Farming Science


 According to Bolens, Muslim farming owed its success to:

‘The adoption of agrarian techniques to local needs,’ and to ‘a spectacular cultural union of scientific knowledge from the past and the present, from the Near East, the Maghrib , and Andalusia. A culmination more subtle than a simple accumulation of techniques, it has been an enduring ecological success, proven by the course of human history.’[1]

This success followed two guiding principles: experimentation, and diffusion of acquired knowledge. Levi Provencal observes that Muslim farming literature although suffering an unjust neglect on the part of scholarship, is the only literature which has a ‘flavour of the land.’[2] Ibn Wahshiya quarrelled openly with earlier authorities when their recommendations were not borne out by experiment.[3] Ibn Bassal, who was gardening in Toledo  when it fell to Christian conquerors in 1085, wrote almost exclusively from his own direct experience.[4] Ibn al-Awwam writes, ‘I affirm nothing which seems right to me without having proven it in numerous experiments.'[5] For this purpose he cultivated a short distance from Seville , a farmland called ‘Alxarafe'.[6] His Kitab al Filaha (Book of Agriculture) was a culmination of both practice and observation, and of high technical interest.[7] Relying on his own experience, Ibn al-Awwam covers a wide diversity of subjects,[8] studying up to 585 plants, the cultivation of fruit trees, grafting, soil properties, manure, and plant diseases and their treatments.[9] He also studies irrigation, affinities between trees, animal husbandry and bee keeping.[10] In his treatise are also found plants now extinct, as well as traditional agricultural practices now phased out.[11] And far from being dated, in the late 19th century, that is eight centuries after it was completed, it was deemed relevant to the Mediterranean  farming environment, and so was published in both Spanish and French.[12] Ibn al-Awwam’s countryman, Ali Ibn Farah, also experimented with botanical gardens in the most inaccessible parts of southern Spain, and created a botanical garden in Guadix.[13] In Sicily , Bresc notes, the many techniques described or suggested in the contracts of the 14th and 15th century were found in Muslim farming manuals.[14] Many ploughing methods to prepare the soil, the use of fertilisers, planting, etc, are also found to be shared by Sicilian agriculture and such manuals.[15] It is the sort of information found in Al-Ichbili’s Kitab al-Filaha, which goes into minute detail on how to grow olive trees, treatments for tree diseases, grafting, harvesting olives, refining olive oil, conditioning of olives, etc; or cotton, its required soil properties, soil preparation, use of manure, ploughing techniques, the time of the year for planting, irrigation, care for plants, harvesting etc.[16]


A major contribution to the advance of farming was the focused study by such farming manuals on specific crops. This is highlighted here with respect to cotton,[17] sugar cane,[18] and rice.[19] Cotton is sometimes grown without resort to irrigation, but in the Islamic world it was heavily irrigated. Qustus al-Rumi says it requires continuous irrigation, and Ibn Luyun states that it needs weekly watering.[20] According to Ibn Bassal, there are two systems of growing cotton in the Islamic world: the Spanish system, by which the plant is irrigated every fifteen days after it reaches a finger’s height, and the Syrian system, by which the land is irrigated once before planting, again when the plant has reached the height of the palm of the hand, and thereafter every fifteen days until the middle of August.[21]

Extracts from a description by Ibn al-Awwam of sugar cane planting is an excellent illustration of the meticulous attention to detail. It says:

‘According to the book of Ibn Hajaj, the cane is planted from its roots on March 20th. As for the rest, it is necessary for it (according to the opinion common among the farmers in Spain) to have low, sunny land which has water near at hand. So it is planted from its own roots, and also from its own cane, having made the soil previously very mellow with three different spadings, or with ten plough shares, tooth cultivators (as others like), fertilising with a heavy layer of good, light decomposed manure (or with Boniga as others call it) and dividing into squares of 10 codos (1 codo is 18 inches) long and 5 codos wide. If the planting is made with roots, says Hajaj, the Granadan, having dug and made the corresponding holes in these squares, in them are planted cuttings at distances of a codo and half apart, and are covered with soil and manure to the thickness of three fingers; they are irrigated every fourth day and when grown to the height of a hand are cultivated well, and manured with a heavy layer of sheep dung and continued irrigation every eight days until the beginning of October, from which month irrigation is stopped. For the planting in which canes are used, one has to select the canes with the most joints and the thickest ones, because the first will give the most shoots and the second is more juicy. These canes freshly cut, or soon after, are placed completely in the earth, leaving them there till the beginning of March, from where they are taken out, then cut into pieces of two hands in length and of three joints (or according to some of six joints) each. These are trimmed with tools and are then planted in the above mentioned areas, covering four nodes of them at a distance of one codo apart, and sprinkling them afterwards with Boniga, which is carried out in the Autumn about September or about December, or some say, irrigate them continuously till they germinate.’[22]  

