World History Connected Home    
Home List journal issues Table of contents
Printer-friendly format  Article citation        

The Silk Road in World History


The Difficult Journey: Overcoming Harām in the Development of Islamic Ṭirāz

Robert S. Klemm


     For many, the Silk Roads of central Eurasia conjure up romantic images of heavily-laden merchant caravans, crisscrossing the region bearing luxurious and exotic goods; foremost among these commodities was silk. While not arguing the fact that silk was a prominent feature of these trade caravans, its recognition as among the most desirable or prized sumptuary goods by many cultures along the entire length and breadth of the Silk Road is occasionally left out of the larger popular discussion, particularly at the secondary education level. Often, when the terms "silk" and "silk roads" are mentioned together, the focus is invariably placed on Asia and the origination of sericulture in China. However, silk's use and development in the lands of the Middle East, located at the silk roads' western terminus, presents an equally, if not more intriguing tale of this fine commodity chosen for its artistic or even religious potential, rather than simply being a fashionable garment fabric.

     Within the Muslim world, silk, and especially its highly stylized and embroidered Ṭirāz version, was recognized during the early years of Islam as having a much desirable quality about it and that it could serve as a worthy medium for artistic expression and later, personal piety. Unfortunately, silk's would-be sellers and buyers faced a curious religious quandary in the years following the Prophet Muhammad's death in 632 c.e, when questions arose over its scriptural permissibility and supposed denunciation as being harām, or "forbidden." Remarkably, not only was Ṭirāz silk able to eventually overcome this doctrinal prohibition, it became one of the Muslim world's most ubiquitous sumptuary goods during the Umayyad, Abbasid, and even Fatimid caliphates. Moreover, the regional proliferation of Ṭirāz silk facilitated the significant expansion of an Islamic state-run textile industry during these successive dynasties. Understanding Ṭirāz' utility—whether secularly, or as emphasized in this study, divinely—helps provide a greater level of understanding towards the outgrowth of stylized Muslim silk in general.

     During the 19th-century, the German scholar Ferdinand von Richthofen (1833–1905) developed a unique term to perhaps more accurately describe the many different trade routes that seemingly stretched latitudinally across much of Asia: the "Silk Road." Admittedly, he was a bit unsure at the time if the singular usage of the phrase was sufficiently accurate and later modified it to "Silk Roads" (Seidenstrassen).1

     Whichever version is more appropriate became the subject of further intense debate and research by scholars who followed his work. Later, during the first few decades of the 20th century, significant archeological discoveries in Central Asia ushered in a wide new range of historical scholarship on the Silk Road and its key role in shaping the many regions and cultures it connected. While there is no question that this network or skein of caravan/trade routes conveyed many more types of wares besides simply silk, the rather unique journey this luxurious fabric has taken over the centuries, not only as art but as an expression of religious piety, deserves further scrutiny. The economic relationships which existed at the time along the ancient Silk Road may explain much about the manner of its transmission regionally, as well as its progressive refinement into a true sumptuary good. Silk's position within the pre-modern Muslim world in particular raises questions concerning its theological justification and use, especially since conflicting scriptural interpretations for a time presented exceedingly contradictory guidance.


     During the period of the Islamic conquests in the 7–8th centuries, the explosive growth of fine Muslim silk did not seem to be hindered much at all by the conflicting guidance in both the Qur'an and the Prophet Muhammad's ḥadīth. The former encourages believers to not only remember their god, but also communicate His name and His words often within their daily lives. In the early years of Islam, spreading the written (Qur'anic) word of Allah was certainly condoned, provided it observed certain rules designed to guard against profane or "impure" usage. As silk became a prized component of Muslim attire, it provided a suitable medium for not only artistically expressing Allah's word, but also for displaying one's personal piety. Early Qur'anic permissibility for the issue was later superceded by warnings against its use by the ḥadīth in the years following the Prophet's death in 632 c.e. By the time of the Umayyad caliphate in the 7–8th centuries, silk was once again in high demand and produced in large volume by state-run manufacturing facilities. While a range of theories already exist to explain how Islamic silk overcame the dilemma between Qur'anic advocacy and ḥadīth impropriety, some Umayyad caliphs boldly chose to settle the matter according to their own schedule, irrespective of Muslim jurists' attempts to argue the issue on theological grounds. Thus, their adaptation of silk as a sumptuary good facilitated the significant expansion of a state-run textile industry in the years following the Islamic conquests. Moreover, this expansion, once underway, continued through both the later Abbasid and Fatimid caliphates, despite the inherent variations in their theological background.

     Ṭirāz, the embroidered silk textiles produced in these state-run factories, facilitated the outgrowth of Muslim silk in general. Its purpose evolved throughout the lifespan of its proliferation; first to achieve political recognition and display personal beneficence, and then to spread Allah's word and develop into a personal advertisement of one's waqf or 'patronage' to another. The evolution of this silk product may thus be traced from its theological/scriptural foundations to its later adaptations for use and mass-production by succeeding caliphal administrations within Southwest Asia, the Levant, and the Maghreb (North Africa).

The Complexities of Oral Tradition

     During the medieval and pre-modern periods of Muslim history, Islam possessed an extraordinary condition or hierarchy unlike that of its Christian 'dualist' contemporary in the West. The notion that the 'religious' or spiritual world was uniquely separate from the 'secular' simply did not exist in the same manner; rather Islam was dunyā wa dīn—that is, possessing both 'spheres' yet denying any separation between the two. Fundamentally, this paved the way for Muslim rulers to be viewed as a combined authority who exercised complete autonomy.2

     The Qur'an, Islam's foundational spiritual text, encourages a believer to "remember Him and mention His Names. . . His Words" in all possible contexts of his daily life. To do so correctly promises one reward in the next life. Differences exist however in the manner in which Allah is mentioned by the faithful. Uttering Qur'anic scripture is not viewed as being prone to the same dangers of 'physical impurity' as is the written word of God.3 This implies that not only must the Qur'an be safeguarded against being profaned, but also its inscriptions.4 Therefore, the type of objects featuring Qur'anic verse were not random or of a mundane variety.

