The Arab Agricultural Revolution was the transformation in agriculture from the 8th to the 13th century in the Islamic region of the Old World. The agronomic literature of the time, with major books by Ibn Bassal and Abū l-Khayr al-Ishbīlī, demonstrates the extensive diffusion of useful plants to Medieval Spain (al-Andalus), and the growth in Islamic scientific knowledge of agriculture and horticulture.
Transformation in agriculture
Medieval Arab historians and geographers described al-Andalus as a fertile and prosperous region with abundant water, full of fruit from trees such as the olive and pomegranate. Archaeological evidence demonstrates improvements in animal husbandry and in irrigation such as with the sakia water wheel. These changes made agriculture far more productive, supporting population growth, urbanization, and increased stratification of society.
Medico-botanical books have been produced since the dawn of civilization; records from Egypt, Mesopotamia, China, and India reflect a tradition that existed before man discovered writing. Conversely, nothing in the West evidences such antiquity.
The first herbal in the Greek language was written in the 3rd century B.C.E. by Diocles of Carystus, followed by Crateuas in the 1st century C.E. The only consistent work that has survived is by Pedanios Dioscorides of Anazarba “De Materia Medica” (65 C.E.). He remains the only known authority amongst the Greek and Roman herbalists.
The first treatise written on agriculture in the West was just after the fall of Carthage; it was a Roman Encyclopaedic work written by Cato the Elder (234-149 B.C.E.) on medicine and on farming that was called “De Agricultura”, the oldest complete Latin prose on this subject.
However, the stability of the world in which these works were compiled came to an end with the disintegration of the Roman Empire. In places where the authority of the empire no longer existed, its haphazard replacement by the early stages of feudalism brought little stability. Conflicts for the possession of the land were liable to break out anywhere. Civilization was near to collapse and all development halted. This dismal situation prevailed until the advent of Islam (7th century C.E.).
Establishment of Islamic Economics: Arab Agricultural Revolution
In 711 C.E., within a century of the establishment of Islam, the area under Muslim influence had become one of robust economic development capable of yielding the wealth necessary to finance the protection of an area stretching from the foot of the Pyrenees to the frontiers of China. The widespread patronage of intellectual works was a key factor in this development and this resulted in the flowering of Islamic culture and civilization in the Muslim world.
This civilization had such momentum that despite constant threats of invasion and internal dissension – huge strides were made in agriculture, medicine, and science. Hence a wide range of raw materials and the means of adapting them for curing illnesses and for enhanced forms of nutrition became available.
This great movement in agriculture was largely due to the central government sponsoring an extensive network of irrigation canals. In the Near East, good results were achieved. However, in the West, the situation was less promising. The Iberian peninsula subsistence level agro-economy was only rudimentary.
In fact, it was defined by race. The Visigoth herder overlords jealously protected their stock-rearing interests whilst their conquered subjects produced wheat, barley, grapes, olive oil, and a few vegetables, all inherited from their previous Roman masters. Thus the only links between the two systems were those of tribute or taxes.
Once the Muslims had assumed control of the province, there was a need to define which crops to cultivate. Fortunately, the Arab botanical range was already extensive and growing rapidly. In their territorial expansion, the Muslims had come across plants and trees, which were hitherto unknown to them, whilst their merchants brought back exotic plants, seeds, and spices from their many voyages.
Many of the more valuable crops such as sugar cane, bananas, and cotton needed plenty of water or at least a monsoon season. Thus to cultivate them, a widespread artificial irrigation system would be needed. Artificial irrigation was in fact better known to the Muslims than the crop rotation system of colder European lands where it was felt necessary to leave the land fallow, i.e. to recover, for one year in three or four.
However, artificial irrigation implied a need to raise water by several meters to guarantee a constant flow within the system. An ideal device existed for such tasks in the form of the Noria, the various forms of which represent a subject that merits its own particular study. Hence the Noria became the basis of sophisticated irrigation systems.
