The Muslims, who, during modern times are considered to be backward in commerce and whose markets are mostly monopolised by foreigners, once commanded world trade. Their ships and caravans loaded with all sorts of merchandise reached the distant parts of the known world and their wealthy merchants were heartily welcomed in the imperial courts and cities of Europe and Asia. The famous Arabian Nights is full of stories of such commercial enterprises when Arab merchants in quest of El Dorados' roamed about the eastern seas reaching as far as the Behring Strait. Their ships even touched the shores of the New World. The influence which Arabian commerce had on Europe has now begun to be recognised by less partial research. "Europe owes much to its own force and initiative" says J. H. I(ramers, "hut it has also largely profited by the knowledge and the experience of those who were at one time the masters of the world. Therefore Europe ought to look upon them as its cultural ancestors in the domain of geographical knowledge, of discovery and of world trade. The influence which Islam has exercised on our modern civilization in these spheres of action can be seen in the many terms of Arabic origin which are to be found in the vocabulary of trade and navigation".'
The Mediterranean Sea during mediaveal times had virtually been converted into an Arabian lake. The Arab Navy and merchant shipping were the undisputed masters of this important naval thoroughfare. The Mediterranean, which on three sides was surrounded by Muslim countries as well as its important islands like Sicily, Crete, Cyprus and the Baleric islands were governed by Muslim rulers. They formed the main commercial thoroughfare of the west, through which an active trade with the Christian countries of Europe was conducted. Tunis and Alexandria, Cadiz and Barcelona were great ports of call which handled the flourishing trades. Speaking about Moorish Spain, J. W. Draper writes, "But in the days of their prosperity they maintained a merchant marine of more than a thousand ships. They had factories and consuls on the Tanais. With Constantinople alone they maintained a great trade it ramified from the Black Sea and East Mediterranean into the interior of Asia it reached the ports of India and China and extended along the African coast as far as Madagascar". Islamic navigation had reached its zenith during the 9th century A. D. when Arab traders carried on a flourishing trade with the non-Islamic ports of South East Asia and Africa. Commercial navigation in the Mediterranean was mainly confined to Muslim ports.
It was during the Caliphate of Faruq the Great, that the idea of connecting the Mediterranean with the Red Sea was given some practical effect in order to ensure quick transport of grain from Egypt to Hejaz. The Suez Canal which was partially opened was closed till the 18th century by the Abbasid and later caliphs, as there was a risk of western attack on the holy cities. Tunis in the days of the glory of the Spanish caliphate had grown to be the greatest commercial port on the African continent. Its safe waters anchored a fleet of merchant ships which sailed from there to Spain, Rome, Sicily, Alexandria and Syria. "A largely used word like douane" says a western writer, "is a reminder of the time when regular commercial intercourse had developed in different ports of the Mediterranean. It is well known that this intercourse has also reacted largely on the commercial organisation of the western nations. The treaties which they concluded with the Muhammadan rulers, and the institution of consular representatives in eastern ports, have been important stages in the development of the rules that now-a-days govern international trade"
The ports on the Indian ocean carried on a flourishing trade with Iraq on the west and the East Indies and China on the east. It was the greatest commercial thoroughfare between the Far East and the Islamic west during the days of the Abbasids. The wealthy merchants of Baghdad, setting out from Basrah, a great commercial port, went as far as China and brought silk from China, spices and aromatics from India, coconuts, muscat nuts and tin from Kala which were also exported to Europe by these merchants. The big waterways of Iraq were made navigable upto Baghdad, the metropolis of the Islamic empire. The merchants of Baghdad carried with them to the courts of Indian and Chinese rulers textiles, potteries, perfumes and rugs made in Islamic countries. African products including ivory and pepper were brought to the ports of Aden and Jedda. Surat, Goa and Calicut were large ports during Mughal times and handled an enormous trade between east and west. The Chinese town of Khanfu now called Canton was frequently visited by Muslim ships, and a Muslim colony was set up which became an emporium of trade with China. The enterprising Muslim traders went as far as Korea and Japan. They felt perfectly at home in those seas and dimes. A lively traffic was kept up with Ceylonese and Malabar ports by Arab merchants. Saimur, an Arab colony had sprung up near Bombay by the end of IOth century A.D. and Daibul was an important port of Sind which had been conquered by the Arabs. The East coast of Africa and Madagascar were also frequently visited by Arab ships including the country of Sufala which was known for its gold. Zanzibar and Mombasa were the great ports of this region which exported ivory, pepper and other tropical fruits. It was here that the celebrated mariner Ibn Majid had met Vasco de Gama in 1498.A. D. and had piloted his ship to India.
The communications on land were carried on through caravans, The caravans were generally composed of horses and ponies and of camels in the desert. The danger of bandits, obliged travellers to travel together thus forming a caravan. "The peace and security with which caravans traversed the Empire"; says Ameer Ali, "the perfect safety of the roads, the cisterns, and tanks and reservoirs, and rest-houses which existed everywhere along the routes all aided in the rapid development of commerce and trade, arts and manufactures". It was through the caravans that flourishing trade was carried on among the cities of Islamic countries especially in Persia and Central Asia. During mediaeval times, caravan traffic was the most common means of trading and travelling between the different Islamic countries. There were important overland routes one leading to India and China., the other to Central Asia and Russia and the third to northern,eastern and central Africa. Over these routes passed caravans loaded with rich merchandise.
The chief export of Eastern and Western Africa was gold. Al-AlIaqi, a big commercial centre lying in the region of gold mines east of Aswan (Egypt) was known since ancient Egyptian times for its trade in gold. The gold country of Ghana situated in Western Africa in the basin of the river Niger also carried on an active trade of gold. The Muslim merchants of Morocco and North African countries crossed the great Sahara (desert) passing through Awdaghosht oasis, situated north of Ghana. This perilous journey through the largest desert of the world took several months, but the aspirers to this African El Dorado were prepared to face all risks. The celebrated geographer Ibn Hauqal gives a graphic account of the trade in these regions. He alleges that "he saw in Awdaghosht an I.O.U. (the Arabic word is sakk from which the modern word cheque has been derived) for an amount of 42,000 dinars, addressed to a merchant in the town of Sijilmasa in southern Morocco" The volume of trade handled here was greater in the 9th century A.D.
The Muslims who were the pioneers in the commercial field during mediaeval times visited also the European countries as far as Scandinavia and Finland. Muslim coins found in large numbers in northem Europe provide ample testimony to this contention. According to the famous geographer AlMaqaddasi, the merchants in this way purchased in Europe sables, miniver, ermines, furs, wax, birch, birch bark, fur caps, fish-glue, castoreum, amber, honey, hazel-nuts, falcons, swords, armour, maple wood and cattle. They supplied to European countries all sorts of manufactured goods including textiles, paper, rugs and pottery. Muslims had intimate commercial relation with the Christian states of Constantinople, Bulgaria, Germany and southern Russia. Jewish merchants, too,were very active in Islamic and Christian states. The Muslim traders brought to Europe musk, aloes, camphor and cinnamon and their names betray their oriental origin. The one overland route which connected central Europe with Asia passed through the Khazar empire in south Russia and Central Asia. Trebizond, an important commercial town on the border of the Byzantine empire was an emporium for Islamic-Greek trade. Moorish Spain had commercial relations with western Europe, and passing through the Pyrenees the fine products of Muslim Spain had access to French and Swiss markets, as early as the 8th century A.D. Mus!im merchants visited Italian towns and Constantinople, but by the end of the 11lth century a really flourishing trade was carried on with these countries, "The great riches of material culture, which the Islamic world had gathered for nearly five centuries, were poured down upon Europe. These riches consisted not only of Chinese, Indian and African products, which the enterprising spirit of Islam had fetched from far distant lands; they were in the first place represented by what the Muhammadan countries themselves yielded of natural and industrial products".'
Muslim Spain, during the period of her glory maintained a flourishing trade with neighbouring countries. The revenues of Abdur Rahman III derived mostly from commercial taxes was about 6 million sterling, an amount which, according to a European writer exceeded the entire revenue of all the sovereigns of Christendom taken together. The Spanish ports of Malega, Carthegena, Barcelona and Cadiz were vast commercial emporiums of export and import. They possessed a merchant navy of more than a thousand ships and had commercial representatives in the Danubian states. An active trade was carried on with Constantinople, Rome and France. The Spanish merchants visited the ports of India, China, Madagascar, East Africa and the cities of Central Asia. "In the midst of the IOth century" says J. W. Draper, "when Europe was about the same condition that Caffraria is now, enlightened Moors, like AbuI Cassem were writing treatises on the principles of trade and commerce". The grain of barley was the smallest weight they used, a practice which is still prevalent. For providing correct data to the merchants and travellers, geographical registers, gazetteers and itineraries were regularly published by government agencies. Seville, the great river port in the fertile Andalusian province exported cotton, olives, and oil. The exports of Malaga and Jaen Included saffron figs, marble and sugar. An active trade was carried on with Baghdad, Damascus, Hejaz and Alexandria. The Government of Spain had a regular postal service. According to Philip K. Hitti, "Arab money was in use in the Christian kingdoms of the north, which for nearly 400 years had no coinage other than Arabic or French"."
The large amount of Arabic coins found in European countries including Scandinavia, Finland, Russia, the British Isles, Baltic States and even as far as Iceland bear testimony to the sphere of influence which Muslim commerce had achieved in Europe. The coins belong to the period extending from the 7th to the Ilth century A.D. when Islamic commercial and political advancement was at its zenith. The large number of Arabic words still found in the trade dictionaries of European languages, provide clear proof that those commodities were first introduced into European countries by Muslims. 'Tariff' is nothing but the Arabic word tariff meaning announcement. The words 'risk', 'tere' 'calibre' and'magazine' are of Arabic origin. Magazine is derived from the Arabic word Makhazin meaning stores. The 'cheque' has also an Arabic origin. The conception of joint stock companies was an innovation of Muslim brains, brought into practice by the partnership of Muslim and Latin Christian merchants.
"Finally, our commercial vocabulary itself has preserved" says J. H. Kramers, "some very eloquent proofs of the fact that there wasa time when Islamic trade and trade customs exercised a deep influence on the commercial development in Christian countries".' The Arab opened up land and sea routes to India, China, Mallaca and Timbuktoo.
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