Revisiting Companionship and the Socio-Economy of the Islamic Guilds: Sufism, the Guilds' Vertical and Horizontal Structure of Communication, and the Islamic Economic System

Revisiting Companionship and the Socio-Economy of the Islamic Guilds: Sufism, the Guilds' Vertical and Horizontal Structure of Communication, and the Islamic Economic System

DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-9731-7.ch008
OnDemand PDF Download:


This chapter is an introduction to the history of the formation of guilds and how they connect them to the religious and social structures that molded them. The craft-guilds are one of the most interesting and characteristic phenomena of medieval Muslim civilization. The guild in Muslim life was built essentially on the idea of the market and based on the needs of the guildsmen. Many different countries officially claim their commitment to Islam and Islamic economics. However, Islam and Islamic economic systems differ significantly from one country to another. Analysis of the Islamic economic system is impossible without a clear understanding of the legal parameters that shaped such a system. The legal foundation of the Islamic society, known as Shari'a, is considered eternally valid and applicable to all times and places. Islamic laws not only provide society with collections of laws and prescriptions which indicate the Islamic path, they also focus on specific human activities and classify them according to their degree of desirability from God's perspective. Different viewpoints on the relationship between religion, culture, and economic performance are investigated here. Finally, the role of the central bank and Islamic banking and finance will be discussed in detail. While Islamic banks play roles similar to conventional banks, fundamental differences exist between the two models. The main difference between Islamic and conventional banks is that the former operate in accordance with the rules of Shari'a, the legal code of Islam. The central concept in Islamic banking and finance is justice, which is achieved mainly through the sharing of risk. Stakeholders are supposed to share profits and losses, and charging interest is prohibited.
Chapter Preview


The history of the formation of guilds is a fascinating subject for economic, historical, political, social psychological, religious, and class studies. The study of guilds, due to its historical economic grounds, can be dealt within a structural-functional perspective. Due to there being live persons and a hierarchy of values, they may be analyzed as a purely phenomenological subject using Max Scheler’s conception of sympathy and significance of fellowship. Also, guilds can be viewed from their connections to religion and social structures — composed of statuses and roles — that mold their activities.

Prior to Islam, there were unions of guilds in ancient Iranian cities that were rooted in the Sassanian dynasty; merchant guilds were organized at the same time. For example, in Nayshabour - a city in the northeastern part of Iran- there were hat-making and rope-making guilds. The merchants of raw silk and the sellers of silk fabrics were more influential than merchants of other guilds due to their marketability and prestigious use value. The artisans who were gathered in the guilds’ unions, from master to vice- master to apprentices, were considered legally free. They paid taxes from their own products to the local, feudal, or state authorities (Alamdaari, 2002).

This short description of pre-Islamic guilds in Iran indicates that there was a degree of urbanization in Iran, and a division of labor and differentiation of occupations in a country free from mystical orientation, yet imbued with Zoroastrian codes of conduct. Guilds, in that sense, were socioeconomic units. Craftsmen in guilds, with their access to means of production and to religion, resulted in working with each other as autonomous entities. In their Iranian formation, guilds were a “closed system” in a hierarchical-caste system of the Sassanid dynasty. Islamic guilds, however, became an “open system,” by embracing occupational diversity and the fellowship of other religious members, such as, from Judaism and Christianity.

In hindsight, we observe that, prior to the coming of Islam in the early 7th c. of the Christian era, two ancient civilizations of the Middle East were breeding grounds for guilds; that is, the Zoroastrian Sassanids and the Christian Byzantine cultures. It is highly probable that, in the seventeenth century Safavid era, Shah Abbas the Great, who brought the Christian Armenian craftsmen to Iran from the Caucasian Julfa town, was well aware of the role that migrating artisans played in economic development, as well as their conception of aesthetics and their co-existence with Shi’ite Islam for the sake of social-religious diversity. As an example, the case of the Islamic guilds shows that affiliations between Islamic guilds transformed into trade unions (naqabat) of the European type. Those of 20th century Tunisia, Syria, and Dutch Indonesia had since affiliated themselves to the Communist Trade Union International (Lewis, 1937).

S. D. Goitein writes that in Islam, artisan guilds, whose appearance must now be dated no earlier than the thirteenth century, were bearers of a universalist fraternal philosophy (See S. D. Goitein quoted by Thrupp, 1968). In contrast, Lewis, in his search for the origin and early history of the guilds, concluded:

We know that until the seventh century A.D. on the very eve of the Arab conquest, there were numerous guilds in the Byzantine provinces of Syria and Egypt, and it is rather improbable that these guilds were destroyed by the conquerors, whose policy, as we know, was to leave more or less intact the administrative and economic machinery left to them by Byzantines. Yet it is not until the tenth century, 300 years later, that we find any definitive indication of the existence of Muslim guilds, and then they are of a type entirely different from the pre-Islamic ones. (Lewis, 1937, emphasis added)

Complete Chapter List

Search this Book: