Muslim Contribution to Spanish Agriculture

by FSTC Published on: 23rd February 2006

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This article describes some of the numerous Muslim contributions to the development of Spanish agriculture, including the introduction of new crops, more intensive use of irrigation, soil management, and scholarly efforts in farming innovation. Such was the impact of farming in Muslim civilisation that the effects are still prevalent to this day.

‘Acequia Mayor’
A Muslim pioneered irrigation
channel that is still in use
(Alche – Spain)

As early as the ninth century, a modern agricultural system became central to economic life and organisation in the Muslim lands. The great Islamic cities of the Near East, North Africa and Spain, as Artz explains, were supported by an elaborate agricultural system that included extensive irrigation and expert knowledge of the most advanced agricultural methods in the world. 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. In the words of Durant, the Muslims:

`…grew a hundred varieties of grains, vegetables, fruits, nuts and flowers. The orange tree was brought from India to Arabia at some time before the tenth century; the Arabs introduced it to Syria, Asia Minor, Palestine, Egypt, and Spain, from which countries it pervaded southern Europe. The cultivation of sugar cane and the refining of sugar were likewise spread by the Arabs from India through the Near East, and were brought by Crusaders to their European states. Cotton was first cultivated in Europe by the Arabs. These achievements on lands largely arid were made possible by organized irrigation; here the caliphs made an exception to their principle of leaving the economy to free enterprise; the government directed and financed the maintenance of the greater canals. The Euphrates was channelled into Mesopotamia, the Tigris into Persia, and a great canal connected the two rivers at Baghdad. The early Abbasid caliphs encouraged the draining of marshes, and the rehabilitation of ruined villages and deserted farms. In the tenth century, under the Samanid princes, the region between Bokhara and Samarkand was considered one of the “four earthly paradises”, the others being Southern Persia, Southern Iraq, and the region around Damascus‘.

According to Scott, 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’. This is supported by Glick as he outlines from a range of sources, that the Muslims introduced many transformations, A further sign of Islamic land revolution was that whilst the rest of Europe crumbled under serfdom and slave labour, the land under Islam was granted to tilling farmers. Under Andalusian ‘Arabs’ Joseph McCabe remarks that ‘great estates tilled by serfs and slaves were rare. Along the course of the Guadalquivir alone there were 12,000 happy villages’.

The Islamic agricultural revolution seems bewildering, as it literally revolutionised the whole land of Islam without exception. This great period of Islamic civilisation elapsed over five centuries, from the 7th century onwards. The lands of Islam thrived and were able to produce burgeoning communities as a result of prosperous farming. For example, according to early geographers and others, there were 360 villages in the Fayyum (a province in Egypt south of Cairo), each of which could provide for the whole of Egypt for a day; there were 12,000 villages along the Guadalquivir; the coast between Tangiers and Melilla (north Africa), which today is almost entirely abandoned, was densely settled and prosperous; on the road between Gafsa and Feriana, a part of Tunisia which today is desert, there were 200 villages; and that along the Tigris (Iraq), settlement was continuous, to the extent that before dawn crowing cocks answered one another from housetop to housetop all the way from Baghdad to Basra. Other evidences paint the same picture but with greater precision. For example, an eighth-century census of 10,000 villages in Egypt showed that no village had fewer than 500 ploughs. Further, data from the seigneurie of Monreale in Sicily suggest that some hundred years after the Norman conquest of the island—by which time depopulation may already have set in—the rural areas of the seigneurie, amounting to some 1,000 square kilometres, had about 20,000 inhabitants. Almost everywhere frontiers were pushed back, disused space was utilised, and settlement became denser and more continuous—all changes of great significance not only for agriculture but also for the development of trade, communications and central administration. Cities were also growing. This is evidence that in spite of denser rural population, the countryside could export an increasing surplus of food-stuffs to urban areas.

To comprehensively cover all of the factors and causes of this agricultural revolution would require lengthy writing, which is not the intention, or within the scope of this article. Incidentally, to build on the work of Watson, Glick and Bolen would introduce a great step forward in the field of agricultural history. This article does, however, discuss four paramount factors that account for such a revolution: firstly, the introduction of new crops by the Muslims; secondly, the more intensive use of irrigation; thirdly, the better use and management of soil; and finally the role of scholarly works in promoting farming innovations and sciences.

The introduction of new crops by the Muslims

In the pre-Islamic ancient Mediterranean world, generally speaking only winter crops were grown, with each field yielding one harvest every other year. The Muslim expansion however, introduced a variety of new crops, many of Indian origin, to which the Andalusian agronomists, such as Al-Tignarî of Granada make reference to, hence a significant increase.

Baron Carra de Vaux mentions ‘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, sheep of `Barbary’ lands, goats, Angora cats, Persian cocks, silk, cotton, plants and products used for dyeing, etc.. Chief amongst the newly introduced irrigated crops into Spain was sugar cane, which in al-Andalus was watered every four to eight days, and rice, which had to be continually submerged in water. Cotton was cultivated at least from the end of the eleventh century and was irrigated, according to Ibn Bassal, every two weeks from the time it sprouted until August 1st. The Andalusis were self-sufficient in cotton and exported it, according to al-Himyarî, to Ifriqiya and as far south as Sijlmasa. Oranges and other citrus plants were also irrigated, as were many fruit trees and dry-farming crops which do not require watering but that do produce greater yields if they are.

