Muslim Agricultural Revolution: Wikis


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Arab Agricultural Revolution[1] and Medieval Green Revolution[2][3] Muslim Agricultural Revolution[4] or Islamic Green Revolution[5] are terms coined by the scholar Andrew Watson in his influential 1974 article postulating a fundamental transformation in agriculture in the period from 8th century to the 13th century in the Muslim lands.

Watson argued that the economy established by Arab and other Muslim traders across the Old World enabled the diffusion of many crops and farming techniques among different parts of the Islamic world, as well as the adaptation of crops and techniques from and to regions beyond the Islamic world. Crops from Africa such as sorghum, crops from China such as citrus fruits, and numerous crops from India such as mangos, rice, cotton and sugar cane, were distributed throughout Islamic lands, which, according to Watson, previously had not grown these crops.[1] Some writers have referred to the diffusion of numerous crops during this period as the "globalization of crops".[6] Watson argues that these introductions, along with an increased mechanization of agriculture, led to major changes in economy, population distribution, vegetation cover,[7] agricultural production and income, population levels, urban growth, the distribution of the labour force, linked industries, cooking, diet and clothing in the Islamic world.[1]

A recent study by Michael Decker (2009) challenges the notion of a Muslim revolution. Drawing on literary and archaeological evidence, Decker shows that, contrary to Watson' central thesis, widespread cultivation and consumption of staples such as durum wheat, Asiatic rice, and sorghum as well as cotton were already commonplace centuries before under the Roman Empire and Sassanid Empire, while at the same time arguing that their actual role in Islamic agriculture has often been exaggerated. Decker is of the opinion that the agricultural practices of Muslim cultivators did not fundamentally differ from those of pre-Islamic times, but that they rather evolved from the hydraulic know-how and 'basket' of agricultural plants inherited from their Roman and Persian predecessors.[8]


Age of discovery

During the Islamic Empire and the Islamic Golden Age, knowledge, trade and economies from many previously isolated regions and civilizations began integrating due to contacts with Muslim explorers, sailors, scholars, traders, and travelers. Some have called this period the "Pax Islamica" or "Afro-Asiatic age of discovery", in reference to the Muslim (as well as Jewish Radhanite) traders and explorers from Southwest Asia, Central Asia and North Africa who travelled most of the Old World, and established an early global economy[9] across most of Asia and Africa and much of Europe, with their trade networks extending from the Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea in the west to the Indian Ocean and China Sea in the east.[10] This helped establish the Islamic Empire (including the Rashidun, Umayyad, Abbasid and Fatimid caliphates) as the world's leading extensive economic power throughout the 7th-13th centuries.[9]

Agricultural innovations

Muslims widely practiced cash cropping[11] and the modern crop rotation system where land was cropped four or more times in a two-year period. Winter crops were followed by summer ones, and in some cases there were crops in between. In areas where plants of shorter growing season were used, such as spinach and eggplants, the land could be cropped three or more times a year. In parts of Yemen, wheat yielded two harvests a year on the same land, as did rice in Iraq.[1] Muslims developed a scientific approach based on three major elements; sophisticated systems of crop rotation, highly developed irrigation techniques, and the introduction of a large variety of crops which were studied and catalogued according to the season, type of land and amount of water they require. Numerous encyclopaedias on farming and botany were produced, with highly accurate precision and details.[12]

Advanced agricultural systems

As early as the 9th century, an essentially modern agricultural system became central to economic life and organization in the Arab caliphates, replacing the largely export driven Roman model. Cities of the Near East, North Africa, and Moorish Spain were supported by elaborate agricultural systems which included extensive irrigation based on knowledge of hydraulic and hydrostatic principles, some of which were continued from Roman times. In later centuries, Persian Muslims began to function as a conduit, transmitting cultural elements, including advanced agricultural techniques, into Turkic lands and western India. The Muslims introduced what was to become an agricultural revolution based on four key areas:

  • Development of a sophisticated system of irrigation using machines such as norias, water mills, windmills, water-raising machines, dams and reservoirs. With such technology they managed to greatly expand the exploitable land area. The water management technologies they used were assembled, standardized and subsequently diffused to the rest of the world (see Water management technological complex section below).[13]
  • The adoption of a scientific approach to farming enabled them to improve farming techniques derived from the collection and collation of relevant information throughout the whole of the known world.[12] Farming manuals were produced in every corner of the Muslim world detailing where, when and how to plant and grow various crops. Advanced scientific techniques allowed leaders like Ibn al-Baitar to introduce new crops and breeds and strains of livestock into areas where they were previously unknown.
  • Incentives based on a new approach to land ownership and labourers' rights, combining the recognition of private ownership and the rewarding of cultivators with a harvest share commensurate with their efforts. Their counterparts in Europe struggled under a feudal system in which they were almost slaves (serfs) with little hope of improving their lot by hard work.
  • The introduction of new crops transforming private farming into a new global industry exported everywhere,[1] including Europe, where farming was mostly restricted to wheat strains obtained much earlier via central Asia. Spain received what she in turn transmitted to the rest of Europe; many agricultural and fruit-growing processes, together with many new plants, fruit and vegetables. These new crops included sugar cane, rice, citrus fruit, apricots, cotton, artichokes, aubergines, and saffron. Others, previously known, were further developed. Muslims also brought to that country lemons, oranges, cotton, almonds, figs and sub-tropical crops such as bananas and sugar cane. Several were later exported from Spanish coastal areas to the Spanish colonies in the New World. Also transmitted via Muslim influence, a silk industry flourished, flax was cultivated and linen exported, and esparto grass, which grew wild in the more arid parts, was collected and turned into various articles.

