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1. The Issue
From the seventh to the ninth centuries C.E. (Common Era), the Arabs maintained Ilourishing trade
centers. They gained control over the spice trade around 960 B.C.E. (BeIore Common Era) and
continued domination until 1100 C.E. However, this study is concerned principally with the period
Irom the beginning oI Islam in the seventh century C.E. until its decline in the 12th century C.E., or
more speciIically Irom the 10th century C.E. when it really began to expand beyond the Arab lands.
The new religion was spread beyond the Arab lands through two primary methods. The Iirst was
conquest through war. The second, less violent, approach was that carried along the spice trade
routes. This second approach was Iar preIerable within the teachings oI the new religion because it
allowed Ior conversion by means other than Iorce; the more violent path is expressly condemned in
the Qur'an. This case study then will be a historic look at the spread oI Islam using the spice trade as
its chieI vehicle, as well as a discussion about data surrounding this agricultural trade's impact on the
. Description
The Muslim era begins in 622 C.E., which corresponds to 1 A.H. (aIter hifra) and Irom which the
Islamic calendar is dated. This year marks the date when the Prophet Muhammad made his historic
move Irom Mekka to Yathrib (later Medina), on the Arabian peninsula (contemporary Sa'udi
'Arabia). With his rising inIluence in his hometown oI Mekka, the Prophet Muhammad came into
conIlict with the powerIul Quraish tribe (the people oI his own Iamily, but a group in which they
held relatively low inIluence). So in 622 C.E. he accepted an invitation Irom his neighbors in Yathrib
to travel there, becoming a religious leader in that community. The year then marks his journey,
called al-hijra, when he abandoned "a pagan and wicked community Ior one living in accordance
with the moral teachings oI Islam." (1) It is interesting to note that his way to Yathrib was paved by
local traders who had been engaged Ior quite some time in a commercial relationship with the
community in Mekka. This commercial relationship, based principally on the spice trade, had then
introduced the people oI Yathrib to the new religion and its prophet.
Not long aIter coming to Yathrib, the Prophet Muhammad was successIul in obtaining more converts
to Islam and building a more powerIul base. This increased power soon brought him into renewed
conIlict with his Quraishi neighbors. Thus, "he was soon drawn into an armed struggle with Quraish,
perhaps Ior control oI the trade-routes, and in the course oI the struggle the nature oI the community
was shaped." (2) As a result, desire Ior control over these lucrative trade routes resulted in the most
signiIicant expansion oI Islam -- its return to Mekka and acceptance there.
When the Prophet Muhammad died in 632 C.E., leadership oI the Muslim community passed to
Iour rashidun khulaIaa', (or rightly- guided caliphs), who maintained their power base in Mekka.
AIter therashidun khulafaa, there Iollowed a succession oI khulafaa whose empire moved Irom
Mekka (under the rashidun) to Damascus (under the Umayyad empire), and then to Baghdad (under
the 'Abbasid empire). There is no evidence to support a theory that expansion during this period was
catalyzed by trading connections. Rather, centers oI power relocated on the basis oI political and
Iamilial ties, which may have been augmented by commercial ones.
By the 10th century C.E., Islam had become a more powerIul Iorce Ior two reasons. One is that the
religion had had more opportunity to become deIined. The Qur'an had been written and Iairly widely
distributed, and hadith (or a collection oI sayings and deeds oI the Prophet Muhammad) had been
codiIied. The second reason was the distinction between Muslims and non- Muslims had become
more apparent, and more important since in an Islamic society Muslims had certain rights that non-
Muslims did not. The rights oI these Christian and Jewish non-Muslims were protected by religious
law since they are considered worthy oI respect and protection because oI their unique classiIication
as "People oI the Book". However, they did have to pay a special tax (called al-fi:ya), men oI the
Book could not marry Muslim women, evidence provided by people oI the Book could not be used
against Muslims, their houses and churches/synagogues could not be ostentatious, and they could not
attain positions oI power. (3)
At this same time, too, Muslims began to understand a dichotomous world; either one lived in Dar
al-Islam (the House oI Islam or Submission) or Dar al-Harb (the House oI War). Thus, "by the end oI
the tenth century there had come into existence an Islamic world, united by a common religious
culture expressed in the Arabic language, and by human links which trade, migration and pilgrimage
had Iorged." (4) With this solidiIied identity came the perIect opportunity to Iurther propagate the
word oI God -- the spice trade over which Muslims had Iirm control.
