World History 2 50 - 4.1.2 Islamic Trade Networks

Islam had arisen in a region defined by trade and travel. Many prominent early Muslims, including Muhammad himself, were traders or members of trading families. And thanks to the institutional continuity specified under sharia, Islamic religious law, trade soon became closely regulated, the taxes levied on imported goods were systematized, and markets were inspected and administered in the same way throughout the Islamic world. By the sixteenth century, the flags of Islam flew from Spain and Morocco in the west to the gates of China in the east. However, these territories were not unified under one political leader. Instead, what brought them together into one collective ummah despite their political, ethnic, and linguistic differences was a network based on trade and travel, which carried Islam farther than its armies ever could.

Trade routes crisscrossed the larger Islamic world, connecting far-flung regions. By sea, Muslim merchants traded from India and Southeast Asia (especially the country of Indonesia) to East Africa, Egypt, and the Arabian Peninsula. Muslims in central Asia and China traded overland with merchants in Iran, East and North Africa, and the Balkans. Caravans crossing the Sahara extended trade into West Africa. Along these trade routes traveled merchants, missionaries, scholars, and many others. Their movement facilitated not only the expansion of Islam but also the spread of languages like Arabic and Persian, which became the languages of commerce, scholarship, and literary expression. It also allowed for the flow and exchange of new technologies, ideas, precious metals, writing and numerical systems, and a great variety of agricultural products once available only in small corners of the world (Figure 4.6).

A map of southern Europe, most of the African continent, Arabia, Iran, India, China, Java, and the Indian Ocean is shown. Maritime routes are shown with a purple line travelling through waterways between Java in the Indian Ocean, up to stops along the coasts of China, India, Iran, Arabia, and Somalia in eastern Africa, and going up the Suez Canal as well. Land routes shown with orange lines are shown going between land in China, India, Iran, northern Arabia, and crisscrossing most of Northern Africa down to Somalia in the eastern portion of Africa.
Figure 4.6 Muslim merchants conducted trade over a vast territory, dominating land routes in central Asia, Iran, and the Ottoman Empire. Sailors from India, Yemen, and Iran participated in a thriving Indian Ocean trade. (credit: modification of work “World map blank shorelines” by Maciej Jaros/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

Dhimmi and other non-Muslim populations were frequently encouraged to participate in trade because of their specializations and contacts in distant areas. Armenian Christians, for example, were heavily involved in the silk trade, and their presence was welcomed in major trade centers. Jewish communities were linked by a trade network they had established between Europe, North Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia. Being exempt from the financial provisions of sharia, which forbade charging interest on loans, Jewish people rose to prominence as moneylenders and bankers, usually serving both Muslim and Christian clients. (Jewish law forbade them to loan money at interest to other Jewish people.) And Muslims traveled and traded widely, guided by Muhammad’s often-cited hadith, or saying, “Seek knowledge, even unto China.”

Islamic communities sprang up along the Silk Roads, the land routes between the Middle East and China, and in other places where Muslim merchants traveled, such as East Africa, West Africa, and India. When merchants established themselves in non-Muslim communities, they often intermarried with the local population, and the children resulting from these marriages were usually raised as Muslims. Members of the existing merchant community often converted to Islam to forge closer relationships with Muslim traders. Once a Muslim community had been established, religious scholars often followed to found mosques, schools, and charitable organizations. In this way, Islam spread throughout Asia, Africa, and the Balkans.

When merchants arrived in a new city, they usually selected a prayer leader, often a member of the ulama who also served as a judge. A Muslim market inspector vouched for the accuracy of weights and measures, verified business contracts between Muslim merchants, certified the sizes of loads being shipped out, and ensured that businesses adhered to sharia. The consistency with which Muslim merchants and traders operated was a key advantage of contracting with them to transport goods long distances. Another benefit was the widespread use of letters of credit, which were recognized in other Islamic lands and allowed merchants to travel without carrying large amounts of gold.

Trade earned profits for participating states in two ways. The first was by bringing in direct income from importing and selling goods, including spices, ivory, salt, silks, and other luxury items, as well as enslaved people. Given their central location at the crossroads of Europe, Africa, and Asia, Muslim merchants frequently acted as intermediaries who purchased goods from one area and sold them to merchants from another. The second financial benefit of trade was the receipt of taxes that states levied on goods being transported through their territory.