Economic and social reforms

The caliphate understood that incentives were needed to increase productivity and wealth, thus enhancing tax revenues. Hence, they introduced a social transformation through the changed ownership of land,[4] where any individual of any gender[14] or any ethnic or religious background had the right to buy, sell, mortgage and inherit land for farming or any other purposes. They also introduced the signing of a contract for every major financial transaction concerning agriculture, industry, commerce, and employment. Copies of the contract were usually kept by both parties involved.[4]

The two types of economic systems that prompted agricultural development in the Islamic world were either politically-driven, by the conscious decisions of the central authority to develop under-exploited lands; or market-driven, involving the spread of advice, education, and free seeds, and the introduction of high value crops or animals to areas where they were previously unknown. These led to increased subsistence, a high level of economic security that ensured wealth for all citizens, and a higher quality of life due to the introduction of artichokes, spinach, aubergines, carrots, sugar cane, and various exotic plants; vegetables being available all year round without the need to dry them for winter; citrus and olive plantations becoming a common sight, market gardens and orchards springing up in every Muslim city; intense cropping and the technique of intensive irrigation agriculture with land fertility replacement; a major increase in animal husbandry; higher quality of wool and other clothing materials; and the introduction of selective breeding of animals from different parts of the Old World resulting in improved horse stocks and the best load-carrying camels.[4]

The Agricultural Revolution and improvements in medical care brought about an increase in the average life expectancy in lands under Islamic rule. In contrast to the average lifespan in the ancient Greco-Roman world (22–28 years),[15][16] the average lifespan in the early Islamic Caliphate was more than 35 years.[17] The average lifespans of the Islamic scholarly class in particular was much higher: 84.3 years in 10th-11th century Iraq ,[18] 72.8 years in the 11th century Middle East, 69–75 years in 11th century Islamic Spain,[19] 75 years in 12th century Persia,[20] and 59–72 years in 13th century Persia.[21] The Islamic Empire also experienced a growth in literacy, having the highest literacy rate of the Middle Ages, comparable to Athens' literacy in classical antiquity but on a larger scale.[22]


Hundreds of crops were diffused throughout the Islamic world and beyond as a result of the Muslim Agricultural Revolution, which allowed these crops to grow in regions where it was previously not possible. Some of these included artichokes, bananas, coconut palms, colocasia, cotton, eggplants, hard wheat, lemons, limes, mangos, plantains, rice, sorghum, sour oranges, spinach, sugar cane, and watermelons,[23] among hundreds of other crops.[4]

The production of some crops were transformed into large industries during the Muslim Agricultural Revolution. For example, sugar production was refined and transformed into a large-scale industry by the Arabs. They were responsible for the establishment of the sugar cane industry in the Mediterranean and experimentation in sugar cultivation.[24] The Arabs and Berbers subsequently diffused sugar throughout the Arab Empire from the 8th century onwards.[25]

Durum wheat

Durum wheat is thought to have originated in either Abyssinia or southern parts of the Mediterranean basin. Records show that it was in cultivation in Byzantine Egypt; there is not yet evidence, however, that it was grown elsewhere, as it is not mentioned in late classical works on farming, natural history, geography or medicine.[1]

With the rise of Islam, the crop diffused rapidly throughout the Middle East, the Maghreb of North Africa, and Muslim Spain. In some parts of the Muslim Mediterranean, durum was the only wheat grown. New varieties appeared in the Maghreb, Yemen and Central Asia.[1] The wheat was also grown by Muslims during their habitation of medieval Southern Italy, particularly at Lucera during the thirteenth century.[26] Durum was amongst the agricultural products that were exported from the Muslim world to the West.[27]

Several medieval Muslim authors referred to the grain, noting it for its durability:[1]

In his book, The government of Kings, Ibn Zafir [1117–1216] reports that the wheat of Maghrib could be stored for eighty years in silos, and then sown. The long period of storage increased its purity and quality.[28]

After the Mongol invasions, many Persian and Turkic recipes from the Muslim world were adapted in Chinese cuisine, some of which included durum as an ingredient. An example is the paste of gullach, today produced from beans, which was originally made from durum.[29]

Other innovations

Many other agricultural innovations were introduced by Muslim farmers and engineers, such as new forms of land tenure, improvements in irrigation, a variety of sophisticated irrigation methods,[30] the introduction of fertilizers and widespread artificial irrigation systems, the development of gravity-flow irrigation systems from rivers and springs,[3] the first uses of noria and chain pumps for irrigation purposes,[4] and numerous advances in industrial milling and water management technology (see Water management technological complex section below).

