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. 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.
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.