The use of Norias spread rapidly to the extent that, in some areas, the water system became state property to ensure equitable distribution. In the Valencia area alone some 8,000 norias were built for the needs of rice plantations.
Correct calculation of levels was essential, a task that the successors of Roman agrimensores with their chains of specific length were ill-equipped to perform. In this, the Muslims had the advantage of the advances they had made in mathematics thus making triangulation possible and hence the accurate measurement of height.
The Muslims did not waste time in haphazard agricultural trials but achieved maximum output by learning how to identify suitable soils and by mastering grafting techniques for plants and trees. The written works and oral traditions of ancient peoples were painstakingly recorded, whilst exchanges between experts became increasingly frequent so that in all major towns the libraries were full of learned works on agriculture.
Civilization of Travelers
Arising as they did from a civilization of travelers, the Muslims combed the known world for knowledge and information, journeying in the harshest of environments as far afield as the Steppes of Asia and the Pyrenees. In this context, the discovery of paper stimulated on-the-spot detailed recording of their journeys and observations.
This plethora of records and information built up to a level that prompted the compilation of encyclopedic works.
- Kitab nabat (a treatise on plants) by Abu Hanifa Al-Dinawari (d.282/895 CE)
- Al filaha nabatiya (Nabatean agriculture) by Ibn Wahshiyya (IXth century)
- Al Biruni (973-1048) Kitab al saydana (Pharmacopoeia) – large pharmaceutical encyclopedia
- Ali B. Sahl Rabban al Tabari (d. 240/855) Firdaws al hikma
- Ibn Baqunesh (Abu Othman Saïd Ben Muhamed) (d.1052 CE)
- Ibn Bassal (Abu Abdullah Muhamed Ibn Ibrahim) (d.1100 CE)
By the 12th century in Al Andalus, botany was converted from its role as a purely descriptive science and achieved the status of academic science. This century was seen as the golden age of Islamic botany with such great scholars as:
- Abu’l Abbas an Nabati (Ibn Rumiyya) d. 636 AH/1239 CE
- Ibn Baytar (1197-1248 CE), Tafsir Kitab Diasquridus – Jami’ al mufradat al adwiya wal aghdiya
- Al Ghafiqi (d.1166 CE), author of “Kitab jami‘ al mufradat ” (materia medica) .
- Ibn Al Awwam, 12th-century author of “Kitab al filaha” (treatise on agriculture)
- Ibn Bajja (d. 1138 C.E.), Kitab al nabat Liber de plantis (Latin transl.), defining sex of plants.
- Najib Eddin as Samarqandi (d.1222 C.E.) wrote a treatise on the medical formulary.
The scholars themselves conducted their experiments and taught everywhere, including mosques and weekly markets. This is confirmed by the fact that Ibn Baytar’s work was recorded in Arabic, Berber, Greek, and Latin whilst Al Biruni’s Pharmacopoeia gives synonyms for drugs in Syriac, Persian, Greek, Baluchi, Afghan, Kurdish and Indian dialects, etc.
Their linguistic capabilities demonstrated their intention of spreading knowledge amongst all nations, as was the case with the distribution of the agricultural Calendar of Cordoba in the 10th century. The Calendar of Cordoba is an example of the type of information provided as an aid to agriculture.
In the aftermath of the Roman Empire conquerors, such as the Visigoths, installed regimes in which the monarch, the nobility, and the church fathers owned the bulk of the land, the burghers, who were in charge of municipal affairs, had less than 25 acres each, whilst the serfs were the cultivators and were yoked to the land and were sold with it.
Attitude of Muslims
The attitude of Muslims was different since they understood that real incentives were needed if productivity were to reach levels that might significantly increase wealth and thereby enhance tax revenues. The Muslims brought revolutionary social transformation through changed ownership of land. Any individual had the right to buy, sell, mortgage, inherit the land and farm it or have it farmed according to his preferences.
