Other Aspects of Islamic Impact


As Watson  notes:

`In the vast literature of irrigation history may be found assertions which tend to minimise or even discredit, the contribution of early Islamic times to the development of irrigated agriculture, particularly in Spain, North Africa and the Levant. Thus Ribera Y Tarrago, writing in a long tradition which belittles the Muslim legacy in Spain, argues that the irrigation system of the Huerta of Valencia  is pre-Islamic, principally on the ground that it does not resemble the undoubtedly Muslim system in the region of Marrakech![1] In North Africa, Gauckler following the previous practice of European scholars writing on the region, assigned virtually all the ruined irrigation works of Tunisia  to the Romans,[2] an error the enormity of which was finally pointed out in Solignac, whose careful work is a model of this kind of investigation.[3] In Libya, the qanawat (underground tunnels) of the desert were attributed by Beadnell to the Romans,[4] whereas they are almost certainly Islamic. Again, for the Levant, one reads in Benvenisti that `with the Arab conquest a period of decline and decay in irrigated agriculture began.’[5] Such assertions need not be taken seriously. To prove for a particular region whether in early Islamic times irrigated agriculture had progressed beyond its classical antecedents requires very careful analysis, and the results may not be unambiguous.’[6]  

And, the following serves to confirm Watson ’s conclusions.



Conservation and scrupulous management of water in the civilisation of Islam is evident in scholarly theory, all of the Kitab al-Filahat (book of agriculture), whichever their geographical origin, insisting meticulously on the deployment of equipment and on the control of water.[1] Serjeant also notes that a considerable part of Islamic legal books is devoted to water law-which has hardly been studied in Europe to any appreciable extent.[2]The same Islamic attention and care for the resource is obvious on the ground, and it led to many Islamic breakthroughs in the field of irrigation as the following amply shows.


One of the first Islamic contributions was to make considerable improvements to the irrigation system legated by the Romans,[3]some important developments taking place in the Western Mediterranean.[4] The Muslims devised new techniques to catch, channel, store and lift the water, besides making ingenious combinations of available devices,[5] adapted to specific natural conditions.[6]They also introduced techniques in river drainage, and irrigation by systems of branch channels with an efficient distribution of the available water.[7] Other Islamic accomplishments are studied by Glick.[8] Such changes cheapened irrigation, and consequently brought into production lands previously impossible or uneconomic to irrigate.[9] Irrigated fields, in turn, yielded as many as four harvests yearly,[10] which, as in Spain, laid the foundations for the country’s prosperity.[11]

The Yemenis certainly played a leading role in many such innovations. Of all Arabia, Serjeant notes, the Yemen  is the province which has the most highly developed irrigation systems, terraced mountain sides running from the top to the foot of high mountains, great masonry cisterns, and skill in the control of flood waters that may be unequalled.[12] So many south Arabians, to judge by their names, Tujibi, Himyari, Kindi, Ma’afiri, settled in Spain that is attractive also to think that they may have influenced the development of the mountain districts of Spain.[13]


 The earliest agents of diffusion of Islamic techniques to neighbouring Christian parts, however,  were the Mozarabs. It is they who diffused waterwheels which they carried as early as the 9th and 10th century in the Asturias.[14]Other elements of this Mozarab influence are also prevalent in 887 in the documentation of the Monastery of San Vicente de Ovideo, with expressions relating technical terms from Andalusia  referring to agricultural techniques of irrigation in the Valley of the Nalon.[15]

