Arabia Before Islam: Economic Life
On examining closely the literature of Sirah and Hadith one can form a clear idea of the economic life of pre-Islamic Arabia. It should, however, be borne in mind that while it is convenient to speak of "Arabia", we are mainly concerned only with one region of it - the areas surrounding Mecca and Medina, Hijaz in the wider sense and the adjoining steppe-land of Najd.
The nomads who formed an overwhelming majority of Arab population depended upon stock-breeding, especially the breeding of the camel for their sustenance. Agriculture was practised in the oasis and certain favoured spots high up in the mountains. "The chief crop at the oasis was date, while in the mountains, as at al-Ta'if cereals were important. Yathrib (later known as Medina) was a large and flourishing oasis in the time of Muhammad (peace be upon him). There were several Jewish agricultural colonies such as Khaybar. At Mecca, on the other hand, no agriculture at all was possible. The Yemen or Arabia Felix, was a fertile agricultural country where artificial irrigation had been practised from early times." (1)
Mecca, Muhammad's home for half a century, as we have observed earlier was not fit for agriculture: "The town that had grown up around the well of Zamzam and the sanctuary of Ka'bah, was advantageously placed "at the extreme ends of the Asia of the whites and the Africa of the blacks, near a breach in the chain of the Sana, close to a junction of roads leading from Babylonia and Syria to the plateaus of theYemen, to the shores of the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea. (2)
To Mecca, therefore, the nomad came for the goods brought from the four points of the compass by caravans. Originally the Meccans themselves were probably only middlemen and retailers and not the importers and entrepreneurs who organised caravans. But by the end of the sixth century A.D. they 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. (3)
Various charges were levied upon the traders who passed through the route of Mecca; for example, tithes were paid for entering the city, a special tax for securing permits to stay there, and a departure tax while leaving the town. In short, foreign merchants were entangled in a very intricate fiscal system, whether they settled in Mecca, or only passed through it, especially those who did not obtain the jiwar or guarantee of a local clan or notability. (4)
Mecca may rightly be called a merchant republic. The financial operations of considerable complexity were carried on in the city. The nobility of Mecca in Muhammad's time besides the religious heads, and Sheikhs of clans, comprised of "financiers, skilful in the manipulation of credit, shrewd in their speculations, and interested in any potentialities of lucrative investment from Aden to Gaza or Damascus. In the financial net that they had woven not merely were all of the inhabitants of Mecca caught, but many notables of the surrounding tribes also. The Quran appeared not in the atmosphere of the desert, but in that of high finance.(5)
The women shared these commercial instincts: Abu Jahl's mother ran a perfumery business. The activities of tadjjra Khadijah are well-known. Hinda the wife of Abu Sufyan, sold her merchandise among the Kalbis of Syria. (6)
Riba in all its ugliness formed the backbone of the pre-Islamic financial and economic system. The usual method adopted for lending and then of its repayment was highly exploitative. The money-lenders lent money to the people on heavy rates of interest, and when the money borrowed was not paid at the stipulated time, it was doubled and then trebled at the expiry of the third year. This is how it was enhanced with the passage of time.(7)
In case when the debtor failed to pay loans along with the amounts of interest the creditor sometimes took possession of the borrower's wife and children.
Speculation too was rampant, on the rates of exchange, the load of a caravan which one tried to buy up, the yield of the harvests and of the flocks and lastly the provisioning of the town,. Fictitious associations were formed and sales were made on which loans were borrowed.(8)
The other important town, which was commercially the rival of Mecca is known as Ta'if, the capital of an important tribe Thaqif. It had an advantage over Mecca, that, along with its business activities, it had fertile lands. "The surrounding valleys supplied its export trade with ample materials, particularly easy to market in a region so unfavoured by nature as the Hijaz; wine, wheat and wood. Its bracing climate, its fruits, its grapes, the famous Zahib suggested this city to belong to Syria rather than to the bare landscapes of western Arabia.
"Ta'if was also an industrial town and leather was manufactured in its tanneries, which were so numerous, as we are told, as to render the air around foul. At the entrance and exit to the sea of the sands, Ta'if offered the ships of the desert provisions in the varied produce of the soil and loads in the products of its industry.
"There was a kind of entente cordiale between Mecca and Ta'if, an entente cemented by matrimonial alliances between Quraysh and Ahlaf. Many Meccans lived in Ta'if and has estates there. (9)
The way in which Median is favoured by nature forms a striking contrast to Mecca. Its noteworthy feature is richness in water unusual in Arabia. The soil is of salty sand, lime and loamy clay and is everywhere fertile, particularly in the South. It was, therefore, called the city of farmers. The people of Medina were highly skilled cultivators and efficient in the methods of transplantation. There is a tradition in the Sahih of al-Bukhari, narrated on the authority of Abu Huraira, which sheds a good deal of light on the occupations of the people of Mecca and Medina during the time of the Holy Prophet. He observes: "My brethren muhajirin (after their migration to Medina) were occupied in buying and selling goods in the market, whereas my brethren Ansar remained busy in cultivation and gardening." (10). The Jews of Medina were, however, interested in trade and industry besides cultivation.
1. W. Montgomery Watt, Muhammad at Mecca, p. 2.
2. Encyclopeaedia of Islam, Vol. III, Article 'Mecca' (1936).
3. W. Montgomery Watt, op. cit., p. 3.
4. Encyclopeaedia of Islam, Vol. III, Article 'Mecca' (1936).
5. W. Montgomery Watt, op. cit., p. 4.
6. Encyclopeaedia of Islam, Vol. III, Article 'Mecca'.
7. Tafsir Tabari, Vol. IV, p. 55, in connection with Sura 3: A'yat 130.
8. Encyclopeaedia of Islam, Vol. III, Article 'Mecca'.
9. Encyclopeaedia of Islam, Article, 'Ta'if'.
10. Bukhari, Kitab al-Muzara'