The gifts of commerce from a forgotten civilisation

by  — 8 November 2012

The Muslim civilisation encompassed an area of land that stretched from Spain to China, one of the largest empires in history. Into this they integrated a network of trade that made them heirs to a vast scientific lore that they cultivated to create an era of technical and scientific development that had never been seen before.



The rise of the Muslim empire lead to the establishment of the world’s largest economic force from the 7th to the 13th century. By the early 7th century the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) had established a city state, Medina, and for the first time in history had managed to unite the quarrelling tribes in the Arabian Peninsula under a single rule. In under a century they had expelled the Sassanids from Persia and Iraq, and Byzantine rule from Palestine and Syria. The two great superpowers at the time, the Umayyad and Abassid dynasties extended the Muslim empire to envelope Central Asia, and eventually parts of India.

By the mid-eigth century the Muslim empire stretched itself from Spain to Central Asia, what followed was a thousand years of advancement in nearly every field of knowledge conceivable. The Muslim civilisation made significant contributions and in some cases provided the foundation for the development in the fields of industry such as agriculture, medicine, technology, philosophy, social science, music, arts, literature, navigation and astronomy.

However, with the decline of the Muslim civilisation in the 17th century, their contributions became lost history. The 1001 Inventions a travelling exhibit was developed to address this, an exhibition that has since attracted millions. Shaza Shannan, the director of Middle East operations at 1001 Inventions tells TheEDGE “Our project conceived in the United Kingdom (UK) along with the Foundation for Science, Technology and Civilisation was to address the gap in history. If you look at history books in the UK, you start with the Greeks and the Romans and suddenly you jump to the Renaissance. The aim is to educate and inform people about the huge contribution in science and technology of the Muslim civilisation.”

Shannan believes there is a lot to be learned from the past “what you want is to build a new generation of thinkers and scientists. This is key in the Middle East as it is our history we are going on a journey on, so the whole idea of the exhibition is to take people on a journey to the past to inspire their future.”


The barren deserts of Arabia offered very little in the way of natural resources, so it is perhaps through necessity that the Arabs became traders. Even before the birth of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) and the spread of Islam, Mecca was home to the Ka’bah (a temple raised by Abraham) that over time came to be filled with idols that neighbouring tribes brought, turning Mecca into a centre of pilgrimage for the Arabian Peninsula and in turn a thriving trade route.

The tribe of Quraysh, rulers of Mecca at the time and keepers of the Sanctuary (the Ka’bah), taxed those living within the city and used it to feed the pilgrims that flocked each year. As the pilgrims grew the Quraysh established caravan routes to foster more trade in the late sixth century, which would in time come to be known as the three great caravan routes that would carry traders, explorers and everyone in between as late as the 19th century.

Arab merchants carried wares between the shores of Spain and West Africa to China, India and even Southeast Asia. The result of this vast expanse of trade networks was the access to the different types of knowledge they acquired such as paper from China and agricultural practices from India to name two, which were then consolidated in the great learning centres of the Muslim world.

The tradition of pilgrimage to Mecca made it the epicentre not only for the Muslims that flocked for spiritual nourishment but also for the trade of goods and ideas. This lead to the further spread of Muslim civilisation through a merchant economy that would redefine both state and socio-political structures.

Arab conquests of more fertile regions and wealthy in natural resources lead to a period of reconstituting social structures in the new Muslim world. The mercantile class in Arabia was a new addition to the gentry that had not previously existed in Eurasia, a degree of social mobility was encouraged and meritocracy thrived in these periods. With the development of trade came currency and cheques, which gave rise to proto-capitalists (mercantilism) that developed a monetary economy based on the dinar.
Dr. Rim Turkmani, an astrophysicist at the Imperial College notes, “In the Arab, Islamic world going back to the 11th century they realised that investing in science was good for their economy, the local economy.”

Fields of study like mathematics flourished under the Muslim civilisation. Dr. Turkmani mentions that they would “work out the area of land to calculate how much tax would be levied on a person and when to tax them, you need science, you needed mathematics for this,” she adds, “you needed astronomy to predict the seasons, and when the harvest will be. They understood that science is money.”

Speaking on the topic Junaid Bhatti with the 1001 Inventions tells TheEDGE “The fruits of this cultural revolution taking place also benefited Europe through a very porous border, particularly Andalusia in Spain. Developments in the agricultural expertise of the Muslims gave up to four harvests per year whereas Europe at the time were used to one harvest every couple of years, so they were big advancements.”

The technology developed was a direct result of the hunger for knowledge that was sweeping the Muslim world at the time. “In the learning centres like the House of Wisdom in Baghdad, knowledge was so highly prized that translators were given as payment the weight in gold of the book they translated,” says Bhatti. “There was also an attempt to preserve knowledge and technology from ancient civilisations of the Greeks and Romans that were destroyed in Europe, but kept intact ancient civilisations of the Greeks and Romans that were destroyed in Europe, but kept intact in the Muslim civilisation. These were used as a basis for new discoveries, pioneering new techniques, new ways of looking at the world, and gaining a better understanding of how the universe works,” Bhatti adds.


“What’s interesting,” says Bhatti, “is that you had mainland Catholic Europe, and they viewed the Muslim world and even science as backward at the time, whereas in Protestant England this wasn’t an issue. They were quite happy to take knowledge from the East.”

Dr. Turkmani is also a specialist in the history of Islamic science and its influence on Europe during the scientific revolution. The exhibition Arabick Roots that exists primarily thanks to her will be on display at the Museum of Islamic Art that traces the rich connections between the scientific pioneers in the Muslim civilisation and 17th century Europe’s greatest scholars and scientists.

Prior to the fall of Rome the lingua franca of science was Latin, but the rise of the Muslim civilisation lead to these works being translated and preserved in Arabic, making it the new medium of communication for science. “At the time if you wanted to be a better scientist you had to know Arabic, many of the famous names in science like the astronomer Edmond Halley after whom the Halley’s comet is named, or Robert Boyle famous for Boyle’s Law all knew Arabic simply because that was the best way for them to access this knowledge,” Bhatti points out.

In fact, the Royal Society London, which is the oldest academy of science in the world was visited by numerous ambassadors and dignitaries from the Muslim world who brought with them knowledge and technology that was later expounded upon. “It was trade that created the peaceful and beneficial links for both sides. Traders looked at things from a different perspective, it’s an investment and they knew that, knowledge is investment and they utilised that for the sake of trade,” concludes Dr Turkmani.

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