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September 8, 2009

What if Europeans hadn't 'discovered' Africa? (Part 4: Trade)

Dr. Mohamed Elmasry

Dr. Mohamed Elmasry"Your Lord is He who causes ships to move onward for you through the sea, so that you might go about in quest of some of His bounty." (Qur'an 17:66)

The Qur’an for over 1400 years teaches that seas and oceans are God-created to serve humanity.

“And He has provided for you, to ride, all those ships (on sea) and animals (on land).” (43:12)

“God has made the sea subservient to you, so that you may eat thereof (sea) meat that is fresh and tender, and you may extract therefrom gems which you may wear. And on that very sea you see ships therein plough the waves so you may seek some of His bounty and be grateful. He also placed firm mountains on earth, lest it sway with you, and rivers and path-ways, so that you may find your way. You can also use (God-created) stars and other sign-posts to guide your way.” (16:14-16)

For centuries, before and after Islam, the Arabs have been in love with the sea. They had to be, for most of their trade was carried via the Mediterranean Sea, the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean. From fishing, to extracting pearls, other gems and perfumes, the sea provided Arabs not only with a way of life, but also a way to see and meet other people, learn about other cultures, and discover other lands.

Even on land, the tradition of seafaring was evident. The Arabs called the camel, the main transportation vehicle across deserts, Safina al-Sahra, “the ship of the desert.”

For good reason, the camel, the horse and the boat were the Arab’s best friends.

The Arabs were excellent sailors as well as excellent horsemen. They navigated deserts and seas with the same love and skill, day and night. They developed modern instruments for navigation.

Arabs traders were catalysts for social integration around the Indian Ocean. When the Arab traders stopped in at coastal towns after a long sea journey, they built homes and mosques, and married among the locals. They built schools for their mixed-marriage children to teach them the Arabic language and Islam. Generations of Africans grow up with mixed blood: African, Arab, Indian, Mali and Chinese.

These mixed marriages were a key factor in the acceptance of Islamic religion and culture.

Professor Michael Pearson in his book The Indian Ocean devotes a chapter to Muslims in the Indian Ocean, and writes: “Islam’s success was to large extent a result of its tolerance of local traditions  ... Rather than the coastal populations converting to Islam, they accepted it. Islam reached the southern part of the Arabian peninsula, that is Yemen and Hadhramaut, very early, traveling to this region by land … [and] we know that Muslims had arrived on the Swahili [Arabic for coastal] by mid-eighth century [in East Sfrica],” said Pearson.

The Arabs were also great lovers of poetry and were excellent story tellers. Sindbad the Sailor was a story of a sailor-hero who visited faraway lands and went around the world in seven voyages.

The story was told to children enhancing their imagination and love for the sea. Sindbad’s imaginary voyages took him to places other sailors had been, and then many many more. He sailed past “island after island, from sea to sea and from land to land.” He traveled to Java and Sumatra (both in Indonesia), the islands of the Maldives, and the island of Ceylon (Sri Lanka).

Sindbad made part of his trips by air; with the help of a giant bird, the rukh from a great island (Madagascar).

The great African scholar, traveler, judge, diplomat and geographer Ibn Battuta literally traveled from one end of the world to the other. He traveled over 120,000 km in nearly 30 years.

He left Tangier (Morocco) in 1325 and started the longest self-financed journey ever made. He covered North, West and East Africa, Central Asia, Afghanistan, India, Arabia, Yemen, Iraq, Syria, Sumatra (Indonesia), Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and Muslim Spain.

He was even appointed ambassador to China by the Sultan of Delhi, and was well received in towns and cities as an international citizen.

“Ibn Battutta,” writes Pearson, “saw a vast array of vessels in Calicut in the early fourteenth century, from Java, Ceylon, the Maldives, Yemen and Fars (Iran). However, the greatest were thirteen Chinese vessels. His eyewitness account is of very large ships indeed. He wrote that they were called junks, and had up to twelve sails, and 1000 men on board, 600 of them sailors, and 400 archers and other soldiers... His ship had four decks... The sailors have their children living on board...”

Before Ibn Battuta, Ibn Khardlza (913), Al-Masoudy (956), Al-Stakhry (957), Ibn Houkal (977), Al-Maqdesy (985), Al-Bakry (1094), Al-Idresy (1153), Ibn Jubayr (1217) made and reported on similar but shorter journeys.

Following Ibn Battuta footsteps was Ibn Majid, an Arab sailor and captain born in what is today the UAE.

In 1490, Ibn Majid wrote a navigation encyclopedia The Book of Useful Information on the Principles and Rules of Navigation, describing the history, the ethics and the basic principles of navigation in addition to the locations of ports from East Africa to Indonesia.

Navigation in the Indian Ocean seems to have presented seafarers with fewer problems than the Atlantic did, says professor J. D. Fage in A History of Africa: “An important factor was the northern Indian Ocean’s system of monsoon winds, blowing steadily towards the African coast during the winter months, and away from it towards India and the Arabian peninsula during the summer.”

By 1412, Muslim traders, many with African blood, dominated the Mediterranean Sea, the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean. One way of measuring the size of the trade between Africa and Asia is the size of the cargo ships used before Europeans “discovered” Africa. Pearson says the size of these ships ranged from less than 50 tons up to perhaps 500: “A major variation was the ships built in Gujarat (India), which in the period before Europeans were the largest in this region, being up to 800 tons, and on average 300 to 600 tons.”

Because of these traders, great commercial, culture and learning centers flourished in Europe (Italy, Portugal and Spain), The Middle East (Damascus, Baghdad), Africa (Cairo, North, West and East Africa), and Asia (India, China, Tibet, The Philippine Islands and beyond.) Students from England and France came to Muslim Europe to learn geography, astronomy, mathematics, medicine and navigation.

People of Africa shared wealth and knowledge; both diffused without borders. There were no passports. There were free movements of labor and goods. The annual hajj provided a truly international conference for equals.

“To be a Muslim in East Africa, southern India, or Malaysia in the fourteenth century was to have a cosmopolitan frame of mind,” says Pearson.

Dr. Mohamed Elmasry, an Egyptian-born African-Canadian, is Professor Emeritus of Computer Engineering, University of Waterloo. He can be reached at

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