Agriculture in Muslim civilisation : A Green Revolution in Pre-Modern Times

The period from the 9th century to the 13th century witnessed a fundamental transformation in agriculture that can be characterized as the Islamic green revolution in pre-modern times. The economy established in the Arab and Islamic world enabled the diffusion of many crops and farming techniques as well as the adaptation of crops and techniques from and to regions beyond the Islamic world. These introductions, along with an increased mechanization of agriculture, led to major changes in economy, population distribution, vegetation cover, agricultural production and income, population levels, urban growth, the distribution of the labour force, linked industries, cooking, diet and clothing in the Islamic world. This article presents a survey on those issues and others, such as agricultural machinery water Management and farming manuals.

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Figure 1. A page from "Kitab al-Diryak. Selciukide/Seljuq Art - See Figure 4 for full page view (Source


Figure 2. Arabic botanical treatise © Princeton University Library (Source)

This author, just as any person enthusiastic about Islamic civilisation, particularly in the particular field of this article, has to take note one of the best news of recent times, the arrival of an organisation named Filaha: www.filaha.org. This organisation and what it does, available on the internet, is by very far one of the best things in the field to emerge in recent times so good is its output. It truly cuts down the efforts of any scholar interested in the subject. The quality of information especially on Islamic manuscripts dealing with farming is first class. One of course is not going to try and reproduce what Filaha conveys to us, unless one just cuts and pastes the whole site, and that will be it. For anyone, it is simply better to browse through the Filaha webs-site, and glean all that one wishes to glean directly. Readers of the article by this author only need to pick on such matters that the Filaha project people did not deal with, such as in in the first heading (dealing with matters of distortions, and the final headings in part 2, matters at which this author excels).

In the Introduction of the Filaha project we have a map highlighting the Andalusi school of agronomy which is as simple as informative. The picture of the Tribunal of Waters sitting at the door of the Cathedral is so simple an image, and yet powerful, a true symbol of the dialogue of civilisations, and this excellent part of the caption referring to the tribunal:

Probably the oldest extant democratic institution in Europe, the Tribunal of the Waters is thought to have originated in the 10th century under the caliph Abd al-Rahman III. Each Thursday, the court, elected from among the irrigators themselves, meets outside the Door of the Apostles of the Cathedral of Valencia (the site of the old mosque) to settle disputes and discuss matters concerning irrigation in the Vega."

The site has also a full list of Muslim scholars involved in the subject and countless other pieces of information, which is pointless for us to dwell on here. In words, for any person reading this article, switch to Filaha.org at any moment you can.

This being said, we cannot fail to refer to the scholar who single handeldy revived interest in Muslim farming: Professor Andrew Watson of Toronto.[1] We can safely say that without him, much of what we know, if not nearly everything we know about Muslim farming, we would not know. Professor Watson did not just inform us, he triggered a revival of interest in the subject, or differently put, he opened a new field for everyone to go into. This author remembers how he came across his works in the 1990s and let others know, who then delved into the study of the subject, inspired by, and given the first leads, by Watson. It is perhaps fair to say that much of the enthusiasm for Muslim farming and the abundance of knowledge we have today owes to Professor Watson.

Glick’s works on irrigation in Al Andalus are without a doubt some of the most informative and inspiring. In Spain, in the Valencia region, for instance, Glick elaborates on a complex distribution system of the waters of the River Turia, divided into successive stages, each stage representing the point of derivation of one main canal which drew all the water at that stage, or of two canals, dividing the water among them.[2] In times of abundance, each canal drew water from the river according to the capacity of the canal; in times of drought, the canals would take water in turn, for a commensurate number of hours or a proportional equivalent.[3] The same was true for individual irrigators; and herein lies the genius of the Valencia system, Glick notes:  when the canal ran full, each irrigator could open his gate as he pleased, but when water was scarce, a system of turns was instituted. Each irrigator, in turn, drew enough water to serve his needs, but could only do so when every other irrigator in the system had taken his turn, hence insuring a relatively equal distribution of supply, both in times of abundance and of scarcity.[4] This is the sort of attention to detail, written with focus of what truly matters that makes one like reading Glick. His excellent bibliographies and references make the task for anyone interested in the subject a much easier endeavour than it otherwise would be.


Figure 3. Agricultural scene from a mediaeval Arabic manuscript from Al-Andalus (Source)

Lucy Bolens has done considerably in this field, too. Bolens has studied particularly the sections on soils and irrigation in the writings of the Hispano-Muslims.[5] As with other great scholars, the best thing for anyone is to read her directly, rather than this author trying to paraphrase her. Just an instance here, how Bolens reminds us of a crucial element of early Islamic farming:

In the definitions which open the Kitaab al-filaha (Book of Agriculture), this function is said to be blessed by God because it has as its end the production of the sustenance of life. Agriculture consists of restoring to the earth what has been furnished by harvesting from it, by fertilizing, watering and making efforts to avoid the problems caused by excessive heat. This restoration to the soil implies a knowledge of the whole – the soils, the plants, the most suitable tools. Balance (mizān) is the aim, or reciprocity between what is taken from the earth and what must be given back in order to make this vital alliance with Nature endure."[6]

Lines which express a philosophy, which most unfortunately has deserted not just the Muslim world but the rest of the world as well.

