Agriculture in Muslim civilisation : A Green Revolution in Pre-Modern Times
FSTC Research Team*
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Table of contents
2. The Agricultural Revolution
3. Agricultural Machines and Construction
4. Examples of Water Management
5. Globalisation of Crops
6. Farming Manuals
6.1. Eastern Literature
6.2. The Specialised Corpus of the Islamic West
7. The Decline and Loss of Ecological Balance
8. Bibliography and Further Reading
Note of the editor
This article was published on www.MuslimHeritage.com in August 2002. It is republished with revisions and new illustrations. Copyright: © FSTC Limited, 2002-2010.
* * *1. Introduction
History usually conveys the notion that the agricultural revolution took place in recent times in the form of rotation of crops, advanced irrigation techniques, plant improvements, etc., and that some of those changes took place only in the last couple of centuries in Europe, whilst others are occurring today. It is explained that such revolutionary changes fed the increasing world population, released vast numbers of workers from the land and allowed agriculture to produce a capital surplus, which was invested in industry, thus leading to the industrial revolution of the 18th-19th century.
Figure 1: Satellite view of the Nile Delta in which colour has been enhanced to show the sediment carried out of the Nile River and into the Mediterranean Sea as well as to show the differences of the land features. The Nile Delta is one of the world's largest river deltas. The delta is a very rich agricultural region for Egypt. It has been farmed for at least 5,000 years. (Source).
This is the accepted wisdom, until one comes across works on Muslim agriculture and discovers that several of those changes took place over ten centuries ago in the Muslim world, some of them being the foundations of important modern innovations. Watson, Glick and Bolens , in particular, show that major breakthroughs were achieved by Muslim farmers on the land, and by Muslim scholars with their treatises on the subject. Thus, as with other subjects, prejudice distorts history, and the achievements in the world of Islam ten centuries ago are covered up. This point is raised by Cherbonneau as long as the 1940s when he wrote: "it is admitted with difficulty that a nation in majority of nomads could have had 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 bother to open up and consult the old manuscripts, so many views will be changed, so many prejudices will be destroyed ."
2. The Agricultural Revolution
As early as the 9th century, an innovative agricultural system became central to economic life and the organization of production in the Muslim land. The great Islamic cities of the Near East, North Africa and Spain, Artz explains, were supported by an elaborate agricultural system that included extensive irrigation and an expert knowledge benefiting from some of the most advanced agricultural methods known so far. The Muslims reared the finest horses and sheep and cultivated the best orchards and vegetable gardens. They knew how to fight insect pests, how to use fertilizers, and they were experts at grafting trees and crossing plants to produce new varieties . Glick defines the Muslim agricultural revolution in the introduction of new crops, which, combined with extension and intensification of irrigation, created a complex and varied agricultural system, whereby a greater variety of soil types were put to efficient use. In this system, fields that had been yielding one crop annually at most were capable of yielding three or more crops, in rotation. As a result of such intensive agriculture, agricultural production responded to the demands of an increasingly sophisticated and cosmopolitan urban population by providing the towns with a variety of products unknown elsewhere, for example, in Northern Europe . Scott, on his part, considered that the agricultural system of the Spanish Muslims, in particular, was "the most complex, the most scientific, the most perfect, ever devised by the ingenuity of man ."
Figure 2: Scene of agriculture work in an Arabic manuscript from Islamic Spain. (Source).
Such advancement of Muslim farming, according to Bolens, was owed to the adaptation of agrarian techniques to local needs, and to "a spectacular cultural union of scientific knowledge from the past and the present, from the Near East, the Maghreb, and Andalusia. A culmination subtler than a simple accumulation of techniques, it has been an enduring ecological success, proven by the course of human history ." A variety of fertilisers were used according to a well-advanced methodology; whilst a maximum amount of moisture in the soil was preserved . Soil rehabilitation was constantly cared for, and preserving the deep beds of cropped land from erosion was, as Bolens explains, "the golden rule of ecology", and was "subject to laws of scrupulous careful ecology ".
