The Muslim Agricultural Revolution

views updated

The Muslim Agricultural Revolution


Agricultural Technology . Some historians have called the diffusion of new crops and agricultural methods to the West through Muslim Spain an agricultural revolution because they had a major impact not only on agricultural production but also on incomes, population levels, urban growth, distribution of labor, industrial output, clothing, cooking, and diet. Moreover, agricultural technologies Muslims took to Spain eventually reached the New World. As many as 40 percent of the Spanish immigrants to South and Central America between 1493 and 1600 were from Andalusia (Muslim Spain), and they took with them their crops and irrigation technology. The most important of these crops were sukker (sugar) and qutn (cotton), which became two of the most prominent “cash crops” in the world during the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance. (Cotton may have been taken to the Americas from Asia in antiquity, or there may be indigenous varieties because the inhabitants of the Americas were already cultivating and weaving cotton when the first Europeans arrived.) When the resources of the New World were combined with plants and technologies from the Old World, the global economy was vastly expanded. Cash crops are grown for export, not for local consumption, and these crops can be highly profitable to those who grow them, particularly if a cheap labor force is available. As the cultivation of popular new crops spread around the world, the European craving for products such as sugar, coffee, indigo dyes, and cotton also brought an increase in slavery.

Coffee . The first cultivation of coffee has been traced to about 1100 in the area of Arabia along the Red Sea. Though this variety is classified as Coffea Arabica, botanical evidence indicates that it was discovered around 850 on the plateaus of central Ethiopia, several thousand feet above sea level. There are several legends about a shepherd who noticed his goats behaving in a strange manner after eating the red coffee beans. According to one legend, he took some of the beans to his village, where everyone liked the way the berries kept them awake during prayer. Initially, coffee was brewed from green unroasted beans, which created a beverage similar to tea. The great Persian physician Ibn Sina (980-1037) is known to have administered coffee as a medical treatment. By the thirteenth century Arabs were roasting and brewing the beans to make coffee and using it as a beverage as well as for medicinal purposes. Large-scale cultivation of the coffee bean was rare until the fifteenth century, when extensive orchards were planted in Yemen. From there the plant spread throughout the Arabian peninsula and into the Ottoman Empire of Turkey. One of the earliest documented coffee shops is the Kiva Han, which opened in Constantinople in 1475, but there were probably earlier coffee shops on the Arabian peninsula. Coffea Arabica became so popular that laws were passed to forbid anyone from exporting fertile coffee plants to non-Muslim regions. This law, of course, was unenforceable. When coffee became popular in Europe, many fortunes were made by exporting it from ports such as Alexandria, Egypt.

Citrus Fruits . The earliest citrus fruits were rather bitter and considered undesirable for human consumption. The flowering trees that produced these fruits first appeared in Southeast Asia and India, and the modern versions of oranges, lemons, and limes probably evolved naturally by insect cross-pollination in China, which had a wide range of citrus varieties. As early as 4000 B.C.E. the domestic cultivation of lemons, limes, and oranges was occurring at several sites in China, India, and Malaysia. These new hybrid fruits spread westward through trade and were well known in the Mediterranean region before the time of Christ. Sweet oranges were depicted on a mausoleum erected by the Byzantine emperor Constan-tine I in the fourth century. During the Middle Ages, Arab traders introduced many new varieties of citrus fruits to Europe, where lemons, limes, and oranges were once so rare that they were given to children as Christmas gifts. Eventually Spain became well known for gardens that included citrus trees. Citrus became important during the Age of Exploration (1400-1700), when ship captains learned that these fruits could prevent outbreaks of scurvy, a disease caused by lack of vitamin C.

Cotton . An important Muslim fiber crop, cotton probably originated in India or Egypt, both of which have a long history of cultivation and weaving of cotton fabrics. During pre-Islamic times it spread to China and—via the Indian Ocean maritime trade—as far as East Africa. Muslims developed a stronger, higher-yielding variety of cotton, which was disseminated by traders, facilitating the economic development of Muslim regions and stimulating a vast industry that produced many kinds of textiles. When this variety of cotton was grafted to the cotton discovered in the New World, the result was a stronger variety with longer fibers. This new cash crop became one of the greatest sources of the income that supported European colonization and economic growth in the Americas.

Dyes . As cotton cultivation spread, the production of dyes also became important. Indigo, a blue dye obtained from the leaves of a plant that originated in India, spread to Muslim lands, where it was cultivated in Persia, Egypt, and Morocco. Indigo-dyed textiles have been found in Roman graves of the second and third centuries. Indigo dye became so valuable that imitations were developed in Europe, leading indigo traders to produce pamphlets explaining how to test fabrics for “true blue,” an expression still in use today. Another highly valued dye was the brilliant red hue that came from crushing female cochineal insects found on grasses in Persia and Armenia. Because of its high price, other cheaper and less brilliant reds were later produced from cochineal insects found growing on cacti in Mexico and the Andes Mountains of South America.

Sugarcane . A high-yield staple crop, sugar owes much of its dissemination to Islamic technology. The cultivation of sugarcane was introduced to Persia from India shortly after the Muslim conquest at Nihavand in 642. Sugar cultivation followed the spread of Muslim rule from Persia across North Africa to Muslim Sicily and Spain, and from Spain to the Atlantic islands off the coast of southern Europe, reaching the Canary Islands by the 1500s. It also traveled east, reaching China. According to Marco Polo, Egyptian sugar technicians were brought to China so they could teach the people of Fuk-ien Province how to refine the crop.

Sugar Plantations . The high level of technology needed to irrigate sugarcane and refine the sugar made it difficult for small, independent farmers to produce and process this crop, and throughout the Muslim Mediterranean region sugar production became controlled by large, state-owned farms and factories. The sugarcane was broken and peeled on the farm and then transported to the refinery, which processed it into various forms. Sugar was the earliest cash crop grown in the New World. On his second voyage Columbus took sugarcane to the West Indies, where it thrived, and the Spanish introduced the production of sugarcane to the Caribbean island of Hispaniola in 1517, providing labor by importing slaves from West Africa and thus stimulating the African slave trade.


Ahmad Y. al-Hassan and Donald R. Hill, Islamic Technology: An Illustrated History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press / Paris: Unesco, 1987).

Paul Lunde, “Muslims and Muslim Technology in the New World,” Aramco World, 43 (May-June 1992): 38-41.

Andrew M. Watson, Agricultural Innovation in the Early Islamic World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983).

About this article

The Muslim Agricultural Revolution

Updated About content Print Article