Seminar CXLIV: making landowning legal in early Islam

The approaching beginning of the academic year 2013/2014 finds me looking back at the previous one, my last in Oxford and also my busiest, as the ten-month blogging backlog probably makes clear. Leaping straight on the horse, though, last academic year began for me in terms of things to report with a visit to Oxford by Professor Hugh Kennedy of the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, to talk to the Medieval History Seminar on 25th October 2012 with the title “Landholding and Law in the Early Islamic Middle East”.

Eighteenth-century Persian depiction of Islam on the march, with Muhammad piously depicted only as a flame destroying idols.

Eighteenth-century Persian depiction of Islam on the march, with Muhammad piously depicted only as a flame destroying idols. What need have these men of landed estates, you may ask? Image from Wikimedia Commons

The reason there’s a paper here is that very early Islam was in fact largely set against extensive landowning; the social structure of conquering Islam was that the conquered had the land, and paid the salaries of the Muslim armies and government in tax. Humanly enough, though, the Islamic élite wanted a secure basis of their wealth and it wasn’t long before traditions began to be recorded in which the Prophet had been a landholder too, and large-scale landholding was evidently possible by, say, the ninth century. In the almost total non-survival in Islamic lands of the kind of document I’d use to look at something like this, to wit charters, you have to go through everything else looking for hints and possibilities and that, as part of a larger economic history of the Islamic Middle East, is what Hugh had been doing.

What we find, apparently, is that something like a doctrine of social utility mapped out the route to private landed wealth. Islamic law quickly came to agree that land that was empty and was put back into use, thus serving the community of the faithful where it had not before, was worthy of beneficial taxation, a situation that was allowed to be inherited. This is not exactly property, but was the easiest route to landholding for those in frontier zones, where such land was easily obtained (or at least, alternative claims to its ownership were easier to ignore, I might suggest). In Islam’s inner territories that was harder, however, and there the way that the very very few documents we do have (about which I knew nothing, and which seem to be more or less caliphal confirmations of benefices with privileges, lots like some would see the Carolingian grants dealing with aprisio1) suggest the trick was done was by building irrigation, again adding utility and thus being able to claim something back from the sultān, at this stage not a person but meaning something like ‘establishment’. The few grants we have are confirmations of such privileges to the heirs of people who’d carried out such projects, and you can see how these could make the basis of a privileged and substantial landed base that subordinate settlers would inhabit under one’s dominance.2 Nonetheless, there is nothing at this stage that suggests that the caliph and the ‘establishment’ could not legally have taken back those lands if they were not being developed, so this is still not quite full property. Hugh still had work to do, therefore, but there was already a clear picture developing of early Islamic law’s ability to shift its picture in response to circumstances and its community’s needs, and to find or create the precedents it needed so to do.

Gharib al-Hadith, by Abu `Ubayd al-Qasim b. Sallam al-Baghdadi, MS Leiden Or. 298, fo. 7r.

Leaf from an 866 paper manuscript collection of hadīth, Gharib al-Hadith, by Abu `Ubayd al-Qasim b. Sallam al-Baghdadi, MS Leiden Or. 298, fo. 7r.

Questions dealt with how Islam would have responded to the landholding it found itself amidst as it expanded, and how much of this might be Roman laws refitted, and James Howard-Johnston also raised the excellent point that converts presumably were not obliged to give up their lands, with consequent implications for the already-faithful. It is quite hard to see how even militant Islam could have managed without some structures for private landed property given how many of its subjects had such, but that just makes it all the more intriguing the time it seems to have taken to work them out to where we can see them…


1. This is kind of the traditional view of the Carolingians’ grants of rights in waste land, argued tentatively by Auguste Dupont, “Considérations sur la colonisation et la vie rurale dans le Roussillon et la Marche d’Espagne au IXe siècle” in Annales du Midi Vol. 67 (Toulouse 1955), pp. 223-245 but nuanced somewhat in his later “L’aprision et le régime aprisionnaire dans le midi de la France (fin du VIIIe-début du Xe siècle)” in Le Moyen Âge Vol. 71 (Bruxelles 1965), pp. 179-213 & 385-399. For references to other work, see J. Jarrett, “Settling the Kings’ Lands: aprisio in Catalonia in perspective” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 18 (2010), pp. 320-342.

