Islam's advent gave quantum boost to international trade

THE bazaar is one of the most ancient complex and traditional pillars of Islamic culture, a source of wealth, and even political power in societies as diverse as Mughal Delhi, Alawite Marrakesh, the Hejaz, Nabatean, Petra and revolutionary Iran.

By Matein Khalid

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Published: Fri 13 Feb 2004, 1:15 PM

Last updated: Thu 2 Apr 2015, 1:14 AM

The earliest civilisations of the Middle East evolved on the banks of the Nile, the Tigris and the Euphrates. Their trading links with Mohenjadaro on the Indus, Dilmun in the Arabian Gulf and the Hellenic ports of the Aegean demonstrate that international markets existed centuries before Christ.

The alchemy of markets is as old as human civilisation itself. Empires may come and go, kingdoms may rise and fall, great ideologies and passions ebb and flow, the bazaar remains one of the institutions that truly defines Arab culture. Two thousand years ago, spice and cloves from Kerala were transported by Arab merchants to the Roman Empire and even the Germanic forest tribes who called the pepper of Malabar 'black gold'. Now, supertankers sail across the Straits of Hormuz for the great sea ports of Europe and the Orient laden with Burgan or Saudi light crude - the 'black gold' of our times.

Trade and business have provided critical ballast to Arab civilisation centuries before the Oil Age defined the modern Middle East. The Assyrians, for instance, mapped out a road network to enable them to transport African ivory, Caspian furs and Indian spices across their empire. Two millennia before the advent of the dollar and sterling, the gold coins of the Persian Darius and Cyrus, the Achaemenid Shahs of Persepolis, were currencies of choice from Greece to the Hindu kingdoms of Bengal. In fact, the postal system created by Cyrus the Great was the spiritual ancestor of the Bloomberg and Reuters business communications networks of our time and his caravansaries were the Four Seasons and Hyatt Regencies of the ancient world.

The Silk Road to China, the Amber Route to the Baltic, the evolution of trade linked cities such as Petra, Baghdad, Nishapur, Mecca, Damascus and Sidon were to be the theatres of Arab power politics for centuries. After all, just as happens now in the age of Jumbo jets and MTV and the World Wide Web, ideas travelled across these, ancient trade roads as just as easily as caravans loaded with silks, peppers camphor and emeralds. It is therefore no coincidence that the Middle East was the crucible for so many of the world's great religions, with its vast deserts and steppes where men from every corner of the world cross-pollinated their culture and ideas via travel and faith.

Business opened new worlds. Roman ships, for instance, in the age of Julius Caesar, regularly called on Oriental ports such as Alexandria, Tyre and the Kerala coast. Great maritime cultures, the Phoenicians - ancestors of the cosmopolitan and quintessential merchant Lebanese or the Omani dhow captains who sailed to Zanzibar and Singapore - are still distinct archetypes in the modern Arab national pantheon.

Oil is not the first commodity that catapulted the Arabian Peninsula to the global stage. That honour belongs to frankincense - the Queen of Sheba's visit to Solomonic Jerusalem was calibrated to cut a supply deal. The Nabatean state was set up solely to transport Yemeni incense to the emporia of the Roman Empire. This was a classic middleman state, with minimal taxes, no political bias in business, welcoming foreign businessmen, using festivals and 'theme' bazaars to attract merchants - a classic model for Monaco and Dubai.

In fact, the incense trade was the raison d'etre for the rise of the Hijaz as an Arabian entrepot and the power of the Quraish tribe in Mecca. A fascinating side effect of the spectacular growth of the Arab empire under the Ummayad caliphs in Damascus was that Islam gave a quantum boost to international trade. Byzantium and Sassanian Persia - the two empires that the Arabs vanquished - were at each other throats, precursors to the US-Soviet Cold War. The rise of Islam caused such barriers to vanish, the Haj stimulated international trade and cross-border human migration, the Islamic obsession with ilm (knowledge) - the second most mentioned word in the Holy Quran resurrected the lost Greek-Roman scientific legacy.

The evolution of market hubs such as Baghdad and Cairo, the emergence of Arabic as the business lingua franca from Spain to Sind, the missionary activities of Arab merchants in South-east Asia were all legacies of the advent of Islam. Islam was an extraordinary gift to world business with its tolerant, pragmatic, logical, humane and international ethos at a time when other cultures were busy burning witches, widows, heretics in 'civilised' Europe. The Baghdadi caliphates' currency shek is the modern cheque, the financiers of Mecca and Damascus set up letters of credit, bills of exchange, foreign agencies primitive contract laws and custom duties centuries before the bankers of Renaissance Florence and Tudor London. Ibn Khaldun was the Michael Porter of his day, an expert in esoteric theories of strategy.

The Tangerine Ibn Batuta was an itinerant economist, the pilgrims and the pirates of the Middle East revived ancient trade routes and the science of navigation. The great trading communities of Islam - the Halabi Syrians, the Maronites of Mount Lebanon, the Kuwaitis, the Ismaili Khojas, the Basrawis, the Hadramutis - prospered enormously in the giant free-trade zone that was the Arab caliphate.

I laugh when I read eminent Western scholars from Harvard and Cambridge dismiss Arab societies as defined by religious fanaticism or endemic anti-Western hatred. Samuel Huntingdon's 'clash of civilisations' theory is just the latest in the Orientalist intellectual bulldozer that attributes violent messianic impulses to Arab societies. This is total nonsense. The essence of Arab culture is trade and the bazaar, not war or suicide bombers. Merchants are pragmatic, cosmopolitan, moderate and tolerant - the core values of Islam. The violence in Palestine or Iraq is a specific response to a specific pathological, political circumstance, not an endemic variable of Arab culture as Huntingdon, Fox News or the Pentagon neocons contend.

After all, bombings and ambushes of Nazi soldiers by the French Resistance in 1940-45 do not imply that French culture is 'violent'. The violence was just a specific response (resistance) to a specific event (a brutal occupation). Why should human history be any different in Palestine?

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