"Arabia Without Spices": an alternate hypothesis: the issue of "Makkan trade and the rise of Islam".

Author:Heck, Gene W.
  1. The Historiographic Challenge

    1. The Methodological Confrontation

      More than fifteen years have passed since Patricia Crone stunned the world of orientalism by positing dramatically new hypotheses regarding the role of Makkah in sixth to seventh-century A.D. trans-Arabian trade. Seeking to discern the economic dynamic of the early Islamic state, her thesis contended that both the composition and direction of HijaziNajdi trade in the era leading up to the rise of Islam were not as they have been commonly portrayed. Her presentation derived its strength from its sophisticated scientific analyses of the prevalence of specific commodities, particularly "spices," in contemporary trade flows. Its core analysis centered upon certain critical commonalities between sixth to seventh-century Makkan imports and exports, and in its effort to make trade patterns fit, even speculated that the Qurashis' primary base of commercial operation was not where modern Makkah stands today. The essence of this theme was compellingly argued in part 2 of her 1987 work, Meccan Trade and the Rise of Islam, which she titled: "Arabia Without Spices."

      Crone's work has been aggressively attacked by various scholars in recent years--an assault that has focused, in particular, upon her employment of what is termed "negative evidence argumentation": to wit, the absence of source references to trade implies the actual absence of trade. Such analytic techniques, of course, are not uncommon in medieval historiography, nor are they unique to Islamic scholarship. Six decades earlier, it will be recalled, it was a decline in references to eighth-century trans-Mediterranean commerce, documented primarily in Western ecclesiastical sources, that produced the Pirenne thesis positing that an Islamic trade blockade had precipitated Western Europe's "Dark Ages."

      That the results are similar should come as no surprise. Both arguments have failed to persuade because each confronts the complex challenge of seeking to reconstruct the structure of any economy, medieval or modern, based on evaluating a market-basket of commodities cited in export trade. The examples found are often too sporadic to have serious economic consequences. Despite the fact that some seventy-five percent of its governmental revenues are generated by oil production, for example, modern Saudi Arabic typically generates less than three percent of its gross domestic product formation from non-oil export earnings. In both modern and medieval contexts, then, using select trade data as barometers of economic dynamism does not invariably yield accurate results. In Crone's case, they have produced quite controversial results. Indeed, seldom have hypotheses predicated upon an absence of commercial evidence invoked such intense scholarly scrutiny. R. B. Serjeant, in a 1990 article, for instance, describes her contentions as:

      calculated to attract publicity by shocking Islamists through the strange theories that it advances on pre-Islamic Mecca, novel theories to be sure, but founded upon misinterpretation, misunderstanding of sources, even at times incorrect translations of Arabic. (1) The acrimony has been longstanding. For while Crone and Serjeant have polarized the Hijazi trade discussion, Watt, Wolf, Kister, Shaban, Simon, Peters, Donner, and Ibrahim--and before them, Sprenger, Lammens, and sundry others--constructed the basic intellectual infrastructure upon which it is built. (2) Much of the controversy centers on the continuing debate over the general reliability of the medieval Arabic sources as a foundation for sound economic analysis. Such a dialogue does enjoy a certain logic, since the topic is historical and original sources are a prime tool of the historian. The earliest classical sources are vulnerable to criticism since, founded on oral traditions as captured by often biased literary antiquarians, they are, by their very nature, anecdotal. As such, they can be useful in illustrating certain incidents and trends, but unless taken in aggregate, as a basis for serious commercial history, in a non-pejorative sense, they are often little more than the early medieval equivalents of tabloid journalism. This is not itself a formal criticism, but rather a characteristic common to most chronicled medieval sources. While they can be useful in research, they must be recognized for what they are and treated accordingly.

      Both Crone and Serjeant concede the challenge of attempting to ascertain the existence or non-existence of particular types of trade based on fragmentary evidence. (3) While the former calls the early sources "of questionable historical value," the latter describes them as "selective and the data that they record so fragmentary that argument from negative evidence has little value." (4) In the ongoing early Makkan trade debate, both contentions probably are correct. The problem is threefold. First, a prime reason that Crone and Serjeant struggle in their argumentation is that they are trying to force early trans-peninsular Arab commerce into something that it most likely was not: to wit, the overarching economic raison d'etre of Makkah. Such an approach, however, is little more than the exercise of "recreating the elephant by feeling the dimensions of its trunk." For an ever-present danger of engaging in negative evidence argumentation using limited trade data is that it can build toward conclusions that did not, in reality, obtain.

