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Richard N. Tutwiler
The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World What is This? Provides comprehensive scholarly coverage of the full geographical and historical extent of Islam


There are thirty-four countries with both significant agricultural sectors and majority Muslim populations. They form a broad band running from west to east across the tropics and northern subtropics of Africa and Asia, spanning a diversity of natural environments from the verdant rain forests of West Africa and the East Indies to the barren deserts of the Sahara, Rubʿal-Khali, and Kara-Kum. Elevations and temperatures range from the glacial peaks of the Hindu Kush mountains to the torrid depression of the Jordan River Valley. The Islamic countries may be divided into four broad agroecological regions, each defined principally by climatic conditions, characteristic systems, and historical development. The Tropical Asia region is a noncontiguous area that comprises Bangladesh, Malaysia, and Indonesia. The Central Asia region includes the former Soviet republics of Kazakhstan, Kyrghyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. The West Asia and North Africa region includes Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Iran, Pakistan, Turkey, and the Arab countries. The sub-Saharan region is the belt of countries between Senegal and Guinea in the west to Somalia in the east, excluding Ethiopia.

Statistics. In total, the Islamic countries account for some 21 percent of the world's land surface, 15 percent of its cropped area, and 25 percent of its irrigated area. They are equal to 49 percent of the combined Afro-Asian land mass, 34 percent of its cropped area, and 37 percent of its irrigated area. The estimated 1991 agricultural population of the Islamic countries was 412 million people, about 47 percent of their combined population of close to 900 million. The agricultural proportion of the Islamic population compares with the respective world and Afro-Asian agricultural population ratios of 45 percent of and 60 percent. Countries in Asia and Africa, with substantial Muslim minorities, India and Nigeria among them, could reasonably add 100 to 120 million Muslim farmers to those in Islamic states.

Islamic agriculture is an important contributor to world food production, encompassing some 22 percent of world wheat area, 18 percent of world rice area, and 12 percent of world maize and other coarse grains area. Islamic countries contained some 490 million sheep and goats in 1990, or about 46 percent of the total small ruminant population in Africa and Asia. Despite the preponderance of agricultural resources in the Islamic world being devoted to food production, there remain substantial food deficits that must be overcome by massive importation. Of all the Islamic countries, only Indonesia and Turkey have a consistent record as net food exporters. The average annual trade deficit in food for the Islamic world, excluding the former Soviet republics, during 1987–1991 was almost $15 billion, with the value of food imports being 2.5 times that of exports. This situation shows no sign of improvement in the near future, given the severely limited agricultural resource base and the high rates of population increase.

History. At the dawn of the nineteenth century, the Islamic lands were agrarian societies, dominated by the particularism of village life and the seasonality of agricultural rhythms. Perhaps 90 percent or more of the total population were engaged in producing their own food. The annual cereal harvest was the key to survival. Rice was the predominant food grain in tropical Asian areas, where it was often combined with labor-intensive irrigation techniques to produce high yields per unit area. In Central and West Asia and in North Africa, wheat occupied the greater part of the arable land, while barley was used in marginal areas with less rainfall. Yields were low, and a high proportion of the land was left fallow each year to store moisture. In the semiarid tropics south of the Sahara and in southern Arabia, sorghum and millet were the staples. Outside the humid tropics, animal husbandry, either in combination with extensive cereal cultivation or as nomadic pastoralism, was a method of utilizing crop residues and native grasslands for human food production.

Most production was consumed locally, but wherever political authority had enforcement power, significant amounts of grain and animals were collected and sent to administrative centers and towns as payment of taxes and rent. The great empires of the Ottomans, Ṣafavids, and Mughals were based on this form of expropriation. Medium- and long-distance trading in agriculturally based commodities had existed side-by-side with subsistence production and surplus extraction for centuries, and Muslim traders from Mughal India were largely responsible for the spread of Islam into Southeast Asia, while North African merchants introduced their religion into the West African Sudan.

The most important trade crops were fibers: silk, cotton, and flax. A wide variety of tree crops, including olives, dates, fruits, and nuts, also produced marketable commodities, although in fairly small quantities. In tropical Asia, coffee, black pepper, cloves, nutmeg, mace, and cinnamon became important items in transcontinental trading from the sixteenth century onward, largely as a result of the arrival of Europeans in the Indian Ocean. European traders were largely responsible for introducing New World crops such as maize, tobacco, and a range of vegetables that spread rapidly in the Islamic world.

