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LAND TENURE. Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries land tenure in the Islamic world was heavily affected by political factors, although this was hardly new. The three main influences on land tenure are the rules and choices imposed by political elites, Islamic law, and customary provisions, including pre-Islamic systems and adaptations to specific environments. Land tenure itself can be seen as including formal rules of ownership, rules guiding access to land for nonowners, and the distribution of landholdings according to these rules.

Major trends and changes in the last two hundred years include the liberalization of land tenure in the nineteenth century to allow for individual property in land, and the wave of land reforms that followed the Egyptian land reform of 1952. Land tenure in the Middle East is now moving toward more private land ownership and the dismantling of the systems set up under government land reform.

Islamic Land Law. In many traditional Islamic systems it was considered that the state (or the ruler), as the representative of the Islamic community, was the ultimate owner of the land. This right was predicated on conquest. While the state or the ruler held absolute ownership (raqabah), the actual farmers held usufruct rights (tasarruf ). One of the consequences of this form of land ownership was that it allowed actual practices of access to land to be governed by non-Islamic rules, since property rights were not involved. Only a small part of the agricultural land in the Islamic world was owned as “freehold” (milk), in the sense that the owner had rights against the state. And in legal theory only milk land could be transformed into waqf (endowed) land, although the actual history and distribution of waqf land suggests there was considerable flexibility in practice. Both usufruct rights and freehold rights could be established by bringing land into cultivation; this “living” land was then contrasted to “dead” or unused land. Under this system agricultural land was rarely held in freehold tenure: less than I percent in Iraq at the time of the 1958 revolution, although in practice the difference between freehold and usufructuary tenure was small (Batatu, 1978, p. 53).

Traditional Patterns and Ecological Adaptations. Many traditional practices governing access to land were based on use by a community rather than by an individual. This practice was often covered by the fiction of state ownership of the land; the land involved could also have been established as a waqf or it could also be an undivided inheritance. One much-cited example is musha` tenure in the grain-growing interior of the fertile crescent (Syria, Palestine, and Jordan). Rights to land were vested in the village community, which would then periodically redistribute those rights to its members. Villagers thus held provisional use rights in the land and were generally only motivated to plant annual crops rather than to invest in land that might soon be allocated to another. Musha` tenure generally disappeared during the early twentieth century.

Periodic redistribution among shareholding villagers was also common in Iran, where shares were often calculated on the basis of the number of draft animals each villager held. Among the Pathans of the Swat valley in Pakistan not only was the land redistributed every decade, but entire villages would move to new lands; this system was halted around 193o by the local ruler (Fredrik Barth, Political Leadership among Swat Pathans, London, 1959) A system of redistribution was also practiced along the Nile in Upper Egypt and the Sudan before modern times, where it reflected the recession cultivation system; this is also reported from the Senegal and Niger valleys in Islamic West Africa, where redistribution was combined with nonexhaustive rights.

The land tenure situation was particularly complex in oases and river valleys where irrigation was needed. Here it was necessary to ensure that the land received the water it required. Although water rights usually matched land rights, sometimes water rights were held independently of land rights. In the Egyptian Fayyum, landholders are entitled to the entire flow of water in a canal during a certain period of time for each unit of land, while in parts of Iran, the local magnates owned the water source separately from the land. Currently in Egypt farmers may take water freely from the government canals, which are themselves on a rotation system, but there will be pressure to change this system as demand for the limited Nile waters increases. Elsewhere in the Islamic world irrigation may be from wells, from government projects, or from traditional systems around springs and oases.

The intensity of cultivation in the oases also gave rise to intricate elaborations of land tenure laws, such as the thousand-year leases that were a feature of the oases around `Unayzah in Saudi Arabia (Altorki and Cole, 1989, PP. 34-38). In new irrigation projects such as the Ghab in Syria, the initial strong state control based on a “rational” system of land and water distribution is undermined by the many private arrangements that farmers make.

Ownership was not the only form of access to land. In the premodern Islamic world sharecropping was common but has since generally given way to rentals. Sharecropping allowed for decentralization of farming decisions to the household level. The balance of power between owner and sharecropper varied but was usually in favor of the owner. The sharecropper’s share tended to be higher in irrigated areas producing for an urban market, or where he brought additional capital such as draft animals to the partnership. In modern times conditions of rental have often been fixed by the state, as in Egypt. A current trend, with ancient antecedents, is for merchants to finance the farming of certain crops, often fruits and vegetables, by offering advance payment to the farmers.

Islamic land tenure rules reflect agricultural land better than pasture land. Thus in those substantial parts of the Islamic world where pastoralism was a key economic activity, other forms of rights emerged, involving both collective rights and nonexhaustive rights. Certain pastoral groups had the accepted right to use certain resources in a land area, while other groups might have the right to use other resources, or to use the same resources at a different season. These collective rights to pastureland emerged in desert, semidesert, and mountain areas.