The success of Islamic farming also lay in hard work. No natural obstacle was sufficiently formidable to check the enterprise and industry of the Muslim farmer. He tunnelled through the mountains, his aqueducts went through deep ravines, and he levelled with infinite patience and labour he levelled the rocky slopes of the sierra in Spain . Watson sums up by arguing that the rise of productivity of agricultural land and sometimes of agricultural labour was due to the introduction of higher yielding new crops and better varieties of old crops, through more specialised land use which often centred on the new crops, through more intensive rotations which the new crops allowed, through the concomitant extension and improvement of irrigation, through the spread of cultivation into new or abandoned areas, and through the development of more labour intensive techniques of farming. These changes, themselves, were positively affected by changes in other sectors of the economy: growth of trade, enlargement of the money economy, increasing specialisation of factors of production in all sectors, and with the growth of population and its increasing urbanisation .
Figure 3: Front cover of Kitab al-filaha (Libro de agricultura) by Ibn Bassal, an 11th-century Andalusian from Toledo (edited, annotated and translated into Spanish published in Tetua´n, 1955). The book contains information about the different kinds of foodstuff and how to produce them and preserve them, in addition to the agricultural methods in cultivation, irrigation, pets control and land tilling.
From Andalusia to the Far East, from the Sudan to Afghanistan, irrigation remained central, and the basis of all agriculture and the source of all life . The ancient systems of irrigation the Muslims inherited were in an advanced state of decay.. The Muslims repaired them and constructed new ones; besides devising new techniques to catch, channel, store and lift the water, and making ingeniously combine available devices . All of the books of Filaha (agriculture), whether Maghribi, Andalusian, Egyptian, Iraqi, Persian or Yemenite, Bolens points out, insist meticulously on the deployment of equipment and on the control of water .
3. Agricultural Machines and Construction
Water that was captured through a variety of ways was then successively channelled, stored and lifted using the different techniques and varied devices for each operation. Irrigation became cheap, affecting lands previously impossible or uneconomic to irrigate . Irrigated fields yielded as many as four harvests annually , which, as in Spain, laid the foundations for the country's prosperity . Damming of rivers to provide households and mills with power, and for irrigation, was also widespread . The introduction of the noria (a water lifting device) in any district has always had revolutionary consequences upon agricultural productivity. Being relatively inexpensive to build and simple to maintain, the noria enabled the development of entire huertas that were intensively irrigated .
Figure 4a-b: View of the frontispiece and of the title of Kitab al-filaha al-andalusiya (The Book of Andalusian Agriculture) by Yahya ibn al-Awwam al-Ishbili. Translated into Spanish and annotated by Joseph Antonio Banqueri (Madrid, 1802). The book consists of 35 chapters dealing with agronomy, cattle and poultry raising and beekeeping. It deals with 585 plants; explains the cultivation of more than 50 fruit trees; and includes many valuable observations on soils, manures, plant grafting, and plant diseases. (Source).
In Cordoba, al-Shaqundi (13th century) speaks of 5000 norias (possibly including both lifting and milling devices) on the Guadalquivir . Some are still in use, as at La Nora, six km from the Murcia city centre, where although the original wheel has been replaced by a steel one, the ancient system is otherwise virtually unchanged . In general, these Islamic irrigation techniques that were transferred to Spain were adapted to specific natural conditions . The Muslims, Forbes holds, should be credited with important developments of irrigation in the Western Mediterranean. They did not just extend the irrigated area in Spain and Sicily, but also knew how to drain rivers and how to irrigate their fields by systems of branch channels with an efficient distribution of the available water . They also captured rainwater in trenches on the sides of hills or as it ran down mountain gorges or into valleys; surface water was taken from springs, brooks, rivers and oases, whilst underground water was tapped by creating new springs, or digging wells .
4. Examples of Water Management
Water, such a precious commodity, was managed according to stringent rules, any waste of the resource banned, and the most severe economy enforced. Several techniques for preserving water were used. The qanat and the foggaras are discussed below.
The qanāt is called different names in various parts of the Middle East and North Africa . It is a water management system used to provide a reliable supply of water to human settlements and for irrigation in hot, arid and semi-arid climates. Qanats are constructed as a series of well-like vertical shafts, connected by gently sloping tunnels. Qanats tap into subterranean water in a manner that efficiently delivers large quantities of water to the surface without need for pumping. The water drains relying on gravity, with the destination lower than the source, which is typically an upland aquifer. Qanats allow water to be transported over long distances in hot dry climates without losing a large proportion of the water to seepage and evaporation. Qanats are sometimes split into an underground distribution network of smaller canals located below ground to avoid contamination. In some cases water from a Qanat is stored in a reservoir, typically storing night flow for daytime use.
