Islam And Spice

This article tells us us more or less that Muhammad was a spice merchant and that Islam was something of a by-product spread along trade routes.


TED Case Studies

Arab Spice Trade and Spread of Islam: SPICE Case




I. Identification

1. The Issue
From the seventh to the ninth centuries C.E. (Common Era), the Arabs maintained flourishing trade centers. They gained control over the spice trade around 960 B.C.E. (Before Common Era) and continued domination until 1100 C.E. However, this study is concerned principally with the period from the beginning of Islam in the seventh century C.E. until its decline in the 12th century C.E., or more specifically from the 10th century C.E. when it really began to expand beyond the Arab lands. The new religion was spread beyond the Arab lands through two primary methods. The first was conquest through war. The second, less violent, approach was that carried along the spice trade routes. This second approach was far preferable within the teachings of the new religion because it allowed for conversion by means other than force; the more violent path is expressly condemned in the Qur'an. This case study then will be a historic look at the spread of Islam using the spice trade as its chief vehicle, as well as a discussion about data surrounding this agricultural trade's impact on the environment.

2. Description
The Muslim era begins in 622 C.E., which corresponds to 1 A.H. (after hijra) and from which the Islamic calendar is dated. This year marks the date when the Prophet Muhammad made his historic move from Mekka to Yathrib (later Medina), on the Arabian peninsula (contemporary Sa'udi 'Arabia). With his rising influence in his hometown of Mekka, the Prophet Muhammad came into conflict with the powerful Quraish tribe (the people of his own family, but a group in which they held relatively low influence). So in 622 C.E. he accepted an invitation from his neighbors in Yathrib to travel there, becoming a religious leader in that community. The year then marks his journey, called al-hijra, when he abandoned "a pagan and wicked community for one living in accordance with the moral teachings of Islam." (1) It is interesting to note that his way to Yathrib was paved by local traders who had been engaged for quite some time in a commercial relationship with the community in Mekka. This commercial relationship, based principally on the spice trade, had then introduced the people of Yathrib to the new religion and its prophet.

Not long after coming to Yathrib, the Prophet Muhammad was successful in obtaining more converts to Islam and building a more powerful base. This increased power soon brought him into renewed conflict with his Quraishi neighbors. Thus, "he was soon drawn into an armed struggle with Quraish, perhaps for control of the trade-routes, and in the course of the struggle the nature of the community was shaped." (2) As a result, desire for control over these lucrative trade routes resulted in the most significant expansion of Islam -- its return to Mekka and acceptance there.

When the Prophet Muhammad died in 632 C.E., leadership of the Muslim community passed to four rashidun khulafaa', (or rightly- guided caliphs), who maintained their power base in Mekka. After the rashidun khulafaa', there followed a succession of khulafaa' whose empire moved from Mekka (under the rashidun) to Damascus (under the Umayyad empire), and then to Baghdad (under the 'Abbasid empire). There is no evidence to support a theory that expansion during this period was catalyzed by trading connections. Rather, centers of power relocated on the basis of political and familial ties, which may have been augmented by commercial ones.

By the 10th century C.E., Islam had become a more powerful force for two reasons. One is that the religion had had more opportunity to become defined. The Qur'an had been written and fairly widely distributed, and hadith (or a collection of sayings and deeds of the Prophet Muhammad) had been codified. The second reason was the distinction between Muslims and non- Muslims had become more apparent, and more important since in an Islamic society Muslims had certain rights that non-Muslims did not. The rights of these Christian and Jewish non-Muslims were protected by religious law since they are considered worthy of respect and protection because of their unique classification as "People of the Book". However, they did have to pay a special tax (called al-jizya), men of the Book could not marry Muslim women, evidence provided by people of the Book could not be used against Muslims, their houses and churches/synagogues could not be ostentatious, and they could not attain positions of power. (3)

At this same time, too, Muslims began to understand a dichotomous world; either one lived in Dar al-Islam (the House of Islam or Submission) or Dar al-Harb (the House of War). Thus, "by the end of the tenth century there had come into existence an Islamic world, united by a common religious culture expressed in the Arabic language, and by human links which trade, migration and pilgrimage had forged." (4) With this solidified identity came the perfect opportunity to further propagate the word of God -- the spice trade over which Muslims had firm control.