     If the figure of caliph represented combined omniscient authority, he thus balanced both religious truth and political power within that authority. As one scholar put it, "the first sanctified the second; the second confirmed and sustained the first."5 This meant that God's favor (and victory) was bestowed upon those who followed his laws. One may then further infer that Islamic orthodoxy hinges on behavior and loyalty—to observe correct practices and display obedience to the head of the Islamic state is to demonstrate one's loyalty to God and benefit from his rewards.6 Recognizing that God would guide his community and prevent it from falling prey to sin, correct collective action and obedience by all was essential to therefore demonstrate God's true purpose. Islamic tradition is based wholly on a 'consensus of believers.'7

     Traditionally, the caliph's responsibility in guiding his religious community was set forth in a straightforward manner, utilizing both Qur'anic scripture and the various collections of ḥadīth, traditions communicating both the actions and sayings of the Prophet. One portion of this dual Islamic revelation, while viewed outwardly as thoroughly divine and largely beyond question, does contain an element of fallibility that suggests the Caliph's words or decrees are, in part, subjective and personally individualized. Whereas the Qur'an is considered to be a work of literal divine authorship, as was dictated by the Prophet, the ḥadīth represents a vast collection of stories, testaments, or other chronicles that vary considerably in veracity and plausibility.8 This in turn is subject to even more concerns over its true provenance as it was only communicated orally for at least a handful of generations beyond the Prophet's death before it was edited and written down formally. For this very nature, the possibility thus existed for one—a caliph perhaps—to promote a personal agenda by invoking a ḥadīth that establishes 'precedent.'9 Moreover, because this oral tradition lent itself to possible fabrication of prophetic action, a personal agenda or desired outcome based on mistruths became a remote but nonetheless real possibility.10 Considering then that the correct path for Islamic faithful leaves little room for sinful deviation or misguidedness, one could point to the so-called 'decadent' behavior of the Umayyads as evidence that Islam's 'divine world' was corrupted, or at the very least, modified to suit someone's own ends. Their behavior, while contrasting considerably with the caliphates that came to power later, still played an integral role in shaping later public opinion and conduct through their religious edicts. Persons attempting to pass off a fabricated ḥadīth, no matter the purpose or extent of the falsehood, increased its outward credibility and believability by prefacing it with a lengthy and impressive isnād; verbally-communicated chains of authority. Invoking the names of the many people who were purported to have communicated ḥadīth thus helps guarantee its authenticity. A person's spoken word was literally his honor and underwrote a ḥadīth's message ". . . without appeal or reference to external sources of appraisal or criticism."11 In practice, such a chain would read thus:

The Mention of the Pedigree of 'Umar, May God Be Pleased with Him
I heard from Ibn Ḥumayd, who heard from Salama, on the authority of Muḥammad ibn Isāq. And I heard from al-Ḥārith, who heard from Ibn Sa'd, on the authority of Muḥammad ibn 'Umar, who heard from 'Alī Ibn Muḥammad. They all agreed concerning 'Umar's geneology. . . 12

It should be noted that this practice of authentication only came into practice some sixty years after the Prophet's death.13

     As has been suggested earlier, a caliph's power to tailor a specific religious message to the faithful within the Muslim community was a distinct possibility, given his authority and divine role in Islam. Moreover, the opportunity to further color, alter, or otherwise project a personal preference towards how the Qur'an or the Prophet's ḥadīth were to be understood was similarly just as possible.

The [Theological] Question of Luxury

     Bridging the interpretational gap between what Qur'anic scripture, ḥadīth, and later accounts proclaim, as well as a caliph's role within that function becomes the central focus of a claim made by some scholars who sought to explain the curious change from initial Qur'anic tolerance to Muslim aversion to silk [garments] and later widespread, prolific use as evinced under the Umayyads. As Central Asian scholar Xinru Liu suggests in The Silk Road in World History, this dilemma was apparently solved "after much learned discussion," resulting in a set of "modified" guidelines for its use.14 That she offers little evidence concerning the details of this rather important theological debate is problematic, such as when did this take place and who ultimately participated in it? Additionally, how was the agreement or compromise reached? If this issue was indeed 'solved' by members of the 'ulema, what school of Islamic jurisprudence guided the final decision? Of this, Liu does not mention. Her suggestion, which is rather generalized, implies that the Muslim community possibly wished to distance itself from the stricter constraints of ḥadīth and move towards more tolerant Qur'anic scriptural guidance.15

     When comparing side-by-side passages in both the Qur'an and from ḥadīth, many contradictions appear about silk's usage within their respective instruction. Concerning silk, the Qur'an makes it quite clear that it did not expressly forbid it:

As to those who believe and work righteousness. . . For them will be Gardens of Eternity; beneath them rivers will flow: they will be adorned therein with bracelets of gold, and they will wear green garments of fine silk and heavy brocade. . . 16

Allah with those who believe and work righteous deeds. To gardens beneath which rivers flow: they shall be adorned therein with bracelets of gold and pearls; and their garments there will be of silk.17

And because they (Devotees of Allah) were Patient and constant, He will reward them with a Garden (garments of) silk.18

However, these passages all imply that such silk garments are bestowed in the 'Hereafter,' meaning Islamic Paradise. There is no Qur'anic verse that specifically denies its use on earth. The closest that the Qur'an comes to inferring this comes in Surah 7 (Al-A'raf), verse 26, which speaks of the piety of one's garments:

O ye Children of Adam! We have bestowed raiment upon you to cover your shame, as well as to be an adornment to you. But the raiment of Righteousness— that is the best.19

     What is meant exactly by "best" [kind] of "raiment of righteousness" is ambiguous unless one also considers the further argument over the condition Man was brought into the world by Allah, "bare and alone."20 Surah 6:94 explains that Allah created man's soul (and) body in naked purity. The "shame" mentioned above only comes into existence when it experienced the guilt borne by evil actions. As man's ideas and actions become the "clothing and adornments" of his soul, they can either be beneficial or harmful depending on a person's personal motivation.

     This figurative notion of 'clothing' may be applied towards the spiritual 'body' as well. A garment of clothing can only be considered righteous if one's "motives. . . [of] mind and character" are correct."21 The subjective nature this argument presents may well serve as the open door for a wearer's personal interpretation: if they believe themselves to be pure or virtuous, then that must also imply that their choice of clothing is similarly as righteous, or rather, permissible.

