Filling the Gap in the History of Pre-Modern Industry: 1000 Years of Missing Islamic Industry
Professor Salim T S Al-Hassani*
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This article is an expanded and revised version of a research article published as: Salim T S Al-Hassani, "1000 Years of Missing Industrial History" in A Shared Legacy: Islamic Science East and West: Homage to professor I. M. Vallicrosa, edited by Emilia Calvo, Mercè Comes, Roser Puig and Mònica Rius, Barcelona: Universitat de Barcelona, 2008, pp. 57-82.
Table of contents1.1. Prologue1.2. The missing history of Islamic industry1.3. Thriving cities of industry in the Andalus2. Aspects of the industrial production in Islamic civilisation2.1. Examples: part 12.1.1. Steel2.1.2. Petroleum2.1.3. Mining and metallurgy2.1.4. Chemistry2.1.5. Industrial production of paper2.2. Examples: part 22.2.1. Pottery2.2.2. Ceramics2.2.3. Glass2.2.4. Textile2.2.5. Ship building2.2.6. Agriculture and farming3. Science, management and industrial growth4. References and bibliography4.1. Articles published on www.MuslimHeritage.com4.2. General references
- 1. Setting the stage for the recovery of the neglected history of pre-modern industry
1. Setting the stage for the recovery of the neglected history of pre-modern industry
Most educational systems, particularly those of Western countries, tell us that industry was born in Europe and that the Industrial Revolution was the mother that delivered industrial mass processes. This paper challenges this view and presents an overview of the industrial and engineering processes which preceded the Industrial Revolution. It briefly examines the vast industry which stretched from China to Spain during the Muslim Civilisation (circa 700-1700 CE); a period sometimes referred to as the "Dark" or "Medieval Ages".
A brief overview is given of some randomly selected aspects of Muslim industrial production which highlights not only the Islamic antecedents of many processes and products widespread in our modern industrial system, but also how erroneous is the opinion that industrial production was alien to Islamic society.
Figure 1: Samples of ancient Islamic ceramics in the Museum of Islamic Ceramics in Cairo. Four plates with drawings from Islamic Egypt: (a). Mamluk era, 11th century; (b). Fatimid era, 12th century; (c). Mamluk period, 11th century; (d). Fatimid times, 11th century. (Source).
Windmills and water-wheels provided power for industrial production. Industrial processes ranged from composite steel to paper making, petroleum, pottery, glass making, textiles, agriculture, ship building, fishing, mineral extraction, metal working, and chemical products. An attempt is made to discuss the rise and fall of this vast industrial experience and reference is made to some lessons to be learnt from that vast human experience.
1.2. The missing history of Islamic industry
A typical university graduate grows up with the notion that industrial production, or manufacturing, is a Western manifestation, dating from the mid to late 18th century. This implies that there was no industry until the English Industrial Revolution of the mid 18th–19th century, followed by that of other countries, for example France, and later Germany, America and Iapan, initiated the birth and development of manufacturing and mass production. This is what is taught to this day in most history and engineering departments in the UK, Europe and US. Also, according to such teaching, and the literature that went with it, the reason why the so-called Third World countries are backward is due to the absence of industrial tradition, and the difficulties they have in initiating what is somehow alien to their societies.
Thirty years after this author passed all his academic degrees secure in such knowledge and started teaching it in reputable Western universities, he came across new learning away from standard books and literature, which surprisingly taught him that :
(i) Industrial production, manufacturing, and mass production for both vast urban populations and for export, relying on machinery powered by wind and water, had existed nearly ten centuries before the 18th century English Industrial Revolution,
(ii) Metals were smelted in huge quantities, in the Muslim world, for local and foreign markets,
(iii) Textiles were produced, from China to Muslim Spain, in ways not so dissimilar from methods we have today,
(iv) Such products were not bartered but sold in exchange for cash, or paid for by cheques honoured and valued across Asia, Africa, and Southern Europe, and,
(v) Capital was invested and reinvested across vast domains according to lines and mechanisms corresponding to our modern methods.
Figure 2: Dish with epigraphic decoration at the Louvre Museum in Paris. The Kufic inscription reads: "Science has first a bitter taste, but at the end it tastes sweeter than honey. Good health [to the owner." Terracotta, white slip ground and slip underglaze decoration, Khurasan (Iran), 11th–12th century. Lusterware was first developed in Iraq in the 9th century and was imitated and prized by the Fatimid rulers in Egypt starting in the mid-10th century before spreading to Syria, Anatolia and ultimately Iran. (Image in the public domain).