Additionally, wherever Islam went there also travelled the Arabic language. The only acceptable version of the Qur'an is the Arabic one and prayers are performed solely in classical Arabic. Thus, the language also travelled with the religion, as did the culture. It was then for several reasons that it really remained the responsibility of Arabs to spread the new religion. One, it had been revealed to an Arab. Two, it was based in the Arabic tongue. So, in order to fully assimilate into the life of Islam, one had to adopt, to a greater or lesser extent, many of the vestiges of Arabic culture.

Why Spices?

The Islamic heartland straddles the three continents of Asia, Africa and Europe and was central to all trade routes. Routes to and from southern Africa and Europe passed through African Islamic lands. Routes to and from China/southeast Asia to Europe passed through key Islamic territory, as did similar routes leading to India. The region, therefore, already had an advantage in the trade industry since many of the routes traversed these lands either overland or by sea.

Simultaneously, as Islam continued fortifying itself and steps were being taken to convert more followers, Arabs were becoming more and more involved in trading. Principally, spices became a key pillar of the trade industry because they were not bulky, perishable, or breakable and thus could be carried/traded over long distances easily. For these reasons the actual process of trading probably began with such items. It continued to be successful since people began relying on them early on to preserve food, improve their health, add taste to food, augment their personal appearance and smell, and perfume their houses.

Furthermore, the characteristically Muslim impact on the spice trade was revolutionary. Prior to Muslim conquest, trading had been indirect and was accomplished by the connection of local merchants who traded exclusively in their local area. They were involved in a trade-relay of sorts where the spices were transported from one carrier to another to another, without any singular group making the entire journey itself. When Muslim forces gained control over the trade, however, one of their first innovations was to make this a direct trade, wherein Muslims would travel the entire length of the trade routes personally, without relying on intermediaries. This markedly influenced their ability to spread the word of God and Muhammad.

The specific agricultural products -- spices -- were actually conducive to this strategic use of trade to spread religion. "Spice plants were limited in supply. They grew in particular areas ... and they could not always be moved for cultivation elsewhere." (5) This made the continuity of the spice trade essential to importers for a number of centuries since they had come to rely on the aromatic, medicinal, and preservative qualities of spices users could not grow at home.

The term "spices" was previously far more inclusive than the definition relegated to it in contemporary times. For the purposes of this study, the term will comply with the definition established by Crone. "They include incense, or substances that gave off a nice smell on being burnt; perfumes, ointments, and other sweet-smelling substances with which one dabbed, smeared, or sprinkled oneself or one's clothes; things that one put into food or drink to improve their taste, prolong their life, or endow them with medicinal or magical properties; and they also included antidotes." (6) These have been documented by numerous and varied sources (several of whom are found in the Relevant Literature section) to include long pepper, black pepper, cinnamon, silver fir tree, frankincense, myrrh, balsam, cardamom, cassia and dill. This list is by no means exclusive, but these are merely the items on which the majority of scholars have achieved agreement as being traded by Arabs during this period. Some of these spices were traded by Arab middlemen (that is the product did not originate or terminate in their hands), while spice-plants indigenous to Arab lands were primarily the kinds used to produce "aromatic resin, oleo-resins and gums" (7) which were the bases of perfumes, incense and aromatic oils.

Naturally, other spices were traded by other groups, and still others during various periods in history. However, since this study is concentrated on the Arab spice trade during the period of expansion of Islam, it is limited to these items.

Finally, it is interesting to note that spice trading itself is present in and important to the Islamic religion from the its very origination. The Prophet Muhammad's first wife, Khadijeh, was a spice-trading widow. Her wealth and prestige, based on this activity, were a driving force behind the Prophet Muhammad, resulting in increased acceptance of the new religion and its messenger. Moreover, as noted above, the Prophet Muhammad used the vehicle of spice trading to spread the religion in the Arabian subcontinent. Initially, his work began along the routes linking Yathrib and Mekka, but expanded along pre-existing routes radiating from the Mekkan center, once his base there was solidified.