With regard to rice, we find an extremely vast literature, which Canard has proficiently  outlined in an article in French, and which can now be found in an excellent English translation.[23] Muslim authors such as Ibn Khurradadhbih (d. 912) inform us about the regions where rice is grown, its surface areas, the quantities produced, etc.[24] We are also told how rice is grown. Rice is a summer crop, and depends much more than winter crops on irrigation being available.[25] According to Ibn al-Awwam, however, rice may be sown twice a year.[26] Muslim works give numerous details on how to choose the right soil to grow it in, on the right way of planting, thinning out, watering, and cutting and threshing it, on the right time of the year for planting, etc.[27] Planting rice requires minute preparation: first the grains of rice had to be left to swell in a jar of water which had to stand in the sun during the day and to be covered with dung during the night, then the swollen grains of rice had to be sown into squares of land, sheltered by high walls and manured appropriately.[28] These had to be watered in moderation, once every week. Thinning out the rice had to be done with particular care: the rice would be plucked before sunrise, then stored in a covered basket until evening, when it would be planted out. It then had to be watered until August.[29] Diverse authors advise on matters relating to the crop. Ibn Bassal advises on the choice of soil, its preparation, the use of manure, and time for planting, whilst Al-Ichbilli dwells on the amount to be sown on any given surface, and the manner it ought to be done.[30] Ibn al-Awwam focuses on irrigation, timing, and the amount of water needed at any given phase, as well as its frequency. Field drainage, fighting pests, clearance of weeds etc, are elaborated upon; and so are harvest, storage and even culinary uses of the commodity.[31] There is a great variety of rice recipes described by Muslim authors. Ibn Battuta , for instance, states that in the region of Mogadishu, in Somalia, a stew made from chicken, meat, fish and vegetables, which is also called Kushan, is poured over the rice.[32] The best culinary stories and anecdotes on the subject are provided by the great al-Jahiz (ca. 776-868), in his Kitab al-Bukhala (Book of Misers).[33] He describes, for instance, the way in which a miser treated his guests on his estate near Basra : he gave them rice bread and fish, which the guests themselves had to catch in the canal on the estate; another miser offered so little rice to his guests, that one such guest commented that if he had wanted to count the grains, that would have been easy as there were so few and separate; and in another instance, the rice was so badly cooked, or left uncooked, that the guests made a lot of noise chewing the grains.[34] Remarkably, we find an account by the Muslim geographer, Yaqut al-Hamawi (d. 1229), stating that the heat and steam from the large number of ovens in which rice bread is baked in the province of Khuzistan (50,000), causes a rise in the temperature of the country, the first case of global warming, raised by a Muslim geographer in the early 13th century.[35] 


Central to the advance of farming was productive rotation of crops. Here, too, Islamic expertise developed centuries ahead of other regions, and was abundantly developed in literature. Where various rotations are given, Ibn Al-Awwam, for instance, explains that, contrary to ancient practice, wheat should not be grown in successive years on the same land but should be followed in rotation with barley and other crops.[36] Bolens shows how Islamic farming insists on the importance of legumes, turnips, trimester wheat and cash crops.[37] Among the sequences found by Bolens in the manuscript of Abu al-Khair is the following: turnips, flax, broad beans, barley, wheat.[38] 


Muslim expertise also stretched to methods of fighting insect pests, use of fertilizers, grafting trees, crossing plants to produce new varieties, etc.[39] On grafting alone, according to Scott, the Spanish Muslims employed eight distinct methods. Muslims, according to him, were also able to treat with success diseases of all known species of ‘the vegetable kingdom;’ and were exceedingly skilful in the distillation and refining of essences, and the cultivation of great plantations of flowers for the sake of the exquisite perfumes they afforded, and in preserving fruits for an indefinite period.[40] Horticultural improvements, Sarton notes, constitute one of the finest legacies of Islam, and the gardens of Spain proclaim to this day one of the noblest virtues of the Muslims.[41] Many indices, Bresc says, allow the formulation of the hypothesis that the technical legacy of the gardeners of the Palermo  plains has been inherited from the Islamic period, and also brings closer Sicilian horticulture to that of Andalusia.[42]