Early Modern Political Changes. The growth of individual property in land (in the form now present) can be traced back to the land laws of the mid-nineteenth century. In the Ottoman Empire a land law was passed in 1858 that required, among other things, the registration of land in the name of an individual. The application of this law in Palestine from 1867 to 1873 led to the registration of much land in the names of urban, absentee landlords, many of whom eventually sold the land to Jewish settlers, thus clearing the way for the Zionist establishment in Palestine. The same law, whose application in Iraq was begun by the Ottomans after 1869 but not completed until the land law of 1932 under the British mandate, effectively gave the major tribal shaykhs de facto ownership rights, with their fellow tribesmen as tenants. The application of the 1858 law in Anatolia does not seem to have been so disruptive, and much of Anatolia entered the modern era dominated by smallholders.

A series of Egyptian laws between 1847 and 1858 helped establish the right to private land ownership in Egyptian agricultural land, although it has been pointed out that the effect of the laws themselves may have been exaggerated (Cuno, 1992). In Algeria a series of French laws between 1856 and 1873 had the same effect, although a large part of the motivation was to break up the collective ownership patterns of the Algerian tribes and make land available for European purchasers. By the end of the colonial period in 1962 roughly onequarter of the farmland was in colonial hands, and it was by and large the best land. Shortly after the French protectorate was established in Tunisia, a law in 1885 also required land registration according to the Australian Torrens system. This also had the effect of allowing much land to be acquired by colonialists, who controlled about 20 percent of the farmland by the 1950s.

Samir Amin (1978) argues that this evolution created a class of large and often absentee landholders, an agrarian bourgeoisie. For Amin this was the first adaptation of the Arab world to the expansion of world capitalism. It happens that in North Africa the landholders were mostly colonial, while in the Arab East they were more likely to be indigenous; however, the economic structure was comparable. These large landholders were also responsible for introducing mechanization, for switching over from sharecropping to wage labor as a means for organizing cultivation of the land, and for establishing links with a banking system for credit rather than individual moneylenders. They also fostered changes in the irrigation system where that was appropriate. The end result was a highly unequal pattern of distribution of rights over land.

Socialism and Land Reform. Land reform began in

Egypt in 1952, where it was the first substantial act of the revolutionary government. It was largely motivated by the desire to dispossess the old ruling class. It did not respond to a grassroots social movement; in Egypt as elsewhere, land reform was the outcome of deliberations of urban intellectuals and politicians. In Egypt the first wave of agrarian reform divided the estates among small farmers, often their former workers, who were then organized into agrarian reform cooperatives. The second wave, after 1961, continued this process but was more notable for consolidating the relationship between owners and renters and for requiring all farmers to join a village credit cooperative. “By 1970, an area of 817,538 feddans, or slightly less than 13 percent of the total cultivated land of Egypt during that year, had been distributed to 341,982 families comprising some 1.7 million persons, or about 9 percent of the rural population” (Radwan, 1977, p. 16; a feddan is approximately .42 hectare). Perhaps a third of the farmland was initially affected by the regulations on rentals, and all land was brought under the supervision of the cooperatives after 1961. Whether this reform was too great or too small a change has been hotly argued in Egypt; certainly it did little directly for the landless, but it did make the distribution of landholding more equitable. The reforms (land tenure rules, cooperatives, subsidies on inputs, and marketing quotas) had the effect of making the government into the partner of each farmer and structured Egyptian agriculture for about forty years after the 1952 reform.

Agrarian reforms of various types, often modeled on the Egyptian experience, were enacted in Iraq, Syria, Tunisia, Algeria, Iran, Pakistan, and elsewhere. In Algeria, the one-quarter of the land that had been held by colonial farmers largely passed into the “self-management” sector after independence in 1962. Workers on the estates took on the responsibility for managing them as they were, within the framework of a government bureaucracy. Later, with the agrarian reform law of 1971, the larger Algerian-owned farms were organized into cooperatives, covering 22 percent of the land. The remaining private land (53 percent) was marginal, but it employed 9o percent of the workers, contrasted to 3 percent in the socialist sector and 7 percent in the agrarian-reform sector. Thus the relative privilege of the best land persisted. Tunisia underwent a parallel evolution. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Algeria passed a number of laws that have the general effect of restoring to individuals the right to own land and to dispose of it fully. The immediate result was to foster rivalry between individuals of various categories for the rights to the land newly made available. There has been a shift from rights based on work to rights based on property ownership.

In Iran, the “white revolution” of the shah undercut the traditional ownership and use pattern for land and tended to establish individual private property (agrarian reform of 1962). Traditional large landowners and village use patterns were displaced in favor of agribusiness, particularly in newly irrigated areas. After the overthrow of the shah in 1978 a renewed debate over land tenure broke out between those who wanted to use the power of the state to guarantee that the poor would have access to the land, and those who argued that Islam necessarily guaranteed an untrammeled right to private property. It appears that the latter point of view carried the day. With political conflict at the national level, the situation on the ground remains unsettled.