      Second, they are arguing from the shaky foundations of modern historiographic invention respecting sixth to seventh-century Hijazi transit trade. Crone and Serjeant, as well as F. E. Peters, properly take issue with the conventional notion that the longstanding commerce in spices and other luxury goods to the Mediterranean basin during the early Christian centuries had continued to the rise of Islam. (5) This was an interpretation pioneered by Lammens, popularized by Watt and Wolf, and promoted, to a certain degree, even by Donner. It has often been accompanied by a notion that the success of contemporary Makkah as a trade emporium was highly instrumental, morally, economically, and socially, in the rise of Islam. Watt asserts:

      By the end of the 6th century A.D., they (Hijazi traders) had gained control of most of the trade from Yemen to Syria--an important route by which the West got Indian luxury goods as well as South Arabian frankincense. Commercial prosperity had let not merely to greater disparities in wealth, but also to a partial breakdown in the system of clans and tribes on which the security of Makkah depended.... It is against this social and moral background that we must look at the religious beliefs current in Makkah immediately before Muhammad's call. (6) But even Watt, who has contributed two important works--Muhammad at Makkah and Muhammad at Medina--as cornerstones for these socioeconomic contentions, devotes but two brief paragraphs to the nature of this hypothesized trans-Hijazi luxury trade and just five others to the underlying indigenous industrial base that would have made a more vibrant Makkah-centric regional trade economically viable. (7)

      Though this traditional notion, as noted, has been rejected by Crone, Serjeant, and others--at times, even attributing the inherent misinterpretations to the ambiguity of the medieval Arabic sources themselves--such exegesis is no more than a "straw man" dialogue, as the sources never seriously claimed a trade in oriental luxury commodities coincident with the rise of Muhammad. Instead, they document a more voluminous trade in lower unit-value, indigenous West Arabian products--animals, leather, foodstuffs, cloth, perfumes, and similar consumer goods--a reality recognized by Sprenger, Kister, Simon, and Peters. (8) Some of the regional import-export ventures in such commodities were, in reality, quite large, with commercial caravans consisting of as many as 1,500, 2,000, and even 2,500 transport camels at the dawn of Islam, as cited in the sources. (9)

      There are passim references to a sixth and seventh-century trade in luxury goods in the sources, to be sure. Ibn Sa'd indicates that early in his career, the Prophet Muhammad owned silk garments that he subsequently abandoned as ostentatious. (10) Ibn Habib relates that the would-be Hijazi king 'Uthman b. Huwayrith al-Asadi al-Qurashi contracted a commercial pact to send spices to the Byzantines. Al-Isfahani contends that al-Nu'man b. al-Mundhir imported silk (harir) and other cloth from Aden to al-Hirah. (11) Silk cloth also apparently was imported to the region to produce some other elegant clothing reported in the late pre-Islamic era.

      But overall, the urban centers of the erstwhile Roman empire, whose requirements for oriental luxury goods had for centuries been the lifeblood of trans-Arabian commerce, were now in economic chaos; and in the Hijaz itself, the demand for widespread importation of silk that had prevailed in earlier centuries has been explicitly explained by the compiler of historical traditions, al-Bukhari. With the rise of Islam, Muhammad banned Muslim men from wearing silk. (12) Hence, the striking silence of the sources on a more general sixth to seventh-century trans-Hijazi trade in spices and other oriental goods likely signaled exactly what was meant. That trade had died. (13) Accordingly, Crone most probably is correct when she asserts that: "Meccan trade was thus a trade generated by Arab needs, not by the commercial appetites of the surrounding empires," yet she errs when she continues: "and it is as traders operating in Arabia rather than beyond its borders that the Meccans should be seen." (14) For, as will be demonstrated, it is not what early Makkan trade was not, but what it was, that merits further scrutiny. Yet comprehending its composition also requires an understanding of the economic base from which it was derived. For what the sources do describe, as indicated, is a substantial...

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