Book Name: Meccan Trade and the Rise of Islam
Author: Patricia Crone
In her book Meccan Trade And the Rise of Islam, Patricia
Crone challenges the prevalent western view, supported mainly by Henri Lammens
and Montgomery Watt, of pre-Islamic Mecca being a rich, sophisticated trading
center dealing in many high luxury products with great markets and rich
merchants, with caravans going to and coming from all corners of the Arabian
Peninsula and the rise of Islam being attributed to the genius of the Prophet (sws)
in successfully addressing the issues of the Makkan proletariat.
The book is divided into three sections. In the first
section of the book Crone discusses the classical spice trade from the time of
King Solomon right up to the pre-Islamic periods. She establishes the existence
of sea routes and the absence of Makkan traders in the major trade routes of
In the second section, Crone scrutinizes all aspects of
Makkan trade. She examines the products traditionally associated with Makkan
traders, their active area of export and finally the role of Makkah as a
sanctuary. In this section, Crone systematically strips Makkah of all the status
granted to it by the traditional sources. Her conclusions reduce the Makkans to
local traders trading in low quality products including items such as leather
goods instead of high quality end products such as silk. She also examines the
role of the Makkan Sanctuary in trade and concludes initially that the Makkan
sanctuary had no role in trade and finally the absence of any sanctuary in
In the third section, Crone critically examines the
traditional sources of Islamic knowledge i.e. Hadīth literature and the Qur’ān
at length and reveals the plethora of spurious information generated by both
these sources. She concludes by stating the importance of secondary literature
in understanding the conditions that prevailed in the pre-Islamic periods. She
then offers an alternative theory about the rise of Islam one which involves
rejection of Byzantine and Persian penetration in the peninsula.
Chapter 1 (Introduction)
In this chapter, Crone dispels some of the commonly held
assumptions about Makkan Trade including their supposed trade in spices and
other quality products. She does this by first eradicating the belief that
Makkah was in the middle of all the major trading routes of that time:
Only by the most tortured map reading can it [Makkah] be
described as a natural crossroad between a north-south route and an east-west
She also establishes Makkah as being “off the beaten track”
when it came to the route of the trade caravans and Ta’if being a more
appropriate choice for the caravans.
Makkah’s role in the transit trade between India and the
Greco-roman world is also disputed on the basis of it being a sea route from its
Chapter 2 (The Classical Spice Trade)
This chapter is divided into two sections. In the first
section, Crone describes the trade of spices such as frankincense from the
peninsula and how the land route eventually became obsolete. By the time the
Makkans come into context, there is nothing for them to take over in terms of
either a land route or a market for the spices.
In the second part, she discusses the role of the land
routes in the transit trade between India and the West. She claims the absence
of any overland trade routes which were used in the transit trade. Crone
believes the reason why the land route is said to have been used for
transportation of transit goods is to create an explanation for the commercial
success for Makkah. This chapter raises the important question about the rise of
Makkah as a financial power and its establishment as the center of a vast and
sophisticated trade network.
Chapter 3 (Makkan Spice Trade)
In this chapter, Crone refutes Lammens claim of the Makkans
trading in frankincense. Throughout the chapter she discusses, at length, the
various spices and the luxury goods the Makkans are traditionally accepted to
have traded in. These include: Myrrh, Ladanum, Cancamum, etc. among the spices
and silk and perfumes among the luxury goods. She establishes how all of them
came to be exported for sources generally outside Arabia and particularly
outside Makkah which leaves nothing but low end consumer goods for the Quraysh
to have traded in.
Chapter 4 (What did the Makkans Export?)
In this chapter, Crone defines the commodities that the
Makkans traded in. The methodology adopted by Crone in this section of the book
is “minimal source critism” i.e. accepting tradition at face value and analyzing
it for discrepancies.
In this chapter, Makkan links to silver, gold, perfume,
leather, clothing, animals, misc. foodstuffs, raisins, wine, slaves and other
items are discussed.
Of all the goods mentioned above, Crone only accepts the
Makkans to have traded inperfume, leather, clothing and perhaps animals
including camels and donkeys and some other food stuff. However, she maintains
that the Makkans did not have a monopoly over any of these goods. She also
claims that these goods were of cheap quality.
Another thing apparent in the chapter is Crones mistrust of
the traditional sources. To her, most of the tradition is nothing but a
collection of stories and hence should not be trusted when it comes to gathering
facts about the conditions that prevailed in Makkah at the advent of Islam.
Chapter 5 (Where were the Makkans Active?)
After having described the goods that the Makkans traded
in, Crone proceeds to define the extent of their trading routes. She starts by
accepting, but solely on the basis of tradition, that the Makkans traded mainly
in Syria, Yemen, Ethiopia and Iraq and then looks at each trading route in
By the end of the chapter, Crone establishes Makkans to
have traded with “Syria and its Egyptian Neighborhood” .
The trade with Yemen is confined to the region of Najrān and from there on to
Ethiopia. Regular trade with Iraq however is rejected.
In this chapter, Crone also reveals some discrepancies in
the tradition. She does this by citing sources which in her own words “asserts
both A and not A”.
