The Destruction of the Muslim Economic System: A Prime reason for the Decline of Muslim Science

Attacks on Islamic centres of wealth on land and on sea by Western Christian pirates greatly reduced the economic power of Muslim lands. North Africa became economically impoverished as the Trans-Saharan traffic, which had sustained it, was diverted to European vessels operating along the Atlantic coast of West Africa.

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The Question is...? Myths and Fallacies Surrounding the Decline of Muslim Civilisation by Salah Zaimeche

Attacks on Islamic centres of wealth on land and on sea by Western Christian pirates greatly reduced the economic power of Muslim lands. Braudel notes, indeed,[1]how the fortune of Islam were the city ports of Alexandria, Palermo, Tunis, Bejaia, Almeira, etc. in securing wealth and prosperity for as long as the Muslims were powerful, yet came to suffer from the tenth century raids by Christian European pirates. `It is the destiny of the rich, Braudel explains `to become prey and temptations for the poor. In the tenth century, contrary to a subsequent epoch, the rich was the Muslim power, and the poor was the Christian.[2] The Mediterranean, once an Islamic lake, now sank any venture, Braudel quotes an Muslim merchant, saying:

`Do not wonder to see my hair grow white from sorrow, but you must wonder why the black of my eyes had not become white instead. Now the sea belongs to the Roum. Boats that venture on it only do at great risk. Only the land belongs to the Muslims.[3]

Not that secure either were the coastal towns of Egypt and North Africa, which became constant targets to devastating raids, which prevented the formation of any stable base for exchange, whatever its scale. In the eleventh century, the Christians aware of the weaker Muslims (disunited in Spain, fighting each other both in the East as well as in Sicily and no longer content to defend their territories) look for Muslim fleets, follow them and provoke them; disembark in Africa and set on fire the countryside and warehouses.[4] Never were hostilities more vivid, more murderous, and more incessant.[5]In 1146, Djidelli (North East Algeria) was taken and ransacked by Christian forces.[6] In 1284 and 1285, Roger Doria, Admiral of Aragon, profiting from a moment when the pretenders were fighting for the throne in Tunis, landed suddenly on the island of Gerba, ravaging its countryside, gathering immense booty, and taking more than 2000 captives, who he sold in Europe In 1304, the Christians were delighted when the Pisan fleet, reinforced by Genoese ships, and probably Provencal ships, took the city of Bone, and ravaged the coast to Carthage.[7] In 1365 a combined European fleet totalling 165 vessels departed for a secret target, the direction to Alexandria only cited at the last moment. On October 9, 1365, they landed; and for seven days they slaughtered, pillaged, and set the city on fire.[8]The years after (December 1366, and September 1367), Egyptian and Syrian coastal towns suffered raids led by the crusading monarch Peter I of Portugal[9]. Morocco for its part had to face the combined alliance of Castilians and Genoese until 1344, this combined strength of the Christian powers being necessary to beat the Moroccan fleet.[10]

During the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, both Syrian and Egyptian coastal towns also had to face attacks of Christian pirates, making landings and carrying devastating raids such as those of Boucicaut (c.1366 1421, marshal of France) in 1403.[11] Coastal towns such as Beirut, Tripoli, Alexandria, Rosetta and Damietta, suffered constant debilitating raids. The Mamluks were obliged to spend more on their sea defences and sought materials using escorted expeditions to the Anatolian coasts, which bled them financially.[12]

Then came the Portuguese irruption, an irruption well highlighted by the policy of Prince Henry the Navigator of Portugal (1394-1460). His mind, according to Russel, was always dominated by a zealous devotion to the twin doctrines of chivalry and Crusade.[13]In his writings are expressed his views:

`War against the Moors will satisfy both purposes (earthly and thereafter) and should, therefore, be undertaken.[14]

