Foundations of Islamic Technology  and Engineering


The demands of a vast civilisation, which extended from Spain to China , Anawati explains, made it necessity for Muslim rulers to use to the maximum the resources they had available in their territory. Science was thus required to make an important contribution, and ‘technical arts' were developed in the construction of irrigation works, of canals, in ways of communication and in the erection of hydraulic machines.[1] This is very obvious in the early history of Islam, and in the particular instance relating to the foundation of new cities out of the sand, such as Al Qayrawan, Samarra, and Basra . The early historian, Al-Baladhuri (d. ca. 892) has left us an account of the foundation of the latter city, and the measures subsequently taken to supply it with water for irrigation and drinking.[2] When Utba bin Ghazwan was the commander of a Muslim army in southern Iraq  in 638, he selected the site of Basra after consultation with Caliph Omar  as an encampment for his troops.[3] It was located 15 km to the west of the Shatt al-Arab. In the early years it was simply an army camp consisting of huts made from reeds, and drinking water had to be transported from the Shatt al-Arab.[4] Under Caliph Omar the enterprise of excavating canals to the site from the river was begun, and in the 660s, under the early Umayyads , were completed  great canals, the Nahr Ma’qil, which came down from the north east and carried shipping from Baghdad ; the other the Nahr al-Ubulla, which carried ships going south east to the Gulf. [5] The canals were linked by another canal, upon which the city itself was located, and a great many irrigation canals were then excavated.[6] The 10th century geographer al-Istakhri, describes its enormous network of canals and its abundant agricultural produce.[7] Basra became a thriving centre for agriculture, and at this early point the most important city in Iraq for commerce, learning and finance.[8]  

This pattern is repeated everywhere Muslims advanced, and in and around all the new cities they founded: Kufa, Samarra, Baghdad , Al-Qayrawan , Fes , etc. Fes, for instance, a newly founded city of the early 9th century,[9] did not just have a large number of springs, whose water was distributed for various requirements, and led to houses, places of worship, colleges, hostels, etc, but also a river, Wadi Fes, which supplied water for driving mills, clearing away refuse, and also for irrigation. Such functions were accomplished thanks to vast construction works.[10] In al-Qayrawan, the Muslim engineers showed great skills in constructing reservoirs that brought together high aesthetics and engineering ingenuity.[11]

These multiple instances serve to demonstrate how ridiculous is the assertion found amongst most Western historians that Muslims only kept engineering works from previous cultures, when such new cities and their engineering works did not exist before Islam.


Social demand had a further impact on technological advance. Hill explains that the standard of technology at any time depends mainly upon the demands of society, and that wherever there are large urban communities to be fed, clothed and provided with the raw and finished materials for commerce, there is to be found technology applied to agriculture, communications and industry.[12] Muslim geographers in the 10th century described a society in which the range of foodstuffs, the quality of textiles, and the standards of living in general were far more advanced than those of Europe, and where utilitarian technology was also more advanced.[13] Courtly circles, for instance, sought to be amused by trick devices, and this stimulated the rise of fine technology despite the apparent triviality of some devices.[14] The links between practical necessity and the advance of Islamic technology and engineering are obvious from the fact that amongst the best sources for information on the subject are books written for the instruction of the muhtasib.[15] He was the official appointed by the state to supervise markets, whose duties ranged from supervising the daily affairs of the market, the maintenance of moral standards and religious observance; quality and quantity control over retailers and manufacturers; sanitation and water supply; checking the manufacture of building materials and the construction of houses, etc.[16] Usually an experienced craftsman was made responsible to the muhtasib for the maintenance of standards in his own trade, and so there is a great deal of useful information in the hisba manuals about manufacturing and construction methods.[17] 

Hill also points out to the fundamental element already shown here repeatedly, how the demands of the faith stimulated sciences, in this instance through the requirement of astronomers for timepieces and for observational and computational instruments.[18]  Stock also notes how in Islam the dependence on well made apparatuses did not just mean that theory and practice were brought closer together, but also that scientists such as al-Battani were also expert makers of instruments that enhanced their powers of observation and calculation.[19]


Very possibly due to these factors, the status of the artisan/craftsman in Islam was quite high, especially in comparison to the Christian West. Stock points out, that it may be, that Bernard of Tiron, a wandering preacher who died in 1117, founded a house specifically as a haven for craftsmen, but the real model for change came once again from Islam, in which the status of the artisan had changed from that of the slave to that of the free labourer.[20] The artisan scientist, who was considered an aberration in the ancient world, was more a norm in Islam, artisans playing a leading part in the transfer of techniques throughout the highly mobile Muslim world.[21] The importance Muslims granted their craftsmen or instrument makers is also noted by Sarton ‘in the extravagant praise' lavished on the instrument maker: Badi al-Astrulabi.[22] Both this attitude to the artisan and his status were eventually transferred to Christendom.[23]


Islamic waqfs (religious endowments) also stimulated and made possible the construction, maintenance, and management of large engineering structures and works. The waqfs were central in the management of canalisation networks.[24] In Tunis , for instance, water supply was undertaken by both central administration and such religious endowments.[25] The jurists also permit the constitution of water rights and water sources, where they are on private property, into waqf.[26] Many qanats and canals and rights to a share of the use of various sources of water have been so constituted, and the Yazd region, in Persia , is particularly illustrative of this practice.[27] Many rich families also contributed much of their wealth to the maintenance and construction of water works.[28] The provision of drinking water was considered a meritorious action, and many individuals built qanats and constituted them into waqfs.[29] The 10th century geographer, Al-Istakhri, for instance, notes how in Samarkand , the provision of water was done in God’s name.[30] The city was, thus, richly supplied with fountains and baths by a lead lined channel carried on a bridge.[31]