Remarks on Data
Several problems obtaining relevant data were met with during the course of this research. There were no figures and very few generally accepted facts regarding the Arab side of the spice trade.

The first problem is based on the historic nature of the project. There exists little remaining primary information (i.e. specific spices traded, amount traded, purchase price, etc.). The minimal amount of such materials that are still accessible are in Arabic, Greek and Latin.

The second involves bias on the part of secondary authors against Arab traders. Otherwise respected general historians such as Braudel refer to them as "barbarians" and "camel-men", not sources one would wish to rely on for factual, objective information on the Arab spice trade. Moreover, due to these biases such authors tend to focus little on the details of these economic activities, relegating them to peripheral importance after European affairs, and something not worthy of detailed discourse. Thus, even had they had the primary information available to them, most did not deem it necessary of inclusion in their general works.

A third problem with data on this subject is the initial secondary sources from specialized Islamist or Arabist scholars. As Islam began in Mekka, so should any discussion of the spread of Islam. The ensuing dilemma involves the cornerstone publications, which were written (in French) by H. Lammens between 1910-1928. Subsequent scholars of Mekkan trade, in particular Crone, express extreme doubt about the validity of his data and analysis, labelling him "notoriously unreliable". (8) Such strident allegations would beg skepticism in ensuing studies that rely on Lammens' works, which most of them have been forced to do for lack of other resources.

In sum, then, this research was quite limited from the outset in regards to data availability. As such, scholarly conclusion based on perusal of data is virtually impossible at this stage, but scholarly conjecture as to certain probabilities is not.

Spread of Islam
Islam was transported beyond the Arab lands primarily via two methods. The first was conquest in battle and was used to extend the Muslim Empire over the Maghrib (northern Africa above the Sahara Desert), Spain, Anatolia, the Balkans, India, Sicily and the Mediterranean coasts of Europe during the course of the seventh to the tenth century C.E. The second, less violent, approach was that used to expand into southeast Asia, central Asia and China, and sub-Saharan Africa. This was accomplished through the trade of spices and is what will form the crux of this study. It is also the mechanism approved by the Qur'an.

SUB-SAHARAN AFRICA. In Africa, Islamicized Berber and Tuareg traders introduced Islam to West Africa in the 9th century C.E. They did so via the trans-Saharan spice trade routes linking the Senegal and Niger river areas to the Maghrib. By the end of the 10th century C.E., the Soninke people of Mauritania had become Islamicized; this group was a vehicle which carried Islam further down the Senegal River Valley and toward the southeast as far as the Niger River, effectively bringing Islam from the outskirts of the continent into the interior.

In sub-Saharan Africa the spread of Islam was quite a bit easier to accomplish because vast geographic distances did not have to be bridged. Muslims were already present in large numbers in the Maghrib and natural progression led them across the Sahara. "Arab and Berber traders and settlers in the Saharan and Sudanic regions, Arab and Persian settlers on the East African coasts, and Dyula communities in West Africa, were the nuclei of Muslim influences." (9) In this region, the new religion was utilized primarily to benefit the state elites by consolidating their political power, reinforcing commercial connections, recruiting skilled personnel, and mobilizing select spiritual powers. (10) In West Africa, Arab traders influenced warrior leaders to adopt Islam, and, in East Africa, the traders themselves retained control over the newly formed small states.

In East Africa (more than West Africa), Arab merchants remained direct forces who inhabited the local communities, marrying into indigenous clans. One of the chief by-products of this relationship was the Swahili culture which served as a merger of the Arabic and East African cultures. Again, as seen in other areas where Islam was introduced through trade and not via force, Islam and Muslims did not replace the indigenous culture, but blended with existing practices in a more gradual transition.

