Muslim Contributions to International Trade
Trade has a long tradition in Islam. The Prophet (PBUH) and many of his companions were tradesmen, thus trade has an important place in Islamic tradition and there exists a body of legislation governing contracts, exchange, loans, market conduct and the like. Trade thrived from all shores of the Islamic world. 'The Arab's,' Lopez writes, 'masters of an empire extending from the Gulf of Gascony to beyond the Indus, involved in commercial enterprises reaching into Africa and Baltic Europe, brought East and West together, as never before.' Great roads radiating from Baghdad led through Rayy, Nishapur, Merv, Bukhara, and Samarkand to Kashgar and the Chinese frontier; through Basra to Shiraz; through Kufa to Medina, Mecca, and Aden; through Mosul or Damascus to the Syrian coast. Muslim tradesmen could be found as far as China, and we have early accounts of such a country from tradesmen. Caravans bound China and India to Persia, Syria, and Egypt; and as Durant states, ports like Baghdad, Basra, Aden, Cairo, and Alexandria sent Arab merchantmen out to sea. Durant also notes how Muslim commerce dominated the Mediterranean till the Crusades, plying between Syria and Egypt at one end, Tunis, Sicily, Morocco, and Spain at the other, and touching Greece, Italy, and Gaul; it captured control of the Red Sea from Ethiopia; it reached over the Caspian into Mongolia, and up the Volga from Astrakhan to Novgorod, Finland, Scandinavia, and Germany, where it left thousands of Muslim coins; it answered the Chinese junks that visited Basra by sending Arab dhows out from the Persian Gulf to India and Ceylon, through the Straits and up the Chinese coast to Khanfu (Canton), a colony of Muslim and Jewish merchants being established in Canton in the eighth century. Muslim caravans, for their part, reached the furthest horizons in the African continent. The Muslim merchants from the Maghrib travelled several months' journey to the south and generally passed through Awdagosht, an oasis situated fourteen days' journey to the North of Ghana.
The Muslim trading network was not just vast geographically; it was sustained by a number of policies and measures, which are outlined by Durant. Caravanserais or inns, hospices and cisterns helped the traveller and his beasts. Much in-land traffic was borne on rivers and canals. Harun al-Rashid (9th Century) planned a Suez Canal, but his vizier, Yahya, for unknown reasons, probably financial, discouraged the idea. The Tigris at Baghdad, 750 feet wide, was spanned by three bridges built upon boats. Over these arteries a busy commerce passed. It was an economic advantage to western Asia that one government united a region formerly divided among four states; customs dues and other trade barriers were removed, and the flow of commodities was further eased by unity of language and faith. The Muslims, moreover, did not share the European aristocrat's scorn of the merchant; soon they joined Christians, Jews, and Persians in the business of getting goods from producer to consumer. Cities and towns swelled and hummed with transport, barter, and sale; peddlers cried their wares, shops dangled their stock and resounded with haggling; fairs, markets, and bazaars gathered merchandise, merchants, buyers, and poets. In the words of Durant, this 'vitalizing commercial activity reached its peak in the tenth century, when western Europe was at nadir; and when it subsided it left its mark upon many European languages in such words as tariff, traffic, magazine, caravan, and bazaar. The state left industry and commerce free, and aided it with a relatively stable currency; the early caliphs used Byzantine and Persian money, but in 695 Abd-al-Malik struck an Arab coinage of gold dinars and silver dirhems.'
One of the great commercial centres of Islam was Spain. African boats also used to visit in great regularity the Spanish ports delivering and carrying both goods and travellers. The port of Malaga in southern Spain, for instance, was a centre of immense traffic, and was visited by traders from all countries, especially those from the mercantile republics of Italy, the Genoese in particular. The tolerant and enlightened policy of the Muslims had assigned the enterprising Genoese a suburb which was designated by their name. The great factories of the merchants of the Adriatic, who at that time possessed the larger share of the carrying trade of the world, lined the crowded quays of Malaga, and their flag was always the most conspicuous among the ensigns of the maritime nations, whose vessels rode the anchor in the bay. Through the port of Malaga constantly passed a vast and growing traffic, which bartered the commodities of every country for the silks, the weapons, the jewellery, the gilded pottery, and the delicious fruits of Spain.
Some centres in the Islamic world constituted thriving communities due to their important place in commercial exchanges. Kayrawan and Sijilmasa are thus described by the tenth century traveller Ibn Hawkal:
'Al-Kayrawan, the largest town in the Maghrib, surpasses all others in its commerce, its riches, and the beauty of its bazaars. I heard from Abu al-Hasa, the head of the public treasury that the income of all provinces and localities of the Maghrib was between seven hundred and eight hundred million dinars… Amongst the exports to the East are amber, silks, suits of very fine woollen, fineries, woollen skirts, carpets, iron, lead, mercury….