Tropical Asia. European involvement in Islamic agriculture moved from the indirect influences of merchants to the direct interventions of government and landlord. The movement began in Tropical Asia, where the English and Dutch established monopolistic trading companies that evolved into military and political traditional agricultural sectors, either as in-kind taxes or as forced deliveries of produce; but as European economies expanded during the Industrial Revolution and market demand both grew and deepened in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the old trading companies gave way to direct colonial administration by European governments, and European capital directly intervened to encourage the production of crops exclusively for export. This entailed new forms of production, particularly capital-intensive large plantations specializing in a single crop and using hired or coerced labor. Jute and tea plantations, for example, were established in what later became Bangladesh, while the Dutch moved from the less direct arrangement of the “culture system,” in which each village was made to set aside one-fifth of its land to produce designated export crops for the colonial administration, to the “liberal policy” that allowed Europeans the right of long-term leasehold over village lands, allowing them therefore to organize vast estates producing single crops for export where formerly village communities had pursued food production. In Malaya, rubber plantations using imported labor from China and the Indian subcontinent were established by British investors soon after British political control was extended over the native states. Large plantations producing export crops juxtaposed with communities of small farmers eking out a subsistence from rice and other tropical crops continues to characterize the agricultural landscape of Indonesia, Malaysia, and, to a lesser extent, Bangladesh.

The years since 1960 have witnessed both expansion and intensification of the agricultural sectors in the Tropical Asian countries, particularly in Bangladesh and Indonesia, where huge increases in population have created enormous economic and nutritional pressures. The specter of mass hunger caused by insufficient land resources has been dispelled by the so-called Green Revolution brought about by new, higher-yielding rice technologies. Rice yields indeed increased in Bangladesh by 47 percent per hectare between 1961–1965 and 1987–1991, and in the same period by 133 percent in Indonesia. In both countries the area of rice cultivation was increased substantially; irrigated area doubled in Indonesia and jumped fivefold in Bangladesh, a country so densely populated that it has almost reached the limits of areal agricultural expansion. The two East Asian countries, however, continue to clear natural forests at an alarming rate, and almost 6 million hectares have been added to their arable land in the past three decades. Deforestation is encouraged by the profitability of timber exports and developing oil palm plantations.

Central Asia. Russian penetration of Central Asia began in the eighteenth century with military incursions into the Kazakh khanates. By 1876 the tsar had absorbed the Khanate of Khoqand, and by 1900 the Uzbeks and Turkmens were under imperial protection. Military conquest was followed by agricultural colonization. Vast areas of grazing land were expropriated from the Kazakh pastoralists for the purpose of settling peasants from European Russian and the Ukraine. By the end of the nineteenth century close to one million settlers had come from the West, and the economies of Central Asia were being gradually realigned to meet the Russian need for raw materials and new markets. Agricultural settlement was followed by industrialization under the Soviet regime, and during the same period there was the almost complete abandonment of nomadism and individual farming. Both were replaced by forced state collectivization of animal and crop production. During the 1950s the Soviet government embarked on grandiose irrigation schemes and the mechanization of production. Wheat continues to be the principal food crop, covering some 35 percent of the cropped area, but this is mainly grown under rainfed conditions in Kazakhstan. Barley, used to feed the important livestock sector, covers another 17 percent. Cotton is by far the most valuable crop, and occupies 3 million hectares of irrigated land, primarily using the waters of the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers. In fact, the emphasis on cotton has, since the 1970s, contributed to a growing ecological disaster as precious water resources are being overburdened. In part, this explains why only 65 percent of the irrigation-equipped area was sown in the early 1990s, and why the once vast reservoir of the Aral Sea is rapidly drying up.

West Asia and North Africa. The agrarian history of West Asia and North Africa since 1800 has been characterized by three dominant themes: commercialization of production, capital investment, and state intervention. The first half of the nineteenth century witnessed European economic penetration of the old Ottoman and Persian Empires that at least nominally ruled over most of the region, and eventually foreign commercial interest came to control the majority of the trade with the outside world. New industrial crops, notably cotton, were introduced for domestic industry and export in the early nineteenth century. In some areas, most notably Egypt under Muḥammad ʿAlī Pasha, local dynasts sought to stave off foreign control by organizing monopolistic state production, processing, and export enterprises. In Egypt, this included substantial state investment in improving the irrigation system by converting the traditional seasonal basin flooding to perennial canal irrigation. This technical advance was replicated over the next century and a half in the major river valleys in Sudan, Syria, Iraq, Turkey, and Morocco. Similarly, there has been a phenomenal growth in tube well irrigation throughout the region since the 1950s as a result of advances in deep-well drilling technology. The tendency for state-sponsored commercialization coupled with irrigation investments continued both under the colonial regimes established by the European powers and in the successor states to the Ottomans and Qājārs, and it is still a principal feature of the postcolonial states.