Liberalization. Recent changes in Egypt have modified the strong pattern of government involvement in agriculture. The system of enforced crop rotation, subsidized inputs, and marketing quotas has been dismantled, and the village cooperative has lost much of its role. The agrarian reform cooperatives survive a little better. A 1992 land law restricted the rights of tenants in favor of owners, thus changing the status of the roughly one-quarter of the land that was under tenancy. This law is supposed to be fully implemented by 1997. During the parliamentary debate around this law it was argued that this change would bring rights in land more into accord with Islamic law: the point in question was whether giving a renter a permanent right to rent land and pass that right on by inheritance was an infringement on the Islamic law of contract, which was held to withhold legitimacy from such unchangeable contracts. But it was also argued that some owners of land were being deprived of their legitimate income from that land. The interests of renters were not taken into consideration. The liberalization was also thought to be the result of pressure from international financial organizations.

Various factors have entered into the debates about land law. In the name of equity some argued that land tenure systems should permit maximum access to the land by farmers and farm workers. Others argued that the inviolability of private property is grounded in Islamic law, and that accumulation is no sin. At all times rulers and the state have used donations of land to win followers. Little thought has been given to devising a land tenure system that will foster development, and less to allowing some voice to the small farmers. Meanwhile the population grows, especially in the rural areas. The relative uncertainty of land ownership is likely to continue into the near future, and this will shape the development patterns of the Islamic countries.

[See also Agriculture; Economics; Property.]


Abdel-Khalek, Gouda, and Robert Tignor, eds. The Political Economy of Income Distribution in Egypt. New York, 1982. Collection of papers, many by Egyptian economists and several dealing with the role of land tenure in income distribution (see, in particular, the papers by Dessouki, Korayem, Ibrahim, Mohie-Eldin, and Zaytoun).

Altorki, Soraya, and Donald P. Cole. Arabian Oasis City: The Transformation of `Unayzah. Austin, 1989. Team of anthropologists analyzes the present and recent history of a town in Saudi Arabia.

Amin, Samir. The Arab Nation. Translated by Michael Pallis. London, 1978. Leading Marxist economist interprets the history of the Arab world.

Batatu, Hanna. The Old Social Classes and the Revolutionary Movements of Iraq. Princeton, 1978. Thoroughly documented account of social change in Iraq in the twentieth century, with many specific references to land tenure and land distribution.

Chaulet, Claudine. “Agriculture et nourriture dans les reformes algeriennes: Un espace pour les paysans?” Revue Tiers Monde 32 (1991): 741-770. Provides a wide-ranging summary of the agrarian situation in Algeria at the beginning of the 1990s.

Cuno, Kenneth M. The Pasha’s Peasants: Land, Society, and Economy in Lower Egypt, 1740-1858. Cambridge, 1992. Gives many details on land tenure and society in early modern Egypt, linking cases and law.

Hooglund, Eric J. Land and Revolution in Iran, 1960-1980. Austin, 1982. Argues that one of the sources of the Iranian Revolution was the disruption of the land tenure and land use pattern under the Shah.

Hopkins, Nicholas S. Agrarian Transformation in Egypt. Boulder, 1987. Analysis of land tenure, land use patterns, and irrigation in an upper Egyptian village.

Lambton, Ann K. S. Landlord and Peasant in Persia: A Study of Land Tenure and Land Revenue Administration. London, 1953. Account of Iran in the 1940s, with historical background.

Lambton, Ann K. S. The Persian Land Reform, 1962-1966. London, 1969. Measured account by a leading expert, covering the early phases and social background of the land reform in Iran.

Marei, Sayed. Agrarian Reform in Egypt. Cairo, 1957. Statement by the man responsible for the land reform program in Egypt; a useful source both for its attitudes and its figures.

Mehanna, Sohair, et al. Irrigation and Society in Rural Egypt. Cairo, 1984. Account of irrigation in Fayyum, Minufiyah, and Minya governorates, stressing the diversity of local practices.

Metral, Frangoise. “State and Peasants in Syria: A Local View of a Government Irrigation Project.” Peasant Studies 11.2 (1984): 69go. Account of how land tenure and irrigation in the Ghab project were transformed by resettled peasants.

Meyer, Ann Elizabeth, ed. Property, Social Structure, and Law in the Modern Middle East. Albany, N.Y., 1985. Collection of papers, including some on irrigation and land law; note papers by Attia, Leveau, and Hammoudi.

Radwan, Samir M. Agrarian Reform and Rural Poverty: Egypt, 19521975. Geneva, 1977. Probably the best summary of the effects of agrarian reform in Egypt.

Saab, Gabriel S. The Egyptian Agrarian Reform, 1952-1962. London, 1967. Thorough study, but one that best reflects the first phase of agrarian reform, of which the author was not a warm supporter. Valensi, Lucette. Tunisian Peasants in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries. Cambridge, 1985. Excellent account of early modern Tunisia, with considerable information on landholding practices. Warriner, Doreen. Land Reform and Development in the Middle East: A Study of Egypt, Syria, and Iraq. 2d ed. London, 1962. The author was the major authority on this topic in the Arab world, based on extensive experience in several countries from the 1940s to the 1960s.


Azhar Niaz Article's Source: http://islamicus.org/land-tenure/

  • writerPosted On: July 28, 2014
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