     Several examples of the Prophet's disdain for isrāf, or luxury items like silk are found in narrated ḥadīth. In these stories, the issue of silk's permissibility appears to be settled once and for all by clearly-communicated prohibitions:

Narrated 'Abdullah bin 'Umar
'Umar bin Al-Khattab saw a silken cloak (being sold) at the gate of the Mosque and said to Allah's Apostle, "I wish you would buy this to wear on Friday's and also on Occasions of the arrivals of the delegations." Allah's Apostle replied, "This will be worn by a person who will have no share (reward) in the Hereafter." Later on, similar cloaks were given to Allah's Apostle and he gave one of them to 'Umar bin Al-Khattab. On that 'Umar said, "O Allah's Apostle! You have given me this cloak although on the cloak of Atarid (the cloak merchant selling the silken garment at the gate of the Mosque) you passed such and such a remark." Allah's Apostle
replied, "I have not given you this to wear." And so 'Umar bin Al-Khattab gave it to his pagan brother in Mecca to wear.22

While the Prophet considered silk garments acceptable for giving to non-believers, he did view it as harām for his Companions to wear or use it personally.23 On one occasion, his son-in-law 'Ali made the mistake of wearing a silk garment out in public and incurred the Prophet's wrath.24

     As explained previously, the ḥadīth was not recorded or compiled formally until many years after the Prophet's death. It survived the period prior to its publication only through oral tradition communicated initially by the Prophet's companions; some of whom later became caliphs. Following Muhammad's death, the first four caliphs or successors (Rashī dun, or 'Rightly-Guided' Caliphs) comported themselves in much the same manner as did Muhammad and generally shared his aestheticism. Arguably, it was this preference for the simple and utilitarian—and disdain for the ostentatious and opulent—which may be observed in the oral traditions found in the Prophet's ḥadīth: first communicated by those as like-minded as he and later by a somewhat reinforcing continuation of those preferences over roughly a 60-year period. Within this time frame, the nature or import of Muhammad's message became vulnerable, as by the time of 'Uthman's caliphal reign, tribal self-interests and sectionalism within the Islamic community became increasingly more evident.25

Among the first of the Prophet's Companions to succeed him, 'Umar perhaps best reiterated Muhammad's warnings about the temptations and dire consequences portended by luxurious things:

I advise you to fear God, who lives while others than He perish; obedience to whom profits His friends while disobedience harms His enemies. . . Know, O people, that covetousness is poverty and renunciation (of luxury) is riches and that in solitude there is rest from evil company.26

The Move Towards Immodesty

     Concerning the adaptation of the Muslim 'vestimentary system' from the aesthetic, Bedouin-esque to the luxurious era of widespread silk usage (of which Ṭirāz is integral), the Umayyad Caliphate (661–750 CE) brought about the most significant change.27 In their view, the ideological shift away from the prophet's forbiddance of silk and other luxury items was now perfectly acceptable due to their rise and dominance within the larger Umma (Community of Believers). It was as if the words contained in the ḥadīth were again being revised to form, as one scholar put it, [a] "counter-tradition."28

     To be sure, such beliefs resonated with an air of hubris on the part of Umayyad participants: "When God bestows benefaction upon one of his servants, He wishes the physical sign of that benefaction to be visible on him."29 If this view was now indeed their mantra, the Umayyads proceeded in this direction with visible dedication. As noted much later during the Abbasid period by Muslim chroniclers like Mas'udi and Ibn Khaldûn, the Islamic world came to believe that the reason for the eventual Umayyad downfall (and replacement by the Abbasids) was blamed squarely on their capricious love of luxury and idleness.

     In The Meadows of Gold: The Abbasids, Mas'udi recounts a gathering of notables before Abbasid caliph al-Mansur (r. 754–775 c.e) where the topic of conversation turned to the Umayyads. al-Mansur remarked that the previous caliphate had fallen from power because their ". . . only ambition was the satisfaction of their desires and [who] chased after pleasures forbidden by Almighty God."30 al-Mansur then asked that 'Abd Allah, the son of Marwan II (an Umayyad caliph) be brought from his prison cell to speak before him. 'Abd Allah's testimony, if it can be believed, tacitly acknowledges what the Abbasids—and ḥadīth had forewarned for that matter—believed was the result of their shameful downfall; that is, wear and use of silk. 'Abd Allah's tale reveals a dialogue between himself and the King of Nubia, to where he fled following his caliphate's dissolution:

Then he [the King] said to me: 'Why do you drink wine when your Book forbids it?' I answered, 'Our slaves and our followers have the audacity to do so.' 'Why,' proceeded the King, 'do you wear brocade and silk and gold, in spite of the prohibitions of your Book and your religion?' I retorted: 'As power fled from us, we called upon the support of alien races who have entered our faith and we have adopted these clothes from them.'

It is at this point the King of Nubia recognizes the Umayyad's attempt at reassigning blame:

'It is not the way you tell it! No! Your people permitted themselves what God forbade. You broke God's commandments and oppressed those you ruled. Then God stripped you of power and dressed you in the ignominy of your crimes.'31

Although the Nubian king considered 'Abd Allah's tale somewhat far-fetched, some scholarship suggests that certain Muslim practices, such as manner of dress, were indeed patterned after the manner practiced by 'unbelievers' as a sort of imitation. The reason for this, as communicated in ḥadīth and other juridical texts was to facilitate 'identity' with non-Muslims.32

     A later chronicler, Ibn Khaldūn, similarly punctuates the Umayyad's earlier use of "luxury" as their principal sin and reason for their downfall. In The Muqaddimah, he writes, "Luxury wears out the royal authority and overthrows it. . . ."33 He develops this further by asserting:

[Luxury corrupts the character. (Through luxury,) the soul acquires diverse kinds of evil and sophisticated customs. . . [people lose the good qualities that were a sign and indication of (their qualification for) royal authority. They adopt the contrary bad qualities.34

Accounts such as these, when viewed in conjunction with other similar sources, combined to present a jumbled and puzzling perspective for later scholars attempting to deduce reasons for that era's Muslim expansion. Indeed, some early twentieth-century historians felt that "real religious fervor" among 7–8th-century Arabs was misplaced and further argued that as a religion, Islam amounted to nothing more than "satisfaction of. . . sensual desires" by the ruling caliphate.35

     Whether Islam had been fueled by a secretive desire for sensualized satisfaction over that of specific, religious idealism remains a continuously entrenched argument, despite the existence of textual evidence pointing towards the former. If sensuousness and luxury were indeed the aim, once the Umayyad dynasty assumed power, earlier displays of aesthetic piety quickly faded with each passing caliph's reign.

