An introduction to Early Islamic Society and Social Sciences

...in order to know or appreciate most developments of Muslim society and civilization, or to understand the very foundations of Islamic society and civilization, we have to go to the very early history of Islam. Here, we set aside the central role of the faith, Islam, and how it structures or organizes society. This is not our object here. We also set aside the very early history of Islam from the time of the Prophet (PBUH), and how he put in place the very first foundations of Islamic society in Madinah.

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Figure 1. The Samarkand Quran manuscript, now kept in Tashkent, 8/9th century (Source)

Introduction

The title above is by no means an accurate representation of what contents and subjects this essay will include. Subjects considered here would normally constitute a specific heading; i.e. trade, social, legal and economic organization and political administration. Here, technical requirements and space constraints demand the following set up. Also some issues raised here would normally find their place under headings considered elsewhere (i.e geography, historiography…), or will touch upon seemingly un-related disciplines.

This being said, let’s, first, note the crucial element that in order to know or appreciate most developments of Muslim society and civilization, or to understand the very foundations of Islamic society and civilization, we have to go to the very early history of Islam. Here, we set aside the central role of the faith, Islam, and how it structures or organizes society. This is not our object here. We also set aside the very early history of Islam from the time of the Prophet (PBUH), and how he put in place the very first foundations of Islamic society in Madinah. This is a vast subject, and much beyond the competence of this author, requiring the input of people who not only are strong on the Sirah (Life and Deeds) of the Prophet, but who can also show exceptional ability of reading explaining, and conveying in European language the role of the Qur’an in the formation of Islamic society. On this, the works by the like of A. Salahi or Al Faruqi, especially the latter’s Cultural Atlas of Islam, are beyond equal, and are essential to any person seeking to know on this matter.[1]

Here, we step straight into the period of the Early Caliphate, beginning with Abu Bakr (Caliph 632-634), then Omar (Caliph 634-644), then ‘Uthman (Caliph 644-656), and finally Ali (Caliph 656-661). It is precisely during this period, as history shows us, that some of the fundamental, concretely observable today, or through history, foundations of Islamic society were set up, or put in place. It is during the Early Caliphate, indeed, that we see the emergence of the first cities of Islam, the first legal system on a vast inter continental dimension, the establishment of a welfare state, a system of taxation, an administrative system, all encompassing territories stretching from far inside Asia into North Africa. We see further establishments of diverse institutions, a police force, for instance, also during this period. The first system of land organization, irrigation, rights to land and water use, and also including vast engineering works (such as canal constructions), or organizing pilgrimage routes, and much else also go to that period. The role of Caliph Omar, in particular, was absolutely central to this. As Von Kremer notes:

He (Omar) was the real founder of all those institutions which made the Caliphate for centuries the ruling power of the world."[2]

Why Omar? The satisfactory answer will require a whole book at least. Needless for this here as such books exist, four of them of immense quality:

-A.M. as-Sallabi: Umar Ibn al-Khattab; International Islamic Publishing House; Riyadh, 2007.

-S. Numani: Umar; Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies; I.B. Tauris; London; 2004.

-I.M. Ra’ana: Economic System Under Umar the Great, S.M. Ashraf; Lahore; 1970.

-B. Rogerson: The Heirs of the Prophet Muhammad; Little Brown; London; 2006.

Anyone is advised to use these excellent works. Here, we can only briefly state that the reasons Omar was essential were simple:

Firstly, he was a scribe/administrator by profession, and from the very first days, even prior to he joining the faith. His reputation in those days was beyond that of everyone, and all tribes used to rely on his expertise in settling matters that demanded skills and proficiency of bureaucratic nature. He was even the ambassador for Quraish to the tribes. Ibn al-Jawzi said:

The role of ambassador fell to Omar ibn al-Khattab who was among the elite of the tribe of Quraysh. Whenever the flames of a feud flared between Quraysh and some other tribe, Omar was always the tribe's ambassador, speaking in their name and retrieving their rights."[3]

