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GUILDS once played a decisive role in the life of Arab cities in various ways: economically, they controlled production and trade; socially, they provided a framework for the active population (which is to say, most of the population, with the exception of the ruling class, usually dominated by foreigners); and finally, in the absence of specialized urban agencies, guilds were one of the entities that permitted cities to function.

Given the aforementioned factors, it is all the more striking that there is no Arabic equivalent of the word guild: hirfah and sinf actually mean “trade,” and the term ta’ifah (pl., tawa’if), often used to refer to guilds, denotes in a larger sense a community or any kind of group (particularly religious or national groups). The surprising lack of an exact equivalent for “guild” might be the result of the belated appearance of guilds in the Arab world. Louis Massignon’s theories on the Muslim-more specifically, Isma’ili origins–of guilds in the ninth century (1920), to which Bernard Lewis in his article entitled “The Islamic Guilds” (1937) gave a classic formulation, have been criticized by Claude Cahen and Samuel Stern in The Islamic City (1970). They suggest that true guilds only came into existence during the Ottoman period. In Anatolian Turkey, professional organizations with strongly religious overtones appeared in the fourteenth century and included akhi (“brothers”) and fitydn (“young people”) described in detail by Ibn Battutah (Voyages, vol. 2, pp. 26o-65); their activities presaged the corporate rituals of the futuwah. This revisionist view might be too extreme, however. There are a number of accounts attesting to the existence of professional groups (jama’a) headed by shaykhs and controlled by market provosts (muhtasib) well before the Ottoman conquest. These guilds were particularly active in Andalusia where the hisbah (enforcement of public morals) was very well organized. Indeed, Andalusians who emigrated to North Africa in the sixteenth century are credited with organizing guilds in Tunisia.

From the sixteenth to the nineteenth century, guilds were organized around trade and commerce as well as the artisanal activities: urban markets, including those operated by major spice and fabric merchants (tujjdr) were part of the system. Even less-respectable trades had their guilds: thieves apparently had one.

Naturally, the number of guilds in different cities varied according to the local economy and the number of trades. Istanbul allegedly had 1,109 guilds, according to somewhat implausible estimates provided by the seventeenth-century Turkish voyager Evliya Celebi (Mantran, 1962). More realistic figures indicate an estimated 250 in Cairo, 16o in Aleppo, 8o in Tunis, and 6o in Algiers. The number could vary: neighborhood guilds were created as the city and number of markets grew (8 brokers’ guilds or dalldlin in Cairo); technical guilds reflected the division of labor (5 dyers’ guilds were organized according to colors and materials used). New guilds were created whenever a new activity or product appeared (8 tobacconists’ and pipe makers’ guilds, also in Cairo), an indication that the system was not as rigid as some have claimed.

In general, guilds were geographically determined as trades were grouped in clearly delineated zones (neighborhoods, streets) inside the city. A guild thus corresponded not only to a trade but also to a specific urban zone.

It is clear that guilds were hierarchically structured, although more precise details with regard to particular aspects are lacking. The hierarchy of ranks is known apprentice (mubtadi’; Tk., cirak), journeyman (sani`; Tk., kalfa), and master (mu’allim; Tk., usta)-but information regarding specific criteria for rising up the ranks is scant. For instance, very little information is available with respect to tests or the creation of a masterpiece, which would entitle a member to practice his profession.

Guilds were headed by a shaykh (Near East) or amin (Maghrib) chosen by guild members and confirmed by local or central authorities (as evidenced by nomination devices in Istanbul). It seems that the authorities intervened in particular when problems arose with the nomination of a shaykh or amin by his peers. Accession to the title of shaykh most likely depended on the candidate’s professional and moral qualities, as well as his renown and familial prestige. It was not uncommon for the title to be handed down in a family, much like the common practice of a son inheriting his father’s trade. The shaykh or amin’s various assistants included the naqib and katkhudd. The oldest and most respected masters (ikhtiyariyah) formed an elite from whom the shaykh often sought counsel and support.

In several cities, urban guilds came under the jurisdiction of a shaykh al-mashd’ikh, as in Damascus (Qoudsi, 1885; Rafeq, 1991 or of an amin al-umand’ in Algiers (Touati, 1987), although this role might have been more ceremonial than professional or administrative.

In Tunis, the Andalusians who dominated the shawwdshi (hat makers’) guild succeeded in controlling the entire guild system. The amin of the shawwdshi was also the amin al-tujjdr (leader of the traders) and the president of the trade court (whose ten members included eight Andalusians).