Since World War II and the demise of the colonial regimes, state intervention in agriculture has gained the added dimensions of land reform and central planning. Partly as a means of creating incentives for cultivators to increase production, and partly as a means of reducing the power of large landlords while gaining the loyalty of the rural masses, reforming governments enacted measures that set limits on the amount of land that could be owned by an individual or family and usually also set a minimum farm size. Land in excess of the specified limits was subject to expropriation and, at least in theory, redistribution to landless farmers. The first major land reform took place in Egypt in the 1950s, but similar legislation was later promulgated in Syria, Iraq, Iran, and Pakistan. In former French North Africa, the large estates that were created by colonists were either created as state farms or as cooperatives (especially in Algeria, but to a limited extent in the other two countries). On the whole, the land reform movement in West Asia and North Africa has been praised for helping to alleviate, if not eliminate, past inequalities.

West Asian and North African governments have generally followed policies to encourage self-sufficiency in staple foods, particularly cereals and animal products, while at the same time guaranteeing inexpensive food supplies for urban consumers. In essence, this has meant massive subsidies for both food production and food consumption. To help offset these costs, governments have sought to profit from the production of traditional export crops (such as cotton in West Asia and the Nile Valley) through regulations, quota systems, and national marketing organizations. Despite the achievement of impressive yield gains in cereals and other food crops, most countries with limited arable land and water resources have not been able to keep pace with their burgeoning populations. Consequently, it is characteristic for the region that most national agricultural sectors are usually in deficit.

Since the 1960s, agriculture in West Asia and North Africa has become increasingly dependent on irrigation. About 10.5 million hectares were added between 1965 and 1991, making irrigated area about one-third of the cultivated area. All countries showed at least modest gains, but Pakistan, with the largest irrigated area by far, increased by a further 50 percent as massive projects in the Indus Valley were completed. Iraq, Iran, and Turkey each added about a million hectares. Tapping underground water, Saudi Arabia extended its irrigated area by a half-million hectares. Throughout the region there were innumerable individual investments in tube wells, especially for irrigated production of high-value fruit and vegetable crops. By the end of the 1980s, these crops had surpassed cotton and other traditional export crops both in volume and in value. But at the same time the region began to reach the limits of expansion. There were growing limitations on water availability, competition for nonagricultural uses, and negative environmental impacts, most notably salinization of soils and groundwater.

Sub-Saharan Africa. In Islamic Africa south of the Sahara, agriculture changed little until the establishment of European colonial regimes in the last decades of the nineteenth century. In the late 1850s, the French began to extend their control up the Senegal River and to foster local African production of peanuts (groundnuts) to help meet the growing European demand for vegetable oils. This emphasis continued for a century in the more humid areas of Senegal, Gambia, and Guinea. In the first half of the twentieth century, the French encouraged cotton production in Chad and Mali, but its expansion was hindered by the need to invest in irrigation facilities and by the long distances involved in moving the harvest from the interior of the countries to the coast for export. Since independence, economic dependence on single export crops has continued, although there has been some progress toward diversification, including the introduction of other pulses, vegetables, oil palm, and cashews. In Somalia, colonial rule by Italy in the south and Britain in the north had little direct impact on agriculture. Nomadic pastoralism continued to be the way of life for the overwhelming majority of people. There has been a limited development of irrigation infrastructure in Somalia's two river valleys, and until the disruptions of the civil war in the early 1990s, bananas had become the second-largest export earner after live animals. Settled agriculture, particularly that dependent upon irrigation, is only slowly recovering from the civil war. Echoing precolonial patterns of the last century, the export of live animals is the largest agricultural money-earner in both Niger and Somalia, forming 80 percent of export value for both countries in 1991.

The sub-Saharan region continues to be plagued by the poverty of the people and the lack of public or private investment in the infrastructure necessary for agricultural development. In contrast to West Asia and to North Africa, a region that shares similar limitations on arable land and water resources, irrigated agriculture has only a minor role in most Islamic states south of the Sahara, despite the presence of a number of major rivers flowing in and through the semiarid and humid zones.

The overwhelming importance of agriculture to the livelihood of the people is indicated by the fact that the agriculturally active population is actually larger than the rural population, with many people living in the comparatively small urban centers and commuting to work on farms. The small percentage of arable land, however, when combined with the high dependence on agriculture, results in there being only about one-half hectare of productive land available per capita of the agricultural population. In contrast to the Tropical Asian countries, where small farm size is compensated by high productivity per unit area, and to the Central Asian, West Asian, and North African regions, where there are many nonagricultural employment opportunities and governments are rich enough to subsidize much of the agricultural sector, the sub-Saharan countries have few internal resources that can be invested in improving conditions for the agricultural population. As a group, these countries are the poorest in the Islamic world, with a regional gross national product per capita for 1990 of just $332.