Furthermore, every important transaction concerning agriculture, industry, commerce, and employment of a servant involved the signing of a contract of which a copy was kept by each side.
The second incentive principle that was gradually adopted was that those, who physically worked the land, should receive a reasonable proportion of the fruits of their labor. Detailed records of contracts between landlords and cultivators have survived with the landlord retaining anything up to one-half.
Thus with all the enhancements and incentives already mentioned, the stage was now set for agricultural development on a scale hitherto unknown. The motivations that prompted phases of agricultural development were of two kinds:
- Political, namely conscious decisions by the central authority to develop under-exploited lands.
- Market-driven, invariably involving the introduction, by means of free seeds, advice, and education and by the introduction of high-value crops or animals to areas where they were previously unknown.
Consequently, crops and livestock were introduced initially for subsistence purposes, leading to a level of economic security that ensured wealth for all. The quality of life was enhanced by the introduction of artichokes, spinach, aubergines, carrots, sugar cane, and various exotic plants. Vegetables were available all year round, obviating the need to dry them for winter. Citrus and olive plantations became a common sight, whilst market gardens and Jannat (orchards) sprang up around every city.
All this involved intense cropping and imposing heavy demands on land fertility but the technique of intensive irrigation agriculture with land fertility replacement had now been mastered. In the field of development for economic ends, animal husbandry was of prime importance for its manure in addition to its meat. The latter was now plentiful in places where in the past it had been a luxury.
The fine quality of the wool of the Maghreb soon became known throughout the world. Selective breeding using animals from different parts of the known world resulted in significant improvements in horse stocks and provided the Saharan caravans with the best load-carrying camels.
By contrast, the African countries, instead of relying on the products of their flocks for food, were now able to eat a more balanced diet that included a variety of fruits and vegetables whilst the introduction of cotton and indigo gave them a useful cash crop. Improvements in irrigation made it possible to cultivate this high-value plant in the sub-Saharan countries where other dye-making plants were also introduced.
In a world that had previously known only flax and wool as textiles, silk and cotton production spread rapidly. Cotton, originally from India, became a major crop in Europe (Sicily and al Andalus) and the overall result was a democratization of what had been rare luxury goods in the past. Within a relatively short period, mankind could use a wider range of textiles for his clothing which was available in a greater variety of colors.
Sugar cane, of Indian origin, was known in the 6th century at the Sassanid court. Because of the endeavors of botanists and agronomists, it spread to Egypt, Syria, Morocco, al Andalus, and Sicily.
Thus, within barely a century of the Muslim conquest, the landscape in the area under Muslim control had changed so radically that it is fair to describe the process of transformation as the Muslim Agricultural Revolution. The elements of the success of this revolution can be summarised as:
- The extension of the exploitable land area by irrigation.
- The rapid implementation of improved farming techniques derived from the collection and collation of relevant information throughout the whole of the known world.
- Incentives are based upon the two principles of the recognition of private ownership and the rewarding of cultivators with a harvest share commensurate with their efforts.
- Advanced scientific techniques allowing people like Ibn Baytar to challenge the elements by growing plants, thousands of miles from their origins that could never have been imagined to grow in a semi-arid or arid climate. The introduction and acclimatization of new crops and breeds and strains of livestock into areas where they were previously unknown.
Increase in Urbanization
Another feature of the growth of the Muslim domain was the increase in urbanization that was facilitated by scientific improvements in the fields of hygiene and sanitation. The farmer for his part benefited from the advances made in astronomy.
The measurement of time and of the onset of the seasons and even the prediction of weather became more precise and reliable, as the farmer became informed of the solar movement through each zodiacal sign. He also profited from the compilation of calendars that told him when to plant each type of crop, when to graft trees, when and with what to fertilize his crops, and when to harvest the fruits of his labors.