From Spain, where Muslims used this technology in water management, the qanat system was transferred to the New World and qanats have been found in Mexico, Peru, and Chile. In Palermo, Italy, a qanat system from the Arab days was used to bring fresh water to the city and to irrigate its gardens. There are current plans to revive and reconstruct the Arabic qanat and utilize it to solve the acute needs of the modern city of Palermo for potable water. The project in hand is of great historical, archaeological, geological and hydro-geological importance. It is already of great interest for tourists .
Figure 5: Front cover of the recent paperback printing of the French translation of Kitab al-filaha by Ibn al-Awwam: Le livre de l'agriculture, translated by J.-J. Clément-Mullet (Actes Sud, 2000, 1052 pp.)
In the Algerian Sahara, various water management techniques were used to make the most effective use of the resource. The foggaras, a network of underground galleries, conducted water from one place to another over very long distances so as to avoid evaporation. Although the system is still in use today, the tendency at present is for over-use and waste of water.
The foggaras in the Algeria Sahara are the source of water for irrigation at large oases like that at Gourara. The foggaras are also found at Touat (an area of Adrar 200 km from Gourara). The length of the foggaras in this region is estimated to be thousands of kilometers.
Although sources suggest that the foggaras may have been in use as early as ancient times, they were clearly in use by the 11th century after the oases had come under the authority of Islamic rulers in the 10th century and the residents had embraced Islam .
Still in Algeria, in the Beni Abbes region, in the Sahara, south of Oran, farmers used a clepsydra to determine the duration of water use for every user in the area . This clepsydra regulates with precision, night and day, the amount going to each farmer, timed by the minute, throughout the year, and taking into account seasonal variations. Each farmer is informed of the timing of his turn, and required to take the necessary action to ensure effective supply to his plot . In Spain, the same strict management was in operation. The water conducted from one canal to the other was used more than once, the quantity supplied accurately graduated; distributing outlets were adapted to each soil variety, two hundred and twenty four of these, each with a specific name . All disputes and violations of laws on water were dealt with by a court-whose judges were chosen by the farmers themselves. This court named The Tribunal of the Waters sat on Thursdays at the door of the principal mosque. Ten centuries later, the same tribunal still sits in Valencia, but at the door of the cathedral .
Figure 6a-b: Two editions of Kitab al-Tabikh (The Book of Cookery) by Al-Katib al-Baghdadi (d. 1240). The first edition appeared in Mosul, Matba'at Umm al-Rabi'ayn, 1934 and the second one is a reprint (in Beirut, 1964), with a supplement: Mu'jam al-Ma'akil al-Dimashqiya (A Dictionary of Damascene Dishes) by Fakhri al-Barudi. The author, a native of Baghdad, and an ardent food lover, wrote his book toward the end of the Abbasid Caliphate. He describes in his recipes the different foods and dishes which were prepared by the residents of Baghdad during the era of its opulence. The manuscript of this book is an autograph which the author finished on 20 Dhu al-Hijjah 623 H /12 December 1226.
5. Globalisation of Crops
Elaborating on the Islamic agricultural revolution, the picture that emerges is that of a large unified region which for a long period of time amounting to more than four centuries was unusually receptive to all that was new. It was also unusually able to diffuse novelties: both to effect the initial transfer which introduced an element into a region and to carry out the secondary diffusion which changed rarities into commonplaces. Attitudes, social structure, institutions, infrastructure, scientific progress, technological inventions and economic development all played a part in the making of this medium of diffusion. Agriculture as well as other spheres of the economy and many areas of social life were touched by this capacity to absorb and to transmit .'
Indeed, the advances introduced in agriculture in the Islamic world was represented by a wide use of new methods, machinery and also certain crops which could not have been grown with the typically classical agricultural methods. The Romans had imported rice but had never grown it on a large scale. The Muslims started to grow it on irrigated fields in Sicily and Spain, whence it came to the Pisan plain (1468) and Lombardy (1475) .
In this way, historians agree that the Andalus received all manner of agricultural and fruit-growing processes, together with a vast number of new plants, fruit and vegetables that we all now take for granted . These new crops included sugar cane, rice, citrus fruit, apricots, cotton, artichokes, aubergines and saffron. Others, previously known, were developed further . Muslims also brought to that country rice, oranges, sugar cane and cotton , and sub-tropical crops such as bananas and sugar cane were grown on the coastal parts of the country , many to be taken later to the New World. In addition, all these products and the methods of their cultivation were in turn transmitted to most of Europe.
