The Muhtasib- Overseers of Al-Andalus

Officials who regulate things – markets, schools, industries – have always had power. In the cities of Al-Andalus, as the part of Spain under Moorish rule was known in medieval times, the Muhtasib, or Master of the Market, held sway over much of daily life.

In Song of Toledo, Faisal is a boy coming of age in Tulaytula (Toledo). This is how he views the role he hopes to play as a muhtasib.


While Faisal wandered the city early each day in part for his own pleasure, he was also making a cursory check to see if there were anything unusual to report back to his father: strange faces in an established booth, perhaps, or a new merchant peddling an item he had never seen before. Naturally, he was familiar to all the regular peddlers, and more than one would make a show of trying to charm him with an overtly friendly conversation or the offer of a free sample or two. Faisal, however, had no authority at all, and he would simply smile and wave and be about his business as quickly as he could. Parchment makers, tanners, barbers, victuallers, potters, wheelwrights, yoke makers, weavers, shoemakers and shield makers; these and a host of other merchants and craftsmen all sought to curry favor with Faisal’s father, so they were more than happy to share the intricacies of their trades with the boy on the chance he might put in a good word for them with his father.

Like his father and his grandfather, Faisal wanted to be a civil servant, a muhtasib, or Master of the Market. As members of the city’s administrative structure, it was their job to make sure that the merchants whose shops lined the streets and whose booths crowded Tulaytula’s city squares were dealing honestly with their fellow townsmen. Specifically, they were called upon to make sure that the amounts of grain being claimed by millers were indeed what they said they were. For weavers, reported thread counts for their fabrics needed to be true. The wares of wheelwrights and shoemakers were inspected to ensure the quality of their products, as well as the products of potters and yoke-makers and shield-makers. They were to make sure that crafts were arranged in a reasonable order, and that partridges and slaughtered domestic fowl were sold with the crop plucked. Rabbits had to be skinned so that bad ones could be distinguished from good, and egg sellers had to have bowls of water available so that good eggs could be similarly distinguished from bad.

Cheese could only be sold in small leather packets, which had to be washed and cleaned every day and thus secured from worms and mold. Fat meats and lean needed to be sold in separate stalls, while tripe had to be sold dry and on boards, for water both spoiled it and increased its weight. Slaughtering was not allowed in the market place, but only in closed slaughterhouses, and the blood and refuse need to be discarded outside the market. Moreover, fish, whether from saltwater or fresh, could not be washed in water for this made it go bad. Nor could salted fish be soaked in water, for this also spoiled and rotted it. Naturally, leftover and rotten fish could not be sold.

The list of regulations a muhtasib was called upon to enforce extended also to the conduct of physicians, the need for women to conduct themselves appropriately in public places, and the prohibition of the intentional distribution of false or incorrect news or instructional information. Indeed, the above is a mere glimpse at what their duties entailed. Faisal was learning all that he needed to know about a muhtasib’s responsibilities from his father. They were responsibilities that he very much took to heart.

“My son,” his father told Faisal countless times, “a man is only as good as his word, so if I can help a man protect the integrity of his product, than I am helping him protect his soul.”

Of course, not all of the merchants they inspected were as concerned about the state of their souls as Faisal’s father was. Nor, for that matter, was Faisal’s grandfather. For as far back as Faisal could remember, Grandfather had been in poor health and rarely able to leave his house near the city’s main mosque. But that didn’t prevent him from maintaining a keen interest in the affairs of the city. Most days, Faisal would find a time to visit his grandfather, and when he did the old man would want the latest news from the marketplace. Unlike Faisal’s father, though, Grandfather was no longer interested in specific rules and regulations. Rather, he wanted to know when new merchants appeared, or when another product – a perfume, say, or a new line of silk – arrived from a distant city or country.

“We are the envy of all, you know,” the old man told his grandson more than once when the boy was still young. “Not just Tulaytula, but the entire country. All of Al-Andalus. We have built a country like none other.”

“I know, Grandfather,” the boy would reply with a smile.

“I don’t think you do, boy,” the old man would object. “You have not seen other parts of the world. Indeed, you have not even seen other parts of the country.”

“I don’t need to,” Faisal would laugh. “You’ve told me about them so often I have a very clear picture in my mind of every place you’ve ever been.”

The old man couldn’t help but smile at his grandson’s reply, but he would shake his head at the same time, just to make sure Faisal understood his point. His joking aside, Faisal knew very well that his grandfather was right, and as time passed he came to appreciate the old man’s persistence. Indeed, he knew it had lead in no small way to his decision to follow in his father’s and grandfather’s footsteps. Perhaps he couldn’t quite bring himself to believe, as his father seemed to, that he was saving men’s soul by making sure they were being honest in their dealings. But he could certainly recognize that in ensuring the quality of all the goods that came within Tulaytula’s walls, and in upholding the rules that guided the behavior of Tulaytula’s citizens, he was doing his part, however small, also to ensure that at least his home would live up to the reputation that his country had earned across the civilized world.

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