Arab Trade Expansion in the Age of the Orthodox Caliphs

(i) The Locus of Early Islamic Trade

Paradigms of production and commerce at work in pre-Islamic Arabia have been detailed in previous works.37 The matrices of industry and trade in the three decade era of the four “Righteous Caliphs” – Abu Bakr, ‘Umar, ‘Uthman, and ‘Ali – whose reigns commenced upon the prophet Muh˙ ammad’s death in 11/632 built upon these long established economic systems. From a strictly commercial standpoint, then, this transition, notwithstanding the very profound religious transformation that Islam engendered, may best be viewed as an integral part of a production and trade continuum and not as a tectonic economic watershed. A review of its evolution is illuminating.

For contrarian orientalist contentions to be addressed in subsequent discourse notwithstanding, the Muslim conquerors not only did not discourage the perpetuation of trade, they ensured the secure and stable marketplaces that enabled them to become the consummate traders of their age.

Several historic factors – both socio-economic and geographic – combined to create this “mercantile miracle.” For the Arab society into which Islam was born had enjoyed a long and rich legacy as a progenitor and principal promoter of capitalistic trade.

Indeed, Makkah’s proximate business operating area – sited at the concourse of three continents – Asia, Africa, and Europe – which served as a prime commercial nexus blessed with well water suitable for drinking – was a locale propitious for Arab capitalism to flourish.

West Arabian merchant tribes had participated in a lengthy and productive history of trade relations with Syria, Egypt, Abyssinia, South Arabia, and the Indian subcontinent – and the city enjoyed a particular significance as a midway station between Yemen and the Levant on one of the most famous trade routes of classic antiquity that connected the longstanding international commerce of the East and West.

It traditionally was one of the great caravan towns, and like its predecessors, Petra and Palmyra, it had owed its early prosperity, until the disintegration of the Roman Empire late in the 5th century A.D., to the economic upper classes gathered about the Mediterranean – and to their unending appetites for luxury items such as ivory, horn, spices, incense, aromatics, myrrh, silk, slaves, gold and silver, precious metals jewelry, and other blandishments.

haY<For Makkan merchants since antiquity had been key links in the extended chain of transit trade stops that provided the markets of the Levant and Southern Europe with both precious and industrial merchandise from South Arabia as well as high unit value commodities and exotic art objects from the Indian subcontinent and the Orient.38

Several factors combined to give Makkah, together with its surrounding Hijazi environs, its distinct economic advantages. They included:

(i) its role as a strategic entrepot at the confluence of major caravan routes connecting Asia, Africa, and Europe;
(ii) its significance as the sanctuary of pre-Islamic deities which had enjoyed a longstanding established tradition of drawing in both merchants and other consumers for religious observance;
(iii) its extremely harsh physical environment that made commerce not only an advantageous livelihood, but a necessary one; and finally
(iv) ready access to proximate indigenous precious metals – gold and silver – which created an abundance of “capital surplus” that enabled lifestyles more opulent than its other local natural resources would otherwise dictate.

The intricate commercial network that interlocked the key trans-Arabian land and sea routes, in turn, was a product of these strategic factors. The medieval Arabic sources are explicit, in fact, in documenting:

(i) that 1st/7th century Makkah was at once both a nexus and a source of trans-Arabian regional trade; and
(ii) that there was an intricate network of domestic feeder routes that linked its primary seaports – Jiddah, al-Jar, and al-Sirrayn – to al-Ta’if, al-Yamamah, al-Madinah, Khaybar, Wadi al-Qura, Tayma, al-Hajar, and other inland cities of the Arabian Peninsula.

Thus, into Makkah’s centrally located markets entered many merchants from every quadrant within the region – ranging from Yemen, Aden, Oman, and Bahrain to Persia, Iraq, Greater Syria, Egypt, Abyssinia, and beyond. Already in pre-Islamic times, the city’s religious abodes had drawn many, varied merchants of the Arabian Peninsula to its sanctuaries, both to worship its deities and to ply their trade, particularly at its seasonal fairs.

Now, with the rapid rise of Islam, these rituals of pilgrimage would become incorporated into a religion far more international in scope – as soon, an intricate network of transcontinental pilgrimage and trade routes (Ar. darb, pl. durub), described in detail in Appendix C, would fan out like spokes on a wheel from its municipal center, enticing merchants and their wares from all parts of proximate Asia and Africa.

