An Islamic Industrial Revolution?

The Silk Merchants by Edwin Weeks

An Islamic Industrial Revolution?               

Bill Hartley explores the putative contribution of Islamic civilisation to the development of industrialism

Recently I came across a critique of a book The Cultures of the West; A History by Clifford Backman. According to the writer, Backman proposes the idea of a ‘Greater West’ that involves the Islamic world as co-participants in most significant developments of the modern era including the Industrial Revolution. Having travelled extensively in the Middle East I am willing to admit that the people of the region have shown themselves very skilled at managing scarce resources, notably water but an Industrial Revolution?

Actually Professor Backman isn’t alone. There are a number of Islamic scholars travelling in the same direction, for example Salim Al Hassani in his essay ‘Filling the Gap in the History of Pre-modern Industry: 1000 Years of Missing Islamic Industry‘ which also suggests that the Islamic world was at it too. Well I’ll leave Professor Backman’s views on most things to others but I suggest that it would have been difficult at the time for an Industrial Revolution to take place in say France (no offence) never mind the Islamic world.

In the interests of fairness I recently put the idea to a group gathered at Neville Hall in Newcastle, home of the North of England Institute of Mining Engineers. Standing beneath the portrait of a past Fellow one G. Stephenson Esq. we were a multi-ethnic collection from a range of disciplines: engineers, an academic historian and a mathematician, all with a shared knowledge of industrial history. The response I received was one of mild incredulity with people pointing out to me that never mind the Islamic world or even Europe – the Industrial Revolution was a British phenomenon.

Professor Backman et al in their eagerness to include the Islamic world are missing the point. An Industrial Revolution could only come about if the right conditions were there on two levels. Without these then extending credit to a distant culture is a non starter.

The first requirement for an Industrial Revolution is coal and the incentive to use it. Britain is an island and the primary fuel source timber also happens to be an important building material. This meant tree cover was rapidly denuded, to the extent that there was less of it in the sixteenth century than there is today. As a consequence there was an earlier recourse to coal in Britain than in European countries with access to greater timber reserves.

Mr Al Hassani cites developments in the use of wind and water power in the Middle East. He’s correct of course but just as the windmills of the Netherlands were an excellent way of grinding corn or draining the polders, these were pre industrial techniques with an obvious drawback, best explained by quoting the historian AE Musson who noted that the use of steam power freed us from the ‘tyranny of wind and water’ both of which were unreliable and inconsistent sources of energy.

Obviously anyone mining coal will first go for the shallow deposits. Once these have been worked out then it’s necessary to dig deeper. This creates technical problems often associated with drainage. Solving these helped accelerate the Industrial Revolution via the introduction of the steam engine which was first used in mines. Even then it took a further seventy years for the final strand to fall into place; Abraham Darby learning how to make coke from coal, removing the impurities so it could be used in iron making. This freed the smelting of iron from being a charcoal based woodland craft and took it into the era of industrial mass production, which is why Darby’s forge at Coalbrookdale is a World Heritage site.

The second level was human; the ability and willingness of people to invent and innovate. Writers attempting to share the credit and portray it as some sort of multi-cultural exercise, might usefully compare conditions in this cool damp island off the coast of Europe with the Islamic world. Of course it would be unfair to dismiss achievements in the Middle East because they lacked the essential raw material for an industrial revolution. Leaving aside Professor Backman’s ignorance of the history of technology, what he and his fellow revisionists also choose to ignore in their books and pamphlets surprisingly enough, are the cultural factors which brought about the Industrial Revolution in Britain. It certainly wasn’t superior education, for example George Stephenson and his fellow locomotive builder Timothy Hackworth received nothing more than what we would today call a primary school education and even that was incomplete.

In Britain what men like James Watt, George Stephenson, Richard Trevithick and others had was the freedom and the incentive to innovate. They operated in a land which had not been devastated by the wars of the eighteenth century and where a patent system existed to reward inventors for the fruits of their labour. Such people operated in the right intellectual framework which welcomed the development of scientific knowledge and shared ideas through a network of philosophical societies. Underpinning this was the Protestant work ethic.

In contrast the values of the European enlightenment were anathema to the Islamic world because they challenged the authority of religion.

There is an irony when talking up Islamic involvement in the Industrial Revolution. Repressive regimes and religion still suffocate human creativity in parts of the Islamic world and the only way some of these countries exploit a fossil fuel today is on the back of technologies developed during the Industrial Revolution. Whilst earning revenue from this source they refuse to allow their human capital the freedom that was available to those pioneers of the Industrial Revolution in Britain.

William Hartley is a freelance writer from Yorkshire

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