Agricultural sciences

During the Muslim Agricultural Revolution, Muslim scientists laid the foundations of agricultural science, which included significant advances in the fields of agronomy, astronomy, botany, earth science, environmental philosophy, and environmental science. In particular, the experimental scientific method was introduced into the field in the 13th century by the Andalusian-Arab botanist Abu al-Abbas al-Nabati, the teacher of Ibn al-Baitar. Al-Nabati introduced empirical techniques in the testing, description and identification of numerous materia medica, and he separated unverified reports from those supported by actual tests and observations.[31]

The earliest known work dedicated to the study of agriculture was Ibn Wahshiyya's Nabatean Agriculture, which also dealt with the related field of botany and was also an early cookbook. The early Arab lexicographs were the first known works to separate the two disciplines of agriculture and botany, though both were considered part of the medical sciences due to agriculture's primary role being to feed and botany's primary role being to heal. The agricultural sciences were known by the Arabic term filaha, which had a dual-meaning, to both care for the Earth and to take care of plants. Many of the early Islamic authors on botany were often philologists, due to their role in the translation of ancient scientific texts.[32] This was also the case with early Arabic zoology, like with al-Jahiz for example.

Al-Asma'i was the earliest known Arab biologist, botanist and zoologist; his works include the Book of Distinction, Book of the Wild Animals, Book of the Horse, and Book of the Sheep.


Muslim agriculturists demonstrated advanced agronomic, agrotechnical and economic knowledge in areas such as meteorology, climatology, hydrology, soil occupation, and the economy and management of agricultural enterprises. They also demonstrated agricultural knowledge in areas such as pedology, agricultural ecology, irrigation, preparation of soil, planting, spreading of manure, killing herbs, sowing, cutting trees, grafting, pruning vine], prophylaxis, phytotherapy, the care and improvement of microbiological cultures and plants, and the harvest and storage of crops.[33]

Ibn Wahshiyya's Nabatean Agriculture was an early Syriac work on agronomy and agriculture translated into Arabic by Washiyya who was a pagan of uncertain origin. The following eight chapters of the book are dedicated to water in the context of agriculture:[34]

  1. Research of water and related technical knowledge
  2. Digging wells and increasing their flow using proven artifices and techniques
  3. The drilling of wells
  4. Artifices used to increase water in a well
  5. Making water rise up a very deep well
  6. Augmenting the quantity of water in wells and sources
  7. Modifying and improving the taste of water
  8. "On the difference in nature and action of the water according to its position" close of far away "with regard to the ecliptic"

The Nabatean Agriculture then goes on to discuss a number of other complex issues on agriculture, including the management of an agricultural enterprise and the duties of the owner regarding his enterprise and workers; the official (wakil) in charge of the management of the enterprise, his obligation towards the farmer]s, and applying the instructions he receives from his boss; the weather forecasting of atmospheric changes and signs from the planetary astral alterations; signs of rain based on observation of the lunar phases, nature of thunder and lightning, direction of sunrise, behaviour of certain plants and animals, and weather forecasts based on the movement of winds; the recognition of plant tissue cultures which succeed in certain years; a list of work to be done in each month of year; the position of the moon relative to the Earth; the required knowledge of a farmer and the owner of an agricultural enterprise; pollenized air and winds; and formation of winds and vapours.[35]

Other agricultural topics discussed in the Nabatean Agriculture include the causes of the corruption of plants and of torrential rain; the nature of soils and their different flavours; the manure; how to get rid of bad herbs and how to cut plants which need to be cut; and a number of other agricultural topics.[35]

In 12th century al-Andalus, Ibn al-'Awwam al-Ishbili wrote the Kitab al-Filaha which synthesized his own agricultural knowledge with that of the Nabatean Agriculture and his other Arabic predecessors. This work also described 585 microbiological cultures, 55 of which concern fruit trees. This work was influential in Europe after it was translated into Spanish by Banqueri in Madrid in 1801 and into French by Clement-Mullet in Paris in 1864.[36]

Astronomy and meteorology

Another innovation during this period was the application of astronomy to agriculture and botany. As weather forecasting predictions and the measurement of time and the onset of seasons became more precise and reliable, farmers became informed of these advances and often employed them in agriculture. They also benefited from the compilation of calendars with information on when to plant each type of crop, when to graft trees, when and how to fertilize crops, when to harvest, and what to eat and what to avoid at each time of year. These advances made it possible for farmers to plan the growth of each of their crops for specific markets and at specific times of the year.[4]

Parts of al-Dinawari's Book of Plants deal with the applications of astronomy and meteorology to agriculture. It describes the astronomical and meteorological character of the sky, the planets and constellations, the sun and moon, the lunar phases indicating seasons and rain, the anwa (heavenly bodies of rain), and atmospheric phenomena such as winds, thunder, lightning, snow, floods, valleys, rivers, lakes, wells and other sources of water.[37]


Muslims developed a scientific approach to botany and agriculture based on three major elements: sophisticated systems of crop rotation, highly developed irrigation techniques, and the introduction of a large variety of crops which were studied and catalogued according to the season, type of land and amount of water they require. Numerous encyclopaedias on botany were produced, with highly accurate precision and details.[12]

The 9th century botanist al-Dinawari is considered the founder of Arabic botany. He wrote a botanical encyclopedia entitled Kitab al-Nabat (Book of Plants), which consisted of six volumes. Only the third and fifth volumes have survived, though the sixth volume has partly been reconstructed based on citations from later works. In the surviving portions of his works, 637 plants are described from the letters sin to ya. He also discusses plant evolution from its birth to its death, describing the phases of plant growth and the production of flowers and fruit.[37]

In the early 13th century, Ibn al-Baitar published the Kitab al-Jami fi al-Adwiya al-Mufrada, which is considered one of the greatest botanical compilations and pharmaceutical encyclopedias, and was a botanical authority for centuries.[38] It contains details on at least 1,400 different plants, foods, and drugs, 300 of which were his own original discoveries.[39] The Kitab al-Jami fi al-Adwiya al-Mufrada was also influential in Europe after it was translated into Latin in 1758,[38] where it was being used up until the early 19th century.[39]

Earth science

Abū Rayhān al-Bīrūnī was a universal genius who is regarded as the father of Indology, the father of geodesy, "the first anthropologist" and one of the first geologists.