Additionally, wherever Islam went there also travelled the Arabic language. The only acceptable
version oI the Qur'an is the Arabic one and prayers are perIormed solely in classical Arabic. Thus,
the language also travelled with the religion, as did the culture. It was then Ior several reasons that it
really remained the responsibility oI Arabs to spread the new religion. One, it had been revealed to
an Arab. Two, it was based in the Arabic tongue. So, in order to Iully assimilate into the liIe oI
Islam, one had to adopt, to a greater or lesser extent, many oI the vestiges oI Arabic culture.
The Islamic heartland straddles the three continents oI Asia, AIrica and Europe and was central to all
trade routes. Routes to and Irom southern AIrica and Europe passed through AIrican Islamic lands.
Routes to and Irom China/southeast Asia to Europe passed through key Islamic territory, as did
similar routes leading to India. The region, thereIore, already had an advantage in the trade industry
since many oI the routes traversed these lands either overland or by sea.
Simultaneously, as Islam continued IortiIying itselI and steps were being taken to convert more
Iollowers, Arabs were becoming more and more involved in trading. Principally, spices became a
key pillar oI the trade industry because they were not bulky, perishable, or breakable and thus could
be carried/traded over long distances easily. For these reasons the actual process oI trading probably
began with such items. It continued to be successIul since people began relying on them early on to
preserve Iood, improve their health, add taste to Iood, augment their personal appearance and smell,
and perIume their houses.
Furthermore, the characteristically Muslim impact on the spice trade was revolutionary. Prior to
Muslim conquest, trading had been indirect and was accomplished by the connection oI local
merchants who traded exclusively in their local area. They were involved in a trade-relay oI sorts
where the spices were transported Irom one carrier to another to another, without any singular group
making the entire journey itselI. When Muslim Iorces gained control over the trade, however, one oI
their Iirst innovations was to make this a direct trade, wherein Muslims would travel the entire length
oI the trade routes personally, without relying on intermediaries. This markedly inIluenced their
ability to spread the word oI God and Muhammad.
The speciIic agricultural products -- spices -- were actually conducive to this strategic use oI trade to
spread religion. "Spice plants were limited in supply. They grew in particular areas ... and they could
not always be moved Ior cultivation elsewhere." (5) This made the continuity oI the spice trade
essential to importers Ior a number oI centuries since they had come to rely on the aromatic,
medicinal, and preservative qualities oI spices users could not grow at home.
The term "spices" was previously Iar more inclusive than the deIinition relegated to it in
contemporary times. For the purposes oI this study, the term will comply with the deIinition
established by Crone. "They include incense, or substances that gave oII a nice smell on being burnt;
perIumes, ointments, and other sweet-smelling substances with which one dabbed, smeared, or
sprinkled oneselI or one's clothes; things that one put into Iood or drink to improve their taste,
prolong their liIe, or endow them with medicinal or magical properties; and they also included
antidotes." (6) These have been documented by numerous and varied sources (several oI whom are
Iound in the Relevant Literature section) to include long pepper, black pepper, cinnamon, silver Iir
tree, Irankincense, myrrh, balsam, cardamom, cassia and dill. This list is by no means exclusive, but
these are merely the items on which the majority oI scholars have achieved agreement as being
traded by Arabs during this period. Some oI these spices were traded by Arab middlemen (that is the
product did not originate or terminate in their hands), while spice-plants indigenous to Arab lands
were primarily the kinds used to produce "aromatic resin, oleo-resins and gums" (7) which were the
bases oI perIumes, incense and aromatic oils.