Muslims, themselves, played a leading role, too, in such diffusion.  Following the Christian re-conquest of Spain in the 13th century, all Christian farmers had to do, for generations and centuries to follow, Liazu tells, was to widen the irrigation system and the land reclamation techniques inherited from the Muslims.[16] Reclaiming lands taken from Muslims or from a hostile nature, would not have been possible without Islamic know how in mastering irrigation, nor without the use of skilled Muslim labour.[17] Generally, Islamic irrigation systems, Glick points out, were maintained intact, and in the case of large, interlocking regional systems with long canals and complicated distribution procedures, the Christians had to take pains to learn the customs from the indigenous population.[18] In the Crown of Aragón the procedure was for a nobleman to hold an inquest at which Muslim irrigators would explain how the system worked and then to issue an ordinance continuing the customary arrangements.[19] Thus in 1106 Fortún Aznárez issued a disposition concerning the distribution of the water of the Irués canal, near Tarazona, based on how the water "used to run in the time of the Moors and as he discovered the truth ... from old Moors."[20] The document then describes the system of turns among hamlets on the canal, the word for "turn" expressed with the Arabism `adowr.’ The canal was administered by Muslim style officials: the çavacequias (sâhib al-sâqiya) (The master of the canal) of the city of Tarazona and the local alamis (from Arabic amîn), who oversaw the day-to-day functioning of the canal.[21] The `Syrian-style’ distribution system continued unchanged, and in many towns along the eastern coast, a standard stipulation was that water distribution arrangements should continue as they had been "in the time of the Moors."[22]


A Muslim legacy of note is the noria (a water-raising device using chains and buckets), which had revolutionary consequences upon agricultural productivity.  Because it was relatively inexpensive to build and simple to maintain, the noria enabled the development of entire huertas that were intensively irrigated.[23]In Cordoba, al-Shaqundi (13th century) speaks of 5000 norias (possibly including both lifting and milling devices) on the Guadalquivir.[24] Some are still in use, to this day, as at La Nora, six km from the Murcia city centre, where although the original wheel has been replaced by a steel one, the Muslim system is otherwise virtually unchanged.[25]The big water wheels at Toledo  also date back to the Muslims. This heritage was eventually taken over by the Christian conquerors who diffused it widely in their colonies.[26]

The noria had a much wider impact as Glick explains. Because of its universality, the noria became the model and point of reference for all geared machines.[27] In a treatise on clocks prepared for Alfonso the Wise, Isaac ibn Sid (Ben Cid) first describes the construction of a main wheel, by fashioning four arms to be assembled in the form of a cross, "just like norias are made;" the equalizing and bell wheels are then to be constructed in the manner of an aceña, the paradigm of a dentate wheel (cena=tooth in Arabic).[28]


Also inherited from the Muslims is their strict system of water management. All disputes and violations of laws on water were dealt with by a court-whose judges were chosen by the farmers themselves, this court named The Tribunal of the Waters, which sat on Thursdays at the door of the principal mosque; ten centuries later, the same tribunal still sits in Valencia , but at the door of the cathedral.[29] Landowners sit every Friday outside the cathedral of Valencia and there complaints are heard by judges, and nothing is written down, which so exactly corresponds to how customary law in irrigation is managed in Arabia.[30]The Christian conquerors have also kept Muslim legislation in matters of irrigation as shown by various documents, such as document No 101 `hec est carta del agua de Hyruese... como deve andas at como andava en tiempo de Moros'.[31]


Another Islamic legacy to our day are the so many engineering structures.[32] Muslim dams had hardly had any repair in a thousand years,[33] still meeting the irrigation needs of Valencia , requiring no addition to the system.[34] According to Oliver Asin’s Historia del nombre, Madrid seems to have presented a good case for the Muslims having made it possible to develop what has become the city of Madrid by introducing a sort of qanat system to supply the district with water.[35]Parts of this apparently still exist, and Asin links the actual name Madrid to it.[36] Linguistically, there is a considerable amount of Arabic words in the Spanish  vocabulary related to irrigation; expressions such as: Acequia: canal of irrigation; Alberca: Artificial reservoir. Aljibe: Container; arcaduz: water conduct; Azuda: water wheel; almatriche: canal; alcorque: hole dug in front of tree for irrigation purpose….[37] And the same legacy is noted in Sicily , philology allowing the tracing of Arabic etymology to Sicilian vocabulary related to irrigation.[38]

[1] L. Bolens, Irrigation in Encyclopaedia (Selin ed), op cit, pp. 450-2; at p. 451.