     Although the first few Umayyad caliphs were noted for their observed moderation of dress, those who followed in succession established a trend which clearly favored a sumptuous lifestyle more reminiscent of the Byzantines or even Sasanians.36 According to some sources, 'Abd al-Malik (r. 685–705 ce) was among the first Umayyads to supposedly permit the use of fine trappings in his court, with luxury fabrics such as silk featured prominently among them.37

     The increasing proliferation of garments woven from luxury fabrics, as attested to in a number of sources, supports this trend among Umayyad rulers. 'Abd al-Malik's own son Hishām, who likewise later became Caliph, took this even further by becoming the first within the Umayyad dynasty to have embroidered silk garments (Ṭirāz) made specifically for him, rather than simply utilizing existing manufactured vestments38 One of 'Abd al-Malik's other sons who also succeeded to the throne, Sulayman (r. 715–717 c.e), saw to it that his entire court wore only the finest silk.39

Institutionalizing Luxury

     Once the Umayyad rulers made the conscious decision to move away from the entrenched Islamic aestheticism during the Prophet's lifetime and for a period following his death, the Muslim adoption of luxury and other sumptuary goods signaled to all observers at the time that they had indeed 'made it.' Whether or not they may have realized how their actions contradicted their own religious traditions set forth by Muhammad, they certainly did not acknowledge this openly. Their ostentatious display of fine goods established a trend which later dynasties mirrored, none of whom would fathom that their chosen lifestyle would later be attributed to their eventual downfall.

     Curiously however, the Abbasid and even Fatimid caliphates did not alter their course in this respect. As far as the proliferation of luxury items goes, the former saw to an even greater expansion of these goods; successfully institutionalizing the model of a state-run Ṭirāz system. Despite the continuance of 'business as usual' by these dynastic successors, statements about just or deserved punishment from God by the likes of Ibn Khaldūn or Mas'udi suggest that at least for some Muslims, uncertainty about how their worldly conduct would be perceived was still at the back of their minds.

     While finely-woven garments such as silk and their even more luxurious embroidered equivalent had for years been items of consumption in other parts of the world (Byzantium and Sasanian Persia), they gained considerable prominence among Arab-Muslims during the Umayyad caliphate due to its increased proliferation through silk road commerce. Umayyad affinity for the elegant fabric was crucial to its further development and institutionalized expansion within Islamic material culture.40 It must be argued however, that the expansion of silk production first begun during the Umayyad period and peaking later during the Abbasid and Fatimid dynasties went beyond a simple preference or attachment to fabric. Rulers quickly realized the value such items held within the context of diplomatic relations between themselves and outside foreign powers. Sources suggest that the exchange of precious gifts between emperors to either establish or maintain cordial relations had been a customary practice within numerous other cultures for quite some time. As courtly or official use of fine silks was already underway in the Byzantine Empire, the first Muslim caliphate recognized that using these items were necessary to secure diplomatic parity with their Christian counterparts.41 To be sure, items like silk were used somewhat differently in Byzantine and Muslim courts, where the latter actively sought to impress or surpass another's opulence through the giving of even finer and more exquisite materials.

     Over time, the utility or function of silk garments came to serve the Caliph's needs in other ways, most notably as instruments of honorary recognition or even currency.42 Gift-giving functioned both as a means to recognize lesser state officials or emissaries, as well as to pay a courtier's salary. This was frequently accomplished through the bestowal of fine garments, such as robes.43 Throughout the Muslim world and in other cultures, the practice of rulers or other members of the social elite rewarding their guests or servants with khīla, or 'robes of honor' grew customary; as accepted to that of exchanges between rulers and emperors.44

     Such a practical use for these items did more for creating a sumptuary material culture in Muslim society than did simply a ruler's personal enjoyment or fondness for them. As this luxury culture flourished well into the next successive caliphate, silken garments' growing importance as a diplomatic tool reached a point where not only rulers, but other prominent figures in society went to great lengths to acquire and maintain vast storehouses of khīla for that specific purpose. Apparently, if a patron found that "there were no robes ready" and had to delay an investiture (even one of a minor nature), considerable embarrassment or even shame was the likely outcome.45 Anthony Cutler suggests that silken gifts represented a dual function within Muslim society: as both economic and symbolic capital.46

Continuity along the Silk Road

     This practice of investiture through material predates the first Islamic caliphates and according to considerable historical evidence, continued for several centuries afterwards. Moreover, the practice was observed at either end of what many considered the notional 'Silk Road.' To illustrate that this practice existed not only within the greater Mediterranean region and Hijāz, but that it flourished further to the east in other North Asian cultures, Thomas Allsen notes the similarity of 13th-century Chinggisid garment exchange and its ties to the earlier Islamic Ṭirāz system. He suggests that, at least within the Mongol practice, rulers or monarchs frequently presented silk robes or other garments to their subordinates not only symbolize the investiture of office, but also to transfer some measure of the ruler's "aura, [his] charisma, to the recipient."47 This indicates that the giving of robes (or other similar garments) served a multiplicity of purposes within Islamic society; from the political and economic, to the symbolic and innately spiritual. As Muslim use of silk garments specifically as a form of 'capital' became commonplace, yet another purpose emerged for which Umayyad rulers keenly focused their attention and expertise on—embroidered calligraphic inscriptions that conveyed an individualized advertisement of both dynastic patronage and later, religious piety.

