Land Use and Management


 Just as with water, the arrival of Islam considerably altered land ownership, and more crucially, land use. Islam legalised individual ownership of the land in contrast to tribal institutions which made the hima (the land which was kept as a preserve, sacred territory, or land reserved for the exclusive use of a tribe or a tribal chief) common to all members of the tribe.[1] By furthering concepts related to land reclamation and distribution, Islam transformed the Arabs from nomadic people into a civilisation of land owners.[2] Although this Islamic conception of land ownership was connected with the actual possession of the land, it did not preclude the other concept that property is God’s to give, and so is the land, and that people can use and exploit both.[3] Individual ownership of the land was, however, neither absolute nor unconditional, for Islam laid down some regulations, which limited its absolute character.[4] Since the concept of ownership was to encourage people to make use of land, and since land was granted for both individual and communal benefit, the right of ownership would cease to function if the cultivation stopped.[5] Accordingly, both the Prophet and Caliph Omar  (Caliph 634-644) took back land which had been granted to some of the Companions who were unable to exploit it. Omar took back from Bilal ibn Al-Harith al-Muzni some of the land that the Prophet had granted to him, saying:

‘God’s messenger has not granted you this land so that you should merely prevent other people from holding it: he granted it to you in order to work it. Take whatever you can cultivate, and return the rest.’[6]

In respect to conquered land, the same Caliph is also noted for his attitude to land ownership and rights. Following the conquest of Egypt , he rejected the advice of Zobeir to divide the land amongst his followers. ‘Leave it,' said Omar , ‘in the people's hands to nurse and to fructify.’[7]

The Muslims, Durant notes, could have devastated or confiscated everything, like the Mongols or the Magyars or the raiding Norse; instead they merely taxed.[8] Conquered lands, while forming a part of the public domain, could not be acquired by those who had conquered them, and continued to be occupied and tilled by their former proprietors.[9]


The arrival of Islam altered the condition of the land in further respects, which were amenable to better use and higher economic returns. Following Muslim rule, Le Strange notes, lands of the realm were measured, records were systematically kept, roads and canals were multiplied or maintained, rivers were banked to prevent floods; Iraq , formerly half desert, was again a garden of Eden; Palestine , recently so rich in sand and stones, was fertile, wealthy and populous.[10] Purely Islamic regulations and statutes played the central role in this. Among the rights which were acknowledged by Islam for the purpose of individual land ownership is the reclamation of waste land, defined as land without any owner, and without any trace of cultivation or development.[11] According to one of the Muslim jurists, Abu Hanifa, ownership only holds if the former owners are unknown, and this ownership through reclamation becomes established only when the reclaimer begins the process of reclaiming it by cultivation or digging it, or surrounding it with walls, but if he ceases to work it, he would only have priority but not ownership, and he stipulates a period of three years as a proof of working.[12] However, Caliph Omar , once more, cancelled the practice of placing a stone or digging a ditch around a piece of land,  prohibiting reserving any part of it.[13] The Islamic jurist Al-Shafi’i  explains that if the ruler grants a piece of land, or if someone reserves for himself a piece of dead land  and prevents anyone from developing it, the ruler has the right to tell such person that if he develops such land, it is his, if not, it will be taken from him and given to another Muslim who would be willing to develop it.[14]

As will be expanded under another heading further on, the Islamic legal corpus also gave great incentives to land improvement. One such incentive was in exempting or taxing at only half the normal rate lands planted with permanent crops which had not yet begun to yield, which, no doubt encouraged investment in tree crops, such as bananas, citrus, mangoes and coconut palms, which ultimately yielded far higher returns than the traditional crops.[15]