One of the most prolific and most informative author on Muslim farming in Al Andalus is the Spanish scholar Garcia Sanchez Expiracion (École des Études Arabes (CSIC), Grenade (Spain). We will make a good use of one of her works further down. Her works are mostly in Spanish and need to be translated into English. Any institution performing this task would be doing a historical favour to the world of scholarship. We can cite some of her works here:

-La diététique alimentaire arabe, reflet d’une réalité quotidienne ou d’une tradition fossilisée? (ixe-xve siècles)

-Eaux Aromatiques et autres parfums a Al Andalus

-Ibn al-Azraq: Uryuza sobre ciertas preferencias gastronómicas de los granadinos,” Andalucía Islamica, vol. 1 (1980).

-El tratado agricola del granadino al-Tighnâri

-Fuentes para el estudio de la alimentacion en la Andalucia islamica

-Normas dietéticas a través de los calendarios andalusies

-la obra médica de Muhammad al-Ilbîrî 

-Traducciones catalanas de textos cientificos andalusies en la Corona de Aragon

-Les traités de 'Hisba' andalous: un exemple de matière médicale et botanique populaires 

What we can notice easily is that our author leads in one particular area: linking plants with their medical benefits.


Figure 4. A page from "Kitab al-Diryak. Selciukide/Seljuq Art (Source

Fairchild Ruggles wrote an admirable book on Islamic gardens of Spain, and other works besides. However, in the work on the Islamic gardens, we glean a mass of information summing the whole Muslim farming system. The economy of agricultural production, Fairchild Ruggles points out, was a self-perpetuating cycle of profits accrued from trade, invested in agrarian reforms that produced abundant crops and special plants for the export trade, in turn yielding more profits.[7] The profits were reinvested in the land, which yielded greater profits and drove the engine of economic growth.[8] As Fairchild Ruggles notes, the system of crop rotation, fertilization, transplanting, grafting, and irrigation were implanted so rapidly and thoroughly because the legal code governing land-holding and tenancy provided an incentive to improve farming practices and because the upward spiral of economic growth rewarded investment.[9]

Millas Vallicrosa (1897-1970) remains one of the leading fathers of the subject of history of sciences; a first class scholar, of the calibre of Sarton, Haskins, and Wiedemann, that brand of top scholarship now gone. In our field, we have many works as in this note.[10] Millas Vallicrosa enlightens us on the contribution of many Muslim andalusi agronomists, such as Ibn wafid, al Tignari, and Ibn Bassal.[11] Brief focus here is on his edition of a botanical work in Muslim Spain of the 11th century entitled “The physician’s support for the knowledge of plants”, by an anonymous author.[12] Millas Vallicrosa’s description gives us an idea on the meticulousness that defined early Muslim scholarly works.[13] The author of this manuscript lists the names of all plants, whether medicinal or not, giving a separate entry to each under the name by which it was most usually known in classical Arabic, and providing cross-references under its other names. The main entries, so extensive that in some cases they take up several pages, are classified as follows: botanical genus to which the plant belongs, and its different species and


Figure 5. Andrea Cesalpino, 16th C. Botanist (Source)

varieties; morphological description of each of these, with an analysis of its component parts (root, stem or trunk, branches, leaves, flower, fruit, sap, gum or resin), mentioning the consistency, structure, colour, aspect and other physical characteristics (size. hardness, taste, smell, stickiness, etc.) that distinguish them, defining these by means of comparison with other and more familiar plants and conveying size by the simplest and most obvious analogies, such as the length or thickness of a finger, the height of a man, the length of the arm, and so on. He carefully studies the genus, species and variety of the different plants, gives the names of each plant in different languages, and sometimes he even differentiates between the various local forms of Spanish-al-Andalus (that of Muslim Spain), Galician, the speech of the Upper Marches, describing its geographical location, with particulars of the nature of the soil in which it grows, the regions where the author has seen it or gathered it or ascertained that it is to be found; not omitting the use of any such plants, medicinal or other purposes, and an infinity of detail, and search for perfection which astounds us today.[14] Millas Vallicrosa points out, the work of this 11th century Muslim Andalusian botanist, who was closely associated with other botanists, such as Ibn Bassal and Ibn Luyyun-both of Toledo-makes him an obvious forerunner of the modern system of classification of flora invented by Cuvier, for which the only precedents hitherto encountered-and those very imprecise-had been those in the work of the 16th century Italian botanists, Cesalpino and Matthioli.[15]

R.B Serjeant’s erudition is evident in his diverse works on Islamic subjects. Here we mention his essay on the influence of Muslim farming,[16] a short essay, and yet, one that opens so much scope for anyone seeking to delve into the subject. Serjeant informs us about Islamic legislation in respect to land and water ownership and management. Serjeant enlightens us on the Yemeni contribution to irrigation, their skill in the control of flood waters, and related subjects, including also their influence on the systems of North Africa and al Andalus.[17]

Following the praise to some comes the shaming of others.