     The internal political chaos occurring in China during the first few centuries of the common-era had a noticeable effect on the flow of silk road trade between India and the Roman-controlled provinces further west. As a result, Roman merchants found it increasingly difficult to maintain the level of finished silk imports the West had been enjoying up to this point. Soghdian merchants who frequently plied the Central Asian trade routes with far more unfettered access now found themselves in a particularly advantageous position to dictate both the price and terms of the silk trade between China, India, and Byzantium.48

     Due to its inherent value as a luxury good, silk was quickly incorporated into the host of other key industries Byzantine rulers deemed deserved of imperial attention and control. Silk imports (and later production), along with mining and weaving/dyeing purple fabric were perhaps the most stringently supervised and controlled areas of Byzantine economy.49

     By the fifth century, the West's demands for silk had quickly outstripped existing supplies. Byzantium's reluctance at times to accept Persian merchant's increasingly expensive trade terms meant that new sources of silk production had to be identified, thus prompting the eventual establishment of a Byzantine weaving industry. Illustrating the West's difficulty with this, Emperor Justinian once suggested to King Hellesthaeus of Ethiopia an idea for Ethiopian merchants to buy silk from India and sell directly to the Romans, thereby eliminating their dependency on Persia and its demands for hard cash. This initially promising idea ultimately failed, as Persian merchants effectively controlled Indian ports and were wealthy enough to purchase entire cargo loads.50

     It must be noted however that Byzantium's fabric production still relied on the importation of raw silk, which by this time had changed from a direct, Byzantine-Persian economic exchange to one that now featured a middleman—Syrian merchants. It was hoped that the Syrians could secure a far better purchase price from the Persians and thus pass this boon onto the Byzantine end-users.51

     Byzantine weaving workshops, known as gynaeceums, first established in Constantinople and later in both Egypt and Syria, were able to mitigate possible shortages of finished silks as long as the empire was able to satisfactorily negotiate the purchase of raw silk thread from Syrian merchants.52 When it became evident that this arrangement was untenable in the long-term, imperial focus shifted to discerning how the production of raw silk itself could be introduced within its own borders.

     Although common history suggests that sericulture—the production of raw silk thread—came to Byzantium from China in the sixth century, it must be recognized that this view is far from definitive and does not take into account other theories that explain the westward migration or emergence of Chinese sericulture practices outside the confines of East Asia. The two textual references believed to point to this production transference, while anecdotal, serve as the best extant evidence to date. The first, written by Procopius of Caesarea (500–565 ce), claims that Byzantine sericulture was first introduced by monks traveling from "Serindia," smuggling silkworm seeds in their belongings. Theophanes of Byzantium, writing from within roughly the same time period, differs slightly, arguing instead that it was a Persian who had smuggled silkworm seeds to Byzantium from the "Land of the Seres."53 Scholars point out that as these terms are not mentioned in any other sources from the period, their precise, pin-point locations cannot be determined. Thus, the argument concerning the emergence of sericulture in Byzantium is tenuous and far from certain.54

     However, if these two sources are, as historian Anna Muthesius argues, a means of homing in on an approximate region of origin, it can be achieved through careful analysis of Imperial Chinese records. Passages contained in the Wèi Shū (551–554 ce) mention a country named Da Qin (also called Li Gan), in which "inhabitants busy themselves with silkworms and fields."55 19th-century scholar F. Hirth identified Da Qin as Roman Syria, and thus places sericulture's emergence in the region during the sixth century, as both Procopius and Theophanes originally suggested.56 Considering Syria's inclusion within the greater Byzantine Empire, this identification explains a great deal when examining the later origins of Islamic silk production following the Arab conquests. The Byzantine Book of the Prefect, written in the tenth century, makes a similar reference, noting that raw silk was not only brought into the capital of Constantinople "by strangers," but that it was also imported from Syria.57

     Economic supremacy within the Mediterranean region was divided during this period into distinctly Byzantine and Islamic 'phases.'58 Historian Arthur Lewis noted that Byzantium held sway over other commercial hubs in places such as North Africa, Southern Spain, Egypt, and Syria through 641 c.e. These economic trade centers passed to Muslim control following the Arab conquests, thus allowing technological advancements like sericulture to continue its journey to points further west and south.59

Ṭirāz Evolves

     Gifts of clothing or fabric as a means of bestowing recognition or inducing loyalty were clearly seen as a perquisite of both the caliph and his court officers. The term Ṭirāz came to be associated with not only the fabric from which these garments were made, but also the institution that Umayyad and later Muslim caliphates established for the express production of this material.

     The word itself is Persian in origin and literally means 'embroidery.' Early Arab chronicler Djawālīḳī noted the 'arabicization' of the Persian word and observed the similar variants of spelling and pronunciation:

Ṭarz and Ṭirāz. A Persian word arabicized. The Arabs used to employ it in their speech. Hassan said (i.e. Ḥassān ibn Thābit): "Light-complexioned, of noble lineage, proud of bearing, of the first Ṭirāz." The Arabs say: "the ṭarz of so-and-so is a fine ṭarz," i.e., his dress and appearance. So that it becomes used of any good thing. Ru'ba said: "I chose of the best of every good thing (ṭarz)."60

According to R.B. Serjeant, one of the most authoritative scholars on the subject, Ṭirāz developed into a term that held a multiplicity of meanings; progressing from simply referring to the embroidery on the fabric or state-sponsored workshop in which it was produced, to specifically denoting the "embroidered strip of writing" on garments as well as inscriptions of any variety, "whether hewn out of stone, done in mosaic, glass, . . . or carved out of wood."61

     Arab chronicler Ibn Khaldūn (1332–1406 c.e) also wrote accounts that confirmed Ṭirāz' original intent, along with its Persian origins:

Thus, the royal robes (al thiyāb al-mulūkīya) are bordered (mu'lama) with a Ṭirāz. It is an emblem of dignity reserved for the sovereign, for those whom he wishes to honor honor by authorizing them to make use of it, and for those whom he invests with one of the responsible posts of government. Before Islam, the kings of Persia had placed upon their garments, either the portraits (ṣuwar), or likenesses (ashkāl) of the kings of the country, or certain figures and images designated for their use. The Muslim princes substituted their names for the figures, adding other words considered to be of good augury, which gave the praise of God. Under these two dynasties (the Umayyads, and the Abbasids), it was a most important and honorable concern. The places for the weaving of these stuffs, situated in their palaces, were called dār al- Ṭirāz . . . .62

