World History 2 51 - 4.1.3 Technology in the Islamic World

Despite the absence of centralized political authority, communication across long distances was possible in the Islamic world because Arabic, the language of the Quran, also served for most scholarly and administrative purposes as well as religious ones. Scholars were widely scattered but rarely were they isolated, and most traders carried letters across long distances as part of their cargo. Scientists were thus able to compare their observations, students learned from advisers and mentors in far-off lands, and members of the ulama sought counsel from colleagues they might never meet.

Because of the dominance of trade and travel in the Islamic world, scientific and technological innovations that supported these endeavors were especially prized. Mapmaking, for example, was particularly valued. Maps were created by geographers who collected information about the known world through either their own observations or knowledge disseminated by others. For example, in 1513, the Ottoman admiral and cartographer Piri Reis completed a map of the known world (Figure 4.9). To do so, he relied on observations made by Christopher Columbus, Portuguese explorers in India, and several Arab sources. Unfortunately, only about one-third of his map has survived.

A rectangular fragment of a map is shown with torn, worn edges and stains. The Atlantic Ocean, Europe, Africa, and Brazil are shown. Images of ships appear in the waters. On land, images of animals, people, terrain, and buildings are shown. Script appears along the left edge of the map. Lines are drawn throughout the map leading to and from circles on the map.
Figure 4.9 The only remaining portion of the world map created in 1513 by the Ottoman cartographer Piri Reis shows the Atlantic Ocean bordered by Europe, Africa, and Brazil. (credit: “Map of the world by Ottoman admiral Piri Reis, drawn in 1513” by Library of Topkapi Palace Museum/Wikipedia, Public Domain)

One of the travelers who produced a wealth of geographic information for Islamic mapmakers was Ibn Battuta, a fourteenth-century Moroccan reputed to have traveled more than seventy-three thousand miles during his lifetime. He initially journeyed to Mecca to perform the hajj, the Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca, but then decided to continue exploring north and east of Arabia instead of going home. He eventually made his way to China, returning via East Africa and crossing the Sahara to Mali as an envoy of the king of Morocco. Toward the end of his life, Ibn Battuta dictated his memoirs of his travels, which not only were important for mapmakers of his time but also remain a valuable primary source for historians today. Other travelers also produced hajj narratives that pilgrims often used as guides to the lands they passed through.

Beyond developing devices useful for trade and travel, Islamic innovators also devised systems for using location and compass headings to calculate the qibla, the direction toward Mecca that Muslims must face while praying. Early methods relied on crude directions (“Mecca is east”), but by the ninth century, mathematical calculations were being used. By the fourteenth century, mathematics had progressed to the degree that Shams al-Din al-Khalili, the official timekeeper of Damascus, applied advanced trigonometry to calculate the qibla for a range of locations with such precision that today’s satellite technology is barely able to improve on it. These and other efforts to fix a person’s location on the globe led to advancements in astronomical measurements, as did the need to calculate prayer times each day based on the sun’s position in the sky.

Military technology, especially the use of gunpowder, also greatly advanced in this period. Originally developed in China, gunpowder was transmitted to the Islamic world in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, possibly first introduced by the Mongols. By the fifteenth century, the Janissary corps of the Ottoman Empire were using firearms like the arquebus, an early long gun, in battle. And it was the Ottomans who famously used artillery in the siege of Constantinople in 1453. The Ottoman Empire was not the only Islamic state to use and improve upon gunpowder arms. Both the Safavids in Iran and the Mughals in India were famous for their ability to arm their soldiers with firearms like the powerful matchlock rifle (Figure 4.10).

A man with a black moustache wears a long, blue belted shirt with two slits along the bottom, red pants, and ornate blue and orange slippers. On his head he wears an orange hat with a white cloth tied around it. He holds a blue and orange rifle over his left shoulder with his left arm and is putting something on a string toward his mouth with his right. His belt holds many colorful, hanging objects as well as a long orange scarf.
Figure 4.10 The matchlock, shown here in the arms of a Mughal officer in the sixteenth century, was a powerful and portable firearm used by Ottoman, Safavid, and Mughal armies. (credit: “Officer of the Mughal Army, c.1585 (colour litho)” by The Bridgeman Art Library/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

In 1974, historians Marshall G. S. Hodgson and William H. McNeill theorized that the adoption of gunpowder technology was what led to the rise of the Ottoman, Safavid, and Mughal realms, coining the term “gunpowder empires” as a description of them. Today that theory is largely disputed, but the name has remained. What these empires had in common was their conception of the entire state as a military force, in which all political, economic, and cultural resources were coordinated by the central government to strengthen the army and maintain internal and external security. Their view of the state and their ability to consolidate resources in order to pay for technological advances also enabled these three empires to research, develop, and deploy new military technologies, including firearms and cannon, much more quickly than their enemies did. For more than two centuries, they were among the strongest and most stable economies in the world, and their patronage of art and culture produced works of visual art, architecture, and literature that are still considered among the best ever produced. Collectively, the so-called gunpowder empires earned the awe, envy, respect, and fear of their contemporaries in Europe, Africa, and Asia.

Dueling Voices

Perspectives on Trade in the Muslim World

An emphasis on how Muslims should conduct business affairs is found in some of the hadith or sayings of the prophet Muhammad, himself a trader. Sunni Muslims consider hadiths collected by al-Bukhari, Abu Dawud, and Ibn Majah among the most authentic guides to behavior. Shi‘ites place more faith in stories narrated by Muhammad’s daughter Fatima and her husband, Muhammad’s cousin Ali ibn Abi Talib, whom they recognize as the Prophet’s direct successor as leader of the Muslim community.

There will be three types of people whom Allah will neither speak to them on the Day of Resurrection nor will purify them from sins, and they will have a painful punishment: They are, (1) a man who possesses superfluous water along the road who withholds it from travelers. . . . (3) a man who sells something to another man . . . and swears a false oath that he has been offered so much for it whereupon the buyer believes him and buys it although in fact, the seller has not been offered such a price.

—Sahih al-Bukhari 7212

Hakim asked [Muhammad]: “A man comes to me and wants me to sell him something which is not in my possession. Should I buy it for him from the market?” [Muhammad] replied: “Do not sell what you do not possess.”

—Sunan Abi Dawud 3503

Transactions may only be done by mutual consent.

—Ibn Majah Vol. 3, Book 12, Hadith 2185

Almost a millennium later, the philosopher and historian Ibn Khaldun wrote about the importance of governments allowing trade:

As we have stated, the dynasty is the greatest market, the mother and base of all trade. [It is the market that provides] the substance of income and expenditures [for trade]. If government business slumps and the volume of trade is small, the dependent markets will naturally show the same symptoms, and to a greater degree. Furthermore, money circulates between subjects and ruler, moving back and forth. Now, if the ruler keeps it to himself, it is lost to the subjects. This is how God proceeds with His servants.

Muqaddimah, Chapter 3, section 40

  • According to the hadith, what are some of the ethical standards that should govern business? Why do you think these were made part of religious law?
  • According to Ibn Khaldun, why is allowing trade important for a government? What would happen if governments restricted it?

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