Secondly, the vastest expansion of Islam took place during his caliphate. The land of Islam by the end of his Caliphate in 644, stretched from as far as modern Central Asia in the east to the frontiers of Libya in the west. Note must be made here that the further expansion took place during the Caliphate of ‘Uthman, and then the Umayyads (661-750). Here it must also be reminded that no further expansion of Islam took place under any other dynasty except under the Aghlabids of Tunisia (who captured Sicily), in Muslim India, under the rulers of Turkish ancestry, and also under the Ottomans subsequently. No territory was added by either Fatimids, or Abbasids, or anyone else. The two North African dynasties of Amoravids and Almohads saved North Africa and Al Andalus from falling under Christian sway between the 11th and 13th centuries.[4]

This being noted, let’s consider the essential elements towards comprehending early Islamic society and the central role Muslim scholars played in our understanding of social sciences (some at least). In order to do this, it is highly crucial to appreciate the sources. Without knowing which sources enlighten on what, readers can spend years meandering without coming across anything of value or interest. Misguided by wrong advice can also cause such readers to squander considerable time and effort. These particular issues in relation to our subject are addressed under the following heading.

1. Sources

Let us first address the view held by many who today are crusading against the use of old sources..., i.e Western historians of the 19th and early 20th centuries, and even earlier, arguing that the more modern sources be given the priority in the study of history. There are even some who claim that only the latest secondary sources ought to be used, i.e those dated after the year 2000. Those who make these claims are of course to be ranked as ignorant individuals, who know nothing of history, and the subject we are looking at here will show it. You do not use sources for the study of history because they are very recent. This is imbecilic. You use sources for historical knowledge because they are first and foremost the best, i.e the most informative, the most trustworthy, least contradictory, and honest. You also use sources that are the nearest to the event or are simultaneous with the event you describe. Any secondary source relating events decades or even centuries later is never as good as the witnesses to the events themselves. Anyone who claims that any historian of the crusades today is better than Ibn al Qalanisi, Ibn al Athir, Albert of Aix, or William of Tyre does not know his or her subject. Anyone who thinks they can describe colonial wars in North Africa better than the French officers who were themselves involved in them is equally an ignorant. And the same can be said about any event or subject in history.

In regard to the subject here, no modern historian can describe or explain to us Muslim society better than its contemporaries such al Ibn Jubayr, al Dimashki, or al Muqaddasi, who is amply dealt with here, as an instance.

Now, in regard to secondary sources, if anyone claims that the more recent the source the better the historical writing, or even more accurate, again this person is making a ridiculous claim. You don’t use a secondary source because it is the most recent, you use good historians, full stop. It is a challenge upon anyone to show a very recent book on the crusades better than Cox’s 19th century’s work, or Mackay also belonging to the 19th century, or the best compilation ever on the subject: Recueil des Historiens des Croisades, also dated from the 19th century.[5] The same in regard to most, if not all subjects. Should anyone claim that there is a better work than Crawfurd’s on the Malay archipelago,[6] or any author today (Leslie excepted,[7]) specializing on China, who can produce something as good as Bretschneider, De Thiersan’s or Drake, again this person is talking nonsense.[8] One goes through today’s work on the latest subject, for instance, and one comes across historical errors of a horrendous nature. The same applies to every other subject, this author being struck by today’s dealing with subjects such as modern Turkish history, the histories of piracy, the slave trade, colonisation, and other subjects on Islam. The errors, the contradictions, the omissions of important and crucial episodes of history are simply beyond the acceptable.

Of course, the object here is not to dwell on these shortcomings. What matters to us is to state the following:

Just as it is impossible today to reproduce the works of a Sarton, a Wiedeman, or a Haskins in the field of history of science, it is impossible in relation to our subject (in this essay), and as we will see, to find works that equal those by Lestrange, Von Kremer, or Muir.[9] Of course, these orientalists, just as most of their colleagues, had little empathy for Islam. Muir, in particular, strongly claims the superiority of his faith, Christianity, over Islam. One will disagree with him on this, but what matters is the historian’s competence, honesty, and the meticulousness of the work, especially in addressing issues very few other scholars have had the competence to address. Western scholars’ or others’ views of Islam and Muslims are their own prerogatives, which they are free to uphold just as anyone is free to uphold any view or opinion they like. After all many early haters of Islam, including Khalid ibn al Walid, ‘Amr ibn al ‘As, and Omar ibn al Khatab, became subsequently some of its greatest servants. Also, whilst we are on this issue, what is more troubling are not the able scholars who bear little empathy for Islam, but those who bear excessive empathy for one section of Muslims (the Arabs/Sunni/Shia/Berber/Kurds… against the other side(s). It is the promotion of sectarianism which has throughout history undone the Muslim world, and it is only the scholars/journalists/elites who preach for one group in particular who are to be the most feared and the least trusted.  