Given the profit potential of the goods traded, robbers and bandits were a constant threat. Governments thus sponsored inns called caravansaries at regular intervals on major trade routes, usually one day’s journey apart, where traders could rest and store their goods securely (Figure 4.7). Wealthy individuals might also build caravansaries, providing shelter for travelers as an act of piety. Weak states that could not guarantee security for traders and travelers often found trade routes shifting out of their territory if they became too risky.

A picture of a large, open, square fortress-like structure is shown in the middle of a barren desert. The front shows a tall, open, rectangular entrance with smaller ornately carved doors to either side. Another ornate doorway in a wall is shown running down the middle of the structure. The back wall shows another tall open doorway with three smaller doorways on either side. Most of the structure is open with only the four corners showing clay roofs in irregular dimensions. Two cloaked people are shown walking into the main doorway. A small square, metal building is located in the front left of the picture and a car is shown parked in the forefront. One road is shown in the right of the picture leading into the background.
Figure 4.7 This caravansary in Iran was built in the twelfth century and served as a fortified place for travelers to rest. Caravansaries were usually located far from urban centers in areas that were (and still are) quite remote. (credit: modification of work “Ribat-i Sharaf (or Robat-e Sharaf)” by “Rezamosh”/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

Link to Learning

The influence of caravansaries on trade and images of architectural elements of caravansaries and floor plans are available.

Some caravansaries are still in existence. Check out caravansaries of the Silk Road and caravansaries in Turkey to learn more.

In addition to the shipment of material goods like agricultural products, precious metals, and spices, the transportation of enslaved people was also facilitated along Islamic trading routes. Since sharia forbids Muslims from enslaving other Muslims, it became common practice to enslave non-Muslims from regions within reach of Islamic slavers. Common sources included North and sub-Saharan Africa, central and eastern Europe, India, and Indonesia. Enslaved people being moved around the Islamic world were traded for a great variety of goods like cloth, pottery, glassware, and precious metals. Muslim traders also acted as intermediaries, passing enslaved people from Africa to merchants in central Asia and Europe, and they were the primary traders engaged in transporting enslaved people across the Sahara Desert (Figure 4.8).

A drawing of a straw roofed hut is shown. There are two tiers. At the top, open tier, three black-bearded men kneel in gold trimmed colorful turbans and draped clothing. The man on the left is pointing with his hands, while the man in the middle is holding a scale and looking at the man at the right, who is looking back at him and pointing to a flat basket below the scale. On the lower tier, people are shown in front of a wall of the hut. In the left corner of the drawing a man with a white cloth covering his face, dressed in a blue long shirt with a gold trimmed red cape is shown pushing away a shorter person next to him in a green long dress and white turban. They have long black hair and have a scared expression on their face. In the bottom middle three African people sit on the stone road dressed in white cloths, with some colorful shirts and pants peeking through. They are motioning with their hands. A pale skinned man is behind the African person on the right, wearing a yellow shirt and a white cloth on his head. In the right corner of the drawing there is a black-bearded man in a long blue shirt, gold trimmed red cape, gesturing with his hands. He wears an ornate turban on his head. Arabic text runs along the top and bottom of the drawing.
Figure 4.8 This page from the Maqamat al-Hariri, a thirteenth-century manuscript illustrated by Yahya ibn Mahmud al-Wasiti, depicts the Zabid slave market in Yemen. (credit: “Slaves Zadib Yemen 13th century” by Bibliothèque Nationale de France/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

Within the Islamic world, women outnumbered men among the enslaved two to one. Men were primarily employed in domestic work or service within the estates of the rich, laboring on irrigation projects and in mines or taking care of animals. Most women were kept in wealthy households, where they became domestic servants such as nursemaids or were kept for sexual purposes. Although enslaved people did have legal recourse if mistreated or abused, it was difficult for them to access the courts without the aid of a sympathetic free person. There was no social stigma to prevent a slave owner from recognizing his children with an enslaved woman; the children were born free, and the mother gained her freedom upon the death of her owner.

Muhammad encouraged the freeing of enslaved people, and many Muslims did so. Enslaved men and women were also allowed to purchase their own freedom. This, together with the fact that the children of enslaved women and their owners were born free, meant that it was difficult to maintain a permanently enslaved population in the Islamic world or to make the enslaved population self-reproducing. Those who sought to use enslaved workers thus frequently needed to replenish their labor force by making new purchases, ensuring that the trade in enslaved people remained important in the Islamic world until the nineteenth century.

The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 2: from 1400 textbook by Openstax