Muslim Sea Trade

The Indian Ocean was also partly under the control of the Arabs. Unlike the Mediterranean, it was not a sea of war, but a sea of trade. The Chinese and the Arabs were trading actively during this time. It is unknown exactly when Muslims first went all the way to China, but over time, they began to claim land along the trade routes there, and eventually established Muslim settlements within China.

The first ‘Abbasid caliph (of the Sunni dynasty) moved the capital from Damascus to Baghdad. According to the geographer al-Ya'qubi, the site of Baghdad had many economic advantages: “It is an island between the Tigris and Euphrates…and a waterfront for the world. Everything that comes on the Tigris from Wasit, al-Basrah, al-Ahwaz, Faris, Uman, al-Yamanah, al-Bahrayn and the neighboring places, can go up to it and anchor at it. In the same way whatever is carried on boats on the Tigris from Mosul, Diyar Rabi'ah, Azerbaijan and Armenia, and whatever is carried on boats on the Euphrates from Diyar Mudar, al-Raqqah, Syria, the Frontier, Egypt and North Africa, can come to the terminus and unload here. It can also be a meeting-place for the people of the Mountain and Isfahan and Kur and Khurasan.”

The Islamic rulers encouraged blending of the Arabs and Persians into a single linguistic culture, speaking Arabic. In Arabic trade records, there are more instances of the terminology “Muslims” and “Arabs” than “Persians.” There had been Arabians from the actual Arabian Peninsula sailing from the Persian Gulf ports for centuries, but the number of “Arabs” increased due to the conversion of Iranians to Islam and their use of the Arabic language for religion, literature, official business and commerce.

By the middle of the ninth century Arabs were sailing regularly to China. There are two accounts of the trade route, one by ibn-Khurdadhbih and one by the author of the Akhbar al-Sin w-al-Hind. From this period, the Arabs themselves wrote much more about their own travels. There are many more resources from which to learn about their explorations and dealings. Some Arab scholars were actively studying geography, while others were writing stories of their own travels and the travels of others. These sources, when put together, give a more complete vision of Arabs at sea. Ibn-Khurdadhbih described the voyage from the Persian Gulf to China in his book of routes written around 850 CE. In 851 CE, an anonymous writer collected and published reports of merchants on the sea route from Siraf to Canton under the title Akhbar al-Sin w-al-Hind. Al-Mas'udi, who had sailed to India and East Africa, wrote Muruj al-Dhahab wa Ma'adin al-Jawhar, some of which is based on surviving and vanished earlier authorities, and some on his personal experience. Al-Maqdisi, who wrote in 985-986, relates his experiences in sailing around the Arabian coasts. Another important source is Kitab 'Aja'ib al-Hind, written in the middle of the tenth century. The author, Buzurg ibn-Shahriyar of Ramhurmuz, was himself a sea captain, and collected stories of the sea from other sea captains and merchants. Although these stories tend to be tall tales, they include many details about everyday seafaring life. Some of these stories are included below. Al-Marwazi, in a compilation he wrote around 1120 CE, preserves some interesting details concerning earlier periods.