2. I nagged Hugh for a reference to these elusive documents after the paper, and what I wrote down is “H. Kennedy in IRAQ (2012)”. I think this must be H. Kennedy, “The feeding of the five hundred thousand: cities and agriculture in early Islamic Mesopotamia” in Iraq Vol. 73 (London 2011), pp. 177-199, as the 2012 issue has no piece by him in, but it may be that it is yet to emerge.

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6 responses to “Seminar CXLIV: making landowning legal in early Islam

  1. Allan McKinley

    Can’t help observing that a grant of beneficial taxation, which is presumably the right to take those proceeds of an estate for yourself, over an area which already had occupants who might consider themselves to possess land sounds very like the best explanation for Anglo-Saxon landholding records, outside of Kent at least, allowing that the tax system in such cases was based on renders in kind. These grants also tended to emanate from a central authority, this being the king and his court/advisors rather than just by royal fiat as in Francia. Not sure if this is just a coincidence due to similiat conditions, but it does at least offer an opportunity for a paper entitled ‘the sultan and the witan’…

    • And the title is the most important thing! I headed a part of one of my papers (in which I dealt with supposed Magyar raids into Catalonia) “Non ungari sed unguli” and I never looked back!

      More seriously though, I had trouble expressing that point from my notes, and I’m not quite sure it does Hugh’s argument justice; I may be filling in gaps in my memory from Matthew Innes’s work, because after all, as he convinced me, unless you are actually farming the land, what is property but the right to take revenue? The fact that there is a fine line between rent and tax is exactly why we occidentalists have trouble translating cens. What is supposed to happen in the much-beloved feudal transformation, and indeed the fall of Rome, the Byzantine land crisis, the collapse of the Ottoman Empire etc. except the conversion of what had been tax (`public’ revenue) to rent (`private’ revenue)? We probably shouldn’t be surprised to find the same dynamic here, in the wake of the collapse of two more imperial rules, so I suppose the question then becomes how different is it and why?

      • Allan McKinley

        I suspect that there was more to landholding than simply taking revenues (at least if you wanted to retain land producing revenues). The improvement of land was after all at least nominally how an Islamic landlord obtained it – this is not just an act of public good but an act of lordship, benefitting those who you claim authority over (who can always destroy the improvements if they reject lordship – see numerous examples of peasant resistance). There was a need to placate (or coerce, although I am not sure that is a long-term strategy) those paying the rent/tax/cens. Matthew’s views are a bit closer to Marx’s than this, but that tends to see peasant cultivators as non-political actors, which doesn’t fit the evidence from say the Rhineland (oddly, considering Matthew wrote the best book on this area…) or Egypt.

        I do wonder whether the lack of early Islamic landholding can therefore be linked to the simple fact that there was in the early Islamic period limited opportunity to sustain lord-like activities (such as land improvement, but also social thing such as justice and feasting) due to social segregation. The state remained in its lordly role, but even there, at least initially, functionaries were not Muslims, so that root to lordship (popular with Frankish counts say) was not open. And converting landowners would have to enter Islamic society, so cutting them off from their own lordly actions, thus perhaps reducing potential tensions. I doubt the evidence exists to allow us to see the picture well enough to prove this hypothesis (proving what is arguably a negative might be tough anyway), but it’s an idea.

        Now all I need is to identify Anglo-Saxon parallels (perhaps the model of British apatheid may work here, not that I normally follow it) and there’s an idea for ‘The Sultan and the Witan’ (may have to watch this discussion, or I could end up writing the thing…).

        • It is tempting to play with this idea, though I might look for it to work more in the Danelaw, with foreign lords apparently slotting in their men in the second-class land and therefore presumably having some relationship with those on the first-class land, but what? I’m not sure we know enough about the agricultural régime in Britain in the fifth century to do more than guess, though that might leave you more room. Meanwhile, though, your point that even being a landlord is more than just being an owner is a very fair one and I have never before really thought about where the peasants are in Matthew’s narrative, which given it’s me is a little surprising and something I must fix.

          Anyway, you’re very active here, which is always welcome, does that mean I should expect some proofs from you soon? (He says casually…)

  2. As an aside… I love that the marginalia in this Islamic art is just as thick with random body parts as the European equivalents :)

    • That is pretty late Islamic art, of course. I did look for earlier depictions of Islamic warriors, but though there are any number of Muhammad out there, usually on his night flight, early depictions of his followers seem strangely much harder to come by!

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