Whereas in the past he had lived in a world where he rose and lay down with the sun and relied upon changes in weather to tell him when the seasons might be due, he now lived in a world where his decisions were much easier to make. It now became feasible to think in terms of growing each of his crops for a specific market at a specific time of the year.
Furthermore, the same calendar that aided the farmer in his activities also carried recommendations about what to eat and what to avoid at each time of the year. This in turn facilitated the farmer’s task of deciding what to plant in relation to future demand.
Diffusion of New Crops and Agricultural Methods
Some historians have called the diffusion of new crops and agricultural methods to the West through Muslim Spain an agricultural revolution because they had a major impact not only on agricultural production but also on incomes, population levels, urban growth, distribution of labor, industrial output, clothing, cooking, and diet. Moreover, agricultural technologies Muslims took to Spain eventually reached the New World.
Diffusion of Crops
As many as 40 percent of the Spanish immigrants to South and Central America between 1493 and 1600 were from Andalusia (Muslim Spain), and they took with them their crops and irrigation technology. The most important of these crops were sukker (sugar) and qutn (cotton), which became two of the most prominent “cash crops” in the world during the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance.
(Cotton may have been taken to the Americas from Asia in antiquity, or there may be indigenous varieties because the inhabitants of the Americas were already cultivating and weaving cotton when the first Europeans arrived.) When the resources of the New World were combined with plants and technologies from the Old World, the global economy was vastly expanded.
Cash crops are grown for export, not for local consumption, and these crops can be highly profitable to those who grow them, particularly if a cheap labor force is available. As the cultivation of popular new crops spread around the world, the European craving for products such as sugar, coffee, indigo dyes, and cotton also brought an increase in slavery.
The first cultivation of coffee has been traced to about 1100 in the area of Arabia along the Red Sea. Though this variety is classified as Coffea Arabica, botanical evidence indicates that it was discovered around 850 on the plateaus of central Ethiopia, several thousand feet above sea level. There are several legends about a shepherd who noticed his goats behaving in a strange manner after eating the red coffee beans.
According to one legend, he took some of the beans to his village, where everyone liked the way the berries kept them awake during prayer. Initially, coffee was brewed from green unroasted beans, which created a beverage similar to tea. The great Persian physician Ibn Sina (980-1037) is known to have administered coffee as a medical treatment. By the thirteenth century, Arabs were roasting and brewing the beans to make coffee and using it as a beverage as well as for medicinal purposes.
Large-scale cultivation of the coffee bean was rare until the fifteenth century when extensive orchards were planted in Yemen. From there the plant spread throughout the Arabian peninsula and into the Ottoman Empire of Turkey. One of the earliest documented coffee shops is the Kiva Han, which opened in Constantinople in 1475, but there were probably earlier coffee shops on the Arabian peninsula. Coffea Arabica became so popular that laws were passed to forbid anyone from exporting fertile coffee plants to non-Muslim regions. This law, of course, was unenforceable. When coffee became popular in Europe, many fortunes were made by exporting it from ports such as Alexandria, Egypt.
The earliest citrus fruits were rather bitter and considered undesirable for human consumption. The flowering trees that produced these fruits first appeared in Southeast Asia and India, and the modern versions of oranges, lemons, and limes probably evolved naturally by insect cross-pollination in China, which had a wide range of citrus varieties. As early as 4000 B.C.E. the domestic cultivation of lemons, limes, and oranges was occurring at several sites in China, India, and Malaysia.
These new hybrid fruits spread westward through trade and were well known in the Mediterranean region before the time of Christ. Sweet oranges were depicted on a mausoleum erected by the Byzantine emperor Constan-tine I in the fourth century.
During the Middle Ages, Arab traders introduced many new varieties of citrus fruits to Europe, where lemons, limes, and oranges were once so rare that they were given to children as Christmas gifts. Eventually, Spain became well known for gardens that included citrus trees. Citrus became important during the Age of Exploration (1400-1700) when ship captains learned that these fruits could prevent outbreaks of scurvy, a disease caused by lack of vitamin C.