Current Issues. Now, in the twenty-first century, the Islamic world faces perhaps insurmountable threats to its nonrenewable natural resource base. In Tropical Asia, the rain forests that have served as natural preserves for biodiversity and recycling are disappearing at an accelerating rate. The vast expanses that sustained nomadic pastoralists for millennia are all but gone too, replaced by plowed land subject to intense erosion by wind and water. Desertification is a widespread phenomenon. Expanded irrigation facilities have been followed by depleted water reserves and salinization of both soil and aquifers. In the African savannahs south of the Sahara, overexploitation of a fragile environment aggravated by drought appears to have reduced long-term agricultural potential. There are bright spots, however. Since the 1970s there have been spectacular improvements in productivity that have not been gained at the expense of the environment, but rather through improved management of existing resources and utilization of improved technology. Future farmers and governments can build on these achievements to improve productivity while conserving the resources on which sustainable improvements depend.


  • There are no works specifically covering agriculture in all the Islamic countries. Essential quantitative information for individual countries is available in international databases prepared and maintained by the United Nations and other organizations. Some of the most useful and easily accessed are listed below.
  • Beaumont, P., and Keith McLachlan, eds. Agricultural Development in the Middle East. New York, 1985. Contains useful review articles and case studies of several countries seldom covered elsewhere.
  • Beaumont, P.“The Quest for Water Efficiency—Restructuring of Water Use in the Middle East.” In Water, Air, and Soil Pollutionpp. 551–564. Netherlands, 2000.
  • Englemann, Kurt. Rural Development in Eurasia and the Middle East: Land Reform, Demographic Change, and Environmental Constraints. Seattle, 2001.
  • Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). Agrostat-PC Database and Software. Essential starting place for any quantified evaluation of agriculture in the Islamic world. The annually issued FAO Production Yearbook and Food Balance Sheets are also useful.
  • Franke, R. W., and B. H. Chasin. Seeds of Famine: Ecological Destruction and the Development Dilemma in the West African Sahel. Montclair, N.J., 1980. Environmental approach to the region's agricultural problems.
  • Geertz, Clifford. Agricultural Involution: The Processes of Ecological Change in Indonesia. Berkeley, 1963. Classic study applying ecological and sociological principles to the interpretation of agricultural systems in the humid tropics.
  • Hoekman, Bernard M., and Jamal Zarrouk. Catching Up with the Competition: Trade Opportunities and Challenges for Arab Countries. Michigan, 2000.
  • Idrisi, Zohori. The Muslim Agricultural Revolution and its Influence on Europe. Manchester: Foundation for Science Technology and Civilisation, 2005.
  • Idriss, Jazairy, et al. The State of World Rural Poverty: An Inquiry into Its Causes and Consequences. New York, 1994. Benchmark study sponsored by the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) that concentrates on social and economic factors contributing to rural poverty and their causes.
  • Issawi, Charles. An Economic History of the Middle East and North Africa. New York, 1984. The chapter on agricultural expansion and intensification in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries is the best synopsis of the subject available for the region.
  • Lewis, Norman N.Nomads and Settlers in Syria and Jordan, 1800–1980. Cambridge, 1987. Fascinating historical account of the advance of cultivation and settlement in the great Syrian steppe.
  • Mears, L. A.The New Rice Economy of Indonesia. Yogyakarta, Indonesia, 1981. Examines the implications of the Green Revolution in Indonesia, providing useful contemporary counterpoint to the thesis elaborated by Geertz.
  • Richards, Alan, and John Waterbury. A Political Economy of the Middle East: State, Class, and Economic Development. Boulder, 2007. Contains an important chapter on agriculture summarizing the impact of land reform movements in various countries of the region.
  • Swearingen, Will D.Moroccan Mirages: Agrarian Dreams and Deceptions, 1912–1986. London, 1987. Excellent case study of Morocco's fitful agricultural progress and its roots in the colonial era.
  • Tully, Dennis, ed. Labor and Rainfed Agriculture in West Africa and North Africa. Dordrecht, 1990.
  • Labor, Employment, and Agricultural Development in West Asia and North Africa. Dordrecht, 1990. The best collections available, including regional and national overviews and local case studies, covering the complex relationships among labor, mechanization, and agricultural intensification in the region.
  • Wennergren, E. Boyd, et al. Agricultural Development in Bangladesh: Prospects for the Future. Boulder, 1984. Useful review for this important country.
  • World Bank. World Development Report 2007. New York, 2008. See as well reports from previous years and the periodically issued World Table of Social and Economic Indicators. These studies place agricultural sectors in their national and global development contexts.
  • World Resources Institute. World Resources 2007. Washington, D.C., 2008. Similar in format to the World Bank economic reports, this valuable annual includes major sections on agricultural populations and natural resources used in agricultural production, highlighting conservation and sustainability issues.
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