The authors on whom focus is applied in this heading, Lestrange, Muir and Von Kremer (via Khuda Bukhsh’s translation), provide us with some of the best information on early Muslim society, which is the result of years, possibly decades of research and sifting through original and contemporary material, besides their own, and others’ meticulous work or editing, translating, organizing, and compiling. Let’s look at aspects of Muslim society (urbanization, financial and administrative organization, the legal system, the welfare state, commerce and trade, and taxation) through the works of these authors, and hence validate the argument made above on how it is necessary to rely on older sources when they are of fine quality. Here, one also accepts that there are errors in some of the old material in regard to names, dates, and some facts, which more recent historians have corrected. But these are normal, and do hardly cause any harm to the value of the old material, and all historians make errors that are (one hopes) corrected by others.

In respect to the urban system and its growth, from the time of the Early Caliphate, we note how straight after the Islamic advance in the 630s, during the Caliphate of Omar, there appeared garrison towns, some newly built (Basra and Kufa), whilst others were more established: Damascus, Hims, Tiberias, and Lydda in Syria. In Egypt, the conqueror of the country, ‘Amr ibn ‘As, established a permanent camp at old Babylon, the so-called Roman fortification opposite to Memphis, where possibly, even at the time of the Romans, a strong garrison was stationed.[10] Out of this camp, later on, grew up a town which bore the name of Fustat and which remained, until the foundation of Cairo in the 10th century, the capital of the whole country. After the foundation of Cairo, Fustat continued its existence under the name of old Cairo; but it was gradually annexed to the new Cairo by unbroken and continuous settlement.[11] Next to Fustat, Alexandria was the most important gathering place for the troops in Egypt. As the greatest sea-town, it was constantly exposed to the attacks of the Byzantine navy. It was precisely for that reason that it was strongly garrisoned. ‘Amr posted there one quarter of his army, but he changed the personnel every six months; with half he guarded the sea-coast, while the remaining quarter he kept with himself at Fustat.[12]

At this point, we go back to our main argument on the uniqueness of the early sources, here referring to the late 19th century scholar, Lestrange. It is primarily to Lestrange that we owe the best compilation of descriptions by contemporaries of the towns, cities and regions of medieval Islam as they as they saw them and described them. Medieval Palestine and Syria are nowhere better described than in Lestrange’s work devoted to them.[13] Let’s offer some extracts on the town of Acre. Writing in 985, Al-Muqaddasi says:

Akka is a fortified city on the sea. The mosque here is very large. In its court is a clump of olive-trees, the oil from which suffices for the lamps of the mosque, and yet besides. This city had remained unfortified until the time when Ibn Tulun (9th century ruler of Egypt) visited it, coming from Tyre, where he had seen the fortifications and the walls which are there carried round so as to protect the harbour.[14]

Yakut al Hamawi’s description, early in the 13th century, of the method of building with stone-pillars used, as ‘through-bonds,’ is one much used in later centuries by the masons and craftsmen of the Crusaders. The remains of the double mole forming the inner harbour at Acre may still be seen, though centuries later these are almost entirely under water.[15]

Another, and earlier, account of Acre is by the Persian Nâsir Khusraw, who visited the town in 1047:

The Friday Mosque at Acre is in the centre of the town, and rises taller than all the other edifices. All its columns are of marble. The court of the Mosque is partly paved with stone, and the other part is sown with green herbs, for they say it was here that Adam-peace be upon him-first practised husbandry…. The city’s walls are extremely strong; to the west and south lies the sea.