Religious rituals within guilds are characteristic of the eastern regions of the Arab and Muslim world. Although work in the guilds took place in a deeply religious atmosphere (Touati, 1987), guilds in the Maghrib do not appear to have adopted these religious rituals per se. The existence of a corporative ritual (futuwah, a term originally denoting “chivalry” but which came to refer more narrowly to life within trades and neighborhoods; see Cahen, 197o) has been documented for both Damascus (Qoudsi, 1885) and Cairo (Baer, 1964; Raymond, 1974) it possibly originated in Anatolian Turkey (see Ibn Battutah). The futuwah manuals provide an image of rituals similar to those described in Evliya Celebi’s Seyahatname around the mid-seventeenth century; the same rituals have been found in Central Asia (Gavrilov, 1928).

The guilds mentioned (only seventy-five) are linked to the Prophet through their patron saints (pir): `All is initiated by Muhammad during the shadd (binding) ceremony. `Ali in turn initiates seventeen pirs, and then Salman al-Faris! (the Prophet’s companion and patron of barbers) swears in the patrons of other noneconomic guilds (muezzins, standard bearers) and nontraditional guilds (coffee is mentioned but not tobacco), thereby indicating that rituals developed at a later time. The futuwah books describe the transmission of futuwah from Adam to Muhammad, `Ali, and the pirs, as well as the initiation rites of shaykhs, which consisted of a series of questions and answers reflecting a concern solely for religious and moral edification. The crucial role played by ‘All and the ShM nature of this ritual are especially noteworthy (thus explaining Massignon’s theory of the origins of guilds).

The shadd ritual (which consisted of tying a varying number of knots according to the initiate’s rank) and related ceremonies are documented in sources other than the futuwah manuals. A meeting was called by the guild’s shaykh (through the naqib during which the initiate received a belt knotted in three to seven places; this was followed by a meal (walimah) shared by a given number of master craftsmen. At least a few of the guilds held celebrations to honor their patron or a particularly revered saint.

In Cairo, guilds actively participated in the ru`yah (moon-gazing) ceremony, which took place on the eve of Ramadan at a gathering of the muhtasib and afforded an opportunity for a review or parade of the principal trades. This tradition, with major changes, continued in the form of a cavalcade in Cairo up until the 1950s. Guilds participated in many collective celebrations and displayed signs, banners, musical instruments, and decorated floats.

The quite varied roles that guilds played in Arab cities are well known and will therefore be briefly summarized. Their participation in the economic domain included regulating the production of goods, maintaining a professional code of ethics, overseeing prices, particularly during times of crisis, maintaining good relations among members, and supplying labor. Guilds determined entrance requirements for joining trades by means of the gedik (professional license); this effective numerus clausus favored the practice of inheriting trades. Although guilds probably contributed to the technical stagnation which characterized Arab countries during this period, the creation of guilds based on new products (coffee, tobacco) indicates a certain capacity for the system’s growth. Their administrative role was no less important: they provided a link between tradesmen and authorities whose job of administrating the working urban population was thus greatly facilitated. For instance, taxes were levied on the basis of lists drawn up by the shaykhs of members under their control. Guilds assisted in the management of the city in their own economic areas and no doubt in the maintenance of order as well. Hence, they represented an indispensable urban mechanism in a city that lacked a real administrative structure. By organizing the working population according to professions, guilds contributed in an efficient manner to social equilibrium.

The nineteenth century witnessed the gradual decline of guilds and their eventual disappearance. This occurred rather slowly, however. Even in countries affected by the sudden modernization of their institutions and economies-for example, Egypt (beginning in 1805 under Muhammad ‘Ali)-guilds did not completely lose ground until the 1870s. In preparing Cairo for its transformation into a modern city, `Ali. Pasha Mubarak relied on construction guilds to provide a framework for the urban development project financed by Khedive Isma’il in 1868.

Generally speaking, traditional guilds disappeared as a result of economic, social, political, and administrative changes in countries undergoing internal and external transformations and not because of administrative decisions.

Economic changes in Arab countries from the nineteenth century onward (already apparent in the mideighteenth century) had the most significant impact. Formerly prosperous artisanal trades were hit hard by vigorous European penetration that eventually led to their ruin. It was the case for the textile trade, which had flourished in the eighteenth century but could no longer compete with European products: in Damascus, foreign-made fabrics and European fashions became the norm (Rafeq, 1991). Local copper and wood craftsmen who produced everyday utensils were hurt by the introduction of modern European goods. Traditional trade based on caravans to transport goods also fell victim to the new means of transportation introduced by Europe. Modern techniques and the introduction of machinery had similar effects on local craftsmanship. Muhammad `Ali’s efforts to industrialize Egypt almost certainly contributed to the decline of local, traditional products.

New production techniques in imitation of Europe’s naturally developed outside the traditional guild system. As a consequence of the mass urbanization that affected Arab countries beginning in 1850, cities saw an influx of rural inhabitants who did not belong to guilds and were therefore not subject to the strict entrance requirements set by guilds to practice a trade. Thus, an increasing percentage of the working population was not under the guilds’ control. In 1927, only io percent of Damascus’s working population belonged to traditional guilds (Louis Massignon, “Structure du travail a Damas en 1927,” Cahiers intemationaux de sociologie 15 [1953]: 34-52).