While some critics point to Ibn Khaldūn's explanation as hypothetical and supremely speculative, Serjeant further notes that evidence of Ṭirāz' early Persian origins may also be found in the Murūdj al-Dhahab written by Mas'ūdī in 943 ce during the Abbasid period. This work specifically mentions images of people and Persian inscriptions woven into the fabric of a prayer carpet (muṣallā):

I was skilled in the reading of Persian, and there, on the right of the prayer carpet Was the image of a king with a crown (tādj) on his head. I read the writing: 'This is the picture of Shirūya, the murderer of his father Abrawīz. He reigned Six months.'63

Serjeant further suggests that references such as this indicate that while the actual inscriptions may not have originated in Persia, the Ṭirāz found on an Abbasid prayer carpet "had its origin in the state factories of the Sasanian kings."64

     Material referred to as khusrawānī, meaning "kingly" or "appertaining to the kings of Persia" are found in many sources dating to the early Muslim period. In some, particularly the Thousand and One Nights, khusrawānī and its related linguistic equivalents seem to imply a fabric or material of considerable luxury:

They clothed her with ornaments and cloaks (ḥulla) of the clothing of the Sasanian kings (mulūk al-akāsira), including a garment adorned (manḳūsh) with red gold, having pictures of beasts and birds upon it.65

As mentioned earlier, there were no clear Qur'anic prohibitions on the depiction of figures or animals in art or everyday objects, despite more stern warnings against this in various ḥadīth. Mary Schoeser suggests that this dichotomy of adorned imagery represents one of the most profound "theoretical divide[s]" existing in Islam: the Shi'a, who permitted depictions of nature and of living things vis-à-vis the Sunni, who largely did not.66

     To better explain how a seemingly random object adorned with an inscription or figures transitioned into widespread usage of similarly-adorned garments in the Umayyad and Abbasid courts, one must first consider the importance Islam placed on religious inscription as a tool for promoting piety and obedience. Mohammad Yūsuf Siddiq suggests that prominent inscriptions, such as those found in Ṭirāz are designed to interact with the aesthetics of the wearer's surroundings: a technique that may well have been influenced by similar architectural epigraphy.67 According to Siddiq, reading, writing, and learning in general were of significant importance in Islam, despite the fact that at the time of the Arab conquests, much, if not most of the Muslim world remained effectively illiterate. Although deciphering an inscription was only possible for the educated, literate Muslim, the mere viewing of [Qur'anic] inscriptions was nonetheless considered Baraka—a form of divine blessing and served an iconographic function. Schoeser confirms this by noting that scholars have observed a noticeable change in Ṭirāz decoration occurring around the 11th-century, featuring considerably more brief inscriptions or in some cases, purely decorative imagery; thus supporting the argument that the simplification was designed for non-Islamic conquered peoples or illiterate Muslims.68

     What becomes evident when viewing inscriptions on architectural structures or textiles is that they communicate very specific types of information, such as the date of manufacture, and in the case of caliphs who used it on robes of honor, the name of the personage by, or for whom, it was created.69

     The style and appearance of the calligraphy used for these inscriptions worked well with the developing technology of silk weaving at the time. Once the inscriptions which had mentioned only a caliph's name later evolved into more elaborate ones featuring Qur'anic messages, Ṭirāz silk's use as a favored medium for communicating God's word solidified appreciably. In Islam, the written words of the Qur'an are considered divine and thus visually analogous to the divine "message" it imparts.70 As the lingua franca of nearly all ordinary Muslims, Arabic script was best poised to communicate this divine [caliphal] message and was thought to possess transcendent power.71

Ṭirāz as an Industry

     Once adopted for use, Ṭirāz fabric itself was produced in state-run manufacturing centers located within the caliphate. These workshops, as well as the material they produced, were divided into two distinct categories that were used to define the target of their efforts: those manufacturing khassa (material destined for use in the royal court), and 'amma (fabric of a slightly less refined quality and/or design otherwise available for widespread public purchase). While Ṭirāz consumption by the greater public or 'bourgeoisie' class led to greater demand for the luxurious fabric and helped spawn the expansion of the Ṭirāz factory system, this did not become widespread until later caliphates, namely the Abbasid and Fatimid.72 Somewhat problematic however is the unusual fact that, to date, there is no textual or archeological evidence indicating that Damascus, the seat of Umayyad power, was even a possible location of Ṭirāz production.

     Its Persian origins notwithstanding, the earliest-known Ṭirāz fabric dates back to the Umayyad period of either Marwān I (r. 684–5 ce) or Marwān II (r. 744–750 ce).73 Most scholars seem to agree that it was created during the latter's reign as the fragment bears the phrase "in the Ṭirāz factory of Ifrīqiya" within the inscription, and are highly doubtful that locations in the Maghreb were secure enough during Marwān I's reign to facilitate such a tedious industry like Ṭirāz.74 Moreover, Marwān I's relatively short reign (6–10 months) makes it even more unlikely that garments or fabric of this type would be attributed to him.75

     While the mention of the Ifrīqiya workshop appears promising as a specific location of manufacture, some caution that this singular textual reference cannot be viewed as certain. David Jacoby points out that despite the temptation to take the inscription at face-value, other extant sources that attest to silk production in Ifrīqiya do not appear until more than a century later.76 Serjeant, in discussing the very same piece does not even mention Ifrīqiya, but instead hypothesizes Alexandria as a contender.77

     While historians like Bierman, Stillman, and Jacoby argue that the overall paucity of evidence concerning initial Umayyad Ṭirāz production otherwise prevents any sort of consensus, other scholarship like Serjeant's, appear much more original in its analysis. On this, Serjeant references a passage, supposedly written by Mas'ūdī, who spoke about Hishām's affinity for "robes" and "striped silk." Serjeant acknowledges in his transliteration that the term Mas'ūdī uses to describe silkkhazz-raḳm—long predates Hisham's reign and that it came to mean "silk with inscriptions on it."78 Even more interesting is his conclusion that khazz-raḳm was also known to have been a finished product of Armenia at the time; something not found in any of the other sources consulted for this study.79

