions, and writings of ascetic tendency, that say just the opposite and condemn commerce and those engaged in it. It is, however, noteworthy that centuries before Christian writers were prepared to defend and define the ethics of commerce against ascetic criticism, Muslim writers were willing to do so, and that even a major theologian like al-Ghazali (d.1111) could include, in his religious writings, a portrait of the ideal merchant and a defence of commerce as a way of preparing oneself for the world to come.”
Amongst these Muslim writers who had an impact on subsequent Western (Italian) authors is Al-Dimashki, whose Kitab al-Tijara shows a very close relationship, in technique and approach to the subsequent Pegalotti’s Practica della Mercatura. A great deal of the merchandise mentioned is the same, as is a lot of the technical terminology, the advice to businessmen, and many of the forms of business relationships.
One instance of Islamic impact was through the office of the State Inspector the Muhtasib. The Spanish Christian the mustasaf was a carbon copy of the muhtasib whom he emulated in duties, judicial procedure, and jurisdiction. Indeed, in those crafts-and there were many whose technologies were derived from the Islamic world the mustasaf continued to enforce exactly the same regulations as Andalusi muhtasibs had centuries before. To cite only one example, the specifications for manufacturing cork-soled shoes, called alcorques, were the same in the Book of Hisba composed by the Malagan muhtasib al-Saqati in the 11th century as in the 14th century regulations of the mustasaf of Valencia.
In the East, during the crusades, the same institution was borrowed by the Christians. The regulation of the markets was put by the crusaders under an official called a mathesep, from the Arabic Muhtasib. He had charge of the standard weights and measures, inspected streets and bazaars, and regulated the trade of bakers, butchers, cooks, and other food sellers, besides inspecting doctors, oculists, and chemists, horse surgeons, money changers, the slave market, and the market for horses and mules.
The description of the Cyprus official gives a more precise definition of the duties of the office:
The office of mathessep is that he ought to go in the morning to the market places and to see to it that no fraud be done by the sellers . . [And he should see to] the weight of the bread; … And then he ought to make a turn through the town, looking out for the above-mentioned things and [seeing] that no misdemeanours be done, such as rapes and thefts and brawls, which he ought to find and resolve.”
The mathessep of Cyprus carried out the market and moral-police functions characteristic of all muhtasibs. He appears not to have had the power of summary punishment, however, but had instead to bring offenders before the viscount. The office survived into the time of Venetian rule (1489- 1570), when the mathessep was entrusted with the “superintendence of the markets, prices, and correctional police.” The muhtasib, Glick points out, would appear to have been well suited to the requirements of medieval town life. Europeans of various cultures were quick to adopt the office and make it serve different social needs admirably.
The manner Muslim rulers managed public affairs in Spain, Durant claims, was the most competent in the Western world of that age, maintaining rational and humane laws, effective administration and a well-organized judiciary. The conquered, in their internal affairs, were governed by their own laws and their own officials, whilst towns were well policed; markets, weights and measures were effectively supervised, and a regular census of population and property was kept. It is from that era, Letourneau notes, that a large Castilian vocabulary borrowed from Arabic came about to describe administrative functions, technical details, and other matters of civilisation. Over a six-hundred-year period, Glick observes, the borrowing of terms related to social and administrative institutions by the Christians in Spain was pre-eminent in the process, an indication, in the first two periods, of the modelling of a less highly structured society after a more highly structured one.
Many Muslim social practices and customs also affected the West considerably. Castro has made a lengthy study of such an impact on Spain, which will be seen further on. Here, it is worth noting with Howard how aspects of the development of Piazza San Marco in Venice hint at Eastern inspirations. Later chroniclers attributed to the generosity of Doge Sebastiano Ziani (1172-8) the enlargement of the space of the Piazza in front of the Church of San Marco to serve a variety of civic, religious and charitable functions, such as a hospital, inns, shops and lodgings, as if imposing the ideal of the Islamic waqf (or legal endowment) on the memory of this act of beneficence by a committed merchant.
It would require a vast amount of space to study the role Muslim scholarship had in shaping many of our modern ideas. Al-Farabi, Al-Ghazali, Ibn Khaldun, and others, are, indeed, behind many of our supposedly Western concepts. Here, we examine briefly the contribution of one of Islam’s great scholars: Al-Razi, better known for his medical and chemical works. Al-Razi, Myers observes, is noted for his The Spiritual Physic, which shows him a thoughtful psychologist and outstanding physician. Some of his ideas have a strikingly modern ring:
Mutual helpfulness is closely related to division of labour. Each man must eat, be clothed, have shelter and security, though he may contribute directly to only one of these activities. The good life is thus attained by division of labour and mutual helpfulness. Each labours at a single task and is simultaneously servant and served, works for others and has others work for him. As a healthy and effective social organization is possible only on the basis of cooperation and mutual help, it is every man’s duty to give assistance to his fellow man in one way or another and to work to the best of his abilities to that end, avoiding at the same time the two extremes of excess and deficiency.
If he toils all his life to earn more than he requires or needs for his old age without disposing of his earnings in such ways as will yield him comfort, he is really the loser and has enslaved himself; for he will have given away his own energy without obtaining in return a proper compensation. Such a man has not bartered toil against toil and service against service; his toil will have yielded profit only to his fellows, while their toil on his behalf will have passed him by.
The man who follows this rule in earning his living will have received in exchange toil for toil and service for service.”
Figure 7. al-Razi’s Kitab fi ‘l-jadari (Source)
Al Razi’s expressions “cooperation,” “mutual help,” “mutual assistance”, Myers points out, have had a revival in Pëtr Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid, published in 1902 as refutation to Darwin’s theory of the survival of the fittest. While the Darwinists declared competition and struggle for existence to be the governing law of nature, Kropotkin, like al Razi, emphasized the principle of mutual aid in which he no less saw a fundamental law of nature.
In this respect, return, however, must be made to Ibn Khadun and these very interesting lines by Alfred Gierer:
Ibn Khaldun considered a level of cooperation and solidarity as prerequisite for the well-being of a community. A main source of pro-social attitudes is biological, based on common descent in families and tribes, but the scope is extendable to people who are familiar without family ties, who share socialization. However, the farther group solidarity is extended, the more unstable and weak it is. Its persistence depends on reciprocity and empathy. Ruling classes in affluent societies often indulge in the illusion that they can rule without the consensus of the ruled. Then, in fact, asabiyah is rapidly lost, and this is the kiss of death to rulership, which is then replaced by a new regime. Social systems, he insisted, flourish most if human altruism is recruited by mild and restrained political means, which respect the limits of altruism from the outset.
Ibn Khaldun’s notes agree surprisingly well with more elaborate and formalized modern concepts on the roots of human cooperation in descent, familiarity, reciprocity, and empathy. The agreement cannot be contingent, but results from a combination of intelligence, exceptionally wide and diverse experiences, social and political expertise, and a capability for conceptual generalization. In terms of philosophy of science, it is remarkable to which extent basic anthropological and socio- logical insights can be obtained by this combination. Though Ibn Khaldun could not draw on modern evolutionary theory or on experimental sociology and psychology, his style of thought favoured a systems approach in a rather modern sense of the term, combining what we call biological and social aspects of human nature. It is this capability and willingness to integrate that, in retrospect, appears as his most creative contribution to understanding human cooperativeness.”