For as a site of a few noteworthy wells with water suitable for drinking, as noted, Makkah afforded a hospitable meeting place for land caravans traversing the Arabian Peninsula with merchandise from south Arabia moving northward; from Damascus southward; and from Africa, through the seaports of Jiddah, al-Jar, and al-Sirrayn, moving northeastward toward Iraq and Persia. Such situational advantages thus enabled Makkah to engage in commerce with such proximate markets as ‘Adan, ‘Uman, San’a’, Damascus, al-Basrah, al-Kufah, Baghdad,Suhar, al-Qulzum, ‘Aydhab, and al-Fustat.

Indeed, it was precisely this ideal location that originally had given birth to the ancient seasonal suburban markets of ‘Ukaz ˙ , Majannah, and Dhu al-Majaz; and continued to shape Makkah’s commercial character after the rise of Islam as well, notwithstanding the city’s relative shortfall in indigenous natural resources.

It was Makkah’s relative paucity of certain indigenous natural resources, in fact, that was itself a primary impetus for trade – as in addition to serving as a transfer point in the long distance routes between India, Africa, and the Mediterranean region, the city was also, perforce, an important commercial terminus – an incipient source of demand in the commodities trading network that supplied its local citizenry.

For unlike most major caravan centers, Makkah did not enjoy the presence of a major oasis or agricultural area at its center. Hence, many of its most basic staples had to be imported; as its wells, though a source of some succor for travelers, were wholly inadequate to support intensive agricultural irrigation.

For sheer survival, then, vital foodstuffs such as dates, raisins, fruits, vegetables, grains, and cereals had to be brought in from the Yemen, al- Ta’if, al-Yamamah, and such northern oasis settlements as al-Madinah (Yathrib), Khaybar, Wadi al-Qura, and Tayma’. Thus, as in pre-Islamic times, necessity remained an important factor in shaping both the industrial infrastructure and the commercial character of the early Islamic realm.

(ii) The Dynamics of Early Islamic Trade

Given the resource base and strategic location of the West Arabia, then, to more fully perceive the economic dynamic of the early Islamic state, it is first central to understand the economic imperatives that drove its commercial initiatives. For the earliest Muslims, to their credit, were quick to capitalize on their region’s geographic advantages and its natural endowments, while concurrently mitigating its inherent disadvantages to optimize its mercantile potentials.

Quite naturally, since the earliest converts to Islam had included members of the Quraysh tribe, from whence Prophet Muhammad had come, the region’s lengthy legacy of experience in mercantile endeavors trade was perpetuated in the formative years of the Islamic polity.39

As a result, though the religion’s rise and attendant conquests forever altered the territorial dimensions of West Arabian trade, at the onset, it did not appreciably change either its underlying operating parameters or its economic motivations – as its longstanding commitment to commerce continued unabated. For in addition to those principal caravan land routes previously described, early Arab commerce focused upon the Red Sea – a principal Asian-African conduit of maritime trade since antiquity.

The Romans, when it was their prime channel of trade with “Arabia Felix,” called it the Erythraean Sea (“Sea of the Red King”); 40 whereas medieval Arab historians, in tribute to its commercial significance for the territory surrounding Makkah, often labeled it Bahr al-Hijaz (the “Hijazi Sea”).41

The early “Makkan Commonwealth,” as stated, enjoyed three prime seaports on the Red Sea – al-Jar to its northwest, Jiddah to its west, and al-Sirrayn to its southwest. Of these ports, Jiddah was clearly the most prominent. Because of its proximity to Makkah – and later al- Madinah when the prophet Muhammad transferred his seat of power there (though the latter capital was also well served by al-Jar) – not only did Jiddah allow for direct shipping to the Levant through Aylah, but also to Egypt through al-Farama’, al-Qulzum, and ‘Aydhab, as well as to the other east coast ports of Africa – and because it opened onto the Indian Ocean, it likewise afforded access to the Orient.42