     Within the Islamic court, garments made from Ṭirāz were divided along two primary styles of dress. Clothes made for the 'men of the sword,' or those who were members of the military, were practical in design yet still afforded the opportunity for lavish adornment, especially among the high-ranking. The 'men of the pen' were comprised of both members of the 'ulema, as well as other royal bureaucrats. The long, flowing robes typically worn by this group, along with various scarves and shawls, provided the ideal garment on which to feature Ṭirāz inscriptions.80 Falling somewhere in between these groups were the common household attendees of the royal household, who were likewise similarly outfitted. Sulaymān's court practices were largely considered descendent of earlier Umayyad caliphal policy: "Nobody of his household used to enter his presence except in washī; thus it was with his friends, governors, and household. . . None of his servants, even the cook, entered his presence except in washī. . . "81 To be sure, that Ṭirāz featured into a number of different aspects of a caliph's purview underscores the material's significance within Islamic culture and society, no matter the period.

     From a present-day vantage point, the 'dynastic' modifications undertaken by the Umayyads succeeded in shaping the particular manner Islam was observed during the period immediately following the Arab conquests. Because much of the evidence from that time is sometimes sparse or fragmentary, the conclusions that may be drawn from them today only come about when the sources are taken in toto; that is, by discerning similarities (and differences) of all three caliphal periods (Umayyad, Abbasid, and Fatimid). Alterations of Qur'anic guidance bridged a major theological divide and allowed a material like Ṭirāz to flourish at just the point when it would have destined to remain prohibited. The Umayyad's thirst for all things sumptuous left them in a quandary of sorts—the Prophet's proscriptions against luxury were on their surface, pervasive and eternally damning if violate. As has been seen here, desire for what the Umayyads' believed was rightly theirs through conquest facilitated the successive iterations and variations of Islamic jurisprudence which finally decided the issue in their favor.

     The value Islam placed on the word of God, in all of its [written] forms, ensured that a divinely-inspired and proper vehicle existed for Muslims to convey their piety; least of whom were the caliphs themselves, who saw to it that Qur'anic inscriptions satisfied both secular and religious ideals. Silk, whose origins along the various regions of the Silk Road go back interminably, became the perfect medium to satiate both Arab desire for finery and communicate divine inspiration. To be sure, this identification and use of silk did not occur suddenly or seemingly overnight. It was only after sericulture practices had been successively refined and transmitted regionally through commerce that silk attained the opulent and luxurious nature which so many cultures desired. The Arabs were not alone in this regard.

     Taking the fabric to a higher level, Muslim weavers became quite adept in weaving gold bullion thread into the silk itself, producing even richer garments as a result. Once Muslim rulers recognized the benefit of utilizing this new Ṭirāz for political or customary gain, the establishment of a formal production system, under state-control, enabled the fabric to spread its demand beyond the more educated, royal court. Once the Abbasids and later Fatimids expanded the Ṭirāz system and royal attire became a focus of public emulation, widespread purchase of the silken fabric entrenched its position within Islamic society even more. That Ṭirāz held a multiplicity of meanings not only in the literary or linguistic sense, but also in the secular/religious sense as well makes it all the more fascinating and deserving of continued study.

Robert Klemm teaches World History at Lanier Technical College and Riverside Military Academy. His research interests also include the modern era, and he recently completed a detailed study of the diffusion of transatlantic Fascism in early 20th century Latin America. He can be reached at


1 See David C. Waugh, "Richthofen's "Silk Roads": Toward the Archeology of a Concept," The Silk Road Journal 5: 1 (2007): 1–10.

2 Doris Behrens-Abouseif, "Beyond the Secular and the Sacred: Qur'anic Inscriptions in Medieval Islamic Art and Material Culture," in Word of God, Art of Man: The Qur'an and its Creative Expressions, Selected Proceedings from the International Colloquium, London, 1821 October, 2003, ed. Fahmida Suleman (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 41. Behrens-Abouseif makes the point that Muslim political thought was divided between two components: siyāsa, which centered over statecraft or politics in general, and dīn, referring to religion itself. The established "imperative" was that the siyāsa must not "conflict with religion, but rather be in accordance with it." See also Bernard Lewis, ed. and trans., Islam: From the Prophet Muhammad to the Fall of Constantinople (New York: Walker and Company, 1974), xvi, for his related discussion on regnum and sacerdotium.

3 Behrens-Abouseif, 42–43; 'Abdullah Yūsuf 'Alī, The Holy Qur'an: Text, Translation, and Commentary (Brentwood, MD: Amana Corporation, 1989), Q: 56: 77–9.

4 Ibid..

5 Lewis, xvii.

6 Ibid..

7 Tim Winter, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Classical Islamic Theology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 8. This consensus is referred to in Islam as ijmā, which represented both the 'majority' (jumhūr) and their complimentary 'minorities' (firaq).

8 Lewis, xviii–xix.

9 Ibid., xix.

10 Ibid.. Lewis suggests that fabricated hadīth tells us a lot about the time, circumstances, and purpose for the fabrication itself.

11 Ira Lapidus, A History of Islamic Societies, 2d ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 86.

12 Lewis, 11.

13 James Robson, "The Isnād Muslim Tradition," in Hadīth: Origins and Developments, Vol 28, Harald Motzki, ed. (Great Britain: Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., 2004), 166. In this piece, Robson argues that the hadīth and Jewish Talmūd share considerable similarity in their oral traditions.

14 Xinru Liu, The Silk Road in World History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 99.

15 Ibid..

16 'Alī, S. (Al-Kahf) 18:30–31.

17 'Alī, S. (Al-Ḥajj) 22:23.

18 Ibid., S. (Al-Isnān) 76:12.

19 Ibid., S. (Al-'rāf) 7:26.

20 Ibid., 350 n. 1008.

21 Ibid..

22 Ṣaḥiḥ al-Bukhārī, The Meanings of Ṣaḥiḥ al-Bukhārī. Vol 2, Muḥammad Muḥsin Khān, trans. (Saudi Arabia: Islamic University, n.d.), 6:11. For a similar mention of this very same incident, see also Stillman, 15.

