Interview with Dr. Zohor Idrisi

by Kaleem Hussain Published on: 26th May 2009

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In the following interview, Dr Zohor Idrisi sheds light on Islamic agriculture and the culinary art in Muslim heritage. She mentions the various factors that favorised the development of agriculture in the Islamic civilisation, such the use of astronomical knowledge, the availability of an efficient water management system, the introduction of new techniques in irrigation, the use of new varieties of crops and plants. The result was a real agricultural revolution marked by a high productivity, never reached before in history. The last part of the interview hits upon contemporary issues, like environment strategies and consumption habits that we have to learn from the standpoint of Islamic practices based on respect of nature, human wisdom and common sense.


This week’s theme is on agriculture. As you probably realise when you go to the supermarket, you see a whole range of crops and fruits on the shelves, but very rarely you think about the production process upon which they go through before they reach the supermarket shelves. We are very grateful and lucky today to have Dr. Zohor Idrisi.

Thank you very much for being with us today.

Thank you for inviting me to talk about this beautiful topic.

Before I begin I would like to give a brief biographical account of Dr. Zohor. She has done a PhD in History and Geography at SOAS [the School of Oriental and African Studies in London]. After that, she did a PhD thesis on the history of cuisine and agriculture in the Muslim world. She still currently continues to write and research on this field. It is a vast field and she has written a whole range of theses and articles in the field of agriculture and cuisine, especially in relation to the developments in the Muslim world at that time. So if I can begin with the first question.

How did your interest in the field of Agriculture come about and in particular the contributions that Muslim scholars have made in this field?

Whilst I was researching my thesis on world cuisine and its origin, I found myself asking a question when and how such a variety of ingredients did become available in the 11th and 13th centuries, during the Almoravid and Almohad dynasties in Spain and North Africa. I found myself asking how did the carrot come from Afghanistan to Spain, and conversely how did the almond reach India. Why the name banana derives from a Quranic Arab word meaning nafila. These and many other questions, such as the acclimatisation of rice, sugar and cotton, led me to discover that the presence of Islam created a vast change in agriculture in the regions it controlled.

Can you also briefly mention what the situation in terms of agricultural development was like before the contributions that Muslims made in this area?

Well, in terms of agricultural development, Europe was moribund. It just had cereals, root crops such as turnips, leeks, cabbages, peas, beans and fruits, apples and plums and occasionally meat. It was really a dull life and no sugar in any form during the Greek times, it was reported they visited India, I mean that was when Alexander visited India, he said that honey can grow on without bees and he was talking about sugar. On the other hand, in India there were no raisins, almonds, no pistachio, and no cucumber. Even paper, it came from China. China and India were neighbours and we had to wait until later on before the paper was introduced. It is mentioned about the sugar cane and it was known that it was not widely available throughout the country, and the sweet concentrated in northern India where water was more available and so in all areas you had restrictions on either that or this as we see today in India. The feudal system and the rulers regarded investments in technology in contempt. They had plenty of slaves and estate owners acquired land for cultivation. They preferred animals or slave powered mills rather than investing in technology. So I think that we had to wait until the Muslims came on to the scene and we see that Islam invested in informing man, freeing him from slavery and giving him time to control his budget, time with life and reducing the hardship and increasing productivity. I think that was the pre-Islamic period picture.

Can you mention what period we are referring to here?

I think the period will be pre-8th century, it took the Muslims about a hundred years to translate and understand different systems before they started investing.

You have written a very wonderful article called “The Muslim Agriculture Revolution”. Can you briefly mention the factors that enabled this revolution to come about ?

This is the first civilisation that took interest in man and his welfare and the Muslims needed a valid economic basis to support the areas that had fallen to their hands after the fall of the Roman Empire in the 5th century, two centuries earlier. Then when the Muslim era started, it was followed by a disorder, insecurity and famine because most of the aqueducts and canals that existed during the Roman times were disintegrating, due to lack of maintenance. Once this had been repaired and the land was in the hands of people, with strong working incentives, it was necessary to define crops that were profitable to cultivate. Fortunately the Muslims’ botanical repertoire was already expansive and it was constantly increased by merchants bringing back new plants and seeds from their voyages. The skills and the techniques of acclimatisation, coupled with state sponsored irrigation programmes, ensured that valuable crops, such as sugar cane, bananas and cotton, were soon flourishing in areas of Western Europe.

Just to elaborate on this idea of these developments that took place, can you explain some of the irrigation techniques that Muslims introduced into this field and how this fostered the development of a wide variety of crops and fruits?

