The Islamic Scene



CIVILIZATION is a union of soil and soul—the resources of the earth transformed by the desire and discipline of men. Behind the façade, and under the burden, of courts and palaces, temples and schools, letters and luxuries and arts, stands the basic man: the hunter bringing game from the woods; the woodman felling the forest; the herdsman pasturing and breeding his flock; the peasant clearing, plowing, sowing, cultivating, reaping, tending the orchard, the vine, the hive, and the brood; the woman absorbed in the hundred crafts and cares of a functioning home; the miner digging in the earth; the builder shaping homes and vehicles and ships; the artisan fashioning products and tools; the pedlar, shopkeeper, and merchant uniting and dividing maker and user; the investor fertilizing industry with his savings; the executive harnessing muscle, materials, and minds for the creation of services and goods. These are the patient yet restless leviathan on whose swaying back civilization precariously rides.

All these were busy in Islam. Men raised cattle, horses, camels, goats, elephants, and dogs; stole the honey of bees and the milk of camels, goats, and cows; and 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.1 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.2 Cotton was first cultivated in Europe by the Arabs.3 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 channeled into Mesopotamia, the Tigris into Persia, and a great canal connected the twin 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.

Gold, silver, iron, lead, mercury, antimony, sulphur, asbestos, marble, and precious stones were mined or quarried from the earth. Divers fished for pearls in the Persian Gulf. Some use was made of naphtha and bitumen; an entry in Harun’s archives gives the price of “naphtha and reeds” used in burning the corpse of Jafar.4 Industry was in the handicraft stage, practiced in homes and artisans’ shops, and organized in guilds. We find few factories, and no clear advance in technology except the development of the windmill. Masudi, writing in the tenth century, speaks of seeing these in Persia and the Near East; there is no sign of them in Europe before the twelfth century; possibly they were another gift of the Moslem East to its crusading foes.5 There was much mechanical ingenuity. The water clock sent by Harun al-Rashid to Charlemagne was made of leather and damascened brass; it told the time by metal cavaliers who at each hour opened the door, let fall the proper number of balls on a cymbal, and then, retiring, closed the door.6Production was slow, but the worker could express himself in integral work, and made almost every industry an art. Persian, Syrian, and Egyptian textiles were famous for the patient perfection of their technique; Mosul for its cotton muslin, Damascus for its damasklinen, Aden for its wool. Damascus was noted also for its swords of highly tempered steel; Sidon and Tyre for glass of unexcelled thinness and clarity; Baghdad for its glass and pottery; Rayy for pottery, needles, combs; Raqqa for olive oil and soap; Fars for perfume and rugs. Under Moslem rule western Asia attained a pitch of industrial and commercial prosperity unmatched by western Europe before the sixteenth century.7

Land transport was chiefly by camels, horses, mules, and men. But the horse was too prized to be chiefly a beast of burden. “Do not call him my horse,” said an Arab; “call him my son. He runs more swiftly than the tempest, quicker than a glance…. He is so light of foot that he could dance on the breast of your mistress and she would take no hurt.”8 So the camel, “ship of the desert,” bore most of the freight of Arab trade; and caravans of 4700 camels swayed across the Moslem world. Great roads radiating from Baghdad led through Rayy, Nishapur, Merv, Bokhara, 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. Caravanserais or inns, hospices and cisterns helped the traveler and his beasts. Much inland traffic was borne on rivers and canals. Harun al-Rashid planned a Suez canal, but Yahya, for unknown reasons, probably financial, discouraged the idea.9 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 Arabs 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 with the least possible profit to either. Cities and towns swelled and hummed with transport, barter, and sale; pedlars cried their wares to latticed windows; shops dangled their stock and resounded with haggling; fairs, markets, and bazaars gathered merchandise, merchants, buyers, and poets; caravans bound China and India to Persia, Syria, and Egypt; and ports like Baghdad, Basra, Aden, Cairo, and Alexandria sent Arab merchantmen out to sea. Moslem 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 Moslem 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 Moslem and Jewish merchants was well established there in the eighth century.10 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.* Ibn Hawqal (c. 975) describes a kind of promissory note for 42,000 dinars addressed to a merchant in Morocco; from the Arabic word sakk for this form of credit is derived our word check. Investors shared in financing commercial voyages or caravans; and though interest was forbidden, ways were found, as in Europe, of evading the prohibition and repaying capital for its use and risk. Monopolies were illegal, but prospered. Within a century after Omar’s death the Arab upper classes had amassed great wealth, and lived on luxurious estates manned by hundreds of slaves.11 Yahya the Barmakid offered 7,000,000 dirhems ($560,000) for a pearl box made of precious stones, and was refused; the Caliph Muqtafi, if we may believe Moslem figures, left at his death 20,000,000 dinars ($94,500,000) in jewelry and perfumes.12 When Harun al-Rashid married his son al-Mamun to Buran, her grandmother emptied a shower of pearls upon the groom; and her father scattered among the guests balls of musk, each of which contained a writ entitling the possessor to a slave, a horse, an estate, or some other gift.13 After Muqtadir confiscated 16,000,000 dinars of Ibn al-Jassas’ fortune, that famous jeweler remained a wealthy man. Many overseas traders were worth 4,000,000 dinars; hundreds of merchants had homes costing from 10,000 to 30,000 dinars ($142,500).14