Muslim scientists made a number of contributions to the earth sciences. Alkindus introduced experimentation into the Earth sciences.[40]

Parts of al-Dinawari's Book of Plants deals with the Earth sciences in the context of agriculture. He considers the Earth, stone and sands, and describes different types of ground, indicating which types are more convenient for plants and the qualities and properties of good ground.[37]

Biruni is considered the father of geodesy for his important contributions to the field,[41][42] along with his significant contributions to geography and geology. John J. O'Connor and Edmund F. Robertson write in the MacTutor History of Mathematics archive:

"Important contributions to geodesy and geography were also made by al-Biruni. He introduced techniques to measure the earth and distances on it using triangulation. He found the radius of the earth to be 6339.6 km, a value not obtained in the West until the 16th century. His Masudic canon contains a table giving the coordinates of six hundred places, almost all of which he had direct knowledge."[43]

In geology, Avicenna hypothesized on two causes of mountains in The Book of Healing. In cartography, the Piri Reis map drawn by the Ottoman cartographer Piri Reis in 1513, was one of the earliest world maps to include the Americas, and perhaps the first to include Antarctica. His map of the world was considered the most accurate in the 16th century.

Environmental philosophy

Perhaps due to resource scarcity in most Islamic nations, there was an emphasis on limited (and some claim also sustainable) use of natural capital, i.e. producing land. Traditions of haram and hima and early urban planning were expressions of strong social obligations to stay within carrying capacity and to preserve the natural environment as an obligation of khalifa or "stewardship".[44]

Muhammad is considered a pioneer of environmentalism for his teachings on environmental preservation. His hadiths on agriculture and environmental philosophy were compiled in the "Book of Agriculture" of the Sahih Bukhari, which included the following saying:[44]

"There is none amongst the believers who plants a tree, or sows a seed, and then a bird, or a person, or an animal eats thereof, but it is regarded as having given a charitable gift [for which there is great recompense]."[45]

Several such statements concerning the environment are also found in the Qur'an, such as the following:[46]

"And there is no animal in the earth nor bird that flies with its two wings, but that they are communities like yourselves."[47]

Environmental science

The earliest known treatises dealing with environmentalism and environmental science, especially pollution, were Arabic medical treatises written by al-Kindi, Qusta ibn Luqa, al-Razi, Ibn Al-Jazzar, al-Tamimi, al-Masihi, Avicenna, Ali ibn Ridwan, Ibn Jumay, Isaac Israeli ben Solomon, Abd-el-latif, Ibn al-Quff, and Ibn al-Nafis. Their works covered a number of subjects related to pollution such as air pollution, water pollution, soil contamination, municipal solid waste mishandling, and environmental impact assessments of certain localities.[48] Cordoba, al-Andalus also had the first waste containers and waste disposal facilities for litter collection.[49]


Further information: Early Islamic philosophy: Evolution and Islamic medicine

In the zoology field of biology, Muslim biologists developed theories on evolution and natural selection which were widely taught in medieval Islamic schools. John William Draper, a contemporary of Charles Darwin, considered the "Mohammedan theory of evolution" to be developed "much farther than we are disposed to do, extending them even to inorganic or mineral things." According to al-Khazini, ideas on evolution were widespread among "common people" in the Islamic world by the 12th century.[50]

The first Muslim biologist to develop a theory on evolution was al-Jahiz (781-869). He wrote on the effects of the environment on the likelihood of an animal to survive, and he first described the struggle for existence and an early form of natural selection.[51][52] Al-Jahiz was also the first to discuss food chains,[53] and was also an early adherent of environmental determinism, arguing that the environment can determine the physical characteristics of the inhabitants of a certain community and that the origins of different human skin colors is the result of the environment.[54]

Ibn al-Haytham wrote a book in which he argued for evolutionism (although not natural selection), and numerous other Islamic scholars and scientists, such as Ibn Miskawayh, the Brethren of Purity, al-Khazini, Abū Rayhān al-Bīrūnī, Nasir al-Din Tusi, and Ibn Khaldun, discussed and developed these ideas. Translated into Latin, these works began to appear in the West after the Renaissance and appear to have had an impact on Western science.