Well, to start with, there is this magical machine called the noria. We know that it existed in India. We call it the Sind wheel that existed in India around 400 BCE. These are machines that were not really as elaborate as during the Muslim period, because the Muslim engineers were by that time producing and developing hydraulic machines, water raising and water supply throughout the medieval period and after. These devices were introduced from India, to Middle East, North Africa and Southern Europe. The use of the noria spread rapidly, for instance in Catalonia, Spain. That area was previously grazing land. Whilst the water was harnessed, the Valencia area alone had more than 8000 norias built to feed the rice plantation and honestly, rice was not known in Europe anywhere. So it was a new product in the Western world. Similarly, the Algarve, which is Al-gharb, today in Portugal, became the main supply of sugar cane for the West. So in many areas, water became state property, just like fuel and grazing, to ensure that it was distributed equitably.

Also despite the invention of the noria, they had water clocks for pleasure, it is an early form of fulminatory, and they were used to regulate the flow of water by rationing it by periods of time according to the shariah law. Muslim scientists at that time were very advanced in mathematics and mechanics. They invented this automatic water machine. It is a measuring device stored in different areas to irrigate the fields. So the agrarians were able to abandon the practice of leaving the land free to rest for one to three years. They compensated it with land rituals and fertilisers. There were a whole range of products, from pigeon droppings to animal manure. I mean we do not say that animal manure did not exist before but they did not know what kind to implement and how to do it. They excelled in grafting techniques in plants and trees and improve the quality of life of the people by introducing variety of plants like artichokes, spinach, mango, banana or the citrus fruits, lots of gardens around the cities. It was a real cultivation luxurious products. The same initiative was carried in the eastern end of the Muslim domains, for example the dack and plateu in India were within the tropical seasons. It had monsoon from June until October and the remaining months tended to be rainless and dry. Rainfall ranges between 20 and 40 inches. So the dry season remains for 6 to 8 months. The conditions were from semi arid to arid. And the soil there was a crystalline or garniture. There was a necessity to store water for the importance of the agricultural economy in the region.

The Muslims invested large sums of money and labour to widen the reservoir and do some large underground systems to channel this water and that took several decades to do, and the deckan constituted 70 percent of wet crops after that. So just to show you the extent of the work that was done and the spices that was previously single region variety were on a large scale market all over the country and as well as abroad. The European travellers in the 17th century described the port of Masullipatan, today Bandal Masula, I think. They called it the cradle of India because of the number of visitors and traders with different languages. I think India itself in pre-Islamic times fed itself, but many crops were restricted to a specific region including sugar cane that came from North Bengal. Saturen was something they called spice for the sovereign. So these are the impact of this colossal revolution happening in the hands of the Muslim agronomers.

You mentioned briefly whilst commenting on irrigation the emergence of paper. What was the role of travel, language and communication and hence the emergence of paper as a sort of written reference for development in this period, whereby previously there was nothing tangible in a paper format where others could refer to as a source for irrigation techniques?

I would say the obligation first for Muslims was the pilgrimage at least once in the lifetime. The Muslims had to go to pilgrimage and this encouraged geographers map makers and rulers to develop safe routes along which the caravan and the traders would pass and this meant that scholars and botanists could travel anywhere in Muslim domain in complete security. The availability of paper in the 8th century meant that their observations where recorded on the spot. Where before people saw things but paper was not so easy to get, so the first time the scholars themselves were conducting an experiment and teaching wherever they want because the papers and the information were at hand. They also translated these works into several languages for instance we take Ibn Al-Baytar. He was from Spain and he wrote his botanic work in Arabic, Berber, Greek, Latin and Al-Biruni, he gave cinnamons for drugs in Syriac, Persian, Greek, Baluchi, Kurdish and several Indian dialects. So that is thanks to the availability and the production of paper.

One of the most beautiful Muslim heritage sights in the world is the Alhambra Palace in Spain. It has many beautiful gardens with colour and a wide variety of flowers at the same time. What role if any did Muslim ideas in the field of agriculture have in the making of the gardens in the Alhambra Palace or in Spain in general?

Well first of all, the secrets of the Alhambra gardens is constant automatic irrigation and even in the driest period of the year the plants never lacked water. Within the palace grounds, a master piece of hydraulic engineering ensured that water was distributed everywhere, not only for irrigation but to work fountains and water crops. So the marvel of this system is that it does not contain a single pump but relies entirely on gravity and the same expertise and diligence that enabled crops from distant lands to be acclimatised, allowed decorative flower plants from many countries to be grown in the gardens.

Did the Muslims bring any new ideas in terms of ownership of the land during this golden age of agricultural revolution?