On the southern side is what is called the Minâ (or port). Now, most of the towns upon this coast have a Minâ, which is a place constructed for the harbouring of ships. It resembles, so to speak, a stable, the back of which is towards the town, with the side-walls stretching out into the sea. Seaward, for a space, there is no wall, but only chains, stretching from one wall’s end to the other. When they wish to let a ship come into the Minâ, they slack the chains until they have sunk beneath the surface of the water sufficient to let the ship pass over them (into the harbour); then they tighten up the chain again so as to prevent any strange vessel coming in to make an attempt against the ships."[16]

The same Lestrange offers us the best compilations in respect to the lands of the eastern caliphate, from Baghdad eastwards. The foundation of Basra and Kufa during Omar’s Caliphate was extremely decisive in the subsequent urban history of Islam. Basra’s name is said to mean ‘the Black Pebbles’ was founded in the year 17H (638), and its lands were divided among the Arab tribes who were then in garrison there following the defeat of the Sassanid (Persian) Empire.[17] The city grew quickly to be, with Kufa, one of the new capitals of Middle Iraq. Basra lay about 12 miles in a direct line from the Tigris estuary, being reached by two great canals, which, with the waters of the estuary to the east for the third side, formed the Great Island as it was called.[18] Its houses extending westward in a semi-circle reached the border of the desert. The houses of the town were for the most part of kiln burnt bricks, the walls were surrounded by rich pasture lands, watered by numerous minor canals, and beyond these lay extensive palm-groves.[19]

The city of Kufa was founded at the same time as Basra and was, thus, intended to serve as a permanent camp on the Arab, or desert, side of the Euphrates, and occupied an extensive plain lying above the river bank.[20] Roads radiated from a central point and men were settled in their tribal areas. Omar is said to have specified the widths of the streets: 20 metres for the main roads, with side streets of 10 to 15 metres, whilst alleys were to be 3.5 metres, which was the minimal width allowed.[21] The city’s population increased rapidly, and the 10th century geographer, al-Istakhri described it as the equal in size of Basra, but the former had the better climate, and its buildings were more spacious; also its markets were excellent, though in this point it stood second to Basra.[22]

These two towns, eventually to grow into large cities, would constitute precedents for the foundation of Baghdad, Samarra, Marrakech, al Qayrawan, and other cities, with, of course, some divergences such as in lay out, structures, additions of local features, and the use of local materials.

Another dominant aspect of early Islamic society was the matter of tax and revenue. Here, it is Von Kremer, as admirably conveyed to us by Khuda Bukhsh, who feeds us with knowledge of value found nowhere else.  Initially the state-revenue consisted for the most part of the legal fifth of the war-booty, and the poor-tax (Zakat) payable by better off Muslims, payable primarily for lands or more correctly from the produce of the lands.[23] In greater detail regarding the Zakat, the general rule was that it was payable for arable land, precious metals, and flocks; by 'flocks' was meant camels, cattle and sheep.[24]

The level of taxation was, however, reduced according to circumstances. Under Omar, during the times of crises, in order to encourage the import of cereals to Madinah he reduced the tax upon them to half of the tenth (i.e just like the produce needing artificial irrigation).[25] Tax was also levied on moneys received as hire for slaves or rent of houses. Quarries and mines were equally liable to this tax, but with this difference that here it fell due, immediately on the discovery of the mines and quarries, and not after a year, as was the case with the harvested crops.[26]

As early as the time of Prophet Mohammed there was a special state-pasture where herds of camels and cattle and flocks of sheep which came in by way of taxes were kept and looked after.[27] The office of the overseer of the state-pasture (Hima) was indeed, a post of trust and confidence which Omar gave to his freedman. At the time of Omar there was in the state-pasture no less than 400,000 camels and horses. In order to distinguish these from others they were branded with a special mark (Wasm).[28]

A kind of tax was also levied on the mercantile community, but it did not belong to the category of the poor-tax but rather to that of the general state revenue.[29]

As Islam expanded the tax system also expanded. Twofold were the taxes which the subject population of Egypt, Syria, Mesopotamia and Persia had to pay:

(1) The Capitation-Tax (Jizya, tributum capitis).

(2) The Land Tax (Kharaj, tributum soli).

 Both these taxes were probably adopted from the Byzantine Empire where they existed under these identical names. Of the Capitation-Tax, we know that it existed even under the Sassanid in the Persian Empire.[30]

In Syria, for each individual community the Capitation tax was fixed at an aggregate amount which continued unaltered, whether the number constituting the community increased or decreased.[31] In Egypt the capitation-tax for every grown-up male, capable of earning a livelihood, was