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The Arab Agricultural Revolution and Its Diffusion, 700–1100

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  11 May 2010

Andrew M. Watson
University of Toronto


The rapid spread of Islam into three continents in the seventh and eighth centuries was followed by the diffusion of an equally remarkable but less well documented agricultural revolution. Originating mainly in India, where heat, moisture and available crops all favored its development and where it had been practiced for some centuries before the rise of Islam, the new agriculture was carried by the Arabs or those they conquered into lands which, because they were colder and drier, were much less hospitable to it and where it could be introduced only with difficulty. It appeared first in the eastern reaches of the early-Islamic world—in parts of Persia, Mesopotamia and perhaps Arabia Felix—which had close contacts with India and where a few components of the revolution were already in place in the century before the rise of Islam. By the end of the eleventh century it had been transmitted across the length and breadth of the Islamic world and had altered, often radically, the economies of many regions: Transoxania, Persia, Mesopotamia, the Levant, Egypt, the Maghrib, Spain, Sicily, the savannah lands on either side of the Sahara, parts of West Africa and the coastlands of East Africa. It had very far-reaching consequences, affecting not only agricultural production and incomes but also population levels, urban growth, the distribution of the labor force, linked industries, cooking and diet, clothing, and other spheres of life too numerous and too elusive to be investigated here.

Papers Presented at the Thirty-third Annual Meeting of the Economic History Association
Copyright © The Economic History Association 1974

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In the course of my research, which has been carried on over a number of years and in many places, I have benefited from innumerable kindnesses, great and small, which will be acknowledged elsewhere. Here I should like to thank those to whom my debt is especially large: Professors Claude Cahen, Pedro Martínez Montávez, Roland Portères, Vivi Täckholm and John Williams, and Drs. David Dixon, Hans Helbaek, Jean-Jacques Hémardinquer and Carmello Trasselli. I am also grateful to Professors C. A. Ashley and Karl Helleiner and Dr. Roger Owen for commenting on drafts of this article. As this article is a preliminary report on my research, the very numerous primary and secondary sources used have not been cited. The reader who is interested in the primary sources will find some guidance in the Appendix. In my forthcoming book, New Crops in the Early-Islamic World: A Study in Diffusion, most of the points made in this article are developed in greater detail and full references are given.

1 Separate chapters will be devoted to the study of the diffusion of each of these crops in pre-Islamic and Islamic times in my forthcoming book mentioned in the preceding footnote.

2 For several of the ideas developed in this paragraph and the preceding one, I am indebted to the work of Dr. Lucie Bolens, whose publications are cited in the Appendix at the end of this article.