Well, no amount of crop or technique would have been of any use without social economic conditions that encouraged the population to expand the land area under cultivation. The feudal system of land tenure ranged at both ends of the Roman Empire. Larger estate belonged to the monarchs or the mobility of the church and the back of the land was in the hands of a small number of people. The slaves were tied to the land and were sold with it or were the land itself. The attitude of the Muslims was totally different. They brought a radical social transformation centred on the ownership of land, and any individual had the right to buy and sell mortgages, lease and fund the land or have it farmed as he liked. If you look at Bukhara in 282 H, any transaction concerning agriculture, industrial commerce or the employment of any servant, involved a signing of a contract of which the copy was kept by either side. Share cropping contract incentives and the worker had a proportion of the fruits of his labour. The worker had either one fifth, one sixth or sometimes even half of the harvest, and that was witnessed by a legalised contract with the landlords and by other individuals so he was sure that he is getting a reward for his work.

You mentioned a wide range of crops and fruits that the Muslims engineered and developed throughout the ages. What impact did the Muslims contribution in the field of agriculture have on the quality of life of people in terms of diet or health as such, because one would presume with the advancement in the diversification of foods available, you would have had some productive impact on the health and quality of life also?

Islam treated all the people equally. The health of the individual was a cornerstone of any ruler’s policy. Hence a preventive approach to health, through diet was a serious matter that only physicians dealt with. So selective health giving diets were recommended throughout the Muslim world. Ingredients that were before restricted to palaces were gradually democratised by the development of agriculture. So recipes, medical preparations to preserve health were written and published. New types also of fother and selective breeding made the meat available and that added to a wider range of fruits and vegetables and another important fact, a great selection of coloured textile increased the quality of life of the populations so the hammams (public baths) and hygiene. There were hammams to be found in every quarter of the Muslim town and soap that was unknown before Islam was produced with a variety of scents and the development of chemistry made perfume which was available to everyone. So this is just to tell you how these affected the hygiene in the houses of the people.

Another question that comes to mind is the life span of people. Was there any difference in the years they lived as a result of these changes in the diets that were happening ?

Definitely, new Islamic cities were springing so it had an effect on that as well.

You mentioned India, but can you also mention briefly how the Muslim contribution also had an impact in African countries and subsequently in other parts of the world?

As we have said, the Muslim scientific contribution was initially greatest in agriculture and especially in irrigation and water distribution, but also the spices that were regarded as luxury products and was the province of the rich like saffron, cardamom and ginger. The extension of the exploitable land or area by irrigation brought farming techniques and the introduction of new crops and now in sub Saharan countries to cultivate such high value plants such as cotton, sugar cane, roses and again making plants like indigo, ginger and other water spices. This changed the economy of Africa and improved the diet of the population through international trade. For instance, you have bills of exchange which were traded between Mali and Indonesia and just by the promise of paying in Indonesia to sign a contract. That is something unheard of, it did not exist before.

Can you touch on the reason as to why Europe was having difficulty in making advancements in this field and, on the other hand, when the Muslims came, they were able to make this field into a great success and also introduce many innovations into this area?

Well I think the key factor here is Islam itself. The society, the Ummah, was self reliant. It had protection, security on roads, and a legal system that covered most problems. People such as botanists and geographers travelled extensively bringing continuous information about what they saw. They recorded information and experimented with it. The farmers were taught as to how to assess their liquidity ratio, all the taxes were paid on the harvest, the government had a return on the capital employed, the farmer respected the ownership and trusted in him and wanted to prove that he was successful in front of the community and he knew that if there is any misbehaving and neglect he is going to be accountable for that and also he could not neglect the land as that is a God given trust and he felt guilty if he was neglecting that. The farmer also benefited from the advances made in astronomy and the compilation of calendars. It told him when to plant, what to plant and when to harvest and his life became much easier because he did not depend on changes of the weather to tell him when the seasons start. He just had to look at the calendar that the state or the local authorities provided him with.

How did the changing of the seasons have an impact on what kind of innovations Muslims may have introduced in this field?

Since the government was introducing new crops, it had provided the cultivation information including proper time for planting and we know of two famous calendars that told people what to do and when to do it. It was the calendar of Cordoba of the 10th century. It was translated into several languages including Latin, Greek and Persian and Hebrew. We know about the second calendar, it is Al-Banna’s calendar of the 14th century. The Arabic version, I have read some of it, was written in rhymes so that people would recite or sing, thereby ensuring that the information was not lost, for example linking the sighting of a certain constellation with what seed to plant and what trees to graft, etc. So it is astronomy that was an ideal indicator because the Muslim farmer was living in the countryside far away from any help or advice. So he could be guided by the appearance of the stars and the calendar provided him with such information.

