The tribe of Quraysh was in control of the sacred precincts called haram shareef in Makkah in the sixth century. On the basis of this supremacy, it drew a number of agreements with other tribes in northern and southern regions opening the highways of Arabia to commerce. As a result, caravans moved freely from the coast of Southern Yemen to Mecca and from there northward to Byzantium or eastward to Iraq.
A similar kind of agreement led to trade related exchanges with Axum (present Ethiopia) and the African coast thus unlocking the doors of the Arabian coastal sea route. Furthermore, members of the Quraysh concluded pacts with Byzantium, Persia, and rulers of Yemen and Ethiopia, promoting commerce outside Arabia. During this period, Makkah was undergoing an economic and social transformation that distinguished it from other towns in Arabia. The people belonging to the tribe of Quraysh were involved in a lucrative trade in spices and other commodities with a well spread out network of commercial contacts. Meccan commerce was flourishing as never before with merchants acting as financiers controlling money and men to realize their commercial objectives.
Islam was promulgated by Prophet Muhammad in Arabia, a commercial hub, in the seventh century and went on to become a major world religion. Despite the notion of a unified and consolidated community, as taught by the Prophet, serious differences arose within the Muslim community immediately after Prophet Muhammad’s death. Since the Prophet had designated no successor, a disagreement ensued over the issue of succession. This led to a schism and Islam got polarized into two sections–the Shias and the Sunnis.
Under the banner of spreading faith, Muslim armies, traders, religious men travelled far and wide in different directions. Islam was destined for a world role. While retaining its emphasis on an uncompromising monotheism and a strict adherence to certain essential religious practices, the religion taught by Prophet Muhammad to a small group of followers thus spread rapidly through the Middle East to Africa, Europe, the Indian sub-continent, the Malay Peninsula, and China. The surge of the Arab tribes, temporarily united around the nucleus of Makkah and Madina, coincided with the weakness of the Byzantine Empire and Sasanianb Persia. As a result, the Arab tribes embarked upon a series of conquests to spread the new faith as well as gain booty and lands. With families and flocks, they left the Arabian Peninsula. Population movements of such magnitude affected the whole of Arabia. As the conquests far beyond Arabia poured booty into the holy cities of Makkah and Madina, the cities became wealthy centres of Arabian culture.
In the early medieval period, when Europe was thinly populated, rural and backward, the integrated Islamic civilization in the Middle East became the mainstay of economy and trade. This economic supremacy sustained till the eleventh century and led to the establishment of other local regional rulers and minor dynasties who were to play significant roles in the coming centuries. Many Arab and Turko-Persian empires emerged: such as Tahirids, Safavids, Samanids, Buwayids, Fatimids, Seljuks, Mongols, Mamluks, Ottomans, Ghaznavids and Timurids. Although all of them formally acknowledged the suzerainty of the caliph, they remained independent in internal matters of their respective kingdoms. They developed their own political institutions and provided stable governments to guarantee peace and promote trade and crafts. From the eleventh century onwards, the dynamic centres of world economic development shifted to Europe, China and India. This period also saw Islam making inroads into India and in course of time, socio-political and economic shifts within India were also affected.
As a result of the mercantile nature and spirit of enterprise of the Arab tribes, the earliest contacts between the Arab world and peninsular India were in the form of trading operations. Vigorous overseas trade probably had its greatest economic impact on the Deccan and South India, but the interchange of ideas appears to have been more substantial in the north. From time immemorial, trade with the Yavanas and with the northern parts of the Indian sub-continent had provided considerable economic momentum to the Deccan. Given the terrain of the peninsula and the agricultural technology of the time, large agrarian-based kingdoms like those of northern India could not possibly be formed, although the cultivation of rice led to some sort of economic exchanges. In such a situation, inevitably, trade played more than a marginal role, and overseas trade became a major economic activity.
Even in earlier times, there are references in ancient history that mention trade between West Asia and the western coast of India. Hebrew texts have referred to the port of Ophir, sometimes identified with Sopara, on the west coast. Babylonian builders used Indian teak and cedar in the seventh and sixth centuries BCE. The Buddhist Jataka literature mentions trade with Babylon. After the decline of Babylon, Arab merchants from southern Arabia apparently continued the trade, probably supplying goods to Egypt and the eastern Mediterranean. The discovery of the regular seasonal monsoon winds, enabling ships to drive a straight course across the Arabian Sea, made a considerable difference to shipping and navigation on the route from West Asia to India. Unification of the Mediterranean and the West Asian world under the Roman Empire brought Roman trade into close contact with India–over land with northern India and by sea with peninsular India. Emperor Augustus is said to have received two embassies–almost certainly trade missions–from India in 25-21 BCE. The Periplus Maris Erythraei, a travel book written in the first century by an anonymous Greek writer, lists a series of ports along the Indian coast, which includes Muziris (Cranganore), Colchi (Korkai), Poduca, and Sopatma. An excavation at Arikamedu (near Pondicherry) has revealed a Roman trading settlement of this period, and elsewhere, too, the presence of Roman pottery, beads, lamps, glass, and coins point to the magnitude of trading activity. It appears that textiles were prepared to Roman specification and exported from such settlements. Graffiti on pottery found at a port in the Red Sea indicates the presence of Indian trade. Large hoards of Roman coins substantiate the links further.
Around the first century, Roman trade began to decline and Southeast Asian trade commenced; in subsequent centuries this became the focus of maritime interest. The maritime trade routes from the Indian ports went primarily towards the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea, from where they proceeded overland to the eastern Mediterranean and to Egypt, but Indian merchants also ventured out to Southeast Asia seeking spices and semi-precious stones. In course of these trading operations, Arab merchants and traders visited peninsular India on a continuous basis. However, these long ties of trade between the Deccan and South India and West Asia, strangely, did not result in Islam being established as a religion in this part of the Indian sub-continent. This was to happen much later.
It was only in the eleventh and twelfth centuries there occurred an interrelated set of significant changes on a global scale. With the rise of Europe, the expansion of Islam into North India and the opening out of China, the economic supremacy of the Middle Eastern caliphate gradually reduced. The focus of commercial operations now shifted to India. The concept of closed trading Diaspora was abandoned for a more open and historical one. Muslims participating in trade with India were either Arabs or Persians. In Malabar coastal South India and Sri Lanka, the fate of the Arab-Muslim communities was very different from that of those in Sind, Gujarat and the Konkan. Since they were never exposed to northern conquest they could retain their Arab imprint through the ages. Religiously, this was most clearly expressed in their adherence to the Shafii mazhab of Islamic law, as opposed to the Hanafi mazhab, which was upheld by the Turkish-Persian states of northern India and the Deccan. This Shafiite legal orientation points to an Arab origin and to continuing contacts with Baghdad and the towns of the Persian Gulf, as well as with Arabia, Yemen and Hadhramawt.
The Indian Ocean trade routes, which linked the Persian Gulf with peninsular India, had encouraged migration of people and ideas between the two areas. Along with Muslim traders and merchants, there was an influx of small groups of Persian notables, administrators, military men, and literati into the Deccan, during the Mongol invasions of Persia in the thirteenth century, and thereafter. Later in the sixteenth-century lucrative diamond trade attracted many Persian merchants to the Deccan which was another factor that led to continuing commercial relations with West Asia.
Salma Ahmed Farooqui is Professor at H.K.Sherwani Centre for Deccan Studies, Maulana Azad National Urdu University, Hyderabad. She is also India Office In-charge of Association for the Study of Persianate Societies (ASPS).