Ibn Miskawayh's al-Fawz al-Asghar and the Brethren of Purity's Encyclopedia of the Brethren of Purity (The Epistles of Ikhwan al-Safa) expressed evolutionary ideas on how species evolved from matter, into vapor, and then water, then minerals, then plants, then animals, then apes, and then humans. These works were known in Europe and likely had an influence on Darwinism.[55]

Water management technological complex

In much the same way the Neolithic 'toolkit' or 'technological complex' was central to the Neolithic Revolution,[56] a 'water management technological complex' was similarly central to the Islamic Green Revolution and,[5] by extension, a precondition for the emergence of modern technology.[57] The various components of this toolkit were developed in different parts of the Afro-Eurasia landmass, both within and beyond the Islamic world. However, it was in the medieval Islamic lands where the technological complex was assembled and standardized, and subsequently diffused to the rest of the Old World.[58]

Under the rule of a single Islamic Caliphate, different regional hydraulic technologies were assembled into "an identifiable water management technological complex that was to have a global impact." The various components of this complex included canals, dams, the qanat system from Persia, regional water-lifting devices such as the noria, shaduf and screwpump from Egypt, and the windmill from Afghanistan.[58] Other original Islamic developments included the saqiya with a flywheel effect from Islamic Spain,[59] the reciprocating suction pump[60][61][62] and crankshaft-connecting rod mechanism from Iraq,[63][64] the geared and hydropowered water supply system from Syria,[65] and the distilled water and water purification methods of Muslim chemists.[66][67]

The knowledge of these regional hydrualic technologies were applied by Muslim engineers to different regions throughout the Caliphate and their unique regional contexts. For example, in order to apply the qanat system in Morocco, Muslim engineers tapped into underground aquifers in the Sahara. This made possible the expansion of Sijilmasa, "which became the northern entrepôt for the trans-Saharan gold trade." The Muslims similarly brought the technological complex to Islamic Spain and applied it to the unique regional context of that region. Thomas F. Glick notes that the "Arabs and Berbers did not bring canals, qanats, dams or norias with them; they only brought ideas. In assessing the hydraulic technologies .... therefore, the physical origin of canals is irrelevant: whatever the Muslims found they integrated into a quite different social, cultural and economic system than that prevailing before, according to norms they brought with them."[58]

Edmund Burke notes: "The diffusion of the water management complex throughout Dar al-Islam was encouraged both by the deliberate policy of Islamic governments and by private landowners through the establishment of royal gardens and the diffusion of agricultural manuals and seed stock." According to Andrew Watson, "the diffusion of new crops and technologies led to increased yields, new crop rotations, the expansion of the area under cultivation, and especially the emergence of a new agricultural growing season (summer) for irrigated crops." He also noted "a sharp demographic increase, marked by the founding of new cities and the restoration of old ones and the growth of peasant populations." These were "the result of the systematic extension of the water management technological complex (which included the knowledge of new crops, as well as the crops themselves and their requirements)." The water management technological package compiled in the Islamic world was subsequently diffused into East Asia, South Asia, Southeast Asia, parts of Africa, and early modern Europe where it was "vital in shaping the environment" there. The hydraulic knowledge of Venice and the Low Countries for example, "drew heavily upon the water management technological package that had been assembled" in the Islamic world. According to Burke, the "dyking of the Dutch coast and inland marshes as well as the damming of the Rhine and the Po river systems owed much to this source."[5]

The water management technological complex was later also brought from Spain to the Americas.[68] An Islamic influence can be traced in the water systems of places such as Mexico, San Antonio, the southwestern United States, and Peru's puquios system.[69]

Civil engineering

Many dams, acequia and qanat water supply systems, and "Tribunal of Waters" irrigation systems, were built during the Islamic Golden Age and are still in use today in the Islamic world and in formerly Islamic regions of Europe such as Sicily and the Iberian Peninsula, particularly in the Andalusia, Aragon and Valencia provinces of Spain. The Arabic systems of irrigation and water distribution were later adopted in the Canary Islands and Americas due to the Spanish and are still used in places like Texas, Mexico, Peru, and Chile.[25]

Muslim cities also had advanced domestic water systems with sewers, public baths, drinking fountains, piped drinking water supplies,[70] and widespread private and public toilet and bathing facilities.[71] Islamic cities also had an early public health care service. "The extraordinary provision of public bath-houses, complex sanitary systems of drainage (more extensive even than the famous Roman infrastructures), fresh water supplies, and the large and sophisticated urban hospitals, all contributed to the general health of the population."[72]

Large amounts of water were required in medieval Islamic towns and cities, for a variety of purposes, including drinking and domestic purposes, industrial uses such as textiles, and public baths and fountains. The water was usually stored in a cistern, from where it flowed through underground conduits, canals and qanats into residences, public and private estates, public buildings, mosques, gardens, fountains, and public baths.[73] According to a count in 993, there were 1,500 public baths in Baghdad alone.[74] Whatever surplus of water remained flowed out of the city into the irrigation system.[73]

In the 10th century, Al-Muqaddasi described several dams in Persia. He reported that one in Ahwaz was more than 3,000 feet long,[75] and had many water-wheels raising the water into aqueducts through which it flowed into reservoirs of the city.[73] Another dam, the Band-i-Amir, provided irrigation for 300 villages.[75]

Industrial milling

The industrial uses of watermills in the Islamic world date back to the 7th century, while horizontal-wheeled and vertical-wheeled water mills were both in widespread use since at least the 9th century, alongside the first windmills. A variety of industrial mills were used in the Islamic world, including mechanical fulling mills, gristmills, hullers, sawmills, shipmills, stamp mills, steel mills, sugar mills and tide mills. By the 11th century, every province throughout the Islamic world had these industrial mills in operation, from Al-Andalus and North Africa to the Middle East and Central Asia.[76] Some medieval Islamic compartmented water wheels could lift water as high as 30 meters.[77] Muslim engineers also invented water turbines, first employed gears in mills and water-raising machines, and pioneered the use of dams as a source of water power, used to provide additional power to watermills and water-raising machines.[25] In contrast to other civilizations where water mills were largely owned by either the state or the elite classes, such as in China or Christian Europe, the majority of watermills in Islamic lands such as Al-Andalus were instead owned by communities of peasant farmers.[78]