The 4th/10th century geographer al-Muqaddasi refers to Jiddah, together with al-Jar, as “twin granaries of Makkah” and the “emporium” (matrah, literally meaning “dumping ground”) of Egypt and the Yemen via the Red Sea which, cognizant of its global outreach, he often refers to as Bahr al-Sin (the “Sea of China”). In one particular shipping season, he estimates, some 3,000 camel-loads of grain and flour were dispatched from the Egyptian milling village of al-Mashtul to the seaport city of al-Qulzum to be shipped to Jiddah to supply foodstuffs to incoming Makkan pilgrims.43

Al-Azraqi, in turn indicates that a special quarter (later known as the Dar Mis ˙ r) was devoted exclusively to the Egyptian trade. To safeguard commerce, the Islamic navy reportedly carried out security patrols on key shipping lanes on the Red Sea. Of Jiddah and its companion port al- Jar, al-Muqaddasi asserts that:44

Supporting the commercial activities of this region were two ports on the Red Sea Coast, Jiddah and al-Jar, linking them to inland markets of Egypt and Wadı al-Qura, which offered market ingress to Syria and Iraq.

To Jiddah’s north, al-Jar acted as a subsidiary base serving land routes traversing Makkah – as well as the principal Red Sea port serving al- Madı¯nah to the northeast. Indeed, because of its commercial significance, the early caliphs spent substantial resources renovating and outfitting this port to enable it to handle large merchandise volumes. The medieval Arab geographers ‘Arram al-Sulami and Ibn Hawqal state that it was situated about three days journey from al-Madinah and that it was also frequented by ships from such far reaching regions as Abyssinia, Egypt, Bahrain, and China.

Ibn al-Faqih and Ibn Khurradadhbih, in turn, indicate that ships visited it from such diverse places as North Africa, India, and the Orient – and that, in fact, that the Red Sea was often referred to as the Bahr al- Jar (the “Sea of al-Jar”); whereas Ibn ‘Abd al-Hakam relates the arrival of ships bearing grains to al-Jar from Egypt during the caliphate of ‘Umar b. al-Khattab (r. 13/634–23/644).45

A third port, al-Sirrayn, also no longer extant, was approximately “four to five days journey” south of Jiddah. According to al-Muqaddası ¯, it was known for its quality dates, honey, and other natural delicacies. In addition to these products, it transacted shipments of grains from Yemen to Makkah, al-Madinah, and other West Arabian cities. It reportedly engaged in substantial trade with Abyssinia, particularly in slaves, as well.46

Across the Red Sea, various medieval Arab geographers describe in some detail the shipment of commodities from the Levant and Europe via the Mediterranean to Alexandria, then via camel to al-Farama’, a principal port on Egypt’s eastern Red Sea coast; and from there, by sea, on to Jiddah. Ibn Khurradadhbih speaks of a broad variety of products – among them, slaves, skins, furs, silks, and silk brocades – transiting this route.47

‘Aydhab was another principal Egyptian Red Sea port whose long legacy of thriving commerce is glowingly described by Ibn Khurradadhbih, al-Muqaddasi, Ibn Hawqal, and others; whereas Yaqut depicts it as a primary link connecting East Africa to Jiddah, thence to the ports of Yemen, and on eastward to India and the Orient.48

Another principal Egyptian port serving Jiddah on the western shore of the Red Sea that gained significant importance after the rise of Islam in Arabia was al-Qulzum. Indeed, one of the very administrative acts attributed to ‘Amr b. al-‘As, the Muslim conqueror and governor of Egypt, was to clear and reopen the ancient trans-Egyptian canal – built in Pharaonic times, and later restored by the Roman emperor Trajan – that connected the Nile north of “Babylon” with this vital seaport. Upon its opening, this crucial waterway was relabeled the: “Canal of the Commander of the Faithful,” according to various sources.