The profound political changes that occurred in Arab countries had equally negative consequences for guilds. The reforms adopted by some countries (Egypt under Muhammad `All and, later, Tunisia), intended to modernize administrations, resulted in guilds gradually becoming useless where administrative tasks were concerned: this was particularly true for the levying of taxes, which was handed over to specialized agencies.

In even more extreme fashion, colonization (Algeria in 1830, Tunisia in 1881, and Egypt in 1882) imposed not only new political and administrative structures but also an economic system whose growth was hindered by guilds. Europeans took over the principal commercial sectors and industrial production and thus competed with indigenous craftsmen; the latter, limited to providing traditional goods seen as “old-fashioned,” found themselves unable to compete. In Tunisia, shashiya making, which had employed 20,000 workers in the early nineteenth century, employed no more than 6,000; or 7,000 around 1850 and i,ooo around 1934 (Pennec, 1964).

Guilds thus gradually broke up and were limited to a small number of traditional crafts; there was no need for formally dissolving them. In Cairo, the decline of guilds accelerated around 1890 when free enterprise was established (Baer, 1964) and, in particular, when shaykhs no longer were responsible for supplying labor. Until very recently, a few guilds continued to exist but were largely considered obsolete and a mere curiosity. In 1947, Images, a Cairo newspaper, published an interview with Shaykh Muhammad Sharkas describing the copper makers’ guild he had headed. But guilds had then ceased to exist for a long time. It cannot be said with certainty that the gradual decline of guilds coincided with the appearance of modern trade unions.

When the origins of trade unions in Hama, Syria, were investigated (Gaulmier, 1932), for example, the two phenomena appeared to be totally unrelated.

[See also Bazaar; Futuwah.]


Baer, Gabriel. Egyptian Guilds in Modern Times. Jerusalem, 1964. Baer, Gabriel. “The Organization of Labour.” In Handbuch der Orientalistik, vol. 6, pp. 31-52. Leiden, 1977.

Cahen, Claude. “Y a-t-il eu des corporations professionnelles dans le monde musulman classique?” In The Islamic City, edited by Albert Hourani and S. M. Stern, pp. 51-63. Oxford, 1970.

Gauhnier, Jean. “Notes sur le mouvement syndicaliste a Hama.” Revue des Etudes Islamiques 6.2 (1932): 95-125.

Gavrilov, Michel. “Les corps de metiers en Asie Centrale et leurs statuts (rissala).” Revue des Etudes Islamiques 2.2 (1928): 209-230. Gibb, H. A. R., and Harold Bowen. Islamic Society and the West. 2 vols. London, 1950-1957. See pages 281-295.

Lewis, Bernard. “The Islamic Guilds.” Economic History Review 8 0937): 20-37.

Mantran, Robert. Istanbul dans la seconde moitie du XVIIe siecle. Paris, 1962. See pages 349-393.

Massignon, Louis. “Les corps de metier et la cite islamique.” Revue Internationale de Sociologie 28 (1920): 473-489.

Massignon, Louis. “Enquete sur les corporations musulmanes d’artisans et de commercants au Maroc.” Revue du Monde Musulman 58 (1924)

Pennec, Pierre. Les transformations des corps de metiers de Tunis sous l’influence dune economie externe de type capitaliste. Tunis, 1964. Qoudsi, Elia. “Notice sur les corporations de Damas.” In Actes du sixieme congres international des Orientalistes, vol. 2, pp. 7-34. Leiden, 1885.

Rafeq, Abdul-Karim- “Craft Organization, Work Ethics, and the Strains of Change in Ottoman Syria.” Journal of the American Oriental Society 111 (1991): 495-511.

Raymond, Andre. Artisans et commercants au Caire au XVIIIe siecle. 2 vols. Damascus, 1974. See pages 503-585.

Raymond, Andre. Grandes villes arabes a l’epoque ottomane. Paris, 1985. See pages 129-133.

Stem, Samuel M. “The Constitution of the Islamic City.” In The Islamic City, edited by Albert Hourani and S. M. Stern, pp. 25-50. Oxford, 1970.

Toledano, Ehud R. State and Society in Mid-Nineteenth-Century Egypt. Cambridge, 1990 See pages 206-213 and 227-230.

Touati, Houari. “Les corporations des metiers a Alger a l’epoque ottomane.” Revue d’Histoire Maghrebine 47-48 (1987): 267-292.


Translated from French by Monique Fecteau

Azhar Niaz Article's Source: http://islamicus.org/guilds/

  • writerPosted On: June 8, 2013
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