Muslim engineers pioneered several solutions to achieve the maximum output from a watermill. One solution was to mount them to piers of bridges to take advantage of the increased flow. Another solution was the ship mill, a unique type of water mill powered by water wheels mounted on the sides of ships moored in midstream. This was employed along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in 10th century Iraq, where large shipmills made of teak and iron could produce 10 tonnes of flour from corn every day for the granary in the city of Baghdad.[60] This was enough to provide for 25,000 people, which was essential considering Baghdad's estimated population of 1.5 million at the time. In the 12th century, the use of ship mills was extended for use as a dam. For example, Ibn Jubair in 1183 described ship-mills across the Khabur River "forming, as it were, a dam."[79]

In Persia, horizontal watermills "were situated in front of dams so that water could be conducted from the back of the dam through a large pipe to drive the waterwheel."[80] In Islamic Spain, watermills "were located on the main canals of valley-floor irrigation systems."[81] Another innovation that was unique to the Islamic world includes the situation of watermills in the underground irrigation tunnels of a qanat and on the main canals of valley-floor irrigation systems. Industrial water mills were also employed in the first large factory complexes built in Al-Andalus between the 11th and 13th centuries.[82]

One of the most striking Islamic innovations in milling technology was the windmill. The earliest certain evidence for it is from the 10th century,[83] though there is some evidence that it was built in Sistan, Afghanistan, from the 7th century. These were invariably vertical axle windmills, which had long vertical driveshafts with rectangle shaped blades.[84] Made of six to twelve sails covered in reed matting or cloth material, these windmills were used to grind corn and pump water, and were used in the gristmilling and sugarcane industries.[85] Windmills were in widespread use across the Middle East and Central Asia, and later spread to India and China from there.[60]

After paper was introduced into the Islamic world by Chinese prisoners following the Battle of Talas, Muslims made significant improvements to papermaking which was found in Baghdad, Iraq, as early as 794. Papermaking was transformed from an art into a major industry as a result.[86] Early Islamic societies made early use of pulp mills in order to prepare pulp for the paper making process.[87] The first fulling mills were later invented in the 10th century, followed by the first stamp mills and steel mills in the 11th century.[88]

The first gristmills were invented by Muslim engineers in the Islamic world, and were used for grinding corn and other seeds to produce meals, and many other industrial uses such as fulling cloth, husking rice, papermaking, pulping sugarcane, and crushing metallic ores before extraction. Gristmills in the Islamic world were often made from both watermills and windmills. In order to adapt water wheels for gristmilling purposes, cams were used for raising and releasing trip hammers to fall on a material.[60] The first water turbine, which had water wheels with curved blades onto which water flow was directed axially, was also first invented in the Islamic world, and was described in a 9th century Arabic text for use in a watermill.[60] Water turbines were widely employed for small watermills in rural areas of the Islamic world, particularly in mountainous regions.[83]

Mechanical technology

Noria, saqiya and chain pump machines became more widespread during the Muslim Agricultural Revolution, when Muslim engineers made a number of improvements to these devices.[3] These include the first uses of noria and chain pumps for irrigation purposes,[4] and the invention of the flywheel mechanism, used to smooth out the delivery of power from a driving device to a driven machine, which was first invented by Ibn Bassal (fl. 1038–75) of Al-Andalus, who pioneered the use of the flywheel in the saqiya and noria.[59] Muhammad ibn Zakariya al-Razi's Kitab al-Hawi in the 10th century described a noria in Iraq that could lift as much as 153,000 litres per hour, or 2550 litres per minute. This is comparable to the output of modern Norias in East Asia which can lift up to 288,000 litres per hour, or 4800 litres per minute. The book also describes the output of a saqiya with a 5-meter height in Iraq as 22,000 litres per hour. The spiral scoop wheel, which first appeared in the Islamic world no later than the 12th century, was more efficient, with an output of up to 114,000 litres per hour for a 30-centimeter lift.[89]

In 1206, Al-Jazari invented a variety of machines for raising water, which were the most efficient in his time, as well as water wheels with cams on their axle used to operate automata. He employed an early crankshaft-connecting rod system for two of these water-raising machines,[63][64] one of them being an early double-action reciprocating suction pump with valves.[60][61][62] He also employed a crankshaft in a saqiya chain pump and minimized the intermittent working for it.[90] He also developed an early water supply system driven by gears and hydropower, which was built in 13th century Damascus to supply water to its mosques and Bimaristan hospitals. The system had water from a lake turn a scoop-wheel and a system of gears which transported jars of water up to a water channel that led to mosques and hospitals in the city.[65]

Capitalist market economy

An early form of merchant capitalism took root between the 8th–12th centuries in the Caliphate, which some refer to as "Islamic capitalism".[91] A vigorous monetary economy was created on the basis of the expanding levels of circulation of a stable high-value currency (the dinar) and the integration of monetary areas that were previously independent.