Crucial to farming life is the almanach, the first known to us being the famed ‘Calendar of Cordova of 961.’[43] Its Latin  text was first published by Libri in 1838,[44] whilst its Arabic text was edited by Dozy in 1873. Levi Provencal views the Calendar as the most precious of all treatises in the field, even if it is the oldest of the sort.[45] Its technical accuracy is ‘remarkable,’ and much of what it contains was to be found in subsequent geography books and farming treatises. It highlights the role of each month of the year, March, for instance, the month for fig tree grafting, and early cereal planting. It is also the month for planting sugar cane and sowing cotton and saffron. March is when pre-season roses and lilacs come out; when quails make their appearance; silk worms hatch; and mullets journey up rivers from the sea. During this month mail orders for the purchase of horses for the government are sent to provincial officials; and also locusts first appear and their destruction is ordered. It is the time to plant lime and marjoram, too. It is also the mating season of many birds.[46]

Going back to the matter of impact, this calendar also has Yemeni origin, confirming patterns observed above on the Yemeni pioneering role in farming. The Yemen , indeed, had an established calendar in use for agricultural and activities as reported by al-Hamdani, about 900.[47] 

There is also an interesting calendar by al-Makrisi (Al-Makrizi), which notes under the month of November, for instance:

‘On the 7th of this month cutting of the cane for the presses begins… after the old and sickly animals have been sold and others more vigorous have been bought, as well as reeds and straw for the boiling house. The workpeople are employed in the manufacture of abloudjats, funnels and the vases destined for the sugar and molasses.’[48]

For December, he writes:

‘Cane crushing begins and sugar boilers are engaged. Lands are planted with cane and colocasia. Dykes are opened at the end of this month. The best cane is crushed after having reserved enough for seed. The construction of sakiats (irrigating machines) is pushed on.’[49]  


Muslim authors devoted vast interest to the study of plants, their composition, structure, and also their uses for medicinal purposes. Al-Dinawari (d. 895) deals with a wide variety of plants, and describes their transformations and changes during their growth. From his predecessors, he derives knowledge on aromatic plants, plants used in dyes and for other purposes.[50] He also devotes one chapter to the classification of plants (tajnis al-nabat).[51] Ibn Wahshiya's Filaha Nabatiyya (Nabatean Agriculture),[52] one of the earliest of the sort, makes a comprehensive classification of plants.[53] Another early work on the subject is the anonymous Umdat al-tabib fi ma'rifat al-nabat li-kull labib, which was a pioneering attempt at the classification of plants by genus (jinse), species (naw) and variety (sanf).[54] Ibn Baja (d. 1138,) in Kitab al-nabat (liber de Plantis) also deals with the physiology of plants, whilst emphasising their infinite variety. Ibn Wafid Majmu’ fi’l Filaha (Compendium of Farming) focuses on the naming and uses of many of the new plants being introduced into Spain. The geographer Ibn Battuta  (d.1377), as he recounts his travels, offers extremely detailed descriptions of plants, fruit and vegetation of India , Java, the Maldives, etc.[55] He includes the common: apricots, quince, grapes, watermelons, sweet oranges etc, but also the exotic: coconuts, mango trees, cinnamon, Brazil nut, benzoin, camphor and clove amongst others.[56]


Experimental gardens were the privileged setting for adapting and studying plants.  It was in Muslim Spain in the 11th Century, that the first royal botanical gardens of Europe made their appearance, five centuries ahead of similar ones in Western Christendom.[57] These were both pleasure gardens and also trial grounds for the acclimatization of plants brought from the Near and Middle East.[58] Royal and experimental botanical gardens were often in the charge of leading scientists. In Spain, agronomists had at their disposal botanical gardens and trial grounds where they experimented with exotic plants, and tried to create new varieties of fruit and flowers.[59] The literature around this subject, Armesto notes, is prolific. A veritable school of court gardeners flourished, unparalleled elsewhere in the medieval West.[60] They knew each other and read each other’s works, and dealt with practical agriculture.[61] Their common background was in royal patronage, their common formation in the lush experimental gardens of powerful sybarites in Toledo  and Seville , where they were employed on every project that might enhance luxury, from concocting compost to inventing recipes for foie gras.[62] They were learned men and keen, practical gardeners, too.[63] Hence, Al-Tignari, the author of a farming manual, made botanical gardens for a Spanish Taifa king and then for the Almoravid prince Tamim.[64] In the garden of a sultan of Seville, the anonymous author of a botanical treatise domesticated rare plants and acclimatized exotic ones.[65] In the 12th century the botanist and physician al-Shafran collected plants from many outlying regions of Spain for the garden of an Almohad sultan at Guadix.[66] The Huerta del Rey in Toledo was directed by two of Spain's leading agronomists: Ibn Bassal and Ibn Wafid, both of whom carried out agricultural experiments and wrote important manuals of farming. Ibn Bassal eventually fled from Toledo in 1085, when it was captured by Alfonso VI of Castile, for Seville, to the court of Al-Mutamid for whom he created a new royal garden.[67]

