Muslim Agricultural Revolution
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Muslim Agricultural Revolution
The Arabs may well have transformed agriculture during the Golden Age of Islam by spreading major crops and techniques such as irrigation across the Old World.[1]

The Arab Agricultural Revolution is a conjectured transformation in agriculture from the 8th to the 13th century in the Islamic region of the Old World. The name[a] was coined by the historian Andrew Watson in an influential[5][7] 1974 paper. He listed eighteen crops that were widely diffused during the Islamic period, including four staple crops, namely durum wheat, Asiatic rice, sorghum, and cotton. He also argued that techniques such as irrigation were spread across the region at that time. The paper was not based on direct archaeological or scientific evidence, and its approach has been called old-fashioned and philological.

Some scholars have disagreed with parts of Watson's proposal, arguing that the four staple crops were already widely disseminated before that period, and that Islamic irrigation built on rather than replacing the Roman irrigation network in Spain. Against this, the historian Paolo Squatriti, reviewing Watson's paper 40 years on, noted that it had proven useful to many different historical agendas, and had held up surprisingly well in the face of new findings in archaeology and archaeobotany.

Watson's paper

Islamic Golden Age innovation: the Moors brought a new architecture, including gardens with water engineering, as in the Alhambra's Generalife Palace, to Al-Andalus.

In 1974, the historian Andrew Watson published a paper, "The Arab Agricultural Revolution and Its Diffusion, 700-1100".[1] The paper proposed an extension of Spanish historian Antonia Garcia Maceira's 1876 hypothesis of an agricultural revolution in Al-Andalus (Islamic Spain).[8] In Paolo Squatriti's view, it also recalled the Belgian economic historian Henri Pirenne's 1939 view of the way that a seventh century Islamic maritime power in the Mediterranean had prevented Europe from trading there.[7]

Watson argued that the economy established by Arab and other Muslim traders across the Old World enabled the diffusion of many crops and farming techniques across the Islamic world, as well as the adaptation of crops and techniques from and to regions outside it. Crops from Africa, such as sorghum, from China, such as citrus fruits, and from India, such as mango, rice, cotton and sugar cane, were distributed throughout Islamic lands, which, in his opinion, had not previously grown these plants.[1] He listed eighteen such crops.[9][b] He further argued that these introductions, along with an increased mechanization of agriculture and irrigation, led to major changes in economy, population distribution, vegetation cover,[10] agricultural production and income, population, urban growth, distribution of the labour force, industries linked to agriculture, cooking, diet and clothing in the Islamic world.[1]


Medieval islamic arboriculture: Watson argued that cultivated trees including the lime, banana, mango, and coconut were diffused during the Arab Agricultural Revolution.

Early scepticism

Watson's work was met with some early scepticism, including from historians such as Jeremy Johns in 1984. Johns noted that Watson's selection of 18 plants in his book Agricultural Innovation in the Early Islamic World was "peculiar", since the banana, coconut, mango and shaddock were unimportant in the Islamic region at the time, detracting from the discussion of the staple crops. Johns further noted that the evidence of diffusion of crops was imperfect, that Watson made "too many minor slips and larger errors" such as getting dates wrong or claiming that a 1439 document was Norman, and had failed to make best use of the evidence that was available, such as of the decline of classical agriculture, or even to mention the changing geomorphology. Johns however concluded that "The hypothesis of an 'Abbasid agricultural revolution is challenging and may well prove useful".[11][12]

The historian Eliyahu Ashtor wrote in 1976 that agricultural production declined in the period immediately after the Arab conquest in areas of Iraq (Mesopotamia) and Egypt, on the limited basis of records of taxes collected on cultivated areas.[13] In a 2012 paper focusing on the Saw?d area of Iraq, Michele Campopiano concluded that Iraqi agricultural output declined in the 7th to 10th century; he attributed this decline to "competition of the different ruling groups to gain access to land surplus".[14]


Agricultural scene from a mediaeval Arabic manuscript from Al-Andalus (Islamic Spain) c. 1200

However, by 2008 the archaeozoologist Simon Davis, advancing archaeological evidence that sheep in Portugal increased in size during the Islamic period, could take it for granted that in the Iberian peninsula[15]

Agriculture flourished: the Moslems introduced new irrigation techniques and new plants like sugar cane, rice, cotton, spinach, pomegranates and citrus trees, to name just a few... Seville had become a Mecca for agronomists, and its hinterland, or Aljarafe, their laboratory.[15]

The animal-powered sakia irrigation wheel was improved in and diffused further from Islamic Spain.