Al-Kayrawan and Sijilmasa are similar in salubrity of the
climate and in their nearness to the desert. Rich caravans constantly leave Sijilmasa for the Sudan, and bring great profits to the inhabitants of the town. The inhabitants of other towns in the Maghrib perhaps resemble those of Sijilmasa in their characteristics and the conditions of their existence, but they are inferior to the latter in wealth and comfort.'
Exports of Islamic industrial goods have received great attention from a variety of sources. Europe, Asia and Africa imported in great abundance from the land of Islam, which included carved ivories, enamelled glassware, tooled leatherwork of all sorts, tiles, pottery, paper, carpets, illuminated manuscripts, metalwork including damascened swords and vessels, fine cotton cloth, and rich silk fabrics. Lombard, in particular, remarks considerably on such trade, especially the primary position of the textile products. Europe imported all its wares and textiles from the Muslim world, or from China, via the Muslim world. A number of names, now commonly used, demonstrate which textiles were originally imported from the Muslim world: Muslin (from Mosul), Damask (from Damascus), Baldachin (originally stuff mad in Baghdad), and other woven stuffs, which bear either Arabic or Persian names, such as: gauze, cotton, satin, etc. The import of Oriental rugs is likewise as old as the Middle Ages, Kramers notes. It is important he points out, that the state robes of the medieval German emperors bore Arabic inscriptions; they were ordered and executed probably in Sicily, where Islamic art and industry continued for long after the Normans conquered the Island. Muslim metal objects were also highly prised due to the Muslim superiority over their neighbours in this and other industrial crafts, the soaps, like the swords of Syria, in particular, being then of great renown. Mamluk gilt and enamelled glass, a labour intensive luxury product using expensive materials, had a peculiar status. There exists strong archaeological evidence for exports of Mamluk enamelled glass to the northern shores of the Black Sea, from where this product subsequently make its way up to Kiev (today's Ukraine), then into Byelorussia, then to Lithuania, and then into Muscovy. Mamluk glass is also found in Scandinavia, the hanseatic ports, as well as Maastricht in Holland, and had a significant place in fourteenth century northern European trade.
Islamic trade carried a great deal of varied and lasting impacts. In Africa, it was with primarily tradesmen that Islam penetrated the continent. Initially Berber merchants carried Islam across the Sahara into Sahilian states before the Murabit movement got moving. All nomads in north east Africa where trade routes link the Red Sea with the Nile quickly became Muslim. Urban and trading life involved abandoning, or at least independence from, family and local religion, and Islam provided a spiritual basis for life in a new dimension. Islamic moral conduct implies following what God allows and refraining from what He forbids. Theoretical and practical morality for the Muslim means the study and practice of the life of the Prophet (i.e. the Sunna); the social ethics of Islam are directed to maintain the harmony and solidarity of the community, the consensus of the community being the criterion.
Islamic trade impacted considerably on the rise of our modern trade system and mechanisms. Udovitch notes how Islamic law and the customary practice prevalent in the Muslim world providing merchants and traders with the commercial techniques to structure and facilitate trade and exchange. In the time of Harun al-Rashid, under a highly developed banking system, a Muslim businessman could cash a cheque in Canton on his bank account in Baghdad. The cheque played a fundamental part in the growth of Islamic trade. Thus, cheque, in Arabic Saqq, which as Udovitch highlights, is `functionally and etymologically the origins of our modern checks.' The use of saqq was borne out of the need to avoid having to transport coinage as legal tender due to the dangers and difficulties this represented. The bankers took to the use of bills of exchange, letters of credit, and promissory notes, often drawn up as to be, in effect, cheques. In promoting the concept of the bill of exchange, or cheque, the Muslims thus made the financing of commerce, especially inter-continental trade possible.
Kramers identifies various notes of vocabulary that highlight the legacy of Islamic trade, and the influence and effect of this on commercial development in Christian countries. Thus for example, the word 'traffic' is to be derived from the Arabic tafric, which means distribution, and the well known word 'tariff' is derived from the Arabic word Ta'rif, meaning announcement. To the same Arabic origin belong the words risk, tare, calibre, aval, etc.
The above is but s glimpse or a few strands of the vast contribution that Islamic trade, and Muslim traders have created, with lasting effect. Trade is recognised as a tool to enliven communities, societies and nations, and to bring the people and produce of the world to the service of humanity.
Image 1 (International Trade): www.exportnc.com
Image 2 (Qur'anic quote): www.MuslimHeritage.com
Image 3 (Thai woodcut): www.north-by-north-east.com
by: FSTC Limited, Thu 18 May, 2006