An important Muslim fiber crop, cotton probably originated in India or Egypt, both of which have a long history of cultivation and weaving of cotton fabrics. During pre-Islamic times it spread to China and—via the Indian Ocean maritime trade as far as East Africa.
Muslims developed a stronger, higher-yielding variety of cotton, which was disseminated by traders, facilitating the economic development of Muslim regions and stimulating a vast industry that produced many kinds of textiles.
When this variety of cotton was grafted to the cotton discovered in the New World, the result was a stronger variety with longer fibers. This new cash crop became one of the greatest sources of income that supported European colonization and economic growth in the Americas.
As cotton cultivation spread, the production of dyes also became important. Indigo, a blue dye obtained from the leaves of a plant that originated in India, spread to Muslim lands, where it was cultivated in Persia, Egypt, and Morocco. Indigo-dyed textiles have been found in Roman graves of the second and third centuries.
Indigo dye became so valuable that imitations were developed in Europe, leading indigo traders to produce pamphlets explaining how to test fabrics for “true blue,” an expression still in use today. Another highly valued dye was the brilliant red hue that came from crushing female cochineal insects found on grasses in Persia and Armenia.
Because of its high price, other cheaper and less brilliant reds were later produced from cochineal insects found growing on cacti in Mexico and the Andes Mountains of South America.
A high-yield staple crop, sugar owes much of its dissemination to Islamic technology. The cultivation of sugarcane was introduced to Persia from India shortly after the Muslim conquest at Nihavand in 642.
Sugar cultivation followed the spread of Muslim rule from Persia across North Africa to Muslim Sicily and Spain, and from Spain to the Atlantic islands off the coast of southern Europe, reaching the Canary Islands by the 1500s. It also traveled east, reaching China.
According to Marco Polo, Egyptian sugar technicians were brought to China so they could teach the people of Fukien Province how to refine the crop.
The high level of technology needed to irrigate sugarcane and refine the sugar made it difficult for small, independent farmers to produce and process this crop, and throughout the Muslim Mediterranean region, sugar production became controlled by large, state-owned farms and factories.
The sugarcane was broken and peeled on the farm and then transported to the refinery, which processed it into various forms. Sugar was the earliest cash crop grown in the New World.
On his second voyage, Columbus took sugarcane to the West Indies, where it thrived, and the Spanish introduced the production of sugarcane to the Caribbean island of Hispaniola in 1517, providing labor by importing slaves from West Africa and thus stimulating the African slave trade.
The first Arabic book on agronomy to reach al-Andalus, in the 10th century, was Ibn Wahshiyya’s al-Filahat al-nabatiyya (Nabatean Agriculture), from Iraq; it was followed by texts written in al-Andalus, such as the Mukhtasar kitab al-filaha (Abridged Book of Agriculture) by Al-Zahrawi (Abulcasis) from Cordoba, around 1000 AD.
The eleventh-century agronomist Ibn Bassal of Toledo described 177 species in his Dīwān al-filāha (The Court of Agriculture). Ibn Bassal had traveled widely across the Islamic world, returning with a detailed knowledge of agronomy. His practical and systematic book both gives detailed descriptions of useful plants including leaf and root vegetables, herbs, spices, and trees, and explains how to propagate and care for them.
The twelfth-century agronomist Abū l-Khayr al-Ishbīlī of Seville described in detail in his Kitāb al-Filāha (Treatise on Agriculture) how olive trees should be grown, grafted (with an account of his own experiments), treated for the disease, and harvested, and gave similar detail for crops such as cotton.
Medieval Islamic agronomists including Ibn Bassal and Abū l-Khayr described agricultural and horticultural techniques including how to propagate the olive and the date palm, crop rotation of flax with wheat or barley, and companion planting of grape and olive. These books demonstrate the importance of agriculture both as a traditional practice and as a scholarly science.
