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Trade & Merchants in Arab Society

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  • 0:01 Expanding Trade
  • 0:47 The Silk Road &…
  • 2:34 The Indian Ocean
  • 3:41 The Role of Europeans
  • 4:51 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kevin Newton

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

Merchants in the Islamic world were able to do business in an area that stretched from Morocco to Indonesia. Learn how they became wealthy on goods from gold and silk to salt and pepper.

Expanding Trade

As Islam spread throughout much of the known world, many merchants took this opportunity to expand their businesses. After all, the Qur'an encouraged trade and commerce, and while, before people in faraway places may not be so friendly, now they were Muslims, which meant that other Muslims would not only be safe, but welcomed with open arms. . . and wallets. The fact that the prophet Muhammad had been a merchant made the role of merchants in Islamic society even more important, as there was now increased respect for the position.

In fact, it's hard to say which really came first to some places, Islam or trade. Of course, trade had existed along many of those routes for centuries, but it became much more profitable as Islam spread.

The Silk Road & Overland Routes

The Silk Road, a network of trade routes that reached from the Mediterranean to China, is not only the most famous trade route in history, but a great example of a trade route that became increasingly wealthy since the arrival of Islam. In fact, while many people focus on Islam spreading throughout the Middle East and into North Africa and Spain, Islam spread along the Silk Road far into Central Asia. In fact, many of the Muslim communities in China today are directly descended from the people in important trading towns on the Eastern end of the Silk Road.

Obviously, silk was traded along the routes, and soon Middle Eastern cities, like Baghdad and Aleppo, became famous for their silk markets, despite the fact that silk was actually produced thousands of miles away in China. However, silk was not the only item traveling along the Silk Road. New inventions and ideas came back as well. As a result, metalworkers in Syria were able to combine Middle Eastern and Chinese techniques to make Damascus steel, a very hard and sharp metal useful for swords. That wasn't all: paper and gunpowder also arrived via the Silk Road.

Of course, the Silk Road is not the only overland route that Muslim merchants took advantage of, often spreading Islam at the same time. In fact, it's unlikely that so many people would have converted to Islam in West Africa had it not been for merchants. Muslim merchants traveled into West Africa for new foods as well as salt, which was extremely hard to come by in the rest of the Muslim world. In fact, if you've ever heard of Timbuktu, you've heard of one of the most important salt trading posts in the Muslim world.

The Indian Ocean

Yet, if you look at a map of Eurasia, you may very well think 'Why travel over all this land if you can just sail around it?' You would be right in thinking that, as an equally important system of trade routes sprung up in the Indian Ocean. These trade routes took advantage of the yearly monsoons, a storm system that provides reliable winds between the Middle East and the Indian Subcontinent.

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