The gardens of the medieval Islamic world, and particularly the royal gardens, were, according to Watson, places where business was mixed with pleasure and science with art.[68] These gardens linked together the agricultural and botanical activities of distant regions, and played one of greatest roles in the diffusion of useful plants.[69] Only many centuries later did Europe possess similar botanical gardens which helped to make it the same kind of medium for plant diffusion that the Islamic world had been in the middle ages.[70] 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), but only in the 16th and 17th centuries did other European cities and universities follow suit: 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.[71]

[1] Ibid; p. 20.

[2] E. Levi Provencal: Histoire; op cit; p. 264.

[3] A.M. Watson: A Medieval Green Revolution; op cit; p. 43.

[4] F.F Armesto: Millennium (Simon and Shuster; 1995), p.37.

[5] L. Bolens: Agriculture, in: Encyclopaedia (Selin ed) op cit;  p. 21.

[6] Ibn Al-Awwam: in Biographie Universelle: New Edition, published under the direction of M. Michaud (Paris, 1857), Vol XX: pp 267-8.

[7] Baron Carra de Vaux: Les Penseurs de l'Islam (Paris, Librairie Paul Geuthner, 1921), vol 2; p. 301.

[8] Ibn Al-Awwam: Le Livre de l'Agriculture, op cit,.

[9] P.K. Hitti: History of the Arabs (MacMillan, London, 1970), p. 575.

[10] Baron Carra de Vaux: Les Penseurs; op cit, pp. 300-6.

[11] Ibn al-Awwam in Bibliographie Universelle; op cit.

[12] J. Vernet and J. Samso: Development of Arabic Science in Andalusia, in The Encyclopaedia(Rashed ed), op cit; pp 243-76; at p. 263. The Spanish translation in 1802 in two volumes was the work of Don Josef Antoine Banqueri. The French version was Ibn Awwam Le Livre de l'agriculture, by Clement-Mullet; in 3 vols, (Paris 1864-1867).

[13] A. Mieli: La Science Arabe; op cit; p.213.

[14] H. Bresc: Les Jardins de Palerme; op cit; p. 69.

[15] Ibid.

[16] In A Cherbonneau: Kitab al-Filaha of Al-Ichbili, op cit.

[17] In A. Watson: Agricultural Innovation, Note 3; p. 190.

[18] See: N. Deerr: The History of Sugar; op cit; pp. 67 ff; at pp. 80-1, in particular.

[19]  V. Lagardere: La Riziculture en Al Andalus (VIIIem-Xvem siecles), in Studia Islamica, vol 83, (1996), pp 71-87.

[20] In A. Watson: Agricultural Innovation, Note 3; p. 190.

[21] Ibn Bassal: Libro de agricultura, Jose M.Millas Vallicrosa and Mohammed Azinan eds, (Tetuan Instituto Muley al-Hasan, 1953), pp. 152-3.

[22] Ibn al-Awwam:  Libro de agricultura, ed. J. A. Banqueri (Madrid, 1802), in N. Deer: The History; op cit; p. 80.

[23] M. Canard: Rice in the Middle East in the First Centuries of Islam; in Production and the Exploitation of Resources; edited by M. G. Morony (Ashgate; 2002), pp. 1-15.

[24] Texts and translations: First edition with French translation and notes by C. Barbier de Meynard: le Livre des routes et des provinces; Journal Asiatique, vol 5, 1-127, 227-295, 446-532, 1865. A better text has been published by M.J. de Goeje, with French translation and notes: Bibliotheca geographorum arabicorum, 6 (Leyden; 1889), pp. 10-11.