For example, during the Abbasid Caliphate, manufactures of every kind were encouraged and fostered in Iraq and many other lands. Glass and soap were made in the factories of Basra. The paper industry particularly received much impetus. It attracted workers from all over the world, particularly from Egypt. Persia was noted for her gold and embroidery work, which was carried on in all the big cities. High class fabrics including satin, brocade, silk and carpets were manufactured in Islamic domains and were in great demand all over the world. Kufa was famous for its silk and silk handkerchiefs known as kuffiyeh. Khuzistan (ancient Susiana) produced superfine cloth.
The chemical research in Iundishapur, possibly the oldest observatory and college of natural sciences, led to the knowledge of sugar refining which was successfully applied to sugar industry in Khuzistan and later on in Spain. In addition to being famous for its manufacture of Damascus steel swords, Syria was also known for its glass, where, as early as the 9th century, parti-coloured and enamelled glass was produced. The commodities exported during the Abbasid Caliphate were agricultural produce, glass, hardware, silk, textiles, perfumes of all kinds, rose water, saffron, syrup, and oil. In short, every city in the Muslim world had its own particular manufacture in metal, glass, wool, silk or linen.
To sum up this trend of industrial production as accounted for in brief by recent historiographical works, let's quote the beginning of the only available synthesis on Islamic technology : "Technology is the tool of civilisation, and for Islamic civilisation to have been such a leading force for several centuries, clearly it must have been based on important technological achievements" .
Figure 3a-b: Original drawings of the five water raising machines designed and described by al-Jazari in his treatise of mechanics. Respectivey: (a) a machine for raising water from a pool to a higher place by an animal who turns a lever-arm; (b) a machine for raising water from a pool or a well by an animal who rotates it; (c) a machine for raising water by means of an endless chain of pots; (d) a machine for raising water from a pool by means of flumed swape operated by a cranck driven by an animl through gears; (d) pump driven by a water wheelell by an animal who rotates it. Source: Al-Jazari, Kitab ma'rifat al-hiyal al-handasiya, Istanbul, Suleymaniye Library, MS 3472: online version.
1.3. Thriving cities of industry in the Andalus
Under Islam, Spain became very prosperous due to wide ranging industries and large-scale production with revenues from commercial duties exceeding the combined revenues of all the Christian states of Europe. The textile industry for instance in its capital Cordova, had 13,000 looms and Almeria had 4,800 looms . The leather industry was thriving. The art of tanning and embossing leather had been developed to a high degree of perfection and from there it spread to Morocco and North Africa, England and France. High class woollen and silk fabrics were manufactured in Cordova, Malaga, Almeria and other towns. Almeria also produced glassware and brass work . Sericulture (the production of raw silk by raising silkworms) was much developed in Spain. According to the Spanish historian Ibn al-Khaṭīb, Valencia was the home of pottery. The mining industry was fully developed. Iaen and Algrava were famous for their gold and silver mines, Cordova for its iron and lead and Malaga for its rubies. Toledo like Damascus was known throughout the medieval world for its swords. The art of inlaying steel and other metals with gold and silver and decorating them with flower patterns, which was introduced from Damascus, flourished in several European and Spanish centres and left a linguistic heritage in such words as ‘damascene' ‘damaskeen', French ‘darnasquiner' and Latin ‘damschina'.
The Muslims had converted the barren lands of Spain into a garden and developed a vast agricultural industry. Seville alone had several hundreds factories. Besides the textiles and agricultural industries, paper, sugar, gunpowder, porcelain, earthenware, iron, steel and leather industries spread on an extensive scale. The tapestries of Cordova, the woollen stuffs of Murcia, the silk of Granada, Almeria and Seville, the steel and gold work of Toledo and the paper of Salibat were sought all over the world. The glazed tiles and the fine vases still found in the palaces of Alhambra bear testimony to the high quality of porcelain manufacture .
1.4. Omission from History
There are many instances of distorted history, and many writers have given attention to this matter . In this presentation the focus will be on the other means by which history is distorted: that is, the omission of centuries from the educational curriculum and associated history books, especially those aimed at the general public. The focus on this issue is to alert communities to the particular significance of the Muslim civilisation and its historical role in giving birth to much of modern science and technology.
