Adapting to Climates and Landscapes
Adapting to Climates and Landscapes
Muslim Territory . The most obvious challenge to gaining an overview of daily life among Muslims during the almost nine centuries between 622 and 1500 is the size and diversity of the territory where Muslims lived. During this period Islam expanded northward and eastward into the vast Asian steppe and began to spread to tropical islands in the Indian Ocean and Southeast Asia. Islam extended as far west as Spain, as far east as Southeast Asia, as far north as the Caucasus, and as far south as sub-Saharan West Africa and equatorial east Africa. Landscapes in this vast region range from arid desert and steppe to rain-fed cultivated areas in the North African Sahara, Southwest Asia, and Central Asia. It includes the Mediterranean climates and coastal lands in North Africa, Spain, Turkey, and the Levant, as well as mountainous regions of North Africa, Southwest Asia, and the Hindu Kush. The great river valleys of the Niger, the Nile, the Tigris-Euphrates, the Syr and Amu Darya, and the Indus are fertile agricultural regions that contributed to the development of Muslim culture and economy.
Environments and Cultural Forms . Within this range of geographic regions, various pre-Islamic cultures contributed to the diversity of daily life patterns. Muslim regions were predominantly arid landscapes requiring irrigated farming, while rain-fed agriculture was only possible in a few areas. Pastoral (nomadic or seminomadic) communities inhabited the most arid regions and marginal agricultural areas, depending for their livelihoods on herds of sheep and goats, camels, or horses. Pastoral groups supplied animals for transport, guides for travel, and military support, usually maintaining relationships of mutual benefit with settled folk, thus supplementing their diets of meat and milk with grains, fruits, and vegetables. Invasion of settled areas and warfare were sporadic and most often were sparked by drought or regional unrest. Coastal and island communities on the Mediterranean coast, the inland seas of Asia, the Persian Gulf, and the Indian Ocean relied on trading, fishing, and harvesting pearls and coral. From ancient times, cities flourished in the lands that came under Muslim rule. Islam arose in the towns of Makkah and Madinah, and the growth of cities reached spectacular heights under Muslim rule. The growth of cities was important for the spread of Islam and the development of Muslim civilization. As economic, political, and cultural centers, cities grew with migration and became prominent destinations for various sorts of travelers. Important aspects of daily life changed with the spread of Islam to a given area, but the range of geographic environments and cultural influences during the period 622 to 1500 resulted in enormous diversity in the customs and habits of daily life.
Change . Natural hazards such as drought or catastrophic flooding caused abrupt change in rural communities. Political stability and periods of peace and prosperity led to improved maintenance of irrigation systems and expansion of land under cultivation, while loss of state control and warfare caused contraction. For pastoral communities, drought spurred migration or invasion of other settled lands, but political stability often meant less autonomy for pastoral groups. For urban communities, prosperity in the hinterlands meant adequate food supplies, and regional stability improved trade, allowing positive economic conditions to expand the cities. Invasion, warfare, floods, fires, and political instability caused the shrinkage or even abandonment of urban areas. Pastoral, rural, and urban ways of life intermeshed, waxed, and waned with economic, climatic, and political fortunes, but the three groups generally benefited from the many forms of exchange in various Muslim regions.
Social Class . Daily life varied considerably depending on class and occupation. Between the palaces of the ruling elites and the humble dwellings of workers, porters, laborers, and the poor, there was of course great disparity in ways of meeting basic needs. The urban upper and middle classes included merchants, skilled artisans, the ulama (learned class), landowners, shopkeepers, and petty merchants, all of whom enjoyed some of the amenities of the wealthy in prosperous times but suffered in hard times. Slaves’ lifestyles were determined by the class of those whom they served. Those integrated into common households might serve for only a few years and then be freed, marry, and form their own households. Islamic law regulated the practice of slavery and in fact encouraged its demise as an institution, but custom and economic power maintained the practice. It was not, however, based on race, nor did it result in segregation based on race. Slaves or unfree persons constituted part of the ruling classes—as Mamluk rulers, for example—in some Muslim societies, through marriage, military, or civil service to the state.
Isma’il R. al-Faruqi and Lois Lamya’, The Cultural Atlas of Islam (New York: Macmillan / London: Collier-Macmillan, 1986).
Francis Robinson, “The First Nine Centuries, from 622-1500,” in his Atlas of the Islamic World Since 1500 (New York: Facts on File, 1982).