The historian of Islam Salah Zaimeche noted in 2002 that the "accepted wisdom" that agriculture was not improved until the last few centuries in Europe had been overturned by work by Watson, Thomas Glick[16] and L. Bolens[17] among others.[18] For example, Glick noted that the sakia,[c] or animal-powered irrigation wheel, was likely introduced to Islamic Spain in early Umayyad times (in the 7th century), that improvements to it were described by Hispano-Arabic agronomists in the 11th and 12th centuries; and that from there, sakia irrigation was spread further around Spain and Morocco.[19]

Zaimeche further observed that Islamic agricultural practice was documented by the mediaeval agronomists Muhammad bin Ibr?h?m Ibn Bass?l (11th century) of Toledo in his book D?w?n al-fil?ha (The Court of Agriculture), and Ibn al-'Awwam al-Ishb?l? of Seville in his book Kit?b al-Fil?ha (Treatise on Agriculture).[18] Ibn Bass?l had travelled widely across the Islamic world, returning with a detailed knowledge of agronomy. His practical and systematic book describes over 180 plants and how to propagate and care for them, including leaf and root vegetables, herbs, spices and trees.[20] Ab? l-Khayr described in minute detail how olive trees should be grown, grafted, treated for disease, and harvested, and gave similar detail for crops such as cotton.[18]

Diffusion not revolution

Roman and Islamic systems: the Albolafia irrigation water wheel in front of the Roman bridge at Córdoba, Spain.[21][22]

In 2009, the historian Michael Decker[23][d] stated that widespread cultivation and consumption of four staples, namely durum wheat, Asiatic rice, sorghum and cotton were already commonplace under the Roman Empire and Sassanid Empire, centuries before the Islamic period.[23] He suggested that their actual role in Islamic agriculture had been exaggerated, arguing that the agricultural practices of Muslim cultivators did not fundamentally differ from those of pre-Islamic times, but evolved from the hydraulic know-how and 'basket' of agricultural plants inherited from their Roman and Persian predecessors.[24] In the case of cotton, which the Romans grew mainly in Egypt, the plant remained a minor crop in the classical Islamic period: the major fibre was flax, as in Roman times.[25] Decker further asserted that the advanced state of ancient irrigation practices "rebuts sizeable parts of the Watson thesis," since for example in Spain, archaeological work indicated that the Islamic irrigation system was developed from the existing Roman network, rather than replacing it.[26] Decker agreed that "Muslims made an important contribution to world farming through the westward diffusion of some crops", but that the introduction of "agronomic techniques and materials" had been less widespread and less consistent than Watson had suggested.[23] Furthermore, there is clear evidence that agricultural devices such as watermills and waterwheels, shadufs, norias, sakias, water screws and water pumps were widely known and applied in Greco-Roman agriculture long before the Muslim conquests.[27][28]

Widespread use

Looking back over 40 years of scholarship since Watson's theory, the historian and linguist Paolo Squatriti[e] noted in 2014 that the thesis had been widely used and cited by historians and archaeologists working in different fields. It "proved to be applicable in scholarly debates about technological diffusion in pre-industrial societies, the 'decline' of Islamic civilization, the relations between elite and peasant cultural systems, Europe's historical Sonderweg in the second millennium CE, the origins of globalization, [and] the nature of Mediterraneity." Squatriti noted that Watson had originally trained in economics, and applied this interest to his historical studies. Squatriti described Watson's paper as concise and elegant, and popular for its usefulness in supporting the theses of many different historians. He observed that Watson's thesis did not depend on claims of new introductions of plants into any region, but of their "diffusion and normalization", i.e. of their becoming widely and generally used, even if they were known from Roman times. Calling Watson's "philological" approach "old fashioned", and given that Watson had worked "virtually without archaeology", Squatrini expressed surprise that recent research in archaeobotany has failed to "decisively undermine" Watson's thesis.[7]


  1. ^ The Arab Agricultural Revolution[1] has also variously been called the Medieval Green Revolution,[2][3] the Muslim Agricultural Revolution,[4] the Islamic Agricultural Revolution[5] and the Islamic Green Revolution.[6]
  2. ^ Decker wrote: "In support of his thesis, Watson charted the advance of seventeen food crops and one fiber crop that became important over a large area of the Mediterranean world during the first four centuries of Islamic rule (roughly the seventh through eleventh centuries C.E.)"[9] The food crops named by Watson were rice, sorghum, durum wheat, sugar cane, watermelon, aubergine, spinach, artichoke, taro, sour orange, lemon, lime, banana, plantain, mango, and coconut; the fibre was cotton.
  3. ^ Glick uses the term noria, but states that it is animal-powered, for which sakia is the more usual name.
  4. ^ Decker wrote "Nothing has been written, however that attacks the central pillar of Watson's thesis, namely the 'basket' of plants that is inextricably linked to all other elements of his analysis. This work will therefore assess the place and importance of four crops of the 'Islamic Agricultural Revolution' for which there is considerable pre-Islamic evidence in the Mediterranean world."[23]
  5. ^ Squatriti is known for works on medieval land use such as Landscape and Change in Early Medieval Italy, Cambridge University Press, 2013.


