Between 750 and 1350, merchants built a vast trading network across Muslim lands and beyond. Caravans crossed the Sahara into West Africa, where West Africans traded gold and enslaved persons for salt, bronze, cloth, books, and ceramics. In turn, North Africans traded gold to Europe in exchange for European goods such as beads and utensils, and provided the gold used in European buildings, art, and coins.

Muslim, Jewish, and Christian traders traveled the Silk Road toward China and were a vital link in the exchange of goods between East Asia and Europe. Monsoon winds carried Arab ships from East Africa to India and southeast Asia. Some traders made great fortunes.

Spreading Products and Ideas

Trade spread products, technologies, knowledge, and culture. Muslim merchants introduced an Indian number system to Europe, where they became known as Hindu-Arabic numerals, or Arabic numerals. Traders also carried sugar from India and papermaking from China, introducing Islam to many new regions. As more people converted to Islam and learned Arabic, the common language and religion helped the global exchange grow and thrive.

Extensive trade and a money economy led Muslims to pioneer new business practices. They created partnerships, bought and sold on credit, formed banks to change currency, and invented the ancestors of today's bank checks. In fact, the English word check comes from the Arabic word sakk. Bankers developed a sophisticated system of accounting. They opened branch banks in all major cities, so that a check written in Baghdad might be cashed in Cairo. These economic ideas eventually spread to Europe, where they influenced the rise of modern economic systems.

High Demand for Manufactured Goods

Muslim artisans produced a wealth of fine goods. Steel swords from Damascus, leather goods from Córdoba, cotton textiles from Egypt, and carpets from Persia were highly valued. Workshops also turned out fine glassware, furniture, and tapestries.

As in medieval Europe, handicraft manufacturing in Muslim cities was typically organized by guilds. The heads of the guilds, chosen by their members, often had the authority to regulate prices, weights and measures, methods of production, and the quality of the product. Most labor was done by wage workers.

Infographic titled Muslim trade by the numbers.
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Analyze Data

Trade across the desert brought great wealth to Muslim merchants. How do you think having a standard currency in the Abbasid caliph affected trade?


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Table of Contents

World History Topic 1 Origins of Civilization (Prehistory–300 B.C.) Topic 2 The Ancient Middle East and Egypt (3200 B.C.–500 B.C.) Topic 3 Ancient India and China (2600 B.C.–A.D. 550) Topic 4 The Americas (Prehistory–A.D. 1570) Topic 5 Ancient Greece (1750 B.C.–133 B.C.) Topic 6 Ancient Rome and the Origins of Christianity (509 B.C.-A.D. 476) Topic 7 Medieval Christian Europe (330–1450) Topic 8 The Muslim World and Africa (730 B.C.-A.D. 1500) Topic 9 Civilizations of Asia (500–1650) Topic 10 The Renaissance and Reformation (1300–1650) Topic 11 New Global Connections (1415–1796) Topic 12 Absolutism and Revolution Topic 13 The Industrial Revolution Topic 14 Nationalism and the Spread of Democracy (1790–1914) Topic 15 The Age of Imperialism (1800–1914) Topic 16 World War I and the Russian Revolution (1914–1924) Topic 17 The World Between the Wars (1910–1939) Topic 18 World War II (1930–1945) Topic 19 The Cold War Era (1945–1991) Topic 20 New Nations Emerge (1945–Present) Topic 21 The World Today (1980-Present) United States Constitution Primary Sources 21st Century Skills Atlas Glossary Index Acknowledgments