Trade & Cultural Exchange in the Muslim Empire

Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught middle and high school history, and has a master's degree in Islamic law.

During the Middle Ages, trade in the West may have slowed to a standstill, but the same could not be said for the Islamic World. In this lesson, we'll look at how trading actually took off during this period.

One Vast Space

Few religions have spread as quickly throughout history as Islam did in the years following its founding. In the space of only a few short years, Islam became the most widespread religion in the world. Christianity took hundreds of years to spread around Europe, while Hinduism never left India. Islam, on the other hand, created a massive territory in which there was only one religion. With that one religion came a common liturgical language, Arabic, which was soon used to great extent for trade, as well as a network of trust that many merchants throughout history would envy. Even the laws were the same in many of these places!

In this lesson, we're going to take a look at the massive trade network built by Islamic merchants in the years following the rise of Islam in the 7th century. This trade network managed to last from the 7th century well into the 15th century, when the rise of European expeditions created increased competition. As a note, be careful to call them 'Islamic' in this circumstance, as not all the merchants involved were Muslim. That said, it was definitely a trade network that had many Islamic leanings.

Land Trade

The most famous trading network in history, the Silk Road, was suddenly almost entirely controlled by Muslim powers. After all, Islam had spread throughout the lands of Iran, Afghanistan, and Central Asia, meaning that while the ethnic groups were the same, now they were Muslim. This meant that there was a great deal of freedom of movement that could be accomplished along this route. It stretched from the Middle East to China, as well as covering much of India. In fact, it may be better to call it the Silk Road Network, but in any event, there were hundreds of small towns along the way.

As Muslim rulers figured out that this sort of network was a good thing, they began to pay for caravansaries along the way. Think of them as a rest stop for caravans, with the ability to allow camels and horses to rest, as well as to trade for more goods along the way. This in turn encouraged more trade, which helped all involved grow richer.

It wasn't just the Silk Road that saw an increase in trading. West Africans and Berbers had long traded over the Sahara for gold and salt, but now those routes were linked into larger and larger systems.

The Silk Road
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Sea Trade

However, it wasn't just by land that the new cultures of Islam were linked. Many of these groups, such as the Persians, Swahili, Indians, and Southeast Asians, had long maritime histories. Eventually, a ring of Islamic states circled much of the Indian Ocean. This meant an even faster method of trade. In fact, it was so influential that people in places as far away as Indonesia and East Africa started adopting large amounts of Arabic and Persian words into their local vocabularies. In any event, these ports traded gold, incense, ivory, spices, and ideas.

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