Agriculture and Pastoralism

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Agriculture and Pastoralism




Before Islam . Ancient peoples knew the Arabian peninsula as Arabia Felix, or happy Arabia. Such a description originates from the heavy presence of Arabian merchants in Mediterranean ports. These merchants traded rare and exotic products imported from places like East Africa, India, and China. The southern part of the Arabian peninsula (present-day Yemen and Oman) is home to the frankincense plant, an aromatic shrub whose resin was burned in official and religious ceremonies. Ancient trade in this product was widespread, including China and Greece. It would be misleading to describe the whole of the peninsula as “Happy Arabia” or to imagine that most of its inhabitants were merchants. Arabian society was as complex and varied as the environment in which it evolved. These social and geographic variations eventually influenced later Islamic societies throughout western Asia and North Africa. Indeed, wherever Islam reached, the society that emerged embodied some of the influences from preIslamic Arabs.

Agriculture . The Arabian peninsula is a vast area, nearly one-fifth the size of the United States. Most of the peninsula receives little rainfall. Only in the mountainous area of Yemen was there enough rainfall to allow for the development of agriculture. In this region settled, rural communities tilled the land and tended frankincense trees. Towns and cities gradually developed and led eventually to the rise of small states ruled by kings and other officials.

Pastoralism . While the Yemenis were fortunate enough to have enough rainfall for farming, the majority of the Arabian peninsula remained parched for most of the year. When rain came, it was sparse, except for rare, often devastating flash floods. In some scattered areas, water was available from springs, around which oases developed. These

limited resources fostered the development of a tribal society largely dependent on its animals (sheep, goats, horses, and camels). Because they could not find enough pasture in one place to support them year-round, these tribes were forced to move about in search of fresh pastures for their animals; that is, they became nomadic. Living in temporary encampments in the proximity of oases or near connecting trade routes, they traded among each other at fairs and festivals held during certain months of the year. Each tribe developed a pattern of migration within a somewhat recognizable zone and became fiercely protective of its area and resources, especially watering places.

Agriculture . Since the population of western Asia had always been predominantly rural and agricultural, it was natural that this crucial activity was sustained and encouraged under Muslim rule. From the beginning, the khilafah encouraged agriculture by granting uncultivated land to be reclaimed for farming. The state invested in building canals, dams, and dikes to secure a water supply and extend the area available for cultivation. One of the earliest and most effective ways in which the khilafah increased the amount of land available for cultivation was building new cities—such as Basrah and Kufah during the reign of ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab (ruled 634–644)—away from established agricultural areas and near the edge of the desert. This practice required the digging of canals from the Euphrates River to bring water to those cities and thus increased arable land. Generally a person who received such land, called mawat (dead land), was exempted from taxation for several years as an incentive to undertake reclamation efforts. To encourage their production, certain agricultural products—such as dyestuffs like indigo and other commercially desirable crops—were also exempted from taxation. The state generally graduated produce taxes according to the investment that went into growing a crop. For example, the tax on rain-fed crops was higher than that for crops that had to be artificially irrigated. Products that had to be transported long distances to a market were taxed at a lower rate than crops produced nearby. An important development in medieval Islamic agriculture was the introduction of new crops and plants that were disseminated all over the Muslim world, including citrus fruits, cotton, rice, and sugarcane. As the khilafah expanded, Arabs in newly conquered areas did not engage in agriculture at first because they were serving in the military, but they gradually settled on the land and became farmers or resided in cities and became urbanized. From 750 onward, ethnic or religious distinctions in the rural population gradually diminished, disappearing altogether in subsequent centuries.


In al-Muqadditnah (1375–1378, revised 1378–1406) the renowned Muslim historian Ibn Khaldun (1332–1406), who has often been called the Father of Sociology, suggested a connection between the diet of a region and its inhabitants’ physical and mental characteristics:

Differences with regard to abundance and scarcity of food in the various inhabited regions and hew they affect the human body and character: It should be known that not all the temperate zones have an abundance of food, nor do all their inhabitants lead a comfortable life. In some parts, the inhabitants enjoy an abundance of grain, seasonings, wheat, and fruits, because the soil is well balanced and favourable to plants and there is an abundant civilization. And then, in other parts, the land is strewn with rocks, and no seeds or herbs grow at all. There, the inhabitants have a very hard time. Instances of such people are the inhabitants of the Hijaz and the Yemen, or the Veiled Sinhajah who live in the desert of the Maghrib on the fringes of the sandy wastes which lie between the Berbers and the Sudanese Negroes [West Africans]. All of them lack grain and seasonings. Their nourishment and food consist of milk and meat. Another such people are the Arabs who roam the waste regions. They may get grain and seasonings from the hills, but this is the case only at certain times and is possible only under the eyes of the militia which protects (those parts). Whatever they get is little, because they have little money, They obtain no more than the bare necessity, and sometimes less, and in no case enough for a comfortable or abundant life. They are mostly found restricted to milk, which is for them a very good substitute for wheat. In spite of this, the desert people who lack grain and seasonings are found to be healthier in body and better in character than the hill people who have plenty of everything. Their complexions are clearer, their bodies cleaner, their figures more perfect, their character less intemperate, and their minds keener as far as knowledge and perception are concerned. There is a great difference in this respect between the Arabs and Berbers (on the one hand), and the Veiled (Berbers) and the inhabitants of the h11s (on the other). This fact is known to those who have investigated the matter.