The early Islamic state provided a legal corpus and an  administrative framework in the implementation and management of civil engineering works. The legal corpus, for instance, stated amongst other things that canals are the property of the landowner or landowners in whose property they are located; where they are the common property of several landowners, none of them may make unilateral changes in arrangements such as sharing the water, building a mill or bridge over it, etc.[32] The responsibility for the upkeep of great rivers in some parts was vested in the imam, and cleaning or dredging and repair of their banks was carried out by the imam and paid for by the public treasury.[33] Other arrangements were prevalent; in Fes , an Amin al-ma (Water  Supervisor/Manager) was charged with supervising the workmen maintaining canalisations, and regulations were in place for the removal of sediments obstructing canalisations.[34] In Egypt , good maintenance of the dams and reservoirs was deemed central to the life the country, and writings by Egyptian scholars such as Al-Nuwayri[35] and Al-Makrizi highlight this.[36] The state had overall responsibility over matters pertaining to bridges, roads, dams, and canals.[37] Under the Mamluks , there was an officer for the inspection of dams in each province: the Kashif al-Djusur.[38] Under both Ayyubids and Mamluks, sultans and large land-holders dug and maintained canals and dams, whilst distinguished emirs and officials were made chief supervisors of such works.[39] The Sultans also regularly imposed levies on the population whenever they implemented large projects, and in emergencies (earthquakes, flooding…).[40] In Iraq , large project ventures were in the realm of the state, whilst the local population focussed on lesser duties.[41] The state, for instance, dredged canals, and the population maintained the banks.[42] In Nishapur, further to the east, the irrigation system was supervised by a force of inspectors and guards, who were responsible for the maintenance of the qanats.[43]

[1] G. Anawati: Science, in The Cambridge History of Islam, ed P.M. Holt et al; vol 2 (Cambridge University Press, 1970), pp. 741-79, at p. 756.

[2] Al-Baladhuri: Kitab Futuh al-Buldan; Ed. M. J. de Goeje (Brill; Leiden; 1866); pp. 345-71.

[3] Al-Baladhuri: Kitab; in D.R. Hill: A History of Engineering; op cit; p.25.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Al-Istakhri: Kitab al-Masalik wa’l mamalik; Ed. M.G. Al-Hini (Cairo ; 1961), p. 57.

[8] D.R. Hill: A History of Engineering; op cit; p.25.

[9] E. Levi Provencal: La Fondation de Fes ; in Islam d’Occident (Librairie Orientale et Americaine; Paris; 1948), pp. 1-32.

[10] R. le Tourneau: Fes  avant le protectorat (Casablanca; 1949), pp. 232-9. Editor: irrigation in North Africa , and Muslim Spain; Encyclopaedia of Islam; vol 5; op cit; p. 877.

[11] A. Solignac: Recherches sur les installations hydrauliques de kairaouan et des Steppes Tunisiennes du VII au Xiem siecle, in Annales de l’Institut des Etudes Orientales, Algiers , X (1952); 5-273.

[12] D.R. Hill: A History of Engineering; op cit; p.4.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Such as Ibn al-Ukhuwwa: Ma’alim al-Qurba fi Ahkam al-Hisba; ed by Reuben Levy; With Arabic text; notes and abridged English translation (Gibb Memorial Series); New Series (London; 1938).

[16] D.R. Hill: A History of Engineering; op cit; p.9.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid; p.4.

[19] B. Stock: Science, Technology , and Economic Progress in the Early Middle Ages: in Science in the Middle Ages; ed by D.C. Lindberg (The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1978);  pp. 1-51; p. 21.

[20] Ibid; p. 31.

[21] Ibid; pp. 21 and 31.

[22] G. Sarton: Introduction, op cit, vol 2;  p.13.

[23] B. Stock: Science, op cit, p. 21.

[24] S. Denoix: Bilans in Grandes Villes; op cit; p. 294.

[25] Ibid.

[26] A.K.S. Lambton: Ma’, in Encyclopaedia of Islam; op cit; vol 5; p. 871.

[27] Ibid.

[28] S. Denoix: Bilans; op cit; p. 294.

[29] A.K.S. Lambton: Ma’, in Encyclopaedia of Islam; op cit; vol 5; p. 876.

[30] Al-Istakhri: Kitab Masalik wal-Mamlik; ed. De Goeje (Leyden; 1927), p. 140.

[31] Ibid; p. 177.

[32] M.J.L. Young: Water  in Classical Islam; under Ma’; Encyclopaedia of Islam; op cit; vol 5; New Series; p. 860.

[33] A.K.S. Lambton: Ma’, in Encyclopaedia of Islam; op cit; vol 5; p. 873.

[34] S. Denoix: Bilans; op cit; p. 294.

[35] Al- Nuwayri: Nihayat al-Arab (Cairo , 1923), vol I, p 265.

[36] Al-Makrizi: Khitat, Cairo , 1853-4 ed; vol I, p.61.

[37] D. Behrens Abouseif et al: Cairo : in Grandes Villes Mediterraneenes; op cit; pp. 177-203; p. 189.

[38] H. Rabie:  Pre-20th century irrigation in Egypt , in Encyclopaedia of Islam, Vol V, pp 862-4; p. 863.

[39] Ibid; p 862.

[40] D. Behrens Abousseif et al: Cairo ; op cit; p. 189.

[41] C. Cahen: Irrigation in Iraq ; Encyclopaedia of Islam, second edition, Vol V, Leiden, Brill, pp.864-5.

[42] G. Wiet et al: History; op cit. p. 312.

[43] Al-Istakhri: Kitab al-massalik; op cit; p. 145.