Artisans, Manufacturing, and Commerce

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Artisans, Manufacturing, and Commerce


Pre-Islamic Trade . Before the advent of Islam, a significant commercial culture developed on the basis of agricultural production and trade in the surplus, especially frankincense and other aromatic products such as myrrh and balsam. Other important commodities for local and regional trade included wine, grains, leather goods, and textiles. Writing sometime during the first century C.E., a Greek sailor named Hippalus described the ports of call along the Red Sea and listed these commodities among products a merchant could buy and sell at a profit.

Economic Development under the Khilafahs . After the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632 and the establishment of the Islamic khilafah, the economy of the growing empire came to depend on three factors. The basic pillar was agricultural production. In fact, most of the areas that the khilafah controlled were rural and agricultural. The second factor was artisanal production and manufacturing, and the third was commerce. Several factors helped artisans and manufacturers in the Muslim world to thrive and to produce high-quality commodities, including clothing and textiles, leather goods, carpets, glass, metalwares, pottery, and paper. These products and others were sought after everywhere Muslim merchants attended markets. One factor was the presence of an ancient and well-established tradition of manufacturing in cities that came under Muslim control, such as Alexandria, Damascus, and Antioch. These cities had already-established glassmaking, metal-working, and textile traditions of long duration. Cottage industries and courtly workshops for the production of textiles and leather goods had also existed in pre-Islamic Arabia. Skilled workers received a major boost from Muslim expansion, which was accompanied by an enormous circulation of wealth in the form of stipends and land grants. With so much money in circulation, the buying power of each individual was enhanced. People could afford not only basic commodities and foodstuffs but also luxury products

imported from China, India, and East Africa at substantially increased rates. The port of Basrah quickly became the most important in the Muslim world and remained so for centuries to come.

Marketplaces . Not everything, however, was imported. Demand for manufactured goods increased substantially with the foundation and growth of cities under Muslim rule. This demand spurred local production, especially because the Muslims took over well-established economic centers such as Damascus, Alexandria, and Antioch. Artisans had a ready market for their products, which were sold in centralized and specialized markets in each city. Neighborhood markets are also known to have existed, and markets—especially for livestock— were set up outside towns on weekly, monthly, or seasonal bases. And with the production of leather goods and textiles already widespread in Yemen, interregional trade became very lucrative for merchants and producers alike. One of the largest markets was associated with the annual pilgrimage, or hajj, not only in and around Makkah but also in the major staging areas for pilgrimage caravans, such as Baghdad, Damascus, and Cairo. Along pilgrimage routes, markets were set up to provision the caravans. Pilgrims brought wares and goods to exchange for provisions and foodstuffs such as dried fruits, dates, raisins, and olive oil. Thus, several months ahead of the pilgrimage season, merchants descended on important cities to buy rugs, carpets, woven textiles, brocades, other furnishings, knives, swords, pottery, glass, and ceramic wares. Local and regional products—as well as those from distant areas of the Muslim world such as eastern Asia, Africa, and Europe—were traded in these markets.

Decline. It is important to recognize that artisanal activity and manufacturing were closely tied to agriculture and depended on political stability. The decline of cotton production, for example, greatly impacted the production of textiles in a given area. Furthermore, political instability and regional conflict hindered the movement of products and decreased the demand for goods. Such conditions existed during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, when products that Muslims had exported to Europe—such as glass, pottery, and textiles—began to be imported into the region from budding European manufacturing centers through the activity of Italian merchants. European textiles began to compete with local products and imitate their design and production techniques. Some of the early European centers were in former Muslim territories such as Sicily. Eventually low import duties imposed on European merchants made European textiles competitive with local goods and led to the decline of local textile production.