Iohn Glubb very clearly describes this distortion in his History of the Arab People. He tells us:
"Modern oriental studies have proved the falsity of this historical propaganda (the idea of the 16th-17th century Renaissance, and that nothing happened between the 450s (the fall of the Roman Empire) and such Renaissance, although the latter is still widely believed by the general public. Unfortunately, a great part of the educational world still adheres to these ancient taboos and the period of some five or six centuries, which separates the decline of Rome from the Norman invasion of England, is omitted from school curricula and from public examination. As is always the case, this falsification of history for propaganda purposes has iniured us more than anyone else, and has largely been responsible for the many political errors, which our governments have committed in the Middle East in the last sixty years.
The history of `progress', the rise of man from a primitive state to his modern condition, is a fascinating story. The interest is lost, however, when the continuity is concealed by the omission of periods of several centuries and the presentation of bits and pieces of history, gathered from here and there, in accordance with our own emotional preiudices or our national vanity" .
Figure 5: Two metalworks from classical Islamic times: Incense burner made for Sultan Qala'un (reigned 1294-1340) [Egypt or Syria, 1294-1340; beaten brass, inlaid with gold, silver, and a black compound]; and a large canteen, the only known example of its kind from the Islamic world; it recalls the shape of ceramic pilgrim flasks. Its inlaid silver decoration combines different styles of calligraphy and decorative motifs, such as intricate geometric designs, and lively animal scrolls [Syria, mid-13th century, Brass, silver inlay]. © The Smithsonian Institution, Washington. (Source).
Of course, Glubb only speaks of those centuries up to 1066 (the time of the Norman invasion of England), but the whole period 450-1492 is in fact passed over as Dark Ages, and is altogether ignored as far as science and civilisation are concerned, termed as ‘a middle age‘, an intermediary period, a uniform bloc, ‘vulgar centuries‘‘ and ‘obscure times‘, as Pernoud says . One challenges any audience to pick ten history books, look into them to find that in at least nine, if not eleven of them (the numerical exaggeration is on purpose to highlight the case), the presentation of scientific achievements iumps from some Greek names of late Antiquity, whomsoever it is, whether Ptolemy, Archimedes, or Galen, straight to Galileo, consequently ignoring scientific and technological events of the period, between 1000 and 1500, as if it were a sterile period. And the same holds with respect to curricula at schools and colleges. Even more disastrously, as the curious audience can gather, from universities, too. How it is that higher learning institutions teach that nothing happened over a thousand years is not iust beyond comprehension, but against academic rules of rigorous questioning. Students, who are trained to think critically, suddenly face a sudden darkness of ten centuries, and then are told things appeared, as if by a miracle, all at once in the Renaissance. It defies logic. Things, as any scientist knows, do not appear by chance. Continuity is basic in the birth and rise of sciences; it is equally so in almost every other field of study .
 See literature as follows: M. Lombard, The Golden Age of Islam; translated by I. Spencer; Amsterdam: North-Holland publishers, 1975, p. 239; S.D. Goitein, A Mediterranean Society, 5 vols., Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967-1990; vol. 1, paperback edition, 2000; and various articles on mechanics, engineering, and industry at www.MuslimHeritage.com.
 A. Y. al-Hassan, and D. R. Hill, Islamic Technology. An Illustrated History. Paris/Cambridge: UNESCO/ Cambridge University Press, 1986, p. xiii.
 P. K. Hitti, History of the Arabs, MacMillan, London, 1970.
 Al-Maqarrī, Nafh Al-Tīb: translated by P. De Gayangos: The History of the Mohammedan Dynasties in Spain (extracted from Nafh Al-Tīb by al-Maqqarī), 2 vols., London: The Oriental Translation Fund, 1840-43.
 For an overview on the technology of al-Andalus, see D. R. Hill, "Andalusian Technology", in Studies in Medieval Islamic Technology: From Philo to al-Iazarī-From Alexandria to Diyār Bakr. Edited by David A. King. (Variorum Collected Studies Series). Aldershot, Eng. /Brookfield, Vt.: Ashgate, 1998, XVIII.
 For instance, D.H. Fischer, Historians' Fallacies, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1971; I. Fontana, The Distorted Past, Blackwell, 1995; G. Fisher, The Barbary Legend, Oxford, 1957; P. Geyl: Use and Abuse of History, Yale University Press, 1955.
 Iohn Glubb, A Short History of the Arab Peoples; Hodder and Stoughton, 1969, pp. 289-90.
 Regine Pernoud: Pour en finir avec le Moyen Age, Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1977, p. 17.
 See also A. Y. al-Hassan's and D. R. Hill's enumeration of the factors behind the historians' reluctrance to admit Islamic achievements in technology and industry in Islamic Technology. An Illustrated History, op. cit., pp. 279-281.
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by: FSTC Limited, Fri 24 July, 2009