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Prohibition of Barter & Pilgrimage: Ottoman Case

a)   The Prohibition of Barter

The argument that trade contributes to the alleviation of poverty also implies that institutions which improve the conditions of trade also contribute indirectly to the alleviation of poverty. In this context Islam made an enormous contribution to the way daily business and financial transactions were made by prohibiting barter. By two statements, ahadith, the Prophet (pbuh) prohibited barter and ordered every Muslim to conduct his transactions with money instead. Thus, overnight, bulk of the Islamic community was catapulted into the age of money.

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Prohibition of the barter appeared in the Hadith reported by Abu Sa’id al Khudari. Abu Said said that one day Bilal brought some dates to the Prophet (pbuh) who asked him: “Where have you bought these?” Bilal replied: “We had some bad dates and we bought one measure of these in exchange for two measures of those (bad ones) in order to present them to you.” The Prophet (pbuh) condemned this transaction as a clear case of riba, interest, and ordered his companions that if they wanted to buy good dates, they should exchange their bad dates for money and then buy good dates with it (Al-Qusi, p.42).

The second pertinent Hadith was narrated by al Bukhari and Muslim on the authority of Ubadah ibn al Samit after the Prophet (pbuh) who said:

“Gold for gold, silver for silver, wheat for wheat, barley for barley, dates for dates, salt for salt; exactly equivalent for equivalent, hand to hand. You are free to trade objects as long as they differ and are traded hand to hand” (Al-Qusi, p.145).

This is the prohibition of the so called riba al buyu’, i.e., the interest on transactions. Muslim jurists have deduced from this Hadith and from other pertinent ahadith the following rules which govern riba al buyu’:

1. When trading a metal for metal and food for food, i.e., gold for gold and dates for dates, there are two conditions which should be fulfilled:

  • the equality of both objects quantitatively (exactly equivalent for equivalent)
  • prompt delivery (hand to hand).

2. In the case of trading metal for metal or food for food from two different genres, such as gold for silver or wheat for barley, there is only one condition, which is the promptness in delivery; equality is not a condition.

3. In the case of trading metal for food, such as trading gold for wheat, both conditions, i.e., promptness and equivalency, are omitted and free trade can exist.

Thus we see clearly how the Prophet (pbuh), by gradually relaxing his prohibitions, forced the Muslims to abandon barter and adopt, instead, monetary transactions. This was the dawn of the age of money for the Muslims. The significance of this 7th century development would be appreciated better if we consider the fact that barter remained the general rule for trade over enormous areas of the world until as late as the 8th century. Barter dominated Russia until Peter the Great, and was widespread in the United States during the 1790s. Eighteenth century Naples practiced barter routinely and even included it as an important instrument of business transactions in textbooks (F, Braudel, 1981, vol. 1, p.445).

The invention of other business instruments facilitating monetary transactions did not have to wait very long. Bill of exchange (suftaja), promissory notes, ordinary cheque, letters of credit and double-entry bookkeeping were all known to the Muslims. Historians are in general agreement that Medieval Europe simply borrowed these instruments and could not improve upon them! (F. Braudel, ibid., p.472; Sayous, 1929, pp.132-133, A. Wink, op.cit. p,12).

b) The Pilgrimage

Another  development  which  probably  played  even a greater role in the alleviation of poverty than the prohibition of barter, was the imposition of the pilgrimage duty upon all the Muslims, men and women, who could afford it.

To be sure, Islam is not the only religion which emphasises pilgrimage. But there are certain characteristics of the Islamic pilgrimage which make it unique. In Christianity, for instance, there are a multitude of centra, a person visiting any one of them; Rome, Jerusalem, Santiago de Compostela or even Lourdes or Fatima, would be considered a pilgrim. By contrast, in Islam there is only one centre; Makkah. Moreover, pilgrimage, even to Jerusalem, is not considered an absolute duty for the Christians (S. Farooqi, 1990, p.9). By contrast, Islamic pilgrimage is so sacred that it is considered as one of the five pillars of Islam.