Figure 7: Kanz al-Fawa'id fi Tanwi' al-Mawa'id: Medieval Arab-Islamic Culinary Art. (edited by Manuela Marin and David Waines in Beirut, 1993). An anonymous medieval Arabic cookbook, possibly of Egyptian provenance, compiled sometime during the Mamluk period. The book contains more than 800 recipes for the preparation of dishes, sweets, drinks and medicines from different regions in the Middle East with frequent health references attached to them. (Source).
Also owing to the 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 items . In Sicily, crops and techniques introduced by the Muslims still form the foundations of the economy . Much of the transfer of such crops often is due to the enthusiasm of individual people. So, Abd al-Rahman I, out of nostalgia for the Syrian landscape was personally responsible for the introduction of several species, including the date palm . A variety of pomegranate was introduced from Damascus by the chief judge of Cordoba, Mu'awiya b. Salih. It is also reported that the Umayyad soldiers originally from the Middle East introduced fig cutting which were planted first in the Malaga region. This species, called safri, subsequently became widely diffused .
The Muslims who had introduced sugar cane into Ethiopia, and who made the East African island of Zanzibar famous for its high quality sugar . Baron Carra de Vaux observes that in general "it would make a whole book and not the least interesting, on the history of flowers, plants and animals that had come from the Orient, and which are used in agriculture, pharmacy, gardens, luxury trade, and arts ." He lists tulips, hyacinths, narcissi, lilacs, jasmine, roses, peaches, prunes, Barbary sheep, goats, Angora cats, Persian cocks, silk, cotton, and plants and products used for dyeing .
Figure 8: Front cover of a recent edition of Kitab al-aghdhiyah wa-al-adwiyah (The Book of Foods and Medicines) by Ishaq ibn Sulayman al-Isra'ili (Beirut, 1992). In this voluminous treatise, the Egyptian Jewish physician Ishaq ibn Sulayman al-Isra'ili (d. ca. 935) who later moved to Kairouan in Tunisia, deals - according to his own experimentation - with the various foods and the best ways for preparing and using them to help the individual maintain good health. This edition was based on the manuscript MS 3604-3607, Fatih Collection, Suleymaniye Library, Istanbul, copied in 708 H/1308 CE.
Notes and References
 See A. M. Watson: Agricultural Innovation in the Early Islamic World, Cambridge University Press, 1983; A. M. Watson, "The Arab Agricultural Revolution and its Diffusion", in The Journal of Economic History 34 (1974), pp. 8-35; Thomas Glick, Islamic and Christian Spain in the Early Middle Ages, Princeton University Press, 1979; T. Glick, Irrigation and Hydraulic Technology: Medieval Spain and its Legacy, Varorium, Aldershot, 1996; L. Bolens, Les méthodes culturales au Moyen Age d'après les traités d'agronomie andalous: Traditions et techniques, Geneva, 1974; L. Bolens, Agronomes Andalous du Moyen Age, Geneva/Paris, 1981 and L. Bolens, "L'Eau et l'irrigation d'après les traités d'agronomie Andalous au Moyen Age (XI-XIIèmes siècles)", Options Méditerranéenes, vol. 16, December 1972, pp. 65-77.
 A. Cherbonneau: "Kitab al-Filaha of Abu Khayr al-Ichbili", in Bulletin d‘Etudes Arabes (Alger), vol. 6, 1946, pp. 130-44; p. 130. See also Abu al-Khayr al-Ishbili, Kitâb al-Filâh'a ou Le Livre de la culture [by Aboû 'l-Khayr ach-Chadjdjâr al-Ichbîlî], notice et extraits traduits par Auguste Cherbonneau, éclaicissements par Henri Pérès, Alger: Carbonel, 1946.
 Frederick B. Artz, The Mind of the Middle Ages, The University of Chicago Press, 1980, 3rd edition revised, p. 150.
 T. Glick, Islamic and Christian Spain in the Early Middle Ages, op. cit., p. 78.
 S. P. Scott, History of the Moorish Empire in Europe, J.B. Lippincott Company, London, 1904, vol. 3, p. 598.
 L. Bolens, "Agriculture", in Encyclopedia of the History of Science, Technology and Medicine in Non Western Cultures, edited by Helaine Selin, Kluwer Academic Publishers, Dordrecht/Boston/London, 1997, pp. 20-2; p. 20.