The economic structure incorporated a range of business techniques and forms of business organisation including contracts, bills of exchange, long-distance international trade, forms of partnership (mufawada) such as limited partnerships (mudaraba), and forms of credit, debt, profit, loss, capital (al-mal), capital accumulation (nama al-mal),[11] circulating capital, capital expenditure, revenue, cheques, promissory notes,[92] trusts and charitable trusts (see Waqf), savings accounts, transactional accounts, pawning, loaning, exchange rates, bankers, money changers, ledgers, deposits, assignments, the double-entry bookkeeping system,[93] and lawsuits.[94] Organizational enterprises similar to corporations independent from the state also existed in the medieval Islamic world, while the agency and aval institutions (see Hawala) was also introduced.[95][96] Many of these early capitalist concepts were adopted and further advanced in medieval Europe from the 13th century onwards.[11]

Industrial development

Muslim engineers in the Islamic world were responsible for numerous innovative industrial uses of hydropower, early industrial uses of tidal power, wind power, fossil fuels such as petroleum, and early large factory complexes (tiraz in Arabic).[97] Such advances made it possible for many industrial tasks that were previously driven by manual labour in ancient times to be mechanized and driven by machinery instead in the medieval Islamic world. The transfer of these technologies to medieval Europe later laid the foundations for the Industrial Revolution in 18th century Europe.[76]

Many industries were generated due to the Muslim Agricultural Revolution, including early industries for agribusiness, astronomical instruments, ceramics, chemicals, distillation technologies, clocks, glass, mechanical hydropowered and wind powered machinery, matting, mosaics, pulp and paper, perfumery, petroleum, pharmaceuticals, rope-making, shipping, shipbuilding, silk, sugar, textiles, weapons, and the mining of minerals such as sulfur, ammonia, lead and iron]. The first large factory complexes (tiraz) were built for many of these industries. Knowledge of these industries were later transmitted to medieval Europe, especially during the Latin translations of the 12th century, as well as before and after. For example, the first glass factories in Europe were founded in the 11th century by Egyptian craftsmen in Greece.[98] The agricultural and handicraft industries also experienced high levels of growth during this period.[10]

Labour force

The labor force in the caliphate were employed from diverse ethnic and religious backgrounds, while both men and women were involved in diverse occupations and economic activities.[99] Women were employed in a wide range of commercial activities and diverse occupations[100] in the primary sector (as farmers for example), secondary sector (as construction workers, dyers, spinners, etc.) and tertiary sector (as investors, doctors, nurses, presidents of guilds, brokers, peddlers, lenders, scholars, etc.).[101] Muslim women also held a monopoly over certain branches of the textile industry,[100] the largest and most specialized and market-oriented industry at the time, in occupations such as spinning, dying, and embroidery. In comparison, female property rights and wage labour were relatively uncommon in Europe until the Industrial Revolution in the 18th and 19th centuries.[102]

The division of labour was diverse and had been evolving over the centuries. During the 8th–11th centuries, there were on average 63 unique occupations in the primary sector of economic activity (extractive), 697 unique occupations in the secondary sector (manufacturing), and 736 unique occupations in the tertiary sector (service). By the 12th century, the number of unique occupations in the primary sector and secondary sector decreased to 35 and 679 respectively, while the number of unique occupations in the tertiary sector increased to 1,175. These changes in the division of labour reflect the increased mechanization and use of machinery to replace manual labour and the increased standard of living and quality of life of most citizens in the Caliphate.[103]

An economic transition occurred during this period, due to the diversity of the service sector being far greater than any other previous or contemporary society, and the high degree of economic integration between the labour force and the economy. Islamic society also experienced a change in attitude towards manual labour. In previous civilizations such as ancient Greece and in contemporary civilizations such as early medieval Europe, intellectuals saw manual labour in a negative light and looked down on them with contempt. This resulted in technological stagnation as they did not see the need for machinery to replace manual labour. In the Islamic world, however, manual labour was seen in a far more positive light, as intellectuals such as the Brethren of Purity likened them to a participant in the act of creation, while Ibn Khaldun alluded to the benefits of manual labour to the progress of society.[100]


There was a significant increase in urbanization during this period, due to numerous scientific advances in fields such as agriculture, hygiene, sanitation, astronomy, medicine and engineering.[4] This also resulted in a rising middle class population.[104]

As urbanization increased, Muslim cities grew unregulated, resulting in narrow winding city streets and neighborhoods separated by different ethnic backgrounds and religious affiliations. These qualities proved efficient for transporting goods to and from major commercial centers while preserving the privacy valued by Islamic family life. Suburbs lay just outside the walled city, from wealthy residential communities, to working class semi-slums. City garbage dumps were located far from the city, as were clearly defined cemeteries which were often homes for criminals. A place of prayer was found just near one of the main gates, for religious festivals and public executions. Similarly, Military Training grounds were found near a main gate.

While varying in appearance due to climate and prior local traditions, Islamic cities were almost always dominated by a merchant middle class. Some peoples' loyalty towards their neighborhood was very strong, reflecting ethnicity and religion, while a sense of citizenship was at times uncommon (but not in every case). The extended family provided the foundation for social programs, business deals, and negotiations with authorities. Part of this economic and social unit were often the tenants of a wealthy landlord.

