New Forms of Land Exploitation


 Islam, Watson  points out, freed the countryside from many arrangements which were `economically retrograde.’[1] Equally, Lowe observes that Muslim rule in Sicily  was an improvement over that of Byzantium  as the latifondi were divided among freed serfs, and small holders, and agriculture received the greatest impetus it had ever known.[2] Thanks to a Muslim custom, uncultivated land became the property of whoever first broke it, thus encouraging cultivation at the expense of grazing.[3] New modes of production brought more agricultural land and labour, as well as their product, into the market place, and the forces of competition thus released were intensified by laws rewarding innovators.[4] Immamudin quotes from the documents of the School of Arabic Studies in Madrid the type of contract entered into by cultivators and landlords for the bringing of waste land (what would in Arabic be called mawat) under cultivation.[5]Immamudin also cites examples of share cropping contracts (one would call these muzara’ah, musaqah, etc. in Arabic) that bear close resemblance to examples given in the standard Arabic law-books, and such forms of contract as those studied by Serjeant, and which too are applicable today.[6] This highlights the advanced Islamic conditions in comparison with Europe, where, England  excepted, only began to abolish the feudal system late in the 18th century.


The Muslim tax system contributed to such and other improvements; low rates of taxation helped keep alive a class of smaller, independent landowners and a relatively prosperous peasantry.[7] Prior to Islam, taxes crippled both effort and innovation, pushing the tendency for large estates to dominate the countryside and for the peasantry to be enserfed.

The Muslims also introduced a legal corpus in irrigation to protect individual rights, and applied lower rate of taxation for land watered by the Noria than by hand, leading to the prevalence of small holdings of share-croppers and free farmers, as opposed to the latifundia of antiquity with their scores of slaves.[8]



Experimental Farming  and Botanical Gardens


It has been seen above how Muslims managed to bring in new crops, adapt them and diffuse them. They were able to do so mainly thanks to experimental botanical gardens. These were often in the charge of leading scientists such as Ibn Bassal (fl 11th century) and Ibn Wafid (b. 997-d. ca 1074). These gardens, according to Watson , were places `where business was mixed with pleasure, science with art.’[9]And these urges acted as strong stimuli for he adaptation of crops from one place into another. Abd Errahman I (rule began in 756), who was fond of flowers and fruits, planted a beautiful garden in imitation of the Rusafah Villa of Damascus , a summer country residence between Palmyra and the Euphrates valley where he had lived for long with his grand father Hisham.[10] Gradually, experimental gardens became part of a network which linked together the agricultural and botanical activities of distant regions, and so played a role of great importance in the diffusion of useful plants. Only many centuries later did Europe possess similar botanical gardens which acted as the same kind of medium for plant diffusion.[11] The earliest botanical gardens in Europe appear to have been planted by Matthaeus Sylvaticus in Salerno  (c.1310) and by Gualterius in Venice  (c.1330); other places followed centuries later; Pisa : in 1543; Padua, Parma and Florence in 1545; Bologna in 1568; Leyden in 1577; Leipzig in 1580; Konigsberg in 1581; Paris (le Jardin Royal du Louvre) in 1590; Oxford in 1621 etc.[12]

[1] A. Watson ; Agricultural innovation, p. 115.

[2] A. Lowe: The Barrier; op cit; p. 78.

[3] Ibid.

[4] A. Watson ; Agricultural Innovation,  op cit; p. 115.

[5] In R. B. Serjeant: Agriculture  and Horticulture; op cit; p. 541.

[6] Ibid.

[7] A. Watson : Agricultural innovation, p. 115.

[8] Ibid. chapter 21; pp 114-6.

[9] Ibid. chap 22. 

[10] S.M. Imamuddin: Muslim Spain; Leiden; E. J. Brill; 1981. p.85.

[11] A. Watson : Agricultural innovation, op cit, chap 22. 

[12] See: A. Chiarugi: Le date di fondazione dei primi orti botanici del mondo,’ Nuovo giornale botanico italiano new ser. LX (1953) 785-839; A.W. Hill : The History and function of botanical gardens; Annals of the Missouri Botanical Garden; II (1915) 185-240; 195 fwd; F. Philippi: Los jardines botanicos. Santiago de Chile; 1878; etc.