The majority of the text for this week’s reading moves our focus east, examining the possibility of hegemony in the eastern portions of the world, including Asia and India. While these discussions were interesting and certainly peaked questions for investigation in class, I was very curious to read a sub-portion of the text that focused, again, on the Islamic people and their role in Mideast commerce.
In a portion of the text for Wednesday’s reading, Abu-Lughod discusses the importance of “Islam and Business” (216), setting the tone of this subsection by recognizing the West’s eventual dominance over commerce, but additionally noting the competence and self-sufficiency of the Islamic people in terms of commerce and trade. “Although the West eventually ‘won,’” she states, “it should not be assumed that it did so because it was more advanced in either capitalistic theory or practice. Islamic society needed no teachers in these matters” (216).
Abu-Lughod goes on to describe how Islam always concerned itself with business matters, and though it may be strange that a religious group and its sacred documents be concerned with business contacts and agreements, “it must be remembered that Mecca was an important caravan center and that Muhammad, before his religious experience, was a business agent” (216). Capitalistic theories have flourished in Islamic society since the first century, A.D., and while the contractual documentation does not exist for the Middle East as it did for Europe, the documentation of ht institutions of partnership and commenda in the early Islamic period are a testament, and may be evidence for, the loss of Islamic commercial hegemony in the Middle Ages (217). While this evidence is inconclusive, the succinct evidence of Islamic partnerships, contracts, the commenda, the wakil (the agent), and credit and monies, promote the notion of early Islamic power over capitalistic commerce and trade.
It should be noted, however, that Abu-Lughod states the lack of historical documents citing the agreements and contracts that ensured the latter commercial practices. The contacts, she cites, were oral histories, and not physical documents, as the Europeans have.
Because of the paucity of documentary sources,” she says, “it is not possible to
investigate the quantitative aspects of trade… one can only study the legal texts that
describe mechanisms… or set forth principles… for their execution (217).
If this is the case, while there is substantiate evidence of the Islamic commercial competency, it is difficult to determine how the Islamic hegemony existed and remained for such an extensive period of history. How, I wonder, do we know that this is the definite case? Might other countries or cultures have held hegemonic power at this time as well? I am curious to know how Islamic practices fit into the historical transformation of capitalism and commerce? How much did their practices influence this transformation to modern practices?