"In Africa, then, the process of conversion was tied to the double mechanism of peaceful expansion of traders, settlers, and teachers, and to militant conquest. As in other parts of the world, the two could work either separately or in tandem." (11)It was introduced by spice traders, but then re- asserted during colonization attempts. By the 20th century, Islam had become the mantle for anti-colonialism, uniting threatened indigenous populations into new communities to combat colonial imposition.

SOUTHEAST ASIA. In southeast Asia, the spread of Islam followed a path more similar to that of sub-Saharan Africa, than that found in Turkey, India, and the Maghrib. Here again "Islam was not established by conquest, by the imposition of a single centralized state, or by the settlement of a substantial foreign Muslim population; nor was it associated with massive social change." (12) Instead, Islam was carried to these areas by Muslim traders and missionaries. These groups formed small communities in the region and began introducing the religion to their trading partners, but for the most part did not become permanent inhabitants.

The religion came first to the Malay peninsula from India and Arabia and then dispersed throughout the Indonesian archipelago. In Indonesia, Islam was initially introduced toward the end of the thirteenth century. Throughout Lapidus' book, he states that conversion was based primarily on the elevated status afforded to the converts in extensive trading networks. Since the Muslims did not replace the current leaders, it ensured the continuity of local elites, thus reducing societal disruption. It was further transmitted through the regions of Malaya and Indonesia as new, small states were formed based on the expansion of trading networks.

The trading structure was threatened early in the sixteenth century when Portuguese traders arrived in pursuit of black pepper. At first the invasion resulted in the flight of Muslim teachers and missionaries from the Malay peninsula into Indonesian islands for fear of persecution by the Christian forces. Then the common denominator of Islam, combined with its teachings to thwart control by non-Muslim forces, became the rallying cry of a people demanding liberation.

The struggle over this spice-trading region intensified in 1594 when Holland gained independence from the Hapsburg empire. As a result of its disassociation with a then-world power, it was excluded from Lisbon's spice market (i.e. the Hapsburg empire's spice center) and had to seek new sources. It then sent out forces, not to develop new markets, but to seize existing ones from the Portuguese. "In the course of the seventeenth century the Dutch became the paramount power in the East Indies." (13) The Dutch by that time had gained full control over the spice trade in this region, exporting its new goods primarily to Europe.

Submission to the new religion was emphasized when Portuguese then Dutch merchants forced an entree into the trading network. Islam provided the indigenous peoples the mechanism to join together to resist intervention by these Christian powers. In Southeast Asia, Islam was adopted by vast majorities of the population, which Lapidus argues was principally achieved because Muslim religious teachers there worked to incorporate the new religion into the older culture, making it an integral part of folk culture and identity. Islam then did not replace the popular culture, but provided an additional expression of it.

CENTRAL ASIA AND CHINA. Islam arrived in Central Asia via the Arab conquests of Iran and Transoxania (the region between the rivers Syr Darya and Amu Darya stemming from the Aral Sea -- currently most of Uzbekistan and part of Kazakhstan), beginning in the 10th century C.E. Many inhabitants of central, pastoral Turkey were then converted in the tenth century because of their close contact with Muslim traders. These converted traders were the primary vehicle which carried the new faith to Inner Asia, Anatolia, the Balkans and India.

In the 13th century C.E., Mongol forces, initially non-Muslim people, had established control over the entirety of Inner Asia, much of the Middle East and China. (Lapidus, 414) By the 18th century C.E., much of this control had shifted to the equally non-Muslim Chinese and Russian rulers. During this period, Islam was spread primarily by Muslim traders who transmitted the religion from the central towns to the peripheral countryside. "In Inner Asia, Islamization was important for the establishment of nomadic regimes over sedentary populations, for the creation of politically cohesive ethnic identities among Tartars, Uzbeks, Kazakhs, and other peoples, and for the organization of long-distance trade." (14)

When control over the region switched to the non-Muslim Chinese and Russian rulers, they naturally gained supreme power over the spice trade in that region -- excluding any Muslim influence. Thus, with their conquest of the region, the spice trade was no longer available for utilization as a mechanism for promoting conversion to Islam.