Portuguese piracy literally gave the coup de grace to the Islamic economic system in the Indian Ocean. Hitherto, and throughout the medieval period, Abu Lughod explains, Muslim ships and merchants dominated the western circuit between the Persian Gulf-Red Sea and the south Indian coasts; there, they were joined by Indian ships that shared with the Chinese, dominion over the second circuit to the Strait.[15] Chaudhuri observes:

`before the arrival of the Portuguese.... in 1498 there had been no organised attempt by any political power to control the sea lanes and the long distance trade of Asia... The Indian Ocean as a whole and its different seas were not dominated by any particular nation or empires.'[16]

All changed with the Portuguese, who deliberately massacred Muslim merchants.[17]The Portuguese, according to Heyd:

`Pursued simultaneously two objectives aiming for the same end: the extension of their own trade, through the opening of more outlets, and the suppression of that of the Arabs by the destruction of their trading fleet. It is impossible to count the number of Arab boats that their (the Portuguese) fleet attacked whether on the high seas, or close to the coastline; sank; burnt down after everything was looted, and their passengers and crew all slaughtered[18]

Crawfurd has highlighted in detail the massacres committed by the Portuguese.[19] In the fifteenth century, they carried on a piratical crusade against every Muslim ship they could find. Meeting with a vessel containing two hundred and sixty pilgrims bound for Mecca, of whom some fifty were women and children, they saved and baptised twenty of the children; the remainder were locked inside the ship before setting it on fire.[20]

In 1500, Vasco De Gama, a Knight of Christ, on arriving in the region bombarded the city of Calicut for three days, before embarking upon cutting off ears; noses and hands of prisoners and then setting them alight. Following that, de Gama sank boats of pilgrims who were on their way to Mecca , ordering his men to spear the survivors in the water.[21]

Albuquerque, after capturing Goa, sent this message to the Sultan:

`I burnt the city and put everyone to the sword and for four days your men shed blood continuously. No matter where we found them, we did not spare the life of a single Muslim; we filled the mosques with them and set them on fire...'[22]

For their success, the Portuguese had the help of many local allies. The Sultan of Gujarat, Bahadur Shah, ceded thus the Island of Diu, from which they operated, to the Portuguese in 1535.[23]And Shah Ismail, armed by them, also fought on the Portuguese side.[24]

In this process, the Portuguese ruined the Mamluk state with its futile massive expenses for the protection of its fleet.[25]

In North Africa, to avoid the pillage, Muslim principalities agreed payments to Christian protection. Thus, the treaty with Bejaia of 1314, for instance, agreed a payment to the king of Aragon of 500 ducats a year from the yield of the `robes e mercaderies que pagaren dret en la duana de Bugia'.[26] The treaties of 1314 and 1323 with Tunis allotted to the king 4000 ducats a year out of the dues paid by his subjects.[27] It was normal for medieval Hispanic Christian states, Armesto notes, `to mulct Moorish neighbours for protection money, and frequently this tributary relationship was prelude to eventual conquest. The rights of legitimate `re-conquest' (re-conquista), which Hispanic Christian kings, claimed for the Muslims were universally assumed to extend into North Africa.[28]

Consequently, the Portuguese took Ceuta in 1415, Ksar-el-Srir, and advanced their outpost towards Tangiers in 1458, and further advanced into Anfa between Azamour Ra bat and Arzilla in 1471, and finally Tangiers capitulated to them.[29]The Spaniards took Granada (1492), then Melila (1497), Mers el-Kebir (1505); Oran (1509); Bejaia and Tripoli (1510), and were threatening to take the whole of North Africa until the Turkish intervention pushed them back. In fact, in the Mediterranean, Turkish and Algerian fleets battled against Spanish, Genoese and Venetian fleets for the next century and a half.[30]The Moroccans, on the other hand, at last destroyed the Portuguese power at the Battle of the Three Kings, which took place on the 4th of August, 1578,[31]when the Moroccans wiped out the whole Portuguese nobility and the best of its knights and army in a battle that cost the lives of three kings.[32]On the eve of that battle, the whole Portuguese nobility had arrived in Morocco accompanied by their courts and servants expecting to remain in Morocco eternally.[33]