In al-Andalus, there is evidence that the almanacs and manuals of agronomy helped to catalyze change, causing scholars to seek out new kinds of vegetables and fruit, and to carry out experiments in botany; in turn, these helped to improve actual agricultural practices in the region.
During the 11th century Abbadid dynasty in Seville, the sultan took a personal interest in fruit production, discovering from a peasant the method he had used to grow some exceptionally large melons, pinching off all but ten of the buds, and using wooden props to hold the stems off the ground.
Islamic animal husbandry
Archaeological evidence from the measurement of bones (osteometry) demonstrates that sheep in southern Portugal increased in size during the Islamic period, while cattle increased when the area became Christian after its reconquest.
The archaeologist Simon Davis assumes that the change in size signifies improvement by animal husbandry, while in his view the choice of sheep is readily explained by the Islamic liking for mutton.
During the period, irrigated cultivation developed due to the growing use of animal power, water power, and wind power. Windpumps were used to pump water since at least the 9th century in what is now Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan.
The Islamic period in the Fayyum depression of Middle Egypt, like medieval Islamic Spain (al-Andalus), was characterized by extremely large-scale systems of irrigation, with both the supply, via gravity-fed canals, and the management of water under local tribal control.
In the Islamic period in al-Andalus, whose rural parts were equally tribal, the irrigation canal network was much enlarged. Similarly, in the Fayyum, new villages were established in the period, and new water-dependent orchards and sugar plantations were developed.
The sakia or animal-powered irrigation wheel was likely introduced to Islamic Spain in early Umayyad times (in the 8th century). Improvements to it were described by Hispano-Arabic agronomists in the 11th and 12th centuries. From there, sakia irrigation was spread further around Spain and Morocco.
A 13th-century observer claimed there were “5000” waterwheels along the Guadalquivir in Islamic Spain; even allowing for medieval exaggeration, irrigation systems were certainly extensive in the region at that time. The supply of water was sufficient for cities as well as agriculture: the Roman aqueduct network into the city of Cordoba was repaired in the Umayyad period, and extended.
Early accounts of Islamic Spain
Medieval Andalusian historians such as Ibn Bassam, Ibn Hayyan, and Ibn Hazm, and geographers such as al-Bakri, al-Idrisi, and al-Zuhri, described Islamic Spain as a fortunate entity.
Indeed, the tenth-century Jewish scribe Menahem Ben Saruq wrote to the Khazar king “The name of our land in which we dwell in the language of the Arabs, the inhabitants of the land, al-Andalus the land is rich, abounding in rivers, springs, and aqueducts; a land of corn, oil, and wine, of fruits and all manner of delicacies; it has pleasure-gardens and orchards, fruitful trees of every kind, including [the white mulberry] upon which the silkworm feeds”.
al-Maqqari, quoting the ninth-century Ahmad ibn Muhammad ibn Musa al-Razi, describes al-Andalus as a rich land “with good, arable soil, fertile settlements, flowing copiously with plentiful rivers and fresh springs.”
Al-Andalus was associated with cultivated trees like olive and pomegranate. After the Christian reconquest, arable farming was frequently abandoned, the land reverting to pasture, though some farmers tried to adopt Islamic agronomy. Western historians have wondered if the Medieval Arab historians were reliable, given that they had a motive to emphasize the splendor of al-Andalus, but evidence from archaeology has broadly supported their claims.
- Ahmad Y. al-Hassan and Donald R. Hill, Islamic Technology: An Illustrated History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press / Paris: Unesco, 1987).
- Paul Lunde, “Muslims and Muslim Technology in the New World,” Aramco World, 43 (May-June 1992): 38-41.
- Andrew M. Watson, Agricultural Innovation in the Early Islamic World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983).
- The Muslim Agricultural Revolution by Zohor Idrisi.