  1. ^ a b c d e Watson 1974, pp. 8-35.
  2. ^ Watson, Andrew M. (1981), "A Medieval Green Revolution: New Crops and Farming Techniques in the Early Islamic World", in Abraham L. Udovitch, The Islamic Middle East, 700-1900: Studies in Economic and Social History, ISBN 978-0-87850-030-7 .
  3. ^ Glick, Thomas F (1977), "Noria Pots in Spain", Technology and Culture, 18 (4): 644-50, doi:10.2307/3103590 .
  4. ^ Idrisi, Zohor (June 2005). "The Muslim Agricultural Revolution and its influence on Europe" (PDF). Foundation for Science Technology and Civilisation. 
  5. ^ a b Decker 2009.
  6. ^ Burke, Edmund (June 2009), "Islam at the Center: Technological Complexes and the Roots of Modernity", Journal of World History, University of Hawaii Press, 20 (2): 165-86 [174], doi:10.1353/jwh.0.0045 
  7. ^ a b c Squatriti, Paolo (2014). "Of Seeds, Seasons, and Seas: Andrew Watson's Medieval Agrarian Revolution Forty Years Later". The Journal of Economic History. 74 (4): 1205-1220. doi:10.1017/S0022050714000904. 
  8. ^ Ruggles, D. Fairchild (2003), "Botany and the Agricultural Revolution", Gardens, landscape, and vision in the palaces of Islamic Spain, Penn State University Press, pp. 15-34 [31], ISBN 0-271-02247-7 
  9. ^ a b Decker 2009, pp. 187-8.
  10. ^ Watson, Andrew M. (1983), Agricultural Innovation in the Early Islamic World, Cambridge University Press, ISBN 0-521-24711-X .
  11. ^ Johns, J. (1984), "A Green Revolution?", Journal of African History, 25 (3): 343-4, doi:10.1017/S0021853700028218 .
  12. ^ Cahen, C.; Watson, Andrew M. (1986), "Review of Agricultural Innovation in the Early Islamic World, by Andrew Watson", Journal of the Social and Economic History of the Orient, 29 (2): 217, doi:10.2307/3631792 
  13. ^ Ashtor, E. (1976), A Social and Economic History of the Near East in the Middle Ages, Berkeley: University of California Press, pp. 58-63 
  14. ^ Campopiano, Michele (2012). "State, Land Tax and Agriculture in Iraq from the Arab Conquest to the Crisis of the Abbasid Caliphate (Seventh-Tenth Centuries)" (PDF). Studia Islamica. 107 (1): 1-37. doi:10.1163/19585705-12341234. 
  15. ^ a b Davis, Simon J. M. (2008). "Zooarchaeological evidence for Moslem and Christian improvements of sheep and cattle in Portugal". Journal of Archaeological Science. 35: 991-1010. doi:10.1016/j.jas.2007.07.001. 
  16. ^ Glick, Thomas (1996). Irrigation and Hydraulic Technology: Medieval Spain and its Legacy. Varorium. ISBN 978-0-860-78540-8. 
  17. ^ For example Bolens, L. (December 1972). "L'Eau et l'irrigation d'après les traités d'agronomie Andalous au Moyen Age (XI-XIIèmes siècles)". Options Méditerranéenes. 16: 65-77. 
  18. ^ a b c Zaimeche, Salah (August 2002). "Agriculture in Muslim civilisation : A Green Revolution in Pre-Modern Times". Muslim Heritage. Archived from the original on 7 October 2017. 
  19. ^ Glick, Thomas F. (October 1977). "Noria Pots in Spain". Technology and Culture. 18 (4): 644-650. JSTOR 3103590. 
  20. ^ "Ibn Bal: D?w?n al-fila / Kit?b al-qa?d wa'l-bay?n". The Filaha Texts Project: The Arabic Books of Husbandry. Retrieved 2017. 
  21. ^ Brebbia, C. A. (2017). Water and Society IV. WIT Press. p. 341. ISBN 978-1-78466-185-4. 
  22. ^ "Albolafia". Alcazar of the Christian Monarchs. 2011. Retrieved 2017. The most plausible hypothesis points to an Almoravid construction from 1136-1137. The structure was later reused in the Almohad period to supply the lower part of the Alcazaba with water. The watermill was operational up until the end of the fifteenth century, when, according to tradition, Queen Isabella the Catholic ordered it to be taken down because the noise it produced prevented her from sleeping. 
  23. ^ a b c d Decker 2009, p. 191.
  24. ^ Decker 2009, p. 187.
  25. ^ Decker 2009, p. 205.
  26. ^ Decker 2009, p. 190.
  27. ^ Oleson, John Peter (2000), "Irrigation", in Wikander, Örjan, Handbook of Ancient Water Technology, Technology and Change in History, 2, Leiden: Brill, pp. 183-216, ISBN 90-04-11123-9 
  28. ^ Wikander, Örjan (2000), "The Water-Mill", in Wikander, Örjan, Handbook of Ancient Water Technology, Technology and Change in History, 2, Leiden: Brill, pp. 371-400, ISBN 90-04-11123-9 


  • Decker, Michael (2009), "Plants and Progress: Rethinking the Islamic Agricultural Revolution", Journal of World History, 20 (2): 187-206, doi:10.1353/jwh.0.0058 
  • Watson, Andrew M. (1974), "The Arab Agricultural Revolution and Its Diffusion, 700-1100", The Journal of Economic History, 34 (1): 8-35, doi:10.1017/S0022050700079602, JSTOR 2116954 

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