The Moroccans destroyed Portuguese power, but other powers still prowled the seas. Already, early in the sixteenth century warring merchants descended upon the Atlantic coast of North Africa between the capture of Agadir (1505) and the fortification of Mazagran (1514) with devastating efficiency.[34]Coastal fortifications helped the Christian Europeans to lock Muslims within Morocco and secured the oceanic routes leading to India and beyond.[35]

Christian pirates bled the Moroccan economy, Mathiex holds, and this just at the time when North Africa and the Levant were awakening to the importance of its maritime trade.[36] Muslim coastlines became zones of insecurity, and Islamic maritime trade died no sooner than it was born.[37]In an effort to escape ravages caused by such pirates (often encouraged by Christian kings), Mathiex explains, Muslim traders used foreign shipping rather than those of the Muslims in order to obtain protection if taken by the pirates; but European pirates found ways round that, citing that Pavilions only covered merchandise.[38] Livourne (a slave port) was so thriving (safe from attacks on Muslim vessels) that any Christian slave trader at the end of the seventeenth century had two or three commercial houses, which specialised in slave trade, and the poorest amongst them had a capital of 150,000 Ecus.[39] Involved in this lucrative trade were some of the highest ranking figures of Western Christendom, even such respected figures of English life, as Sir Robert Cecil. The latter on 12 January 1603 informed Sir Walter Raleigh of his intention to invest in a certain privateer, inviting him and Lord Cobham to take shares in the venture.[40] By the summer of 1600 no quarter of the Mediterranean was safe from their violence. `For this accursed race is grown so bold that it goes everywhere without hesitation, using barbarous cruelty, and sinking ships,' said a Venetian ambassador.[41] Those who were taken prisoners had no better fate than those killed, condemned to the galleys for perpetuity. The Muslims who converted to Christianity to escape enslavement on the boats galleys hardly escaped such a fate.[42]

So Western powers, armed with sailing ships encircled the Muslim land.[43] Muslim North Africa became economically impoverished as the Trans-Saharan traffic, which had sustained it, was diverted to European vessels operating along the Atlantic coast of West Africa.[44]Along the east coast of Africa, most Islamic cities simply declined, while Muslim shippers of the Red Sea, Persian Gulf, and Hadramut were reduced to the less important traffic along East African shores and across the Indian Ocean to India and Ceylon.[45] Soon, the colonising French and English would arrive and continue the work began by the Portuguese and the Spaniards.

To read about the other reasons thought to be behind the decline of Muslim Civilisation and a discussion of the various theories propounded by western historians, read the full article linked.


[1]F.Braudel: Grammaire des Civilisations; Flammarion, 1987; at p.89.

[2] Braudel 89.

[3] F.Braudel: Grammaire des Civilisations; op cit; p.90.

[4] M.L. de Mas Latrie: Traites de paix et de Commerce, et Documents Divers, Concernant les Relations des Chretiens avec les Arabes de l'Afrique Septentrionale au Moyen Age, Burt Franklin, New York, Originally Published in Paris, 1866; p.7.

[5] M.L. de Mas Latrie: Traites de paix; op cit; p.7.

[6] Al-Idrisi: Vol 1, p. 245-246 in Mas De Latrie; op cit; p.8.

[7] M.L. de Mas Latrie: Traites de paix; op cit; p.8.

[8] A.S. Atiya: Crusade, Commerce and Culture; Oxford University Press; London; 1962; pp. 103-4.

[9] Machairas; p. 102 and sub; Machaut; p. 205; in W, Heyd: Commerce; op cit; pp 55-6.

[10] J.A. Robson: The Catalan fleet and Moorish sea power; The English Historical Review;Vol LXXIV: (1959): pp 386-408; p.407.

[11] I.M. Lapidus: Muslim Cities in the later Middle Ages: Harvard University Press; Cambridge Mass; 1967. p. 27.

[12] I.M. Lapidus: Muslim Cities; op cit; p. 35.