For the Muslims to succeed in the field of agriculture, one of the key ingredients one would presume would be a productive water management system. What contributions were made in this field to assist in the growing of crops and fruits?

The Muslims were pioneers in terms of introducing capital intensity in the use of dams for producing hydropower, so dams were designed to divert parts of a river’s flow into an irrigation canal. So there were mercenary dams resisting a flow of 100 times greater than normal. One of these dams is still standing in Spain after 1000 years. It is situated in the Turia River. The engineers knew and understood well the problem of structural and hydraulic concepts to match the local conditions. The shariah obliged the head of state to control three main things: water, fuel, energy, and grazing; and they invested heavily in this technique and the body of scholars are the watchdogs of today to ensure that there is no cheating or any misbehaving.

Once the Muslim ideas and contributions in this field became well known, did people in places like medieval Europe try to replicate and apply such ideas in their own countries and lands and if so, how successful were they in such an exercise ?

Well in this context, it is interesting to know that the Muslims were not selfish with their knowledge. As I said earlier, the 10th century Caliph sent copies to the Pope, the German emperor and to Constantinople, and in the case of the countries in southern Europe, it was fairly easy to continue the usage of the methods of the Muslims. However, any attempts to apply Muslims techniques and ideas elsewhere ran into difficulties because of the basic problems of communication and particularly the identification of plants from their Arab names was difficult. The situation was compounded by the fact that Arabic was banned in Spain from the 16th century and faced with this problem and knowing that the Muslims had translated the Greek botanist Dioscorides, it was decided to use this work rather than Ibn Baytar’s of the 12th century. 78 editions later have been drawn before they realised that Dioscorides who lived in 65 of the current era, lived in Egypt and the plants he described did not exist in Western Europe. This confusion inhibited any existence of European agriculture, and the problem of plants identification and classification continued until late 18th century, when the Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus [1707-1778)] devised a system that is still in use today. If you look any plant in the dictionary you will see ‘L’ and ‘dot’ [L.]; that means according to Linnaeus’ classifications.

This question you have already answered quite comprehensively, but I was going to ask to what extent do you feel the West is indebted to the Muslims for the contributions in the field of agriculture, in an age where preserving our natural environment has become an increasingly important topic. Do you feel the contemporary scholars in this area could draw lessons from the Muslim contributions, not only in terms of crop production and irrigation, but also in preserving the natural environment around us at large?

I think that from a Muslims perspective, it is a sin to waste water in Islam, and to be wasteful anyway. Water is regarded as a blessing from Allah. The Muslims know that they must be very economical with water as well with all the commodities, and this is an example that should be respected. We have the example of sewage. Long time ago, the Muslims separated what is called the sweet water, that means drinkable water, from foul water, and we have examples of the workers in Vienna and Florence, when they had the workmen falling from towers because they were drinking only beer, since water was so heavily polluted. That is a good example, and also we know that today everyone is concerned about organically grown vegetables and so on. In the Muslim agricultural era, they used certain principles for repelling insects rather than killing them. Today’s scholars should learn from these topics and they should conduct search into not harming the environment and respect that sort of technique. It was carried on until today.

Can you mention some of the areas and practises introduced by Muslims in this field which are still with us today, they are still being used in contemporary age, today, in places like UK or Europe at large maybe?

The best example I could think of is Holland. We explain how Europe was late in catching up with agriculture and being very restricted in fruits and vegetables variety. Today the upside down noria is removing water instead of bringing it in, then doing the land for agriculture and fertilisation to grow tomatoes, salad, aubergines and all these new products. They were growing under glass. It is quite significant. The Muslim agricultural revolution backwards, but we had to be very careful with the environment and what we are feeding our population.

In terms of today, we have a lot of genetically modified food which is on our shelves, I mean most of these vegetables that you have mentioned in the historical observation must have been natural products which are developed organically naturally. Do you have any comments in terms of what we are eating today and how maybe we should be referring back to these traditional practises, in order that we have more wholesome produce for our own human consumption in this contemporary day and age?

I know that, for instance, the Muslim farmer I have seen at times when I went to see my grandmother, they would not touch the plant until they know where the moon is, because according to the Muslim agronomers, if the moon is affecting the waters on earth, it affects the juice and the taste in plants as well. So they would not touch or harvest any plants or fruits and vegetables until they know the position of the moon, because it affects the taste and the quality of the product. Today we are always rushing, and we don’t have time, and we even do not know where the position of the moon is. This is the calamity, we do not live with our environment anymore, with the natural world anymore. That is how we are at odds with life.