Status of Conversions
Many historians have questioned whether these conversions to Islam were in fact genuine transformations and acceptance of the new religion, or whether it was performed by physical force or other pressures by Muslim conquerors (i.e. a convenient strategy to succeed in trade). "It is now apparent that conversion by force, while not unknown in Muslim countries, was, in fact, rare." (15) Instead, most people who adopted the new faith did so voluntarily, and such force was condemned by religious teachings. As the Qur'an proclaims, "Let there be no compulsion in religion." (16) Also in his authoritative commentary and translation, 'Ali further explains that compulsion is incompatible with Islam because "religion depends upon faith and will, and these would be meaningless if induced by force." (17)

Even when these conversions were voluntary there is the question of motivation. Did they convert out of true faith or social and political advantages to be gained by membership? "It seems more realistic to recognize that in most cases worldly and spiritual motives for conversion blended and cannot be differentiated." (18) What matters in the end is that not only did the religion spread quite rapidly, but many of those who converted for worldly reasons either personally embraced Islam on spiritual grounds or their descendants did. The means may have been financial expedient, but the end for many was a firm, convicted embrace of a new religion.

Rapid conversion to Islam was rare. In order to make it a more permanent force, it was introduced gradually and reinforced over time until full adherence to the doctrines of Islam was completed. Trading was vital to this process because of the continued return of traders after periods of letting the new religion acclimated to the new culture, and vice versa. Such slow immersion in the three regions under study was also important in that it permitted the local culture the opportunity to modify the religion to the local culture and the traditions of the local community (within shari'a (Islamic law) of course).

Interestingly enough, according to Robinson, popular culture in the non- Arab regions where Islam became a major religion attributes the introduction of Islam to holy men. That is local tradition in southeast Asia, central Asia and China, and sub-Saharan Africa attributed the introduction of Islam almost exclusively to holy men. Further scrutiny of remaining records, however, reveals that many of these holy men often doubled as traders, or arrived in the company of traders and on their ships, so either way the trading process played a vital role in the spread of the religion.

"If there is an underlying common factor in the worldwide diffusion of Islam it seems to be its capacity to generate religious fellowship, larger-order communities, and states among peoples otherwise living in highly factionalized or fragmented societies. In general, the spread of Islam seems to have been most effective when it gave a new social identity to peoples severed from their traditional social structures." (19) With these words, Lapidus summarizes the fundamental impact of the spice trade on the successful spread of Islam -- it was done by choice not force. Although there is minuscule documentation and extensive disagreement over what kinds of spices were traded, in what quantities, when and to whom, there is virtually universal agreement on the role of the spice trade in the spread of Islam. Without the spice trade, Islam would not have become a major religion outside of the Arab world.

3. Related Cases

Specific Related Cases

(1): Coca Case

(2): Cocoa Case

(3): Colcoca Case

(4): IndiaTea Case

(5): Philsug Case

General Related Cases

Agriculture Cases

Key words:

(1): Food

(2): Culture

(3): Spice

4. Draft Author: Karen Farrell (June 1996)

II. Legal Clusters

5. Discourse and Status: AGReement and COMPlete

6. Forum and Scope: MANY and MULTIlateral

7. Decision Breadth: MANY

8. Legal Standing: NGO

III. Geographic Clusters

9. Geographic Locations

a. Geographic Domain: ASIA

b. Geographic Site: EAST ASIA

c. Geographic Impact: MANY

10. Sub-National Factors: NO

11. Type of Habitat: TROPical

IV. Trade Clusters

12. Type of Measure: Spice

13. Direct v. Indirect Impacts: DIRect

14. Relation of Trade Measure to Environmental Impact

a. Directly Related to Product: YES, Spice

b. Indirectly Related to Product: NO

c. Not Related to Product: NO

d. Related to Process: YES, Habitat Loss

Although not explicitly discussed in any of the materials published, it is clear that there was environmental impact of the spice trade. However, since we do not know the size of crops or the particular methods used in cultivating them, analysis is somewhat limited. On the other hand, there are certain points that are clear. One is that the environmental impact must have been considerably less than it would have been today. Modern technology to increase yield and pesticides to decrease infestation had not been introduced. Thus, all cultivation of spices was done by hand and some relatively rudimentary tools. What this meant for the environment was considerably less damage.