[2] R. B. Serjeant: Agriculture  and Horticulture: Some cultural interchanges of the medieval Arabs  and Europe; in Convegno Internationale; op cit; pp. 535-41. p. 537.

[3] W.M. Watt: l’Influence;  op cit; p. 32.

[4] R.J. Forbes: Studies in Ancient Technology; vol II, second revised edition, Leiden, E.J Brill, 1965, p. 49.

[5] T. Glick: Islamic and Christian Spain; op cit; D.R. Hill : Islamic Science; op cit; etc.

[6] E. Levi Provencal: Histoire de l’Espagne Musulmane; op cit, p. 279.

[7] R.J. Forbes: Studies in Ancient technology;  op cit; p. 49.

[8] T. Glick:  Irrigation and Hydraulic Technology: Medieval Spain and its Legacy, Variorum, Aldershot, 1996.

[9] A.M. Watson : Agricultural innovation, op cit, p. 104.

[10] T. Glick: Islamic and Christian Spain, op cit. P. 75.

[11] D.R. Hill : Islamic Science ; op cit; p. 161.

[12] R. B. Serjeant: Agriculture  and Horticulture; op cit; p. 537.

[13] Ibid.

[14] V. Lagardere: Moulins d'Occident Musulman; op cit; p.63.

[15] Aguade Nieto, S., De la sociedad arcaica a la sociedad campesina en la Asturias medieval, Universidad de Alcala de Henares, 1988, p. 156.

[16]Jean Guy Liauzu: Un Aspect de la reconquete de la valee de l'Ebre au XI et Xii siecle: l'Agriculture  irriguee et l'heritage de l'Islam: Hesperis Tamuda:Vol 5 (1964):pp 5-13: p.13.

[17] Jean Guy Liauzu: Un Aspect de la reconquete; p.13.

[18] T. Glick: Islamic and Christian Spain; op cit; p. 100.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid. p. 101.

[23] T. Glick: Islamic and Christian Spain; op cit, p. 74.

[24] Al-Saqundi: Elogio del Islam espanol, p. 105; in T. Glick: Islamic, op cit, p.75.

[25] D.R. Hill : Islamic Science, op cit, pp. 97.

[26] R.J. Forbes: Studies in Ancient Technology; vol II; op cit.p. 49.

[27] T. Glick: Islamic and Christian Spain; op cit; p. 238.

[28] J A Sánchez Pérez: La personalidad cieníifica y los relojes de A1fonso X el Sabio; Murcia: Academic Alfonso X  el Sabio, 1955, pp. 21-4 in T. Glick: Islamic and Christian Spain; op cit; p. 238.

[29] S.P. Scott: History, op cit; vol 3;  pp 602-3.

[30] R. B. Serjeant: Agriculture  and Horticulture; op cit; p. 537.

[31] Jean Guy Liauzu: Un aspect; op cit; p.9

[32] D.R. Hill : Islamic Science, op cit, p. 224:

[33] S.P. Scot: History; op cit;  vol 3; p. 602.

[34] N. Smith: A History of Dams , The Chaucer Press, London,1971. p.93.

[35] R. B. Serjeant: Agriculture  and Horticulture; op cit; p. 537.

[36] Ibid.

[37] See A. Castro: The Structure of Spanish  History; p. 98 fwd.

[38] H. Bresc: Les Jardins de Palerme; in In Politique et Societe en Sicile; XII-Xv em siecle; Variorum; Aldershot; 1990; pp. 55-127;  p. 67.


[1] J. Ribera: Dissertaciones y opusculos, 2 vols, Madrid, 1928. vol 2;  pp. 309-13.

[2] P. Gauckler: Enquete sur les Installations hydrauliques Romaines en Tunisie; 2 Vols; Paris; 1901-2.

[3] 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.

[4] H.J. Beadnell: An Egyptian Oasis; London; 1909; p  167 fwd.

[5] M. Benvenisti: The Crusaders in the Holy Land; Jerusalem; 1970;  P.263.

[6] A. Watson : Agricultural; op cit. Note 34, pp. 193-4.