SOAS University of London

Economic integration and social change in the Islamic world system

Economic integration and social change in the Islamic world system, 800-1000CE

This Leverhulme Network has been set up by Fanny Bessard (SOAS and St Andrews) and Hugh Kennedy (SOAS). This is being generously funded by the Leverhulme Trust. The network will last over three years from January 2015 to January 2018 and is intended to bring together scholars interested in the economic history of the Islamic Middle East c.750-1050 CE.

Research Questions

The Arab-Muslim conquests of the seventh century CE, conquests which resulted in the establishment of a polity dominated by a Muslim ruling class, and, increasingly, by a common Muslim culture, had profound effects on the history of the lands between the Atlantic and the Indian sub-continent and have shaped the identities and social structure of these areas down to the present day.

Between 800 and 1000, the Muslim world enjoyed an economic “Golden Age”. In marked contrast to the Christian West, and even the neighbouring Byzantine Empire, this period was characterised in the Islamic world by the development of large cities, a widely used coinage, the emergence of new technologies in such fields as ceramics, glass-making, paper-making and agricultural infrastructure. It is likely that the population of Baghdad in the ninth century was between 300,000 and half a million at the time when the population of London might have been 10,000 and the population of Paris 20,000. All this was managed by an Arabic-using bureaucracy, who was in turn the main creators of the vigorous literary and philosophical culture of the period.

This project will investigate the economic structures of the Muslim world from the end of the eighth to the beginning of the eleventh centuries. It aims to bring a new understanding of the construction and development of the Islamic economy as a world system, stretching from Central Asia to the Atlantic. Its purpose is first to examine the processes of integration, both commercial and technological, of the previously isolated macro-regions of greater Syria, Egypt, Iraq, Iran and Soghdia/Central Asia. It will investigate how their integration led to a change in local artisanal and commercial practices, and had an effect on the inter-relationship between the regional and global dynamics. It will then focus on political mechanisms and the role of Islamic state and its fiscal structures in the development of this world system. Finally, it will aim to define the social changes, which accompanied or were conditioned by the evolution of the economic practices and the commercial networks in the early Islamic world.

The consequences of this economic integration and reasons for this apparent prosperity have hardly been investigated by modern historical scholarship. One of the main reasons for the neglect of this obviously important topic is the range of linguistic and disciplinary competencies required to give a rounded picture. The languages required include Arabic, Greek, Coptic, Persian (both Middle Persia-Pahlavi and New Persian-Farsi), Armenian and Soghdian. Besides the reading of literary texts, the project also requires expertise in papyrology to make use of the documentary evidence from early Islamic Egypt, of codicology to examine the more efficient ways of publishing written information in Arabic which emerged in the period and epigraphy for Arabic inscriptions. The second main area of expertise is archaeology and material culture. This involves the understanding and interpretation of excavations of course, but also the specialist studies of ceramics, glass manufacture and textile production, vital sources of information for the study of the integration of different economic zones and the diffusion of technologies through the whole area. It is also important to co-opt expertise in the study of faunal remains, grains and pollens to provide scientific ground-truthing for the literary evidence for agricultural activity and food consumption. The project requires specialists in numismatics to investigate the importance of the abundant coin evidence for the understanding of wider economic activity.

This project will be markedly distinct from other discussion of the economic and cultural history of the Middle East in the early Islamic period in a number of ways. In the last quarter of a century, there has been a considerable amount of work on the question of continuity and change between the worlds of late antiquity, both Roman-Byzantine and Sasanian Persian, and early Islam. The general thrust of this research has been to emphasise the continuity in the structures of material life through the profound political and military changes of the period. Most of this research, both archaeological and textual, tends to take the discussion to the middle of the eighth century at the latest: a key example of this is the debate about continuity of city life where the archaeology has shown how late antique cities in greater Syria evolved slowly and peacefully into the cities of the early Islamic period but without carrying the debate forward into later centuries. This project does not attempt to challenge the broad thrust of this debate or, indeed, to review the same evidence again. It will be rather to advance the discussion into what happens after Islamic rule is established.