Ibn al-Awwam (ابن العوام) was an Arab agriculturist who flourished at Seville in southern Spain in the later 12th century. He wrote a lengthy handbook on agriculture entitled in Arabic Kitāb al-Filāḥa (English: Book on Agriculture), which is the most comprehensive treatment of the subject in medieval Arabic, and one of the most important medieval works on the subject in any language. It was published in Spanish and French translations in the 19th century. The edition in French is about 1350 pages.
His full name was Abu Zakariya Yahya ibn Muhammad ibn Ahmad ibn Al-Awwam Al-Ishbili. The appellation "Al-Ishbili" at the end of his name translates as "the Sevillean" i.e. from Seville. His dates of birth and death are not known. Nearly everything that is known about his biography is gleaned from his book. It appears that he was a large landowner whose interests lay exclusively with agricultural matters. It is clear that he did lots of hands-on growing and experimenting with a wide range of crops himself. It is also clear that he was well-read in the agricultural writings of his predecessors. In fact his book is mostly compiled from the writings of other authors. He cites information from 112 different prior authors. His citations of prior authors have been analyzed with the following summary results: about 1900 direct and indirect citations altogether, of which 615 are to Greek authors (the great majority to the Geoponica of Cassianus Bassus), 585 are to Middle Eastern Arabic authors (the great majority to the Book of Nabataean Agriculture attributed to Ibn Wahshiyya), and 690 are to Andalusian Arabic authors (the great majority to Ibn Bassal, Abu al-Khayr al-Ishbili or Ibn Hajjaj, all three of whom wrote books about agriculture in the later 11th century in southern Spain, copies of which have survived only partly and incompletely). Ibn al-Awwam compiled from only a subset of the authors he cites: This subset in turn contains all the material of the full set of authors he cites. His most influential direct sources were the Andalusian Arabic sources, who in turn were acquainted with various non-Andalusian sources, including sources from classical antiquity. Like himself, his Andalusian sources had read the Geoponica and the Nabataean Agriculture.
Ibn al-Awwam's book is divided into thirty-four chapters. The first thirty deal with crops and the last four deal with livestock. The first four chapters in the book deal successively with different types of soils, fertilizers, irrigation, and planning a garden layout. Then there are five chapters on growing fruit trees, including grafting, pruning, growing from cuttings, etc., and dozens of different fruit trees are treated individually. Later chapters deal with ploughing, the choice of seeds, the seasons and their tasks, grain farming, leguminous plants, small allotments, aromatic plants and industrial plants. Again, many plants are treated individually. The book altogether covers the cultivation of 585 different plants. One chapter is devoted to methods of preserving and storing foods after harvest, a topic which comes up intermittently elsewhere. The symptoms of many diseases of trees and vines are indicated, as are methods of cure. The chapters on livestock include discussion of the diseases and injuries to horses and cattle.
Ibn al-Awwam's book, an agriculture encyclopedia of more than a thousand pages, is primarily a compilation of the writings of other authors. But it is a compilation that is guided and informed by Ibn al-Awwam's own rich and non-bookish knowledge of the subject.
An edition was published in 1802 with the Arabic text placed alongside a translation into Spanish, and in 1864 it was published in French. These publications are freely available online.
Notes and references
- Ibn al-‘Awwām's Kitāb al-filāḥa, by the Filāḥa Texts Project (www.Filaha.org).
- "The Islamic Traditions of Agroecology: Crosscultural Experience, Ideas and Innovations", by Karl W. Butzer, in journal Cultural Geographies (previously known as Journal of Environment, Culture, Meaning), year 1994, volume 1, pages 7-50 (including pages 28-29 and 39-40); online.
- The Filāḥa Texts Project: Ibn al-‘Awwām—a good short introduction to Ibn Al-Awwam. Includes a concise presentation of the 34 chapter-headings of his book.