Workshop / Universität Hamburg, 16-17 February, 2018: “The Measure of Integration – Economic Structures and Resources of the Early Islamic Empire” – REGISTRATION OPEN

Registration is now open for a two-day workshop on “The Measure of Integration – Economic Structures and Resources of the Early Islamic Empire”, organised by the “Early Islamic Empire” project team at Hamburg University and taking place on 16-17 February 2018.

The guest speakers are Prof. John F. Haldon (Princeton University), Prof. Maya Shatzmiller (Western University Canada), Dr. Marek Jankowiak (Khalili Research Centre, University of Oxford), Prof. Timothy Power (Zayed University, Abu Dhabi), and Prof. Michael Decker (University of South Florida).

If you would like to attend, please send an email with your personal information and institutional affiliation (if applicable) to katharina.mewes@uni-hamburg.de. Registration is free and lunch will be provided. For more information on the workshop, please go to https://www.islamic-empire.uni-hamburg.de/en/news-and-events/conferences/economy-workshop.html


The Measure of Integration – Economic Structures and Resources of the Early Islamic Empire

Universität Hamburg, 16-17 February, 2018,

Edmund-Siemers-Allee 1, AS-Saal, 20146 Hamburg

The Old World dry belt from the Atlantic to the Hindukush experienced in the Early Islamic Empire a prosperity and mobility of resources and people which was unprecedented in that vast realm. As in the Roman Mediterranean World, the economy played a vital role in the integration of the empire.

This workshop aims at developing an empirically based theoretical framework to gain a better understanding of the economic structures within the early Islamic Empire, as well as their potential as an integrative force connecting the different regions governed by the early caliphate.

The workshop proposes a more comprehensive view of economy, encompassing road and sea networks and their maintenance, monetary and fiscal politics, agricultural improvements in irrigation and crops, industrial structures, and the influences of climate conditions. Beyond examining these economic dimensions of the early Islamic empire, the workshop shall also consider questions of theory and methodology for future research.

Our guest speakers are Prof. John F. Haldon (Princeton University), Prof. Maya Shatzmiller (Western University Canada), Dr. Marek Jankowiak (Khalili Research Centre, University of Oxford), Prof. Timothy Power (Zayed University, Abu Dhabi), and Prof. Michael Decker (University of South Florida).

1. Regulating the Economy

The stability and prosperity of medieval states required the expansion of a vast bureaucracy that could manage economic policies and measures. No coherent economic theory existed before the 17th century and mercantilism. However, people and administrations had a good pre-scientific understanding of economy and the implications of certain economic measures, such as taxation. The first theme of the workshop assesses various economic measures that the caliphal administration had at its disposal. Three main spheres of economic regulation can be identified:

First, the early Islamic empire implemented a fastidious regime of taxation and accounting. Remnants of this system can be found in the form of taxation tables, which exist only for certain periods of the early caliphate. This data is scattered and incomplete, but it is clearly the result of a sophisticated system of accounting that ensured the integration of regional economies in the provinces with the imperial center.

Second, the creation of an imperial coinage, dīnārs and dirhams, for taxation and state expenditure was vital for economic integration. Regional coinages were maintained and indeed proliferated alongside the imperial coinage, which points to considered measures designed so that regional economies would not be disrupted.

Third, legal frameworks provide the necessary conditions in which economies can function and flourish. Any legal system must answer to the demand of justice. It should be predictable, practical, affordable, and enforceable. Law is a major asset for the growth of an economy, because the rule of law lowers considerably transaction costs. Whether a legal system can achieve this or not is essential to transaction costs, contracts, labor, agriculture, production, and commerce. Islamic law was not a creation of the state. It was in large part cultivated by jurists, alongside state courts and judges, and its wide-ranging remit created a rule of law across the empire and its provinces. It is probably not without cause, therefore, that some standard example cases in law books deal with slaves, agriculture, and textile production.

2. Economic Resources

Some of the most important issues which have to be addressed by a growing pre-modern economy are

  • shortage of labor
  • physical shortage of means of exchange
  • scarcity of food and clothing

These three issues are intertwined, and the Early Islamic Empire excelled in meeting each of these economic and production demands. The shortage of labor, for example, was redeemed by the slave trade of Berbers, sub-Sudanic people, and Christian European people via North Africa, people from Northern and Eastern Europe via Central Asia, people from East Africa via the Indian Ocean, and people from Central Asia.

The regionalized organization of mining showed largescale silver mining operations in the Atlas mountains, in the Caucasus, the Ferghana valley, and the Badakhshān area, which had their peaks at different times during the Early Islamic Empire. This allowed an increase in the production of money.

Land transport is expensive and can be bottleneck for a growing agriculture searching for markets. In the case of the Late Antique Roman Empire, starvation was rampant in Antioch while there were abundant harvests in the Jazīra. The Early Islamic empire managed to feed and clothe some of the largest urban populations in history in addition to urban based armies and administrations in agglomerations such as Baghdād, Sāmarrāʾ, al-Raqqa, Marw, and Bukhārā and others. Agriculture was blossoming. The high-level monetization of the empire and the highly developed accounting system facilitated the payment of high prices for long-distance food imports for these “Beamtenstädte” in the parlance of Max Weber. The role of the agricultural powerhouses of the empire such as Egypt, ‘Greater Mesopotamia’, and Transoxiana’  will be addressed. The high prices made production of food viable in places distant from their urban places of consumption. Canals for irrigations and shipping canals were built; al-Raqqa, for instance, had a notable harbor, connecting it with northern Syria and Iraq alike. Was this also the case with the large rivers in Transoxiana?

Labor is necessary for agricultural production. But there are other related issues that need to be addressed: What role did the choice of crops play? Can we detect developments in technology and material techniques (irrigation, breeding, cultivation)? How does climate change factor into that equation?

3. Long Distance Trade by Land and Sea

Long distance trade within an empire is a clear measure of its integration. Trade includes the staples of an economy: foodstuff, textile, and labor. But profit is also to be made from ‘leisure products’, such as silk and ceramics from China, fur and amber from Eastern and Northern Europe. High-value glazed ceramics were produced for an almost empire wide distribution in al-Basra, Nīshāpūr and several other places. The ceramic industry is often connected with glass, which blossomed also in al-Raqqa, and Nīshāpūr. Archaeologically, however, we know relatively little about the various industries in Sāmarrāʾ and Baghdad.

Having the products in mind, we should look at the sea as a kind of infrastructure, the waterways, and the maritime networks. There are regional ones at the coast of the Mediterranean, the Red Sea, and the Persian Gulf. These long distance networks cross the Indian Ocean, which open out to China and to Africa. The Indian Ocean is different as a system from the Mediterranean, which constituted a closed system with several compartments, once successfully operated by the Romans. The system of the Indian Ocean is different. It consists of two subsystems under one rule and the open system with two major trade routes to the south and the east.

4. Round Table Theories on the Economy of the Islamic Empire

In light of the absence of theorization in the study of early Islamic economy, the final round table will discuss potential conceptualizations of the economic integration of the empire. Maurice Lombard first conceptualized the economic history of the Islamic Empire, while Eliyahu Ashtor wrote a more descriptive economic history. The aim of the round table discussion is to examine models of how the early Islamic Empire operated economically and how it achieved the integration of vast regions into overlapping systems of production and trade, which had lasting impacts on its religious, legal, and political structure.


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