 T. Glick, Islamic and Christian Spain in the Early Middle Ages, op. cit., p. 75.
 L. Bolens, "Agriculture", op. cit., p. 22.
 S.P. Scott, History, op. cit., p.604.
 A. Watson, Agricultural Innovation, op. cit., pp. 2-3.
 L. Bolens, "Irrigation", in Encyclopedia of the History of Science, Technology and Medicine in Non Western Cultures, op. cit., pp. 450-2; p. 451.
 A. M. Watson, Agricultural Innovation, op. cit., p. 104.
 Ibid, pp. 109-10.
 L. Bolens, "Irrigation", op. cit., p. 451.
 A. M. Watson, Agricultural Innovation, op. cit., p. 104.
 T. Glick, Islamic and Christian Spain, op. cit., p. 75.
 D. R. Hill, Islamic Science and Engineering, Edinburgh University Press, 1993, p. 161.
 Ibid, pp. 159-69.
 T. Glick, Islamic and Christian Spain, op. cit., p. 74.
 Al-Saqundi, "Elogio del Islam espanol", p. 105; quoted in T. Glick, Islamic and Christian Spain, op. cit., p.75.
 D. R. Hill, Islamic Science and Engineering, op. cit., p. 97.
 E. Lévi Provençal, Histoire de l‘Espagne Musulmane, Maisonneuve, Paris, 1953, 3 vols.; vol. 3, p. 279.
 R. J. Forbes, Studies in Ancient Technology, Leiden, E. J. Brill, 1965, 2nd revised edition, vol. 2, p. 49.
 A. M. Watson, Agricultural Innovation, op. cit. p. 107.
 It is called kārīz in Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Central Asia, khettara in Morocco, galleria in Spain, falaj in United Arab Emirates and Oman and foggara/fughara in North Africa. See Sankaran Nair, Etymological Conduit to the Land of Qanat (August 15, 2004; retrieved 22.01.2010).
 Ahmad Y. Hasan, Transfer Of Islamic Technology To The West, Part Ii: Transmission Of Islamic Engineering. See also A. Y. Al-Hasan in Cultural Contacts in Building a Universal Civilization: Islamic Contributions, edited by Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, Istanbul, IRCICA, 2005, pp. 183-223.
 See the following a UNESCO article with numerous clear photographs showing the Foggara in Algeria: Inventory of Traditional Knowledge to Combat Desertification (A-17): Underground Water Catchment Systems (foggara, qanat, etc).
 L. Goonalons, "La Clepsydre de Beni Abbes", in Bulletin d'Etudes Arabes, vol. 3, 1943, pp. 35-7.
 Ibid, p. 37.
 S. P. Scott, History, op. cit., pp. 602-3.
 A. M. Watson, Agricultural Innovation, op. cit., p. 2.
 R. J. Forbes, Studies, op. cit., p. 49.
 G. M. Wickens, "What the West Borrowed from the Middle East", in Introduction to Islamic Civilisation, edited by R. M. Savory, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1976, pp. 120-5; p. 125.
 M. Watt, The Influence of Islam on Medieval Europe, Edinburgh University Press, 1972, pp. 22-23.
 A. Pacey, Technology in World Civilization. A Thousand Year History, The MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1990, p. 15.
 E.Lévi Provençal, Histoire de l'Espagne Musulmane, op. cit., p. 283.
 W. M. Watt, The Influence, op. cit., pp. 22-3.
 Francesco Gabrieli, "Islam in the Mediterranean World", in The Legacy of Islam, edited by J. Schacht with C.E. Bosworth, Oxford Clarendon Press, 1974, 2nd edition, pp. 63-104; p. 75.
 T. Glick, Islamic and Christian Spain, op. cit., p. 76.
 A. Pacey, Technology, op. cit., p. 15.
 Baron Carra de Vaux, Les Penseurs de l'Islam, Paris, Librairie Paul Geuthner, 1921, vol. 2, Chapter X, "Les Sciences Naturelles, Histoires Naturelles", p. 306.
 Ibid, pp. 309-19.
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by: FSTC Research Team, Tue 25 December, 2001