Trade and commerce played an important role in the early Islamic world. Large trade networks spanned much of the globe including faraway places like China, Africa, and Europe. Islamic leaders used taxes from wealthy merchants to build and maintain public works such as schools, hospitals, dams, and bridges.
A Gold Dinar Source: Wikimedia Commons
Money is important for any economy, and this was no different for Islamic merchants. The main Islamic coins were the dinar (a gold coin) and the dirham (a silver coin). However, large transactions were often carried out on paper using letters of credit called "suftaja." These letters were much easier to carry on long trade routes than heavy coins. After arriving in a new city, merchants could take the papers to a moneychanger to exchange for coins.
Islamic merchants dealt in a wide variety of trade goods including sugar, salt, textiles, spices, slaves, gold, and horses. The expanse of the Islamic Empire allowed merchants to trade goods all the way from China to Europe. Many merchants became quite wealthy and powerful.
Muslim trade routes extended throughout much of Europe, Northern Africa, and Asia (including China and India). These trade routes were both by sea and over long stretches of land (including the famous Silk Road). Major trade cities included Mecca, Medina, Constantinople, Baghdad, Morocco, Cairo, and Cordoba.
Caravan with Camels by Emile Rouergue. 1855.
In the case where a trade route was over land, merchants travelled in large groups called caravans. Caravans were almost like traveling cities including everything from doctors and entertainers to armed guards and translators. They provided protection for the merchants and their goods. A typical caravan would travel around 15 miles a day and would stop at night at rest stops called "caravanserai."
Spread of Islam
The expanse of Islamic trade had a direct result on the spread of the Islam religion. Traders brought their religion to West Africa where Islam quickly spread throughout the region. Areas in the far east such as Malaysia and Indonesia also became Muslim through traders and Islamic Sufis. Over time, large Muslim populations grew in other regions including India, China, and Spain.
Interesting Facts about Trade and Commerce in the Islamic Golden Age
Islamic coins have been found by archeologists as far away as Sweden, Britain, and China.
Merchants were respected in the Islamic world. The prophet Muhammad came from a merchant family.
The slave trade was a large part of the economy. Some slaves were prisoners captured during the Islamic conquests, while others were purchased in slave markets in northern and western Africa.
The vast expanse of Islamic trade allowed for the cultural exchange of art, science, food, and clothing throughout Asia, Africa, and Europe.
The Quran guided many of the principals of Islamic merchants requiring them to deal fairly with one another and to not charge interest on loans.