An important question raised in this chapter is the need
for the Quraysh to trade, given that they were the guardians of a religious
temple which warranted “a living by assiduous dispensation of religious
Chapter 6 (What Makkan Trade Was Not)
Having established that Makkan trade:
…was not a transit trade. Second, it was not a trade of
the kind that attracted the attention of the inhabitants of the fertile
crescent. Third, it was not a trade that presupposed control of any trade routes
In this chapter, Crone further examines the Makkan trade
routes and their dominance on these routes. She first examines the traditional
claim of the Makkans having dealt extensively within the “Byzantium and the
Byzantine sphere of influence”.
She claims that had this been the case, there would have been a mention of the
Quraysh or at the least Makkah in the literature of their clients. She takes
this lack of mention to be a sure sign of the absence of Makkans in the majority
of areas traditionally claimed. She also refutes some of the claims made about
Makkah’s mention in extra-Arabian literature on the basis of language and
geography. This “silence of the sources”
to Crone means two things:
1.The Makkans did not trade outside Arabia and
2.If the Quraysh were traders, their commercial activities
were of a kind conducted in this area since time immemorial.
For Makkan trade on the whole, Crone believes that they
never dominated or monopolized any trading route on the whole. Of the
individual trade routes i.e. Makkah-Syria, Yemen-Makkah, Ethiopia-Makkah and
Makkah-Iraq, Crone concedes only the Makkan dominance in the export of leather
on the Makka-Syria route. For all the other commodities on all the other routes,
Crone firmly refutes any Makkan dominance or monopoly.
Chapter 7 (What Makkan Trade May Have Been)
After having established the extent and the non-dominance
of the Quraysh on the traditional trading routes, in this chapter Crone tries to
examine the true nature of the Makkan Trade. Of Makkan trade on the whole, Crone
Makkan trade was a local trade in the sense that the
commodities sold were of Arabian origin and destined for consumption in Arabia
itself or immediately outside it.
Makkan trade is pictured as an exchange of pastoralist
products with settled agriculturist products and as a trade that was generated
totally by the Arab needs. Crone also examines the dominance of the Quraysh
firstly in Arabia and secondly at the pilgrim fairs held regularly. Once again,
this dominance cannot be proved, neither disproved by the sources. She then
tries out different hypothesis on the nature of Makkan trade and the Quraysh
itself. All these hypothesis “de-link” the Quraysh from Makkah and establish
them elsewhere in Arabia. Makkah is then seen to be either a place of
recruitment, or of organization but not as a trade center. This, however, leads
to a complete refutation of the traditional account of the surrender of Makkah.
It also leads to further intriguing questions about the very fundamental aspects
of Prophet’s life such as:
Where was Muhammad active before the hijrah, and which
was the city that he forced to surrender or conquered by force? Where was the
Chapter 8 (The Sanctuary and Makkan Trade)
In this chapter, Crone explores the link between Makkah’s
status as a sanctuary and Makkan trade. Based on the possibility of the Quraysh
being traders even before their occupation of Makkah, Crone argues that the
sacred status of the city had nothing to do with the trade status of the city.
On the basis of tradition, Crone argues that the pilgrimage at Makkah was not a
pilgrim fair and further more no trade was conducted during the days of the
pilgrimage. Crone also exploits the differences in the tradition and the
secondary literature to show that in the pre-Islamic times Makkah was not an
object of pilgrimage. She also links Quraysh’s trade with the other sanctuaries
in the area and labels the haram of Makkah to be redundant as far as the rise of
Makkan trade is concerned. Crone concludes by showing how most of the tradition
propositions regarding Makkan and Makkan trade seem more viable if the location
of the Quraysh is shifted from Makkah to northwest Arabia. However, when the
current location is considered all the problems outlined in this section of her
book become apparent.
Chapter 9 (The Sources)
In this chapter, Crone evaluates the sources of Islamic
Knowledge i.e. the Qur’ān and the Hadīth and in terms of their historical value.
According to her the Qur’ān cannot be understood without the exegetical
literature. Of the exegetical literature, she points out the differences between
different exegetes and how based on tradition, the Qur’ān itself generates
spurious information most of which is false.
Once again, she accuses Islamic tradition of being nothing
but stories and outlines three major ways in which their stories are manifest in
the sources of tradition.
1. The tradition gives contradictory information on
2. Many accounts are merely variations of a single
3. There has been a steady growth of information
regarding the rise of Islam most of which is false.
Through out the rest of the chapter she outlines, through
examples, how the above three points have contributed greatly to generating a
lot of false information in the tradition and concludes by linking this problem
to the “mode of origin of the tradition”
and the necessity of secondary literature in “reconstituting the original shapes
of this early period.”
Chapter 10 (The Rise of Islam)
In the final chapter of the book, Crone gives her idea for
the rise of Islam, linking it to Muhammad’s genius in rallying the various
tribes of Arabia in the face of a common enemy: the Byzantine and the Persians
and giving their nomadic practices and their lifestyle a religious force
validated by the ultimate authority of God.