Trade in Arabian Society

Essential Question

What effect did trade routes have on Arabian cities?

Trade in Arab Society

Merchants and the Spread of Islam

Arabia's crossroads location gave Muslim merchants easy access to South Asia, Europe, and Africa. Along with their trade goods, Arab merchants took Islamic beliefs to new lands. For example, merchants introduced Islam into India. Although many Indian kingdoms remained Hindu, coastal trading cities soon had large Muslim communities.

In Africa, societies often had both African and Muslim customs. For example, Arabic influenced local African languages. Also, many African leaders converted to Islam.

Between 1200 and 1600, Muslim traders carried Islam as far east as what are now Malaysia and Indonesia. Even today, Islam is a major influence on life there.

Products and Inventions

In addition to helping spread Islam, trade brought new products to Muslim lands and made many people rich. First, new products and inventions created by other peoples made their way to the Muslim world. For example, Arabs learned from the Chinese how to make paper and use gunpowder. New crops such as cotton, rice, and oranges arrived from India, China, and Southeast Asia. Second, traders made money on trade between regions.

In addition to trade with Asia, African trade was important to Muslim merchants. Many merchants set up businesses next to African market towns. They wanted African products such as ivory, cloves, and slaves. In return, they offered fine white pottery called porcelain from China, cloth goods from India, and iron from Southwest Asia and Europe. Arab traders even traveled south across the Sahara, the world's largest desert, to get gold. In exchange, they brought the Africans salt, which was scarce south of the desert.

The Growth of Cities

The growing cities of the Muslim world reflected a blending of cultures. Trade had brought people, products, and ideas together. It had also created wealth, which supported great cultural development in cities such as Baghdad in what is now Iraq and Cordoba (KAWR-doh-bah) in Spain.


Baghdad became the capital of the Islamic Empire in 762. Located near both land and water routes, it was a major trading center. In addition to trade, farming contributed to a strong economy. Dates and grains grew well in the fertile soil. Trade and farming made Baghdad one of the world's richest cities in the late 700s and early 800s. The center of Baghdad was known as the round city because three round walls surrounded it. Within the walls was the caliph's palace, which took up one-third of the city. Outside the walls were houses and souks for the city's huge population. Caliphs in Baghdad supported science and the arts. For example, they built a hospital and an observatory. They also built a library that was used as a university and housed Arabic translations of many ancient Greek works. Because Baghdad was a center of culture and learning, many artists and writers went there. Artists decorated the city's public buildings, while writers wrote literature that remains popular today.


Cordoba, too, became a great Muslim city. In 756 Muslims chose it to be the capital of what is now Spain. Like Baghdad, Cordoba had a strong economy based on agriculture and trade. Cordoba exported textiles and jewelry, which were valued throughout Europe. By the early 900s, Cordoba was the largest and most advanced city in Europe. It had mansions and mosques, busy markets, and shops, and aqueducts. It also had public water and lighting systems.

Cordoba was also a great center of learning. Men and women from across the Muslim world and Europe came to study at the university there. They studied Greek and Roman scientific writings and translated them into Arabic. In addition, they studied writings produced in the Muslim world and translated them from Arabic to Latin. As a result, Arabic writings on such subjects as mathematics, medicine, astronomy, geography, and history could be studied throughout Europe.

As you may recall, Muslims generally practiced tolerance, or acceptance, Jews and Christians, who shared some Muslim beliefs, were allowed to practice their own religion but had to pay a tax. The Jewish people in Cordoba also made the city a center of Jewish culture. Many Jews held key jobs in the government. Jewish poets, philosophers, and scientists made great contributions to Cordoba's cultural growth.

Discussion Questions

  • What were the economic foundations of Islamic cities?

  • How did the location of the Islamic world stimulate trade?

  • What do the great distances traveled by merchants indicate about trade in the Muslim world?

Activity 2: What impact did trade routes have on Arabian society and cities?

Using the information from this lesson, answer the questions in a thinking map. Complete this assignment digitally or on paper. It will be collected in your portfolio.

Extension Activities