Especially when it comes to human consumption of food, the term used in Islam is Baraka, the blessings that comes from eating such food, and obviously if one realises the process upon which it is going through, it is not really natural and organic then it does make people think twice about what it is they are eating, whereas in terms of the methods you have just explained, based on the contributions Muslims have made, does it make you half want to eat that food in a different kind of light, appreciating the chains that it has gone through.

The first thing that we do when we are sitting is we say Bismillah, and that you sit down, your eyes are not fixed on the television, nor on the computer. You have to sit down and concentrate on what you are eating, because the appetite is visual as well, because the moment you receive a plate, your saliva, your body starts churning all the enzymes that are going to break the food. So if your eyes are on the screen somewhere else, no wonder so many digestive tablets are being sold in the world today, because we do not have any time to sit down and concentrate on what we are eating.

You mentioned quite comprehensively the amazing contributions Muslims have made in this field, what kind of authorities have been indebted to the Muslim contributions from non Muslim scholars? For example in Europe and the West at large, who may have researched and then kind of acknowledged that it was the contributions of the Muslims in their time period that enabled us to benefit in Europe in the time changing developments that took place? Are there any names that comes to mind who were quite respective in their fields?

Well, I think the first one that I think of is Watson. He is someone who wrote something that was really mind boggling, and we also have [Donald] Hill who wrote about the irrigation and all these machinery and technology that was brought by Muslims in all these manuscripts. I think this is quite interesting, but I would say that the world now is not a country but a global participation where people from all over the world are writing for the same Ummah, provided that greed is not put as a priority. There are so many people in writing and going back to what Muslims have uncovered and invented.

Is there any specific practice which you feel should be reintroduced today that is no longer visible in our eyes, or which is not being implemented in the field of agriculture, which you feel based on your research that should be reintroduced for the benefit in this field at large?

Well, I mean as a Muslim I am talking to a Muslim, on one side, and to the people of this country, we must go back to planting herbs in our window sills or in our gardens. This has been neglected, but that was the pharmacy in household where, when somebody had a pain or spasm of anything, people rushed to the camomile, lavender or the mint that was available. We have neglected that greatly, and I think in our cuisine and home scents, we are going out for synthetic scents rather than for the real source of the essential oils. I think if you go back to our roots and treat our symptoms, this huge heritage that was left by our ancestors, we are going to gain a lot and to me that is something that is really paining me, is that we do not know what the plants are for any more, and what the herbs are for, and we had all these botanists, the trail blazers they paid for it with time and endurance to harvest and let us know about this and we are not taking any advantage of it.

I think this also correlates with the medicinal aspects, the medical benefits which these herbs and fruits can provide.

Indeed. As I said, right from the beginning, Islam knew that power to preserve health and maintain the body came from food, and that is how they concentrated on feeding the population, maintaining good health. That is why it was not the cook that wrote the recipe books but the physicians. These are the people who advised people what to eat and in what season. I noticed, with my grandmother, she used to refuse to eat water melon in the winter because the two waters confronted the body full of water in winter, because we are sneezing and coughing and the water melon is all water. So then you should eat something drier than something wet in winter. I wish we could go to this sort of diet. But you think before you eat and not eat because it is fashionable and attractive.

In the West now, especially in places like the United States of America, they are having big problems with issues like obesity. Is there any suggestions you wish to make on those areas, like how human consumption could be changed in light of changes in diet and food products that are available?

Well I think the first thing is that we start lessening our meat, beef, chicken, and lamb and focus on things that grows naturally in the fields and have the real taste of things, rather than have this big chunky leg of meat that do not have any taste but just for the commercial value. That I think is what we do to the animals transform, to the human being. You are what you eat. This is anything genetically modified, we do not have taste anymore. You have the looks but the taste is not there anymore. I watched an American film, and I wondered why people travel with all these tablets for vitamins. It is because we know that the fruit and vegetables are deprived, and they do not have time to have all these nutrients. Therefore we do not have the vitamins that are deriving from the food we eat, and we have to supplement our diets with these tablets. I am not being against it but this is the truth.

Is there anything you can suggest as we have had a lot of diseases springing up in recent times such as mad cow disease. From your research in this field, is there any explanation as to why this is happening on our fields today?

Well, I think we tamper with God’s creation without really conducting research. As I said, you had people in the past, they spent millions of hours experimenting, trying and testing things before they implemented them. Today people are rushing to sell whatever they have by putting it in front of the consumer and advertising it and showing all the goods provided, but that is not the truth. We have to sit down and think about what we are putting in our mouth before we eat.

It has been a pleasure to have you participating in this interview. You have definitely enlightened us in the field of agriculture. We wish you all the very best in your future works.

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