Naturally, other spices were traded by other groups and still others during various periods in history.
However, since this study is concentrated on the Arab spice trade during the period oI expansion oI
Islam, it is limited to these items.
Several problems obtaining relevant data were met with during the course oI this research. There
were no Iigures and very Iew generally accepted Iacts regarding the Arab side oI the spice trade.
The Iirst problem is based on the historic nature oI the project. There exists little remaining primary
inIormation (i.e. speciIic spices traded, amount traded, purchase price, etc.). The minimal amount oI
such materials that are still accessible are in Arabic, Greek and Latin.
The second involves bias on the part oI secondary authors against Arab traders. Otherwise respected
general historians such as Braudel reIer to them as "barbarians" and "camel-men", not sources one
would wish to rely on Ior Iactual, objective inIormation on the Arab spice trade. Moreover, due to
these biases such authors tend to Iocus little on the details oI these economic activities, relegating
them to peripheral importance aIter European aIIairs, and something not worthy oI detailed
discourse. Thus, even had they had the primary inIormation available to them, most did not deem it
necessary oI inclusion in their general works.
A third problem with data on this subject is the initial secondary sources Irom specialized Islamist or
Arabist scholars. As Islam began in Mekka, so should any discussion oI the spread oI Islam. The
ensuing dilemma involves the cornerstone publications, which were written (in French) by H.
Lammens between 1910-1928. Subsequent scholars oI Mekkan trade, in particular Crone, express
extreme doubt about the validity oI his data and analysis, labelling him "notoriously unreliable". (8)
Such strident allegations would beg skepticism in ensuing studies that rely on Lammens' works,
which most oI them have been Iorced to do Ior lack oI other resources.
In sum, then, this research was quite limited Irom the outset in regards to data availability. As such,
scholarly conclusion based on perusal oI data is virtually impossible at this stage, but scholarly
conjecture as to certain probabilities is not.
Islam was transported beyond the Arab lands primarily via two methods. The Iirst was conquest in
battle and was used to extend the Muslim Empire over the Maghrib (northern AIrica above the
Sahara Desert), Spain, Anatolia, the Balkans, India, Sicily and the Mediterranean coasts oI Europe
during the course oI the seventh to the tenth century C.E. The second, less violent, approach was that
used to expand into southeast Asia, central Asia and China, and sub-Saharan AIrica. This was
accomplished through the trade oI spices and is what will Iorm the crux oI this study. It is also the
mechanism approved by the Qur'an.
In AIrica, Islamicized Berber and Tuareg traders introduced Islam to West AIrica in the 9th century
C.E. They did so via the trans-Saharan spice trade routes linking the Senegal and Niger river areas to
the Maghrib. By the end oI the 10th century C.E., the Soninke people oI Mauritania had become
Islamicized; this group was a vehicle which carried Islam Iurther down the Senegal River Valley and
toward the southeast as Iar as the Niger River, eIIectively bringing Islam Irom the outskirts oI the
continent into the interior.
In sub-Saharan AIrica the spread oI Islam was quite a bit easier to accomplish because vast
geographic distances did not have to be bridged. Muslims were already present in large numbers in
the Maghrib and natural progression led them across the Sahara. "Arab and Berber traders and
settlers in the Saharan and Sudanic regions, Arab and Persian settlers on the East AIrican coasts, and
Dyula communities in West AIrica, were the nuclei oI Muslim inIluences." (9) In this region, the
new religion was utilized primarily to beneIit the state elites by consolidating their political power,
reinIorcing commercial connections, recruiting skilled personnel, and mobilizing select spiritual
powers. (10) In West AIrica, Arab traders inIluenced warrior leaders to adopt Islam, and, in East
AIrica, the traders themselves retained control over the newly Iormed small states.
