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How Muslims transformed Mediterranean countries

D. J. Murphy
4 January 2008
Source: SciDev.Net

D. J. Murphy calls for Islamic cultures to rekindle their rich tradition of innovative science and technology from earlier centuries.

Athar Osama is correct in pointing out that, although science and technology are faring less well in the Middle East today than in the West and Far East, there is a rich history of Islamic excellence in these fields (see Sound institutions could quickly boost Muslim science).

In agriculture from 600 to 1600 CE, Islamic initiatives were responsible for much progress in the dissemination of innovative research and application.

In 'People, Plants, and Genes', I explain that, "In the early Middle Ages, the new Muslim rulers of much of the Mediterranean and Near East were heirs to a tradition of state and private commercial interest in agriculture that harked back over six millennia to prehistoric Mesopotamia."

The Islamic agrarian movement

In medieval times, the Arabs and Berbers introduced sorghum, citrus fruits, hard wheat, rice, aubergines, sugar cane, and cotton into North Africa, southern Italy and Spain. They used sophisticated irrigation systems, the likes of which were not seen again in Europe until the eighteenth century.

The rich realm of Al-Andalus (modern Andalusia) applied innovative agronomy, abandoning the usual practice of rotating crops every two and three years. Instead, farmers intensively cultivated a diverse crop portfolio for several years running, then planted legumes (such as clover and lucerne) to help the soil recover.

This Islamic-inspired agrarian movement reached its apogee in the twelfth century in the person of Ibn-el-Beithar of Malaga, also known as Ennabâty (the botanist).

Great Arabian scholars

Ibn-el-Beithar describes more than 1,500 species from his thirteenth-century expeditions to Spain, the Maghreb, Egypt and Persia in 'The Djami-el-Mofridat' ('The Simple Collection'). This also provides a valuable catalogue of medicinal plants.

Ibn-el-Beithar's texts presage the works of more famous Western botanisers, such as John Tradescant and Nikolai Vavilov. In his book 'El Morny' ('Sufficiency'), Ibn-el-Beithar describes how botanical knowledge could be exploited for the preparation of therapeutic compounds. This was a recurring theme for Classical, medieval, and post-Renaissance botanical writers, from the ancient Greek writer Theophrastus to the seventeenth century English physician Nicholas Culpeper.

One of the few surviving examples of the advanced technology of Moorish farmers is the city of Elche, or Elx, in Valencia. In the twelfth century, the geographer Al-Idrisi described it as "a town built on a plain crossed by a canal fed by the river. This canal flows under its walls and the townspeople use it for their baths and it flows through markets and streets."

The renowned scholar Ibn Said said of Elx: "I have passed by this city... and it was said that she resembles the City of the Prophet, may peace be upon him." Because of its singular beauty and historical interest, UNESCO (UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) declared the Elx palm grove and irrigation system a World Heritage Site in 2000.

Christian intervention

The Muslim conquest in southern Italy and Spain brought a thriving agricultural system, but this largely regressed following the reconquista of Al-Andalus by Spanish Christians.

Farming systems became impoverished. The fertile hinterlands of cities such as Seville and Cordoba reverted to basic pastoral economies; market gardens withered that had previously been irrigated by norias (water wheels). Around Murcia and Cartagena, fields degenerated into marshland and malaria flourished.

Even in the few places, such as Valencia, where the Moorish irrigation system remained intact, almost all the new crops were abandoned by the conservative conquistadors in favour of European staples such as grains, pulses and vines.

In the words of Stanley Lane-Poole in 1886: "The land deprived of skilful irrigation of the Moors, grew impoverished and neglected… and most of the populous cities which had filled every district in Andalusia, fell into ruinous decay; and beggars, friars, and bandits took the place of scholars, merchants and knights."

Cultural clash

There were many reasons for the Christian failure to exploit the superior agricultural systems inherited from the Muslims in southern Europe. As discussed by Andrew Watson in 'Agriculture in the Middle Ages', they include the collision of a relatively inward-looking, subsistence-based culture practising low-yield, extensive farming with a more dynamic, urbanised, literate culture that had developed highly diverse and intensive farming.

Ironically, as some of these backward Europeans were about to embark on a period of successful agricultural and scientific progress, the hitherto more enlightened Islamic world subsequently entered a long, post-medieval period of agricultural, scientific and cultural stagnation from which it has yet fully to recover.

Islamic cultures are certainly not intrinsically backward, scientifically or otherwise. We should all celebrate medieval Islamic practitioners such as Ibn-el-Beithar and strive to recreate the institutions that will enable new generations to emulate such role models for the sake of all humankind.

Denis J. Murphy is professor of biotechnology and a writer on science and agriculture, based at the University of Glamorgan, UK.


Lane-Poole, S. The Story of the Moors in Spain (1886; reproduced by Black Classic Press, Baltimore, Maryland, USA, 1990).

Murphy, D. J. People, Plants, and Genes: The Story of Crops and Humanity, Oxford University Press, UK (2007).

Watson, A. M. in Agriculture in the Middle Ages: Technology, Practice and Representation (ed. Sweeney, D., pp62–75, University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA,1995).

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