The economic implications of the pilgrimage, the hajj, point out clearly to an enormous commercial activity. After all, we are talking about the convention of a huge number of relatively well-off believers. Although, we do not have exact statistics, it is obvious that the numbers tended to be very large, albeit with fluctuations reflecting the conjuncture of the times. Suraiya Farooqi informs us that in the year 1279, 40,000 Egyptians and that many Syrians and Iraqis had performed the pilgrimage. Some 300 years later, in the year 1580, the Egyptian pilgrimage caravan had contained some 50,000 persons. The entire pilgrimage population in that year had apparently reached 200,000 who carried their belongings and merchandise with some 300,000 beasts of burden. In the year 1807 the figure was down to 80,000 and in 1814, some 70,000. Another source, confirms these latter figures and informs us that prior to the First World War, on average, 70,000 persons a year performed the pilgrimage (S. Farooqi, ibid., pp. 63-64, 252; Islam Ansiklopedisi, cilt V-l, p. 13). Nowadays, reflecting the population explosion in the modern Islamic world, the number of pilgrims have exploded and passed the million mark in the year 1982. The Saudi government, overwhelmed by these numbers, has recently imposed a population quota on each Muslim nation at the rate of 1 per 1,000. Even this precaution seems to have become inadequate for, during the latest pilgrimages hundreds of pilgrims have died due to overcrowding and panics.

Much has been written on the importance of the Champagne fairs of the 12th and 13th centuries for the rise of the European economy. It will be argued here that in comparison to the hajj, the fairs of Champagne were just a local affair and that the fairs of Mina and Arafat near Makkah were the only conventions with truly worldwide dimensions. First of all, the distances covered were huge. Unlike the Champagne fairs which were essentially the meeting ground for the Flemish and Italian merchants, in Makkah, Muslims from three continents convened. Depending upon the chronology, we can envisage four major groups: The Egyptian caravan and the Red Sea fleet: comprising the Spanish and North African pilgrims and Egyptians; the Syrian caravan; comprising the Central Asians, the Balkan and Anatolian Turks and Syrians; the Iraqi caravan: comprising the Iraqis and the Persians; and finally the Indian Ocean fleet: comprising the Indian Muslims as well as those from the Malay world.

Second, it might be thought that those who could afford such an expensive journey were mainly the members of the elite and the merchants. But, this was not necessarily the case, there were many believers with very modest means who undertook the voyage as well and, sometimes pious rulers, like Akbar of Mughal India, financed the poor to perform the pilgrimage. These people were the real peddlers who hoped to sell the goods they were carrying with them in Makkah with profit. (S. Farooqi, 1990, p.176). Thus, it can be argued that sophisticated merchants and peddlers from all over the Islamic world were subtly ordered to convene in Makkah at least once in a lifetime, many of them performing the duty more than once. We had seen above that trade and travelling were highly esteemed virtues in Islam. Therefore, trade not only on the way to Makkah but also in Makkah itself was encouraged. Thus religion and business became almost inseparable. In this context it might be mentioned that a traveller in difficulty automatically became eligible to receive the zakah and thus received support wherever he might find himself within the world of Islam.

Since it is considered a great virtue to spend the month of Ramadan in Makkah, many merchants/pilgrims arrived early on and conducted their business in the city. In Makkah there were  two covered bazaars during the Ottoman times, one had specialised in the Syrian/Northern commodities and the other in the Indian/Eastern. During the pilgrimage season, these bazaars were overflown with goods and merchants and every street and house which provided some shade became instantly a marketplace. In addition to the city markets, the plains of Arafat, Muzdalifa and Mina where the pilgrims were ordered to halt by the Prophet (pbuh), also became enormous fairs. Evliya ‘Elebi, an Ottoman traveller of 17th century, has described the situation in these fairs vividly:

“As I arrived with the sea of the pilgrims to the market of Mina we were met by the caravan officials and it was announced: ‘Herein reigns the protection of God and that of the House of Osman. Anyone who wishes  so, may exhibit his goods and sell and buy in peace! Allah is Great!”

Although we do not, unfortunately, have long-term series of documentary evidence, the volume of trade appears to have been huge. Farooqi has found out that in the 1590s, Jeddah, harbour of Makkah, alone, yielded a customs duty of some 90,000 gold pieces (flori). Based upon this information and assuming that all the merchants visiting Jeddah were Muslims and that they paid a uniform rate of 2.5 percent, she has calculated the total value of the goods that passed through the Jeddah harbour as somewhere between 3,600,000 and 6,000,000 gold pieces (ibid., p.209, 217). The larger figure assumes that the 3,600,000 floris were collected by the Ottoman authorities, alone, and that the local authorities collected also about that much.