In East AIrica (more than West AIrica), Arab merchants remained direct Iorces who inhabited the
local communities, marrying into indigenous clans. One oI the chieI by-products oI this relationship
was the Swahili culture which served as a merger oI the Arabic and East AIrican cultures. Again, as
seen in other areas where Islam was introduced through trade and not via Iorce, Islam and Muslims
did not replace the indigenous culture, but blended with existing practices in a more gradual
"In AIrica, then, the process oI conversion was tied to the double mechanism oI peaceIul expansion
oI traders, settlers, and teachers, and to militant conquest. As in other parts oI the world, the two
could work either separately or in tandem." (11)It was introduced by spice traders, but then re-
asserted during colonization attempts. By the 20th century, Islam had become the mantle Ior anti-
colonialism, uniting threatened indigenous populations into new communities to combat colonial
In Southeast Asia, the spread oI Islam Iollowed a path more similar to that oI sub-Saharan AIrica,
than that Iound in Turkey, India, and the Maghrib. Here again "Islam was not established by
conquest, by the imposition oI a single centralized state, or by the settlement oI a substantial Ioreign
Muslim population; nor was it associated with massive social change." (12) Instead, Islam was
carried to these areas by Muslim traders and missionaries. These groups Iormed small communities
in the region and began introducing the religion to their trading partners, but Ior the most part did not
become permanent inhabitants.
The religion came Iirst to the Malay peninsula Irom India and Arabia and then dispersed throughout
the Indonesian archipelago. In Indonesia, Islam was initially introduced toward the end oI the
thirteenth century. Throughout Lapidus' book, he states that conversion was based primarily on the
elevated status aIIorded to the converts in extensive trading networks. Since the Muslims did not
replace the current leaders, it ensured the continuity oI local elites, thus reducing societal disruption.
It was Iurther transmitted through the regions oI Malaya and Indonesia as new, small states were
Iormed based on the expansion oI trading networks.
The trading structure was threatened early in the sixteenth century when Portuguese traders arrived
in pursuit oI black pepper. At Iirst the invasion resulted in the Ilight oI Muslim teachers and
missionaries Irom the Malay peninsula into Indonesian islands Ior Iear oI persecution by the
Christian Iorces. Then the common denominator oI Islam, combined with its teachings to thwart
control by non-Muslim Iorces, became the rallying cry oI a people demanding liberation.
The struggle over this spice-trading region intensiIied in 1594 when Holland gained independence
Irom the Hapsburg empire. As a result oI its disassociation with a then-world power, it was excluded
Irom Lisbon's spice market (i.e. the Hapsburg empire's spice center) and had to seek new sources. It
then sent out Iorces, not to develop new markets, but to seize existing ones Irom the Portuguese. "In
the course oI the seventeenth century the Dutch became the paramount power in the East Indies."
(13) The Dutch by that time had gained Iull control over the spice trade in this region, exporting its
new goods primarily to Europe.
Submission to the new religion was emphasized when Portuguese then Dutch merchants Iorced an
entree into the trading network. Islam provided the indigenous peoples the mechanism to join
together to resist intervention by these Christian powers. In Southeast Asia, Islam was adopted by
vast majorities oI the population, which Lapidus argues was principally achieved because Muslim
religious teachers there worked to incorporate the new religion into the older culture, making it an
integral part oI Iolk culture and identity. Islam then did not replace the popular culture, but provided
an additional expression oI it.
Islam arrived in Central Asia via the Arab conquests oI Iran and Transoxania (the region between the
rivers Syr Darya and Amu Darya stemming Irom the Aral Sea -- currently most oI Uzbekistan and
part oI Kazakhstan), beginning in the 10th century C.E. Many inhabitants oI central, pastoral Turkey
were then converted in the tenth century because oI their close contact with Muslim traders. These
converted traders were the primary vehicle which carried the new Iaith to Inner Asia, Anatolia, the
Balkans and India.