Source: ‘Abd al-Rahman Ibn Khaldun, The Muqaddimah: An Introduction to History, translated by Franz Rosenthal, edited and abridged by N, J. Dawood (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1967), p. 65.

Land and Revenue . After the Abbasids ended the wars of expansion in 750, the state and its army could no longer generate revenue from sources such as spoils of war, booty, or new territories to tax. Rather, all revenue had to be generated internally. Land values immediately increased, and it became necessary to keep people at work cultivating such a resource for state revenue. Eventually, as the decline of the khilafah began after the tenth century, the rural population and the peasantry were gradually reduced to a status similar to that of serfdom; that is, although legally free, they were bound to the land and became like sharecroppers working largely for the benefit of powerful landlords. While previously Muslim society had been dynamic, providing a great deal of mobility with plenty of opportunities for the individual to gain wealth and status, society became static, and upward mobility became much more difficult.

Policy Shifts . The increase in the importance of land and landlords caused a gradual shift in the orientation and emphasis of the government and of its bureaucracy. Intellectuals and members of the ulama class, who formulated legal opinion and interpreted religious dogma, began to express a viewpoint in line with the interest of the landlords. While maintaining their economic power, merchants and artisans gradually lost their ability to influence government policies or legal and religious interpretation. This trend is most clear in the gradual diminution of rationalist philosophy and in the increase in traditional and literal interpretation of the Qur’an and Islamic dogma. The often-heated debate between the two sides is partially reflected in the efforts of the Khalifah al-Ma’mun (ruled 813–833) when in 832 he declared his support for the rationalist-philosophical doctrines of the Mu’tazila and insisted that an examination be instituted to determine whether employees of the state and public figures adhered to those concepts. This examination, known as the Mihna, was given for nearly thirty years before it was abandoned in 853 by al-Mutawakkil, who introduced a radical shift in policy, favoring those who advocated a fixed, literal interpretation of the Qur’an and Islamic dogma. At the same time, al-Mutawakkil removed members of the previous administration and brought in officials who were either landlords or connected to the landed class.

Iqta’ . Al-Mutawakkil also introduced the practice of iqta—granting to military commanders and their soldiers the tax revenues from certain farmers’ lands in lieu of state salaries. This system evolved and lasted under one name or another until the nineteenth century. The Mongols called it suyurghal, and later the Ottomans called it timar. In all of these cases the commanders and their troops did not receive the land to own as private property; rather, they were given the right to collect the taxes on that property in lieu of salary, in a system that historians have called “tax farming.” While initially this system may have been efficient, abuses such as overtaxation, repetitive taxation, and neglect of the agricultural infrastructure soon appeared to plague the society and the state.

Ilja’ . As Iqta became widespread, small farmers felt insecure about the exactions of these tax collectors and began joining their lands to those of more powerful neighbors in exchange for protection. Eventually this arrangement, called ilja’, resulted in small farmers’ losing ownership of their plot of land, after which they either abandoned rural life to move to a city or became landless peasants who worked the land but did not own it, in arrangements similar to sharecropping.

The Plantation Economy . Rural landlords were so well connected during the Abbasid period, especially after al-Mutawakkil’s khilafah (847–861), that they eventually amassed huge estates, and a plantation economy began to appear in the mid tenth century. Many of these large plantations produced cash crops such as rice, cotton, and sugarcane. While this system benefited large landowners, however, it was instituted at the expense of small farmers, and slaves, especially from East Africa, were imported to clear marshes and prepare the land for agriculture.


D uring the Umayyad khilafah (661–750) state revenues came from several sources. The state treasury received one-fifth of the spoils of war, mostly in the form of movable booty, which was calle fat’. In addition, when a city surrendered to Muslim troops and negotiated a treaty with them, it often agreed to pay an annual tribute. The khilafah also levied taxes. Non-Muslims paid jizya (poll tax) and kharaj (agricultural produce tax). Levied on able-bodied males, usually between eighteen and forty-five years old, jizya was regarded as payment for military protection, in lieu of military service, and the amount varied according to the wealth of the individual. The kharaj varied according to the type of crop, the distance from the market, and the type of irrigation used to cultivate it. Some crops were exempted from taxation. Arab Muslims paid the ushr (tithe) and obligatory alms called zakat (one of the pillars of Islam). The state revenue was redistributed in stipends to those who participated in fighting, who were paid in kind and in cash. During the first decades in which this system prevailed, almost all Arabs received a stipend in the amount established by Khalifah Umar ibn al-Khattab (ruled 634-644), based generally on the individual’s participation in the service of Islam.