State power normally focused on Dar al Imara, the governor's office in the citadel. These fortresses towered high above the city built on thousands of years of human settlement. The primary function of the city governor was to provide for defence and to maintain legal order. This system would be responsible for a mixture of autocracy and autonomy within the city. Each neighborhood, and many of the large tenement blocks, elected a representative to deal with urban authorities. These neighborhoods were also expected to organize their young men into a militia providing for protection of their own neighborhoods, and as aid to the professional armies defending the city as a whole.

The head of the family was given the position of authority in his household, although a qadi, or judge was able to negotiate and resolve differences in issues of disagreements within families and between them. The two senior representatives of municipal authority were the qadi and the muhtasib, who held the responsibilities of many issues, including quality of water, maintenance of city streets, containing outbreaks of disease, supervising the markets, and a prompt burial of the dead.

Another aspect of Islamic urban life was waqf, a religious charity directly dealing with the qadi and religious leaders. Through donations, the waqf owned many of the public baths and factories, using the revenue to fund education, and to provide irrigation for orchards outside the city. Following expansion, this system was introduced into Eastern Europe by Ottoman Turks.

While religious foundations of all faiths were tax exempt in the Muslim world, civilians paid their taxes to the urban authorities, soldiers to the superior officer, and landowners to the state treasury. Taxes were also levied on an unmarried man until he was wed. Instead of zakat, the mandatory charity required of Muslims, non-Muslims were required to pay the jizya, a discriminatory religious tax, imposed on Christians and Jews. During the Muslim Conquests of the 7th and 8th centuries conquered populations were given the three choices of either converting to Islam, paying the jizya, or dying by the sword.

Animals brought to the city for slaughter were restricted to areas outside the city, as were any other industries seen as unclean. The more valuable a good was, the closer its market was to the center of town. Because of this, booksellers and goldsmiths clustered around the main mosque at the heart of the city.

By the 10th century, Cordoba had 700 mosques, 60,000 palaces, and 70 libraries, the largest of which had 600,000 books, while as many as 60,000 treatises, poems, polemics and compilations were published each year in al-Andalus.[105] The library of Cairo had more than 100,000 books, while the library of Tripoli is said to have had as many as three million books. The number of important and original Arabic works on science that have survived is much larger than the combined total of Greek and Latin works on science.[106]


A recent study by Michael Decker (2009) challenges the notion of a revolution. While acknowledging the important contribution of Islamic agricultural practices to world farming, he argues that "the Islamic introduction of agronomic techniques and materials was not as widespread, as consistent, nor as deeply applied as the Green Revolution proposes."[107] Decker demonstrates that Watson's main thesis, namely that the staples of durum wheat, Asiatic rice and sorghum as well as cotton were introduced only in the Muslim era cannot longer be uphold.[108] In fact, ample archaeological and literary evidence demonstrates that all these crops were already widely cultivated and consumed in the Roman Empire and Sassanid empire where they had been forming for centuries prior to the arrival of Muslim forces an integral part of peoples' diet.[109] Cotton and rice played a much more important economic role of in the Sassanid realm than under later Abbasid rule (8th to 13th centuries).[110] In the Abbasid heartland of Mesopotamia, Islamic work appears to be restricted to renovation work of the irrigation system which had peaked in the pre-Islamic times, and a similar dependence on the Roman hydraulic infrastructure can be observed for Muslim Spain.[111] Decker concludes that Islamic farming techniques did not constitute not a fundamental break from the past, but rather represented an evolution of Roman and Persian agriculture which the Muslim cultivators inherited and on which they heavily drew:[112]

For decades, in large part based on Watson’s provocative work, scholars have uncritically pointed to the Islamic Green Revolution as one of the major gifts the Islamic world bequeathed to Europe and thence to much of the world. The contributions of the medieval Islamic agriculturists are certainly impressive. But a growing body of evidence for pre-Islamic diffusion of key agrarian techniques, tools, and crops challenges the basic assumption of rapid and deep changes in Muslim agricultural practice. Rather, it appears that the pre- and post-Islamic Middle East and Mediterranean landscape were far more similar to one another than is often recognized. Islamic farming structures were built atop earlier Roman and Persian landscapes: these were usurped rather than swept away.

E. Ashtor has argued that agricultural production declined significantly in many areas brought under Muslim rule in the Middle Ages, including areas in modern day Iraq (Mesopotamia) and Egypt, based on records of taxes collected on cultivated area.[113]


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  • Hill, Donald Routledge (1993), Islamic Science And Engineering, Edinburgh University Press, ISBN 0-7486-0455-3 
  • Lucas, Adam (2006), Wind, Water, Work: Ancient and Medieval Milling Technology, Brill Publishers, ISBN 9004146490 
  • Morelon, Régis; Rashed, Roshdi (1996), Encyclopedia of the History of Arabic Science, 3, Routledge, ISBN 0-415-12410-7 
  • Sarton, George (March 29, 1950) [1951], The Incubation of Western Culture in the Middle East, A George C. Keiser Foundation Lecture, Washington DC 
  • Shatzmiller, Maya (1994), Labour in the Medieval Islamic World, Brill Publishers, ISBN 90-04-09896-8 
  • Watson, Andrew, Agricultural innovation in the early Islamic world, Cambridge University Press 
  • Decker, Michael : "Plants and Progress: Rethinking the Islamic Agricultural Revolution", Journal of World History, Vol. 20, No. 2 (2009), pp. 187–206

See also

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