Commerce . Commercial activity reached unprecedented heights before 1500. Muslim merchants linked much of the Eastern Hemisphere in a network of sea and overland trade routes, facilitating the movement of goods to meet the demands of a growing urban population with a rising standard of living. Muslim merchants were involved in long-distance trade as well as local or regional exchange of luxury products or staples and ordinary foodstuffs. The greatest wealth seems to have been accumulated by merchants engaged in long-distance trade because prices increased with the distance a merchant traveled and the risks he encountered along the journey, such as storms, shipwrecks, and pirates at sea, and bandits, marauders, and political instability on land. Several factors allowed mercantile activities to thrive. First and foremost was a favorable social attitude to merchants and their activity. Contrary to most ancient and medieval civilizations, the Islamic world respected merchants. This positive attitude stems partly from the fact that pre-Islamic Arabian wealth was not based on agriculture, as was the case with the Romans and the Persians, where the landed nobility held power and social influence. Islam was founded in a mercantile environment, and the Prophet Muhammad himself was a merchant. Unlike the medieval Christian Church, Islam did not frown on trade. The Qur’an includes many references to the permissibility of trade as an economic activity, such as: “Allah hath permitted trade and forbidden usury ...” (2: 275); “Behold! In the creation of the heavens and the earth; in the alternation of the night and the day; in the sailing of ships through the ocean for the profit of mankind ...” (2:164); “And the cattle hath He created.... they bear your loads for you unto a land you could not reach save with great difficulty to yourselves. Lo! Your Lord is full of pity, merciful” (16: 5–7). The khilafah established after Islamic expansion was founded and largely administered by people with experience as merchants. Therefore, from the beginning of Muslim society, the ideology and the state favored merchants, placing no obstacles to their material or social advancement. Having established mercantile expertise, Arabs, and later other Muslim merchants, took advantage of favorable conditions to increase their activities, wealth, and influence.

Trade Routes . Another factor that helped commerce was the location of southwest Asia as a link among the three continents of the Eastern Hemisphere. With the expansion of the khilafah, the most important trade routes of antiquity came under Muslim control, as well as regional trade networks—such as Mediterranean shipping lanes, the Red Sea, and the Persian Gulf routes that connected Europe, Africa, and Asia—and many ports, such as Basrah and Alexandria, which thrived on the international trade. Muslims also controlled overland routes, such as the silk roads that originated near Beijing and terminated in Anti-och, Syria. Finally, North African Muslim merchants traversed the Sahara to reach the gold-producing regions of West Africa and to trade with states such as Ghana and Mali, especially after the eleventh century. The Muslims’ extensive trade network combined with their religious and cultural motives to travel—such as the hajj and the search for knowledge and the bounty of Allah—to give merchants and their fellow travelers a primary role in the spread of Islam to areas that Muslim armies never reached, such as Southeast Asia and East and West Africa. Merchants were also largely responsible for the introduction and dissemination of many new plant species and crops. Mercantile activity was given a further boost when Sufis established their centers (zawiya) along trade routes to provide lodging and hospitality to merchants and their caravans. Rulers, governors, and other high officials built khans (hostels) in cities, and caravanserais (caravan staging and provisioning centers) on the outskirts of cities to facilitate commerce.

Trade Policies . From the beginning of the Islamic expansion, merchants were permitted to accompany Muslim armies, supplying soldiers with provisions or purchasing movable booty after battles ended. Encouraged to travel freely even during military campaigns, merchants were given protection and security as well as aman (safe conduct) to leave and enter Muslim domains. The Arab/Muslim expansion helped the merchants in two other ways: an enormous distribution of wealth and the resulting prosperity increased the buying power of the population and the rise of new Muslim cities, and an unprecedented growth of urbanization created ready markets to be supplied by merchants with locally produced goods or imported commodities. Merchants also benefited from state policies such as the standardization of coinage and the stabilization of the exchange rate between gold and silver. Such reforms, introduced by Umayyad khalifah Abd al-Malik (ruled 685–705), unified the markets stretching from Central Asia to Spain, making Muslim coinage one of the most widely accepted currencies during the period and allowing merchants to travel freely with the confidence that their merchandise would not lose value when transported from one region to another. Muslim merchants developed and disseminated many advanced mercantile practices, such as the use of a variety of partnerships, especially what came to be known in medieval Europe as the commenda, and the letter of credit, which acquired the name sakk, the root of the English word check. Many commercial practices based in Shari’ah, or Islamic law, were spread along the trade routes by Muslim merchants and influenced non-Muslim mercantile practices in Asia, Africa, and Europe. The commercial practice of double-entry bookkeeping using Arabic (Hindi) numerals led to their eclipse of Roman numerals in Europe.