[25] M. Canard: Rice; op cit; p. 6.

[26] Ibn al-Awwam: Le Livre de l'agriculture, by Clement-Mullet; 2 tomes in 3 vols (Paris 1864-1867), p. 59.

[27] Ibn Basal: Libro de agricultura; op cit; p. 110-12; Ibn Wahshiyya: Filaha; op cit; p. 214-5.

[28] M. Canard: Rice; op cit; p. 6.

[29] Ibid.

[30] In V. Lagardere: La Riziculture; op cit; pp 71-87.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Ibn Battuta : Voyages d'Ibn Battuta, Arabic text accompanied by French translation by C. Defremery and B.R. Sanguinetti, preface and notes by Vincent Monteil, I-IV (Paris, 1968), reprint of the 1854 edn’ II; p. 82 and 185.

[33] Al-Jahiz: Kitab al-Bukhala (Cairo  ed H. 1323), p. 108.

[34] Al-Jahiz: Kitab al-Bukhala; in M. Canard: Rice; op cit; pp. 9-10.

[35] Yaqut, Ibn Abd Allah al-Hamawi: Mu'jam al-Buldan; Jacut's Geographisches Worterbuch, ed. F. Wustenfeld. 6 vols, (Leipzig, 1866-70), vol I; p. 413.

[36] Ibn Al-Awwam: Le Livre de l'Agriculture; op cit; here from the Spanish translation of Don Josef Antoine Banqueri, vol 2; ii; pp. 11-15.

[37] L. Bolens: Les Methodes culturales au moyen age d'apres les traites d'agronomie andalous: traditions et techniques, (Geneva, 1974), pp. 129-30.

[38] Ibid.

[39] F.B. Artz: The Mind; op cit; P.150.

[40] S.P. Scott: History; op cit; vol 2;  pp. 605-6.

[41] G Sarton: Introduction, op cit; Vol II, p .56.

[42] H. Bresc: Les Jardins de Palerme; op cit; p.67.

[43] Details of which in E.L. Provencal: History, op cit, pp. 289-90.

[44] Libri: Histoire des sciences mathematiques en Italie (Paris, 1838), I, p. 393 and foll.

[45] E. Levi Provencal: Histoire; op cit; p.239

[46]  Ibid; pp.289-90.

[47] R. B. Serjeant: Agriculture and Horticulture; op cit; p. 538.

[48] Al-Makrisi: Description topographique et historique de l’Egypte; Trans Bouriant and Casanova (Paris; 1895 and 1906); pp. 57 and seq.

[49] Ibid.

[50] T. Fahd: Botany, op cit, pp 813-52.

[51] B. Lewin: The Third part of Kitab al-Nabat of Abu Hanifa al-Dinawari,' Orientalia Suecena 9, (1960), pp: 131-6.

[52] Ibn Wahshiya (903-4): Al-Filaha al-nabatiyya''. Agr.Ms. 490 (Dar al-Kutub, Cairo ).

[53] L'Agriculture Nabateene. Translation into Arabic attributed to al-Kasdani, known as Ibn Wahshiya. Critical edition by T. Fahd, 2 Vols (Damascus , 1993 and 1995). 

[54] J. Vernet and J. Samso: Development, op cit, p. 262.

[55] Ibn Battuta : Voyages d'Ibn Batoutah, op cit.

[56] Ibid.

[57] G.S. Colin: Filaha; Encyclopaedia of Islam: New edition (Leiden; 1986), Vol 2, p. 902.

[58] Ibid.

[59] Ibid.

[60] F.F Armesto: Millennium; op cit; p.35.

[61] Ibid; p.36.

[62] Ibid; p.37.

[63] Ibid.

[64]J.M. Millas Vallicrosa: Un Nuevo manuscrito de la obra agronomica al Tignari; Tamuda; 1; (1953); pp. 85-6.

[65] Asin Palacios: Un Botanico arabigoandaluzdesconocido (Madrid; 1942), p.9.

[66] L. Leclerc: Histoire de la Medecine Arabe (Paris; 1876), vol 2; p. 250.

[67] G.S. Colin: Filaha; Encyclopaedia of Islam: Vol 2, op cit; p. 901:

[68] A. Watson: Agricultural Innovation, op cit, p.  119.

[69] Ibid.

[70] Ibid.

[71] 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.