23 Patricia Baker, Islam and the Religious Arts (London: Continuum, 2004), 27.

24 Stillman, 15.

25 Lapidus, 46.

26 Lewis, 164–165.

27 Stillman, 30. The term vestimentary system is explained well by Stillman. It is borrowed from Roland Barthes, who first coined the phrase "un système vestimentaire" in 1957 in his work, "Histoire et sociologie du vêtement: quelques observations méthodologiques," Annales: Economies, Sociétés, Civilisations 3 (1957), pp. 430–431.

28 Stillman, 31.

29 Ibid..

30 Mas'udi, The Meadows of Gold: The Abbasids, ed. and trans. Paul Lunde and Caroline Stone (London: Kegan Paul International Ltd., 1989), 24.

31 Mas'udi, 25. This same exchange is similarly chronicled in Ibn Khaldūn's The Muqaddimah: An Introduction to History, trans. Franz Rosenthal (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1958), 424–425.

32 Helen C. Evans and Brandie Ratliff, trans., Byzantium and Islam: Age of Transition, 7th9th Century (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2012), 75.

33 Ibn Khaldūn, 298.

34 Ibn Khaldūn, 341.

35 Fred M. Donner, ed., The Expansion of the Early Islamic State Vol 5 (Great Britain: Ashgate Publishing Ltd., 2008), xix–xx.

36 Stillman, 32.

37 R.B. Serjeant, Islamic Textiles: Material for a History up to the Mongol Conquest (Beirut: Librairie du Liban, 1972), 14. Serjeant notes examples of silk's proliferation in court and in gift-giving. This stands out incongruently however from what is asserted in Stillman, 32: "'Abd al-Malik. . . and Walīd I. . . were also singled out for the general restraint that they showed in their personal attire. . . ." While these two descriptions of al-Malik differ, his "restraint" does bear a resemblance to the exchange recounted between the Prophet and 'Umar noted earlier.

38 Stillman, 32.

39 Ibid., 33.

40 Stillman, 40.

41 David Jacoby, "Silk Economic and Cross-Cultural Artistic Interaction: Byzantium, the Muslim World, and the Christian West," Dunbarton Oaks Papers 58 (2004), 213.

42 Jacoby, 214.

43 Ibid..

44 Ibid., 216; Anthony Cutler, Image-Making in Byzantium, Sasanian Persia, and the Early Muslim World (Great Britain: Ashgate Publishing Ltd., 2009), 263.

45 Cutler, 263.

46 Ibid., 265. See earlier 263: Cutler observes that it was understood by court officials that gifts from their ruler were considered as part of their salary; likewise, rulers indicated that similar gifts from his "appointees" were considered a category of taxation.

47 Thomas T. Allsen, Commodity and Exchange in the Mongol Empire (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 90.

48 Luce Boulnois, The Silk Road, trans. Dennis Chamberlin (New York: E.P. Dutton & Company, Inc., 1966), 118, 147.

49 Ibid., 119.

50 Ibid., 145.

51 Ibid., 120.

52 Ibid..

53 Sources from H. Wada, "Prokops Rätselwort Serindia und die Verpflanzung des Seidenbaus von China nach dem oströmischen Reich" (PhD diss., Cologne University, 1972), 63–70; cited in Anna Muthesius, Studies in Byzantium and Islamic Silk Weaving (London: The Pindar Press, 1995), 120.

54 Muthesius, 120–121. Muthesisus finds it necessary to point to various archeological studies done on silk moths to refute existing claims that sericulture originated solely in China. One study concludes that the Indian Nistari moth cannot be genetically derived from its domesticated Chinese cousin and that it is native only to India. Another finds that the domesticated Chinese moth is descended from a wild moth and holds that moth domestication could have likewise occurred in regions other than China.

55 F. Hirth, China and the Roman Orient: Researches into their Ancient and Mediaeval Relations as represented in old Chinese Records (Shanghai, 1885); cited in Muthesius, 121.

56 Muthesius, 120–122.

57 J. Koder, Das Eparchenbuch Leons des Weisen CFHB XXXIII (Wien, 1991), 99 regulation 6.5; cited in Muthesius, 325.

58 Muthesius, 137.

59 Ibid., 137–138.

60 Serjeant, 7.

61 Ibid., emphasis added.

62 Ibn Khaldūn, Prolégomènes historiques, ed. M. de Slane (Paris, 1862–68), I, 66; cited in Serjeant, 8. It has been long-believed in the West that depictions of living forms (human or animal) are specifically prohibited against in the Qur'an. 20th-century Islamic jurisprudence teaches that while there are no such proscriptions written in the Qur'an, 'extreme caution' must be exercised nonetheless as relevant warnings do exist in hadīth of the Sunni tradition. The reasoning, as it went, was that the Prophet warned that the maker of such images would be damned to Hell if they were unable to 'breathe life' into their creations. See Patricia Baker, Islam and the Religious Arts (London: Continuum, 2004), 37–38.

63 Serjeant, 9.

64 Ibid..

65 Ibid., 11.

66 Mary Schoeser, World Textiles: A Concise History (London: Thames & Hudson, 2003), 84.

67 Mohammad Yūsuf Siddiq, "Inscription as an important means for understanding the History of the Islamic East: Observations on some newly-discovered epigraphs of Muslim Bengal," Journal of Islamic Studies 20: 2 (2009): 221.

68 Ibid., 219; Schoeser, 84.

69 Ibid..

70 Ibid., 215.

71 Ibid., 215, 221.

72 Schoeser, 84; See also Baker, 203; Stillman, 125.

73 Stillman, 124.

74 Ibid., 124–125.

75 Ibid..

76 Jacoby, 200.

77 Serjeant, 14.

78 Ibid..

79 Ibid..

80 Baker, 204–205.

81 Serjeant, 14.

Home | List Journal Issues | Table of Contents
© 2016 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
Content in World History Connected is intended for personal, noncommercial use only. You may not reproduce, publish, distribute, transmit, participate in the transfer or sale of, modify, create derivative works from, display, or in any way exploit the World History Connected database in whole or in part without the written permission of the copyright holder.

Terms and Conditions of Use