Security of ownership, the obligation to improve estates, and the measures just seen, all gave the incentive to Muslim farmers to innovate. One principal way this worked was by the introduction of new crops (which will be elaborated upon further on), which had a dramatic impact on land use. This was accomplished by planting such new crops on hitherto dead lands. Sorghum, for instance, though requiring moderate amounts of water around and after planting time, produces best results in a dry heat, whilst watermelons and eggplants can also give satisfactory yields with very little water.[16] Some of the crops were useful in pushing back the frontiers of dry farming into areas which in earlier times had been considered too hot, too arid, too infertile to be cultivated regularly or at all, sorghum, once more, doing very well on hard, sandy soils, inhospitable to other crops, even improved the quality of such soils.[17] Hard wheat, and watermelons could grow on sandy soils, whilst sugar cane, coconut palms, colocasia and eggplants could be grown on saline soils, and thus, they made it possible to expand cultivation onto swampy lands along sea-coasts, the mouths of rivers, into lands watered by brackish water, and into lands that after centuries of cropping had become too salty for other crops.[18]


Soil enrichment remained a central concern to Muslim farmers, and this was accomplished through a variety of techniques and methods.  Soils were enriched by varying methods of ploughing (normal and deep), hoeing, digging and harrowing.[19] Bresc states that farms of Norman Sicily , which were still probably in the hands of Muslim cultivators, were ploughed four times before planting.[20] Turning and breaking the soil were seen as partial substitutes for both fallowing and fertilising, and on occasions preferable. Throughout the Muslim world, fertilisers of all sorts were also used and employed in accordance with much advanced farming requirements.[21] Animal dung was widely used, and so was vegetal matter of many sorts, including sediment from olive oil, lees, straw, husks, leaves, and mineral matter such as different kinds of oils, chalk, marl, crushed bricks, etc.[22]  The geographer, Yaqut al-Hamawi (d.1229), for instance, informs us that the town refuse of Basra  was systematically brought as manure to the sugar cane.[23] Watson remarks that the range of fertilisers used by Muslims was much larger than in ancient traditions, and that the fact that night soil was used was of great importance since it made available very large supplies of a fertiliser not used in European agriculture, and thus reduced or eliminated the need to pasture animals on fields.[24] It seems likely, Watson adds, that it is for this reason that communal rights to graze on stubble did not develop in the Islamic world, and hence the rigid village wide rotation of medieval Europe did not appear. Muslim cultivators, were thus, left free to develop rotations which suited both soil, moisture, and market conditions.[25] Many techniques and methods for upgrading different types of soils were also implemented, including the use of special crops to increase soil fertility.[26] Sorghum, trimester wheat, legumes, beets, sugar cane, rice, various grasses and many other crops were appropriately designed for the enrichment of specific kinds of soils.[27] One other way in which Islamic farmers were able to increase soil productivity was through a closer matching of crops to soil, climate and water, and in doing so, they had more scope than their predecessors, for they had more crops to choose from, the old ones, new strains from them, and also the new crops, which the Muslims introduced.[28]


The Muslim farmer also understood the requirements of these crops better than his predecessors, identifying many different kinds of soils, each suited to  particular kinds of plants, and differentiating them further by taking into account the soil’s moisture and temperature through the growing season.[29] The Muslim farmer also had a more sophisticated understanding of the effects of climate on plant growth, which took account not only of rainfall and air temperature but also the effects of various winds.[30] Thus, the Muslim farmer was informed how barley could grow in lands where wheat does not, and how it succeeds in soils that are saline, fine, soft, loose, weak, seeping and perspiring; or that the lime tree likes loose earth with a little salinity or red, aerated earth.[31] Soils were also protected from erosion, especially in the delicate environments that formed the Islamic geographical space.