Another point is that environmental destruction was not as much of a concern to people then (and a reason no one has addressed the issue). One reason was their tight focus on survival first, and preservation of the environment surely played a second position to that. Another reason is that environmental destruction at that time did not seem so threatening; it is only in contemporary times that peoples have noted the massive ravaging of the earth and its resources and sought to do something about it. Could that be because modern peoples with their increased technology were the principal culprits?

15. Trade Product Identification: Spices

16. Economic Data Unavailable

As discussed in the Description, data on this subject, especially in English, is quite rare. As such, the information available is more often than not a secondary source, which has served to only translate the general topics, basic themes, and personal analysis, rather than detailed facts and definite figures. Resulting from this is the overwhelming lack of specific economic data on the Arab spice trade during this period.

17. Impact of Trade Restriction: LOW

18. Industry Sector: FOOD

19. Exporters and Importers: Various

V. Environment Clusters

20. Environmental Problem Type: None

21. Name, Type, and Diversity of Species

See Why Spices?

22. Resource Impact and Effect: LOW and PRODUCT

23. Urgency of Problem: LOW and hundreds of Years

24. Substitutes: NONE

VI. Other Factors

25. Culture: YES
The key issue of concern to this trade and environment issue is culture. Muslim traders were not merely dealing in the transfer of material possession, but more importantly in the word of their new religion. They did not seek converts in the geographic areas mentioned from force, but rather through a more gradual conversion of their lifestyle that involved a synthesis of the indigenous culture with the tenets of Islam. Thus, Muslim spice traders did not so much invoke a radical modification of the physical environment as they did in the spiritual one.

Muslim traders hoped that their interaction with peoples along the trade routes would benefit them more than financially. They also sought the submission of more people to Islam. They also, more indirectly, sought the acceptance of the Arabic culture since the new religion was brought by Arabs in the Arabic language. However, incorporation of Arabic culture played a secondary role to belief in Islam.

The spice traders' strategy was assuredly a success. It explains why Islam is one of the most prominent religions in the world today and found in such diverse places as China, Sa'udi 'Arabia, Spain, Russia, Syria, Indonesia, and Ethiopia.

26. Trans-Boundary Issues: NO 27. Rights: NO

28. Relevant Literature
'Ali, 'Abdullah Yousef. The Meaning of the Holy Qur'an
Braudel, Fernand. Civilization and Capitalism: 15th - 18th Century. Vol. 1. Harper and Row Publishers: New York. 1979.

Cameron, Rondo. A Concise Economic History of the World. Oxford University Press: New York. 1989.

Crone, Patricia. Meccan Trade and the Rise of Islam. Princeton University Press: Princeton, NJ. 1987.

Hourani, Albert. A History of the Arab Peoples. Warner Books: New York. 1991.

Lapidus, Ira. A History of Islamic Societies. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, MA. 1988.

Miller, J. Innes. The Spice Trade of the Roman Empire: 29 B.C. to A.D. 641. Clarendon Press: Oxford. 1969.

Robinson, Francis. Atlas of the Islamic World Since 1500. Facts on File Publications: New York. 1987.

Spice Trade Timeline. Internet.

Strassmann, Patty. The Influence of Spice Trade on the Age of Discovery. Internet.

The Advent of Islam in West Africa. Internet. http://web- baobab/narratives/islam/westtrade.html


1. Hourani, 17.

2. Hourani, 18.

3. Hourani, 47.

4. Hourani, 83.

5. Miller, vii.

6. Crone, 12.

7. Miller, 98-9.

8. Crone, 3.

9. Lapidus, 249.

10. Lapidus, 250.

11. Lapidus, 251.

12. Lapidus, 248-9.

13. Lapidus, 473.

14. Lapidus, 246-247.

15. Lapidus, 244.

16. Qur'an. Surah 2: 256.

17. 'Ali, Note 300.

18. Lapidus, 244.

19. Lapidus, 251.

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