[13] Peter E. Russel: Prince Henry the Navigator, in The IslamicWorld and the West edt by A. Lewis: John Wiley and Sons; London; 1970; pp 129-136; p.135.

[14] Peter E. Russel: Prince Henry the Navigator; p.134

[15] Janet L. Abu-Lughod: Before European Hegemony, Oxford University Press, 1989. p. 274.

[16] Chaudhuri (1985: 14) In J. L. Abu-Lughod: Before; op cit; p. 275.

[17] N. Daniel: The Cultural Barrier, Edinburgh University Press, 1975: p.138.

[18] W. Heyd: Histoire du Commerce du Levant; op cit; p 535.

[19] Crawfurd (Indian Archipelago) II; 403, and for the Dutch, see especially II.425 seq. and 441.

[20]R.B.Smith: Mohammed and Mohammedanism; London; Smith Elder; 1876 edt; p.34.

[21] A.Zahoor: Muslims in the Indian sub-continent; at http://www.minhaj-audio.net

[22] A.Zahoor: Muslims in the Indian Sub-continent; op cit.

[23]M. Longworth Dames: The Portuguese and Turks in the Indian Ocean in the sixteenth century: Journal of The Royal Asiatic Society (JRAS); Vol year 1921 pp 1-28; at p.16.

[24] P. Brummett: The Myth of Shah Ismail Safavi: Political Rhetoric and `Divine Kingship; in Medieval Christian Perceptions of Islam; J. V. Tolan: edt; Routledge; London; 1996. pp 331-359.

[25] I.M. Lapidus: Muslim cities; op cit; p. 42.

[26]Felipe Fernandez Armesto: Before Columbus: MaCMillan Education; London, 1987; p.133.

[27] F. Fernandez Armesto: Before Columbus; chap 5; op cit; p.133.

[28] F. Fernandez Armesto: Before Columbus; op cit; p.148.

[29] M.L. de Mas Latrie: Traites de paix.p.324.

[30] A. R. Lewis: The Islamic World; op cit; .Epilogue

[31] P. Berthier: La Bataille de l'Oued al-makhzan; 4 Aout 1578, Paris, 1985, p. 1. See also E.M. Bovill: The battle of Alcazar, an Account of the defeat of Dom Sebastian of Portugal at el-ksar el-Kebir, London, 1952.

[32] L. Valensi: Silence, Denegation, affabulation: Le souvenir d'une grande defaite dans la culture Portuguaise in ANNALES Vol 46 (1991). pp: 3-24; p.5.

[33] P. Berthier: La Bataille de l'Oued al-makhzan; op cit.

[34] Andrew C. Hess: The Forgotten Frontier; The University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London, 1978; p.34.

[35] A.C. Hess: The Forgotten Frontier; chap 3; p.34.

[36] J.Mathiex: Trafic et prix de l'Homme en Mediterranee au 17 et 18 Siecles; ANNALES: Economies, Societes, Civilisations: Vol 9:pp 157-164; p.163.

[37] J. Mathiex: Trafic; op cit; pp.163-4.

[38]J.Mathiex: Trafic et prix de l'Homme en Mediterranee; op cit; p.159

[39] Consul Cotolendy (Livourne) letter to Ministre Maurepas, 14 Feb 1682; (Arch. nat. A.E.B.1, 697).

[40] K.R. Andrews: Sir Robert Cecil and Mediterranean Plunder; in The English Historical Review;Vol 87 (1972);pp 513-532; at p.513.

[41] Venetian Ambassador to Spain: Calendar of State Papers, Venetian (1592-1603); pp 412-3. in K.R. Andrews: Sir Robert Cecil and Mediterranean plunder; op cit; at p. 514.

[42]Jean Mathiex: Trafic et prix; p.161. Note 3.

[43] A.C. Hess: The Forgotten Frontier; op cit; p.3.

[44] A. R. Lewis: The Islamic World; op cit; Epilogue.

[45] A. R. Lewis: The Islamic World; op cit; Epilogue.

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