Aftermaths of Islamic Farming


 The decline of Islamic farming, just as other aspects of Islamic civilisation, as the last part of this work will abundantly show, began with the many invaders of the Islamic world, from the Banu Hillal in North Africa  (1057), to the Crusaders (1095-1291) to the Mongols (13th century), Timur Lang (late 14th century), and so on. These invasions destroyed crops and orchards, closed down trade routes, destroyed irrigation and water supply, and caused farmers to take flight.[1] Everywhere the Muslims fell under the Christian foe, from being land owners, they were made into slaves or serfs tied to the estates of their new masters.  In the East (the Holy Land and Cyprus), during the crusades, most of the Muslims who had converted to Christianity were made into serfs or slaves, and Muslim slaves were added from time to time to the labour force.[2] In Spain, following the Christian taking of the country in the 13th century, Muslim farmers became over taxed by their new Christian masters; in the Kingdom of Valencia  the Muslims who remained were mainly in mountainous regions where grazing and non intensive agriculture were practiced.[3] In Sicily , too, the Muslims gradually became concentrated largely in mountainous regions.[4]


When, eventually, the Muslims were wiped out in both Christian Spain and Sicily ,  their system perished with them.[5]  Writing early in the 20th century, Scott reminds how, in Spain, ‘where once were endless plantations of valuable trees are now dreary wastes destitute of all vegetation, incapable of supporting animal life.’[6] Lane Poole, earlier had held, that the Spaniards:

‘Were never able to do justice to the rich soil of Andalusia. So little did the crown think of the fertile country about Granada that in 1591 the royal domains there were sold, because they cost more than the Spaniards could make them yield. In the time of the Moors the same lands were gardens of almost tropical luxuriance.’[7]

The particular instance of the sugar industry serves to illustrate this very well. The industry reached its peak in the 14th century in the still Islamic parts of Spain: Almeria, Granada and Malaga. Balaguar y Primo estimates that at the time the area was 400,000 marjales in those parts, and 180,000 marjales in the rest of the coastal are (the marjal is given by him as 0.05 ha or 0.125 acre, and he states that the yields accepted by the Muslims was 290 arrobas (7,250 lb., of cane per marjal, which reduces to 26 tons per acre; thus a yield of 206,761 tons of sugar or 11.2% on cane).[8] After the conquest of Grenada  in 1492, and the expulsion of the Muslims,  the industry languished, even though attempts were made to continue its cultivation with African slaves. A further setback was caused by the expulsion of the Muslims from Spain in 1609.[9] Of this period Balaguer y Primo writes:

‘In proportion as the Moriscos left our soil, so began a great decadence in sugar production, which continued to fall rapidly for this reason, and for others, which there is no reason to mention here. Motril alone between the 16th and 18th centuries lost many mills, and at the beginning of the 19th century there did not remain in Andalusia more than 9,700 marjales (1,225 acres) of cane, reducing according to Bowles, the number of mills from the seven mentioned above to four by 1800. During the 18th century there disappeared the rich cane fields of Castellon de la Plana, and those of Valldigna, Bennerda, Benipeixar and Grandia grew less in area, and at the close of the century (in 1779), the factory near Lobres was closed.’[10]     


Devastated by the medieval invaders, fallen under new Christian rule, the Islamic farming legacy was finished off by modern Western colonisation. This final intrusion, which began in the 18th century, seriously upset the traditional agricultural balance in order to increase profitability for the colonisers.[11] Wolf explains how the victory of the East India  Company (1750s and after) over the Mughals gave it and its officials the means to subordinate Indian resources for ‘the process of accumulation in the home country,’ thus siphoning wealth out of country, and impoverishing the local industry.[12] England also reorganised Indian land tenure and land taxation to make Indians pay not just for the expenses of warfare, but also to cover the cost of continuous English occupation. Land and tax reform were also used to reorient Indian agriculture toward the production of profitable commodities, such as raw cotton and opium, to enhance England’s commerce with China .[13] These measures, and looting of the country’s riches led to terrible famines, which claimed millions of lives amongst Muslims and Hindu alike.[14]

Wolf also expands on the effects the Dutch had on their most prized possessions in the southern seas, the Moluccas, which were the source of cloves, nutmeg, and the nutmeg fleece called mace. To ensure control, the Dutch in 1621, exterminated or deported the local people to Batavia, to be replaced by Dutch colonists who were granted land tracts planted with nutmeg trees, together with the services of Company slaves for cultivation.[15]

In Algeria, on arrival, in 1830, the French found a much greener country than the one they left 130 years later, and a population living more or less in harmony with its environment. In their wars of devastation against Algerian resistance (1830s-1840s), the French destroyed garden rings surrounding towns and cities, and cut and uprooted trees and orchards. Once they settled the country (1860s-1940s) they deforested nearly the entire coastal northern regions to exploit timber, and also forced Muslim farmers off fertile lands on to marginal lands, causing the permanent degradation of such lands. Later, during the war of independence (1954-62), the French set ablaze millions of acres of forests, besides ravaging the rural economy; and then departed, leaving a legacy of bareness and even hostility to greenery from which the Algerians have not yet recovered.[16]

[1] See final chapter in A. Watson: ‘Agriculture in retreat,’ in A. Watson: Agricultural, op cit.

[2] Ibid;  Note 20; p. 211.

[3] T. Glick: Irrigation and Society in Medieval Valencia  (Cambridge mass; 1970), p. 231, fwd.

[4] A. Watson: Agricultural; op cit; Note 21; p.211.

[5] See H.C. Lea: A History of the Inquisition ; op cit; volume three, pp 317-410.

[6] S.P. Scott: History; op cit;  vol 2; p. 615.

[7] S. Lane Poole: The Moors; op cit; p. 275.

[8] Balaguar y Primo: Cultivo de la Cana de Azucar (Madrid; 1877), pp. 28 and seq.

[9] N. Deerr: The History; op cit; p. 81.

[10] Balaguar y Primo: Cultivo de la Cana; op cit; pp. 28 and seq.

[11] L. Bolens: Agriculture, in Encyclopaedia (Selin ed), op cit, p. 22.

[12] E. Wolf: Europe and the People Without History (University of California Press; Berkeley; 1982), p. 247.

[13] Ibid.

[14] W. Howitt: Colonisation and Christianity (Longman; London; 1838), pp. 256 ff.

[15] E. Wolf: Europe; op cit; p. 238.

[16] Good accounts of such French devastation can be found in the following:

-C.R. Ageron: Histoire de l’Algerie contemporaine, 3 vols (Presses Universitaires de France, 1979).

-C.A. Julien: Histoire de l’Algerie Contemporaine (Presses Universitaires de France, 1964).

-H. Alleg et al: La Guerre d’Algerie (Temps Actuels, Paris, 1981).