We are in a position to add our own figures for the ports of Yemen in about the same period. In the year 1599 all the landing stages of Yemen yielded a revenue of 118,193 gold pieces (M. Cizakca, 1993c, pp. 238). A considerable pan of the goods which yielded this revenue in the Yemeni ports were, no doubt, of Indian and Malay origin and some might have been shipped off to Jeddah. Thus there is the danger of double counting. Bearing this danger in mind and making the same assumptions as Farooqi, we can make a very rough estimate and reach to  the conclusion  that  approximately  4,500,000 to 9,000,000 sikke-ihasan, Ottoman gold coins’ worth of goods had been processed in these ports. Thus, the total value of goods taxed in the pilgrimage ports must have been between 8 million to 15 million gold pieces per annum at the end of the l6th century. While these figures are very rough estimates and the danger of double counting cannot be ruled out, it should be remembered that they pertain only to the sea trade. The total value of the goods brought by caravans are simply not known.

Third, because the Muslims were ordered by Allah to perform the pilgrimage, unlike the fairs of Champagne which lost their importance and eventually disappeared, the pilgrimage to Makkah not only survived for almost a millennium and a half, but expanded greatly towards the end of this century. In view of everything said above, we reach to the conclusion that pilgrimage to Makkah must have played a decisively greater role for world economy than the much-publicised fairs of Champagne which were significant for a limited period and for Europe alone.

The importance of the Makkah fairs for world trade, which were perpetuated by religious considerations, has been the subject of a controversy. It has been argued that the importance of these fairs should not be exaggerated. According to this point of view the same forces that lead to the decline of the European fairs were also at work in the Islamic world, i.e., the rise of major cities with permanent markets (F, Braudel, 1979, pp.127-128). Moreover, according to Braudel, this should not be considered as a weakness, after all, fairs belong to the age of relatively primitive trade and the rise of major towns with permanent markets should be considered as a sign of maturity.

This argument has certain merits. After alt, it is true that Makkah never attained a size commensurate with its importance for the world trade. But it should be remembered that, at least in the Islamic world, the rise of permanent market towns were greatly facilitated by the pilgrimage. Many of them like, Istanbul, Cairo, Aleppo, Damascus, Baghdad and a host of Indian Ocean ports, were directly on the pilgrimage routes and achieved their prominence, in large part, thanks to the pilgrimage and the inter-continental trade related with it. Even the physical appearance of these cities were affected by the pilgrimage: Damascus, for in-stance, expanded along the highway linking it to Makkah (Raymond, 1985:48-49).

But then, we may wonder, why Makkah remained a relatively small city. Geography and the harshness of the terrain provide the answer. Evliya ‘Elebi, the Ottoman traveller, had observed that nothing grows around Makkah and the town dwellers have only one occupation: trade. The city wakes up in Ramadan when the first pilgrims arrive, bursts into life during the pilgrimage and then falls into sleep again when they depart. The active season may have been shortened or extended due to the monsoons as well. But, it is true that activity of the town was not permanent but seasonal.

Moreover, the states which ruled over Makkah pursued a policy of limited stay in Makkah for the pilgrims. This was particularly so during the Ottoman period. We had seen above that the Ottomans had developed an elaborate system of waqfs, which catered for the pilgrims. The Ottoman state also spent huge sums for the protection as well as provisioning of the holy city. The entire food supply had to be brought from Egypt. An extended stay by the pilgrims was therefore not desired as the costs would have been prohibitive. So, the pilgrims came and after a short visit they left, carrying with them home goods from the four corners of the world.

These goods were exchanged not by barter but by using money. The impact of such a massive exchange on the economies of countries which produced and dispatched these goods has not been studied. Although a reliable quantitative study of this impact may never be made, the following repercussions undeniably must have taken place: monetisation of the Muslim economies, establishment of solid economic linkage between these countries despite the vast distances involved, expansion of intercontinental trade and consequently alleviation of poverty. Recent research has revealed that these positive impacts were not limited to the Muslim world alone but that they were felt strongly also in Europe (Wink: 1991).


Source: Poverty Alleviation in Pakistan: Present Scenario and Future Strategy, Mohibul Haq Sahibzada. Republished with permission.