At the bottom of the economic structure were the slaves. They were probably more numerous in Islam in proportion to population than in Christendom, where serfdom was replacing slavery. The Caliph Muqtadir, we are told, had 11,000 eunuchs in his household; Musa took 300,000 captives in Africa, 30,000 “virgins” in Spain, and sold them into slavery; Qutayba captured 100,000 in Sogdiana; the figures are Oriental and must be discounted. The Koran recognized the capture of non-Moslems in war, and the birth of children to slave parents, as the sole legitimate sources of slavery; no Moslem (just as in Christendom no Christian) was to be enslaved. Nevertheless a brisk trade developed in slaves captured in raids—Negroes from East and Central Africa, Turks or Chinese from Turkestan, whites from Russia, Italy, and Spain. The Moslem had full rights of life and death over his slaves; usually, however, he handled them with a genial humanity that made their lot no worse—perhaps better, as more secure—than that of a factory worker in nineteenth-century Europe.15 Slaves did most of the menial work on the farms, most of the unskilled manual work in the towns; they acted as servants in the household, and as concubines or eunuchs in the harem. Most dancers, singers, and actors were slaves. The offspring of a female slave by her master, or of a free woman by her slave, was free from birth. Slaves were allowed to marry; and their children, if talented, might receive an education. It is astonishing how many sons of slaves rose to high place in the intellectual and political world of Islam, how many, like Mahmud and the early Mameluks, became kings.

Exploitation in Asiatic Islam never reached the mercilessness of pagan, Christian, or Moslem Egypt, where the peasant toiled every hour, earned enough to pay for a hut, a loincloth, and food this side of starvation. There was and is much begging in Islam, and much imposture in begging; but the poor Asiatic had a protective skill in working slowly, few men could rival him in manifold adaptation to idleness, alms were frequent, and at the worst a homeless man could sleep in the finest edifice in town—the mosque. Even so, the eternal class war simmered sullenly through the years, and broke out now and then (778, 796, 808, 838) in violent revolt. Usually, since state and church were one, rebellion took a religious garb. Some sects, like the Khurramiyya and the Muhayyida, adopted the communistic ideas of the Persian rebel Mazdak; one group called itself Surkh Alam—the “Red Flag.”16 About 772 Hashim al-Muqanna—the “Veiled Prophet” of Khurasan—announced that he was God incarnate, and had come to restore the communism of Mazdak. He gathered various sects about him, defeated many armies, ruled northern Persia for fourteen years, and was finally (786) captured and killed.17 In 838 Babik al-Khurrani renewed the effort, gathered around him a band known as Muhammira—i.e. “Reds”18—seized Azerbaijan, held it for twenty-two years, defeated a succession of armies, and (Tabari would have us believe) killed 255,500 soldiers and captives before he was overcome. The Caliph Mutasim ordered Babik’s own executioner to cut off Babik’s limbs one by one; the trunk was impaled before the royal palace; and the head was sent on exhibition around the cities of Khurasan19 as a reminder that all men are born unfree and unequal.

The most famous of these “servile wars” of the East was organized by Ali, an Arab who claimed descent from the Prophet’s son-in-law. Near Basra many Negro slaves were employed in digging saltpeter. Ali represented to them how badly they were treated, urged them to follow him in revolt, and promised them freedom, wealth—and slaves. They agreed, seized food and supplies, defeated the troops sent against them, and built themselves independent villages with palaces for their leaders, prisons for their captives, and mosques for their prayers (869). The employers offered Ali five dinars ($23.75) per head if he would persuade the rebels to return to work; he refused. The surrounding country tried to starve them into submission; but when their supplies ran out they attacked the town of Obolla, freed and absorbed its slaves, sacked it, and put it to flames (870). Much encouraged, Ali led his men against other towns, took many of them, and captured control of southern Iran and Iraq to the gates of Baghdad. Commerce halted, and the capital began to starve. In 871 the Negro general Mohallabi, with a large army of rebels, seized Basra; if we may credit the historians, 300,000 persons were massacred, and thousands of white women and children, including the Hashimite aristocracy, became the concubines or slaves of the Negro troops. For ten years the rebellion continued; great armies were sent to suppress it; amnesty and rewards were offered to deserters; many of his men left Ali and joined the government’s forces. The remnant was surrounded, besieged, and bombarded with molten lead and “Greek fire”—flaming torches of naphtha. Finally, a government army under the vizier Mowaffaq made its way into the rebel city, overcame resistance, killed Ali, and brought his head to the victor. Mowaffaq and his officers knelt and thanked Allah for His mercies (883).20 The rebellion had lasted fourteen years, and had threatened the whole economic and political structure of Eastern Islam. Ibn Tulun, governor of Egypt, took advantage of the situation to make the richest of the caliph’s provinces an independent state.

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