The author of the following article
is Salah Zaimeche BA, MA, PHD of the "Foundation
of Science Technology and Civilization."
For the full article, please use the link below.
books in schools usually convey the notion that
the agricultural revolution took place in recent
times in the form of rotation of crops, advanced
irrigation techniques, plant improvements, etc...
some such changes only taking place in the last
couple of centuries in Europe, and some even taking
is explained that such revolutionary changes fed
the increasing European population, released vast
numbers from the land and allowed agriculture
to produce a capital surplus, which was invested
in industry, thus leading to the industrial revolution
of the 18th-19th century.
is the accepted wisdom until one comes across
works on Muslim agriculture and discovers that
such changes took place over ten centuries ago
in the Muslim world, some such changes being the
foundations of much of what we have today.
Glick and Bolens, in particular, indeed, show
that the major breakthroughs were achieved by
Muslim farmers on the land, and by Muslim scholars
with their treatises on the subject.
as with other subjects, prejudice distorts history,
Muslim achievements of ten centuries ago covered
up; a point raised by the French scholar, Cherbonneau,
who holds: 'It is admitted with difficulty that
a nation in majority of nomads could have had
known any form of agricultural techniques other
than sowing wheat and barley.
misconceptions come from the rarity of works on
the subject... If we took the bother to open up
and consult the old manuscripts, so many views
will be changed, so many prejudices will be destroyed.'
early as the ninth century, a modern agricultural
system became central to economic life and organization
in the Muslim land.
great Islamic cities of the Near East, North Africa
and Spain, Artz explains, were supported by an
elaborate agricultural system that included extensive
irrigation and an expert knowledge of the most
advanced agricultural methods in the world.
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.
defines the Muslim agricultural revolution in
the introduction of new crops, which, combined
with extension and intensification of irrigation,
created a complex and varied agricultural system,
whereby a greater variety of soil types were put
to efficient use; where fields that had been yielding
one crop yearly at most prior to the Muslims were
now capable of yielding three or more crops, in
rotation; and where 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
Whilst for 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.'
advancement of Muslim farming, according to Bolens,
was owed 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 Maghreb,
culmination subtler than a simple accumulation
of techniques, it has been an enduring ecological
success, proven by the course of human history.'
in their variety, were used according to a well-advanced
methodology; whilst a maximum amount of moisture
in the soil was preserved.
rehabilitation was constantly cared for, and preserving
the deep beds of cropped land from erosion was,
according to Bolens, again, `the golden rule of
ecology,' and was `subject to laws of scrupulous
Scott, 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 tunneled through the
mountains; his aqueducts went through deep ravines,
and he leveled with infinite patience and labor
the rocky slopes of the sierra (in Spain).
rise of productivity of agricultural land and
sometimes of agricultural labour owe to the introduction
of higher yielding new crops and better varieties
of old crops, through more specialised land use
which often centred on the new crops, through
more intensive rotations which the new crops allowed,
through the concomitant extension and improvement
of irrigation, through the spread of cultivation
into new or abandoned areas, and through the development
of more labour intensive techniques of farming.
changes, themselves, were positively affected
by changes in other sectors of the economy: growth
of trade, enlargement of the money economy, increasing
specialisation of factors of production in all
sectors, and with the growth of population and
its increasing urbanisation.
from Andalusia to the far East, from the Sudan
to Afghanistan, remained central, `the basis of
all agriculture and the source of all life.'
ancient systems of irrigation the Muslims became
heirs to were in an advanced state of decay, and
Muslims repaired them and constructed new ones;
besides devising new techniques to catch, channel,
store and lift the water, and making ingenious
combinations of available devices.
of the Kitab al-Filahat (book of agriculture),
whether Maghribi, Andalusian; Egyptian, Iraqi;
Persian or Yemenite, Bolens points out, insist
meticulously on the deployment of equipment and
on the control of water.
so precious a commodity in a more Islamically
aware age, was managed according to stringent
rules, any waste of the resource banned, and the
most severe economy enforced. Thus, in the Algerian
Sahara various water management techniques were
used to make the most effective use of the resource.
Foggaras, a network of underground galleries,
conducted water from one place to the other over
very long distances so as to avoid evaporation.
Although the system is still in use today, the
tendency at present is for over-use and waste
of water. Still in Algeria, in the Beni Abbes
region, in the Sahara, south of Oran, farmers
used a clepsydra to determine the duration of
water use for every user in the area.
clepsydra regulates with precision, and night
and day, the amount going to each farmer, timed
by the minute, throughout the year, and taking
into account seasonal variations. Each farmer
is informed of the timing of his turn, and summoned
to undertake necessary action to ensure effective
supply to his plot.
Spain, the same strict management was in operation.
The water conducted from one canal to the other
was used more than once, the quantity supplied
accurately graduated; distributing outlets were
adapted to each soil variety, two hundred and
twenty four of these, each with a specific name.
disputes and violations of laws on water were
dealt with by a court-whose judges were chosen
by the farmers themselves, this court named The
Tribunal of the Waters, which 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.
Loss of Ecological Balance
`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.'
It was colonialism, she recognises, which subsequently
and seriously upset the traditional agricultural
balance in order to increase profitability for
decline of agriculture as the destruction of other
aspects of Islamic civilisation had, however,
begun with the various invaders, from the Crusaders
to the Mongols, from the Banu Hillal to the Normans
and Spain's conquistadors in the West. Such invasions
caused the ruin of irrigation works, destroyed
permanent crops, closed down trade routes, and
caused farmers to take flight.
Muslim farmers also became over taxed by their
new masters in Christian Spain and Sicily, and
were exterminated in those countries; their system
perishing with them.
later colonisers, the French, only finished off
whatever was left. No better place to see that
than in Algeria, where the French on arrival in
1830 found a much greener country than the one
they left 130 years later, and a population living
more or less in harmony with its environment.
In their wars of devastation against Algerian
resistance, the French destroyed the garden rings
that surrounded towns and cities, cutting trees
that, they deforested whole regions to exploit
timber, and took all fertile lands from their
Muslim owners, forcing them to subside on arid
lands, and in the vicinity of forests causing
during the war of independence 1954-62, the French
set ablaze millions of acres of forest lands;
and then departed, leaving a legacy of bareness
and hostility to greenery from which the Algerians
have not recovered yet.