Tried and Successful Techniques of Distortions:

Cherbonneau remarks:

It is admitted with difficulty that a nation mostly of nomads could have known any form of agricultural techniques other than sowing wheat and barley. The misconceptions come from the rarity of works on the subject… If we took the trouble to open up and consult the old manuscripts, so many views would be changed, so many prejudices would be destroyed."[18]

This author has constantly raised the issue of distortions of Muslim history, faith, culture, and civilisation. Whether you read about colonial history of the Muslim world, or the history of the crusades, or the history of history of sciences, or the arts, or engineering, or the history of piracy, or the plight of women, or Black people, that is any subject, the Islamic role in them is fundamentally distorted. The omissions, the errors, the plain distortions, the claims not matching facts, the disappearances of whole periods of history, centuries even, the disappearance of sources, of first class material, of whole collections of archives, in fact, is simply staggering.

Let everybody know: it is not that this author is a genius who has discovered something that others have not. As we just saw with Cherbonneau, many Western authors, and even Prince Charles himself have referred or noted the vast field of distortions of Muslim accomplishments in sciences and civilisation just as in other fields. As brief instances here, Harley and Woodward have noted this in respect to cartography,[19] Hill in regard to technology;[20] Smith in respect to dam construction;[21] O’Connor and Robertson in the field of mathematics;[22] and we can go on and on.[23] Some scholars such as Menocal have also remarked how it is even suicidal academically to try and rectify the picture in favour of Islam.[24] So, to conclude, it is not that his author has made the discovery of the century. He did not. So, here, we look at the techniques used to distort the subject of Muslim farming. We focus on three methods used to distort the subject through specific instances on how it is done, and how reality fundamentally contradicts the claims made by the distorters.

1.Suppression from Knowledge:

This technique is the most common. It consists in supressing from knowledge facts and sources of facts that relate to the role of Islamic civilisation, or anything favourable to Islam. For instance, anyone reading through the history of farming would, in 90% of the literature at least, find no reference whatsoever to any Islamic contribution in the field.

One of the established assumptions is that, just before, or around, the early-mid 18th century, farmers in the English countryside initiated what is commonly known as the agricultural revolution. English landed classes, it is explained, were helped by the enclosure of land (began in 16th century), which gave them both security and institutional foundations to innovate. This led to widespread and critical changes such as crop rotation, improvements in animal husbandry, farm experiment, and further improvements. By the mid-late 18th century, English agriculture, it is explained, managed to release both surplus capital and labour for industry, and provide a wide enough market to give the foundation for the so called Industrial Revolution that began in the late 18th century. Further changes (greater and better use of fertilisers, improved animal rearing, mechanisation, and the like) in England and the rest of the Western world took place in earnest and, as time passed, reached a high momentum, completely reversing the picture that prevailed in past centuries, with poor food production now being replaced by large food surpluses. Simultaneously there was an equally momentous reversal on the wider international level, food purchasing orders now came from the southern countries, which have become unable to feed their fast rising populations, whilst as recently as the 19th century, it was the opposite, France, for instance, purchasing wheat from Algeria.[25] In fact it was an unpaid French debt of Algerian wheat that triggered the French colonisation of Algeria.


Figure 6. Ancient Egyptian agricultural knowledge predates that of the West (Source)

How do we get mislead about this subject as others? Simple! If we read about the Western agricultural revolution and not consult anything about Islamic accomplishments in the field we will never know the reality. In this field, as in others, if no Westerner writes about Islamic accomplishments we think they never existed. Let’s take engineering and technology, for instance. Wiedemann, true, wrote about Muslim accomplishments in the field, but that was late in the 19th and early in the 20th. Because nobody wrote anything, it seemed Muslims had accomplished nothing. It only took Donald Hill writing in the 1970s and after for everyone suddenly to realise that the Muslim legacy in the field was considerable, in fact was crucial. The same about agriculture. As we shall see, it is only thanks to Andrew Watson that we suddenly realise that the Muslims have accomplished a lot, indeed, and that they were centuries ahead of the rest.

2. Demeaning Muslim accomplishment/Attributing them to others:

So, besides omissions, there is another technique to distort the subject, by demeaning the Muslim role. Ashtor claims, for instance:

The numerous accounts of these activities do not point to technological innovations within the irrigation system, which the Muslim rulers had simply taken over from their predecessors. The records in the writings of the Arabic historians show that those who drained the swamps and dug the canals were the Nabateans, not Arabs.[26]

The information which the Arabic authors provide us in the methods of agricultural work, besides the irrigation canals and engines, is rather scanty. But collecting these records from various sources one is inclined to conclude that the Arabs did not improve the methods of agricultural work. There is only slight evidence of technological innovations in near e