Merchants and Faith: Muslim Commerce and Culture in the Indian Ocean

By Patricia Risso | Go to book overview

3 Merchants of Faith
in the Middle Era,
Circa 1050-1500

The specifically maritime history of Muslims during the eleventh through fifteenth centuries is substantial but seems at first glance to defy the political history which is so firmly attached to land. Sketches of imperial history, given in this chapter, reveal both disinterest in maritime affairs and significant interconnections between land and sea. The Asian maritime expansion of Islamic commerce and society was brought about in a variety of ways conveyed in this chapter: foreign Muslim merchants enjoyed positions of privilege in China's ports under the early Yuan dynasty; independent merchants relocated far distances from Islamic centers of power and established networks among themselves; Muslim-dominated port towns enacted policies to cultivate and dominate regional trade.


Central Asian Expansion

Events in this era which had the most far-reaching effects in the Islamic world were the political reorganizations accomplished by Turks and Mongols from Central (or Inner) Asia. For obvious geographic reasons, these Asians did not bring with them any naval heritage. Some of the tribal groups had learned effective military organization and weapons technology from proximate imperial powers; notably, it was the Mongols who learned from the Chinese to use explosives, although it was still cavalry tactics and archery skills that won battles. The Central Asian style of rule was one in which military prowess—rather than administrative skill—took precedence and in which the benefits and privileges of power were largely confined to the military institutions. For example, one such benefit for officers in the Middle East was the wide distribution of land grants (iqta istighlal) with rights to land revenues, an adjustment of an old tax farming system. The grants were supposed to be temporary and revocable but tended to become de facto hereditary

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