The more intensive use of irrigation

The introduction of new crops, combined with extended and more intensified irrigation, gave rise to a complex and varied agricultural system, whereby a greater variety of soil types were put to efficient use. Thus, fields that had previously yielded only one crop yearly at most, prior to the Islamic period, were now capable of yielding three or more crops, in rotation, per year. With this effort agricultural production responded to the demands of an increasingly sophisticated and cosmopolitan urban population by providing the towns with a variety of products unknown in northern Europe.

Irrigation, from Andalusia to the Far East, from the Sudan to Afghanistan, remained central, ‘the basis of all agriculture and the source of all life’. The ancient systems of irrigation that the Muslims encountered were in an advanced state of decay, and ruins’. The Muslims repaired, adapted and devised new systems, as well as developing new techniques to seize, channel, store and lift the water, besides producing ingenious combinations of available devices and resources. Abu’l Khair (fl early 12th century) the author of Kitab al-Filaha proposes four procedures to collect rain water, as well as other artificially obtained waters, Also, Abu’l Khair stresses the need for the recuperation of rain water for the reproduction of olive trees by cuttings.

Water was seen as a very precious commodity in an Islamically aware age. It was managed according to stringent rules, thus any waste of water was banned. With this in mind, underground tunnelling of water was developed to avoid waste to evaporation known under the system of Qanats or locally in the Algerian Sahara as Foggaras. In Spain, the same strict management of water was in operation. The water directed from one canal to the other was used more than once, the quantity was accurately regulated, and two hundred and twenty four distributing outlets were established, each with a specific name were adaptation to each soil variety. All disputes and violations of laws on water were dealt with by a court whose judges were chosen by the farmers themselves. This court was named The Tribunal of the Waters, and 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.

The better use and management of soil

Watson argues that the Islamic agricultural revolution was by no means confined to heavily irrigated and fertile areas. On the contrary, although the impact of the revolution was greatest in such areas and although these areas may perhaps be regarded as being at the spearhead of agricultural advance, it is also true that the Islamic agricultural revolution effected and benefited extensively from the very best to the very worst land. Virtually all categories of land came to be farmed more intensively. More kinds of soil were used than had been the custom in antiquity, and the agronomical handbooks argued that each soil type should be fully exploited. Ibn Bassal, whose treatise was based completely on practical experience, distinguished between ten classes of soil, assigning to each a different life sustainability, according to the season of the year. He was insistent that fallow be ploughed four times between January and May while, in certain cases (for example, cotton, when planted in the thick soils of the Mediterranean littoral) he recommended as many as ten ploughings. The far greater number of annual ploughings required by the new crop succession and the resultant water loss tended to make Muslim irrigators meticulous in their regard for the water-bearing capacities of each kind of soil.

The role of scholarly works in promoting farming innovations and sciences

A great number of Muslim scientists wrote on farming, and gave practical advice for the advance of agriculture in their land. Writers on farming in the East included Ibn Mammati (d.1209) who lived in Egypt during Ayyubid times. In the following century Djamal Eddin al-Watwat (d. 718/1318) while based in Cairo wrote the Mabahidj al-fikar wa-manahidj al-ibar (unpublished), the fourth volume of which is devoted to plants and agriculture. In the 10th/16th century, a Damascene author named Riyad al-Din al-Ghazzi al-Amiri (935/1529) wrote a large book on agriculture which has not survived. In general, the writers of ancient Arabic works on agriculture dealt with the following subjects:

  • types of agricultural land and choice of land,
  • manure and other fertilizers,
  • tools and work of cultivation,
  • wells, springs, and irrigation channels,
  • plants and nurseries,
  • planting, pruning and grafting of fruit trees,
  • cultivation of cereals, legumes, vegetables, flowers, bulbs and tubers, and plants for perfume,
  • poisonous plants and animals,
  • preserving of fruit,
  • and sometimes, zootechny.

In the West, Ibn al-Awwam writes in detail about the methods for preserving corn, fruits and olive oil. Abu’l Khair (fl early 12th century), proposes four procedures to collect rain water, and other artificially obtained waters. He also informs us about the process of sugar making. Al-Ishbili (fl. end of the 12th century), wrote on soils, fertilizers, water, gardens, trees, fruits and their preservation, ploughing, seeds, seasons and their tasks, cereal farming, harvesting, farming engineering, livestock rearing, veterinary subjects, etc.

The advances made by Muslim farming owe 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 Maghrib, and Andalusia. The success of Islamic farming also lay in hard enterprise. 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, the rocky slopes of the sierra (in Spain).

The advance of Islamic farming was also combined with care for the natural environment. ‘With a deep love for nature, and a relaxed way of life, classical Islamic society,’ Bolens concludes, `achieved ecological balance, a successful average economy of operation, based not on theory but on the acquired knowledge of many civilized traditions. More subtle than a simple accumulation of techniques, Muslim efforts in agriculture have seen an enduring ecological success, proven by the course of human history.’

Image Sources:

Image 1 (Spanish Olives) source:

Image 2 (Irrigation system) source:

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