Al-Ya’qubi recalls that on one occasion, occurring within two years of Egypt’s initial conquest in 20/641, a fleet of some twenty ships, laden with products from Egypt, passed through this canal destined for ports on the Arabian peninsula.49

Yet another important maritime and land route trading partner of Jiddah at this time was the historic south Yemeni port city of ‘Adan – a major entrepot linking the Arabian peninsula with the ports of the Orient. This seaport is frequently referred to in the medieval sources as dahliz al-sin ( the“vestibule to China”) – as from it, ships could sail directly to Canton.50

Key products reaching Jiddah via ‘Adan at this time, according to the medieval Arabic sources, included silk, musk, black pepper, spices, coconuts, sandalwood, aloe wood, a variety of other woods, ceramics, porcelain, ebony, various potions, and later, paper. In return, local products such as ivory, gum arabic, aromatics, horses, textiles, and various metals manufactures were shipped eastward to the Orient.51

The voluminous merchandise transiting these medieval Arab seaports was, of course, directly integrated into the extensive network of trans-Arabian land routes described in some detail in Appendix C – as the early Muslims were simultaneously extensively engaged in significant overland commerce.

Indeed, contemporary caravan trade was clearly then “big business” – as the twin cities of Makkah and al-Madinah, as shown, were located astride highly significant traditional caravan routes linking southern Arabia with Iraq and Syria, and the Mediterranean and East Africa with central Asia as well as the Orient.

These key conduits of commerce – combined with the physical and economic factors that underwrote their mercantile traffic – thus combined to give the early Muslim rulers of West Arabia a well entrenched legacy of trade – and an heritage upon which their caliphal successor dynasties soon would build.

This, then, was the capitalistic milieu – the “Petrie Dish” of nascent entrepreneurship and trade – into which the Islamic religion was born – and over which, the three-decades-long administrations of the four “Righteous Caliphs” presided – creating a dynamic economic system that would be perpetuated throughout the Umayyads’ subsequent 89 year reign; and indeed, for nearly a full century thereafter, well into that of their dynastic successors, the ‘Abbasids.

Source: Gene W. Heck, Charlemagne, Muhammad, and the Arab Roots of Capitalism, pp. 51-58.


37) Cf. G. Heck 2003, pp. 91–169 passim.
38) On this, see Nihayat al-Arab fı Akhbar al-Furus wa al-‘Arab, British Museum, MS. Add. 23298, fol. 174A.
39) On this point, see Ibn Jubayr 1907, p. 67.
40) See Periplus 1927, p. 50.
41) Abu Shamah 1879, vol. 2, pp. 35, 37; Ibn Wasil 1957, vol. 2, p. 12; Ibn Iyas 1960, vol. 4, p. 109.
42) Prophet Muhammad relocated from Makkah to al-Madinah at the onset of the year 1/(September) 622. Ibn al-Mujawir 1951–1954, p.52; al-Hashimi 1915, p.69; cA. Sulayma¯n 1973, p. 192; idem. n.d., p. 97; M. al-Qusi n.d., p. 95.
43) Al-Muqaddasi 1906, pp. 18, 79, 97; see also Ibn Khurradadhbih 1889, p. 153.
44) Al-Azraqi 1858, p. 474; al-Muqaddasi 1906, pp. 18, 97.
45) ‘Arram al-Sulami 1953, p. 398; Ibn ‘Abd al-Hakam 1961, pp. 31, 223; Ibn al- Faqih 1885, p. 78; Ibn Khurradadhbih 1889, pp. 153–154; al-Muqaddasi 1906, p. 97.
46) See al-Muqaddasi 1906, p. 8;H. al-Jasir n.d., p. 5.
47 Ibn Khurradadhbih 1889/1906, pp.54ff., 153; al-Muqaddasi 1906, pp.91–92; M. al-Qusi n.d., p. 33.
48) Cf. Ibn Khurradadhbih 1889, pp.153–154; al-Muqaddasi 1906, pp.18–19; Yaqut 1877, vol. 4, p. 171.
49) Al-Ya’qubi 1892, p. 240; idem. 1893, vol. 2, p. 177; Ibn ‘Abd al-Hakam 1922, p. 220; al-Zubayr b. Bakkar 1961, vol. 1, p. 487; al-Muqaddasi 1906, p. 197.
50) Al-Muqaddasi 1906, p. 79; al-Ansari 1923, p. 216; al-Sayrafi Akhbar al-Sin wa al-Hind, vol. 1, as related in M. al-Qusi n.d. pp. 46, 114.
51) Ibn ‘Abd al-Rahim n.d., fols. 71–73; al-Muqaddasi 1906, pp. 79–80, 97. The Arabic word for “porcelain,” al-sini, in fact, derives directly from the Arabic word for “China” = al-sin.

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