Source: D. C. Dennets, Conversion and Poll-Tax in Early Islam (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1950).

Peasant Revolts . It is important to remember that income from land was always nearly 70 percent of the revenue of the state. Such moneys were not always extracted willingly from the rural populations, and after 750, when the exploitation of internal revenue sources increased, rural-based peasant revolts broke out frequently, first in the provinces and then in Iraq, the heartland of the Abbasid khilafah. Four revolts stand out as particularly significant. The revolt of Babak in Azerbaijan lasted for nearly thirty years as Abbasid khalifahs sent one army after another to Azerbaijan, the rugged mountainous region of northwest Iran, until Babak was finally defeated in 838. In 869 the Zanj—mostly slaves from East Africa who were brought to Iraq to clear the salt marshes north of Basrah to create large cash-crop plantations—established a state around the port of Basrah on the Persian Gulf. This state lasted until 883, when it was finally defeated by Abbasid troops. The third revolt was that of Hamdan Qarmat and his followers in Syria and Iraq during the early tenth century. His successors went on to establish a state in eastern Arabia that lasted more than a century. The Bashmuric revolt in the Egyptian delta In 832 is significant because it was made up of Christian and Muslim peasants who rebelled jointly against the taxation policies of the Abbasids. The frequency and intensity of peasant revolts exposed the weakness of the central government and its institutions.

Agricultural Decline . By the tenth century, with peasant rebellions against iqta becoming more frequent and urban insecurity increasing, the state began to recruit central Asian Turkic pastoral groups to serve in the military and act as an arm of the state in putting down the rebels. This practice ultimately had a major impact on the political and economic structure of the Muslim world. The Turks, led by a powerful family known as the Saljuks, relied primarily on iqta’ to pay their troops. Politically, the growth of a Turkic military eventually led to loss of political influence for the khalifah (caliph) and his civilian administration, while the military gained strength and gradually assumed autonomy in the provinces. By 1055 the Turks had become the dominant element in the military and politics. The rise of the military led to the political fragmentation of the Islamic world. The agriculture of western Asia suffered tremendously during the centuries of military rule. Having introduced and disseminated new plants and cash crops and reached unprecedented levels of agricultural productivity and wealth, farmers and landlords witnessed the decline, or at least the stagnation, of agricultural production from the eleventh century onward. Several factors led to this situation. Since the army was primarily preoccupied with military matters and viewed the land only as a source of income, they neglected the upkeep of the agricultural infrastructure—including dams, dikes, and canals—which eventually led to smaller crops and, thus, lower iqta revenues. Instead of repairing the infrastructure, army commanders demanded more land for taxation. Increasingly large areas of land lost productivity, forcing the owners either to sell the land or abandon it altogether. Diminished revenue resulting from neglect and corruption prompted commanders to demand either additional tracts or the replacement of their initial grant. The double burden of spiraling demand for revenue and the disregarded needs of the agricultural infrastructure impoverished the countryside, and the rural population reduced the revenue of the central government in favor of Turkish army commanders. The system of iqta’ made the central government far weaker, especially as most of the revenue remained in the hands of military commanders. In time the practice of land assignment was applied to whole provinces, depending on the rank and importance of the recipient. While these assignments were not given as private property, soon they were passed on as inheritance, encouraging the formation of petty dynasties in the provinces. These conditions were exacerbated by the constant conflicts among the Turkish lords who had taken over southwest Asia by the middle of the eleventh century. An alarming aspect of this conflict was the deliberate destruction of agricultural infrastructure as a military strategy— such as the breaking of a dam in order to flood out enemy soldiers downstream. The decline of agriculture continued for centuries, reaching its peak during the Mamluk period (1250–1517). When the Black Death struck around 1350, it devastated huge areas of southwest Asia and North Africa, wiping out entire villages. Large sectors of the rural population returned to nomadic, pastoral ways of life, with the consequent decline of cities and their rural hinterlands and a breakdown of civil order.


Daniel G. Bates and Amal Rassam, Peoples and Cultures of the Middle East, second edition (Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 2001).

Michael Dols, The Black Death in the Middle East (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1977).

Philip Khuri Hitti, History of the Arabs, tenth edition (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1974).

Peter M. Holt, The Age of the Crusades: The Near East from the Eleventh Century to 1517 (London& New York: Longman, 1985).

Albert H. Hourani, A History of the Arab People (Cambridge & New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991).

Andrew M. Watson, Agricultural Innovation in the Early Islamic World: The Diffusion of Crops and Farming Techniques, 700–1100 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983).

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