Islamic farming treatises provided a significant amount of knowledge in relation to land use, management, and soil improvement. Ibn Wahshiya remarks that ‘the earth does not keep form but changes over time,’ and changes in the quality of the soil,’ he adds, ‘this could be effected by the cultivator.’[32] He proposes many treatments for earths categorised as saline, sweet, bitter, acid, foul, delicate, clayish, sharp, heavy, and astringent, treatments, which often involved the addition of various kinds of oils, appropriately chosen, as well as the right kind of animal and green manures, correct watering, much ploughing, and the choice of suitable crops in the early years of cultivation.[33] Ibn Bassal, in his book on farming, distinguishes between ten classes of soil, each assigned with a different life sustaining capability, according to the season of the year.[34] He is insistent that fallow land be ploughed four times between January and May and, in certain cases (for example, when cotton is cropped in the thick soil of the Mediterranean  coast), he recommends as many as ten ploughings.[35] Ibn Bassal’s countrymen, Ibn al-Awwam did not neglect the crucial issue in Islamic farming of soil salinity,[36] whilst Al Ichbili’s Kitab al-Filaha, explains the required soils for each crop, tasks preceding planting, soil preparation, use of manure, ploughing techniques, their frequency, soil preservation etc.[37] Al-Maqrizi and Ibn Mammati, for their part, explain the forms, manners and frequencies of ploughing in sugar cane farm-lands.[38] Ibn Mammati says that land to be planted with summer crops should be ploughed two or three times.[39] Whilst some such techniques were possibly uneconomic, many, however, permitted vast improvements to the soil quality, and allowed a vaster use of dry land and expansion of Islamic agriculture into lands hitherto uncultivated.[40] Such was the care for soil, as for water, both understood by early Islamic society as precious resources. Islamic farming, Bolens insists, followed ‘the golden rule of ecology,’ and was ‘subject to laws of scrupulously careful ecology.’[41]

[1] A. Abd Al-Kader: Land Property and Land Tenure in Islam; The Islamic Quarterly; Vol 5 (1959), pp. 4-11; at p. 1 and 11.

[2] Ibid; 11.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Al-Amwal: p. 290; in A. Abd Al-Kader; p. 5.

[7] Sir W. Muir: The Caliphate (Smith and Elder and Co; London; 1883), p. 170.

[8] Will Durant: The Age of Faith, op cit; p.227.

[9] S.P. Scott: History; op cit; Vol 1; p.130.

[10] G. Le Strange: Palestine  Under the Moslems (London; 1890),  p. 24.

[11] A. Abd Al-Kader: Land Property; op cit; p. 6.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid; p. 11.

[14] Al-Umm; iii; p. 271. in A. Abd Al-Kader; op cit; p. 7.

[15] A.M. Watson: Agricultural; op cit; p. 28.

[16] A.M. Watson: A Medieval Green Revolution; Op cit; p. 41.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] A..M. Watson: Agricultural, op cit, chapter 23.

[20] H. Bresc: Les Jardins; op cit; p.69.

[21] T. Glick: Islamic, op cit, p. 75.

[22] See L. Bolens: Engrais et protection de la fertilite dans l’agronomie Hispano-Arabe au XI-XIIem siecles; Etudes Rurales; XLVI (1972), pp. 34-60.

[23] Yaqut al-Hamawi: Dictionaire de la Perse; ed. Barbier de Maynard (Paris; 1881), p. 294.

[24] A.M. Watson: A Medieval Green Revolution; op cit; Note 36; p. 54.

[25] Ibid.

[26] A. Watson: Agricultural; op cit; Note 29; p. 203.

[27] Ibid.

[28] A.M. Watson: A Medieval Green Revolution; op cit; pp.42-3.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Ibn Wahshiya: Al-Filaha al-nabatiya (Dar al-Kutub; Cairo ), Ms. 490; I; pp. 173; 70.

[32] Ibid; p. 128.

[33]  Ibid; pp. 127 fwd.

[34] In Millas Vallicrosa, ‘Sobre la obra de agricultura de Ibn Bassal,' in Nuevos estudios sobre historia de la ciencia espanola (Barcelona: Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Cientificas, 1960), pp 139-40.

[35] Ibid.

[36] Here from the Spanish translation in 1802 in two volumes was the work of Don Josef Antoine Banqueri, 1; 69 fwd; and ii; p. 5.

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

[38]Al-Maqrizi; Khitat 1; pp.182-3, and Ibn Mammati. P. 266 In A. Watson: Agricultural; op cit; note 26; p. 203.

[39] Ibn Mammati, 245-6 in A. Watson: Agricultural; op cit; note 26; p. 203.

[40] A.M. Watson: A Medieval Green Revolution; op cit; p. 41.

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