Baghdad . The fact that the early centuries of the Abbasid khilafah are known as the golden age of Muslim civilization is largely because of the successful Muslim commercial activities that occurred after the revolution that brought the Abbasid rulers to power in 750. The building and layout of Baghdad, on which construction was completed in 762, is indicative of the enormous advantages provided to merchants. Tens of thousands of skilled workers and artisans were assembled for the enormous undertaking of building the government complex, the Round City, or Madinat al-Salaam, which was planned with the palace at the center surrounded by concentric rings of residences and streets lined with market arcades. During construction, forges were set up on the spot to mint coins with which the workers were paid on a daily basis. While bricks and mortar might be provided locally, much of the material that went into the construction was imported. Baghdad quickly became the most

important commercial center of the Abbasid khilafah. Its markets were constantly enlarged, and new ones were added to keep up with the consumer demands of the growing population. To safeguard the market, the Abbasids introduced the institution of the muhtasib, a market-regulation officer who was usually a respected individual from the ulama’ class and whose responsibilities included ensuring that proper weights and measures were used in transactions, that fair prices were charged by shopkeepers and merchants, and that the high quality of merchandise was maintained. Those who were found in violation were turned over to the police. During the heyday of Abbasid rule, merchants were not only influential in the economy but also played important roles in the interpretation of Islam. Many merchants became part of the ulama’ class, especially during the ninth century. Such power was especially evident during al-Ma’mun’s khilafah (813–833), since he supported Mu’tazila doctrines, which seemed to favor merchants and artisans. The influence of the Mu’tazila remained strong during the khilafahs of al-Mutasim (833–842) and al-Wathiq (842–847). Their near monopoly of state offices was broken only by al-Mutawakkil (847–861).

Foreign Competition . In the following centuries, commercial activities continued to flourish despite merchants’ loss of political influence. Muslims maintained uncontested

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mastery of the commerce of western Asia and the Indian Ocean. This situation began to change in the eleventh century, in tandem with the decline of agriculture, artisanal activity, and manufacturing. Political instability and fragmentation and regional conflicts (especially those involving fleets of ships) gradually took their toll, and Muslim merchants began to lose their earlier advantages. Competitors, especially merchants from prominent Italian city-states, began to challenge the Muslims in the eastern Mediterranean and North Africa, most notably during the Crusader era (1095–1191). This decline was countered, however, by the efforts of rulers such as Salah al-Din (ruled 1169–1193) and al-Zahir Baybars I (ruled 1260–1277) to revive trade. The Karimi merchants of Egypt, the first multinational, multireligious merchant association, attained a high degree of wealth and influence, often lending money to rulers and acting as emissaries on their behalf. Nonetheless, as competition increased—especially in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, when the Mongol successor states (tribal groups known as Aq Quyunlu and Qara Quyunlu) took over most of western Asia—trade routes had shifted northward (north of the Caspian and Black Seas), away from the traditional southern routes along the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea. To make this situation worse, the Mamluk rulers, hard-pressed for revenue, began to monopolize trade and fixed prices to their advantage, a practice that came to be known as tarh. During the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, Muslim merchants suffered greatly from foreign competition and the shortsighted policies of the Mamluks. With agriculture in decline and with Muslim manufactured goods declining in quality, merchants lost much of their previously undisputed power. This situation was exacerbated when the Portuguese mariner Vasco da Gama’s 1497–1499 exploration of the route around Africa to India was soon followed by voyages by other Europeans, who began to take control of the trade in the Indian Ocean and gained military control of access to the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf. During the following centuries Muslim merchants were able to regain some influence, but they were unable to halt the advance of European commercial success at their expense.


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