In the 13th century C.E., Mongol Iorces, initially non-Muslim people, had established control over
the entirety oI Inner Asia, much oI the Middle East and China. (Lapidus, 414) By the 18th century
C.E., much oI this control had shiIted to the equally non-Muslim Chinese and Russian rulers. During
this period, Islam was spread primarily by Muslim traders who transmitted the religion Irom the
central towns to the peripheral countryside. "In Inner Asia, Islamization was important Ior the
establishment oI nomadic regimes over sedentary populations, Ior the creation oI politically cohesive
ethnic identities among Tartars, Uzbeks, Kazakhs, and other peoples, and Ior the organization oI
long-distance trade." (14)
When control over the region switched to the non-Muslim Chinese and Russian rulers, they naturally
gained supreme power over the spice trade in that region -- excluding any Muslim inIluence. Thus,
with their conquest oI the region, the spice trade was no longer available Ior utilization as a
mechanism Ior promoting conversion to Islam.
Many historians have questioned whether these conversions to Islam were in Iact genuine
transIormations and acceptance oI the new religion, or whether it was perIormed by physical Iorce or
other pressures by Muslim conquerors (i.e. a convenient strategy to succeed in trade). "It is now
apparent that conversion by Iorce, while not unknown in Muslim countries, was, in Iact, rare." (15)
Instead, most people who adopted the new Iaith did so voluntarily, and such Iorce was condemned
by religious teachings. As the Qur'an proclaims, "Let there be no compulsion in religion.
" (16) Also in his authoritative commentary and translation, 'Ali Iurther explains that compulsion is
incompatible with Islam because "religion depends upon Iaith and will, and these would be
meaningless iI induced by Iorce."
(17)Even when these conversions were voluntary there is the question oI motivation. Did they
convert out oI true Iaith or social and political advantages to be gained by membership? "It seems
more realistic to recognize that in most cases worldly and spiritual motives Ior conversion blended
and cannot be diIIerentiated." (18) What matters in the end is that not only did the religion spread
quite rapidly, but many oI those who converted Ior worldly reasons either personally embraced Islam
on spiritual grounds or their descendants did. The means may have been Iinancial expedient, but the
end Ior many was a Iirm, convicted embrace oI a new religion.
Rapid conversion to Islam was rare. In order to make it a more permanent Iorce, it was introduced
gradually and reinIorced over time until Iull adherence to the doctrines oI Islam was completed.
Trading was vital to this process because oI the continued return oI traders aIter periods oI letting the
new religion acclimated to the new culture, and vice versa. Such slow immersion in the three regions
under study was also important in that it permitted the local culture the opportunity to modiIy the
religion to the local culture and the traditions oI the local community (within sharia (Islamic law) oI
Interestingly enough, according to Robinson, popular culture in the non- Arab regions where Islam
became a major religion attributes the introduction oI Islam to holy men. That is local tradition in
southeast Asia, central Asia and China, and sub-Saharan AIrica attributed the introduction oI Islam
almost exclusively to holy men. Further scrutiny oI remaining records, however, reveals that many oI
these holy men oIten doubled as traders, or arrived in the company oI traders and on their ships, so
either way the trading process played a vital role in the spread oI the religion.
"II there is an underlying common Iactor in the worldwide diIIusion oI Islam it seems to be its
capacity to generate religious Iellowship, larger-order communities, and states among peoples
otherwise living in highly Iactionalized or Iragmented societies. In general, the spread oI Islam
seems to have been most eIIective when it gave a new social identity to peoples severed Irom their
traditional social structures." (19) With these words, Lapidus summarizes the Iundamental impact oI
the spice trade on the successIul spread oI Islam -- it was done by choice not Iorce. Although there is
minuscule documentation and extensive disagreement over what kinds oI spices were traded, in what
quantities, when and to whom, there is virtually universal agreement on the role oI the spice trade in
the spread oI Islam. Without the spice trade, Islam would not have become a major religion outside
oI the Arab world.

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