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Volume 28, Number 5September/October 1977

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The Muhtasib

Written by Caroline Stone
Illustrated by Penny Williams-Yaqub

All good citizens think of the government inspector with mingled fear and amusement. He is the man who declares your hobby shop a fire hazard and makes you rip out all that lovely electrical wiring, which you installed yourself to dodge the extravagant demands of the local electricians' union. Oh, for the good old days, you think, when you could blithely endanger your own and your neighbors life at will and when meddlers, official or not, could be ignored.

Well, there were no good old days. Since the beginning of urban life in the Nile delta, the floodplains of Mesopotamia, or on the great rivers of China, a primary function of government has been to intervene in the affairs of honest - and not-so-honest - citizens. Standard weights and measures, clean streets, tax collecting, health inspectors: all are necessary if people are going to insist on living cheek by jowl in cities.

The Arabs of Islam's Golden Age - a period centered around the year 800 - brought the art of urban living to a high state of perfection, and this perfection included the appointment of a special officer charged with maintaining public order. He was the Muhtasib, the Inspector General of Weights and Measures, a title that does no justice to his sweeping powers.

The Muhtasib was certainly in charge of weights and measures, but he was also in charge of standards generally - even standards of public behavior. He was, moreover, backed by a body of inspectors who were empowered to make regular checks on all the shops in the city, and to arrest offenders. We know a good deal about the precise functions of the Muhtasib from a series of handbooks outlining the duties of the office, which have survived mostly from Islamic Spain and which cover several centuries.

One of the most interesting of the Muhtasib's areas of responsibility was public health, a matter in many ways more important and harder to control than the relatively simple question of ensuring fair weights. He and his inspectors, therefore, fought a continuing battle to keep the streets clean - at least in the more important parts of the town - and to regulate dumping.

And that was only part of the job. Because the importance of clean food and drink in the prevention of disease was recognized by Muslim science, the ordinances governing food and drink were severe and the Muhtasib, enforced them strictly. All slaughtering had to be carried out in public slaughterhouses; to prevent the people being cheated, goat's flesh was kept separate from mutton and marked yellow with saffron, the tails being left on the carcasses until the last moment to help identification. The sale of the meat of sick animals to public cooks was forbidden, and such meat had to be hung outside the shop and not confused with the good meat inside. At the end of the day, the butcher was supposed to sprinkle his block with salt and cover it with palm mats to keep away dogs and vermin. Similarly, fish vendors were ordered to wash and salt their baskets and implements daily; any fish unsold by evening had to be dried or salted, provided it had not already gone bad, in which case it was to be disposed of on a midden beyond the city limits. Slaughtering and the preparation of fish could only take place in a special area; the same was true of tanning and other "unclean" trades.

The Muhtasib also inspected public eating houses. He could order pots and pans to be re-tinned or replaced; all vessels and their contents had to be kept covered against flies and insects. (In Iran, the house fly had been suspected as a spreader of disease as early as 1000 B.C., and there were strict injunctions even then against flies touching food and drink.) The Muhtasib and his deputies were also in charge of inspecting bakeries, where they suspected bakers often used adulterated wheat, engaged in unhygienic practices and gave short measure. In late Abbasid times, if a man was repeatedly charged with a serious offense against the community, such as selling carrion meat, the Muhtasib was empowered to have him executed.

The importance of milk and water - so often sources of communicable disease - was also recognized in the Arab world. In Baghdad, water was of two classes, the best being taken from wells, the less good from the river. The water was hawked around the city in large jars which had to be kept covered with a perforated lid or with palm leaves. Water was sold to passersby using little jars, and it was strictly forbidden to drink from the main jar or to dip one's hand into it. All the jars had to be scoured daily over a fire. The Muhtasib could punish any offense against these regulations by closing the shop and pouring away the water.

River water was known to be less safe than well water, and in order to prevent it being any more polluted than necessary, the 11th century Caliph al-Muqtadi forbade the keepers of public baths to empty their waste water into the Tigris; he had special disposal pits dug for it instead. Efforts were also made to prevent garbage being thrown into the river.

River water was sold in open buckets or in water-skins of the kind familiar to travelers in the East today and to readers of The Arabian Nights. But as new water skins were unsafe, because the water leached tannin from the cured hide, the Muhtasib insisted that before they could be used to transport water for human consumption, they be broken in on water for the building trade. In public baths it was compulsory to keep a large porous water jar clearly labeled "PUBLIC DRINKING WATER."

The baths themselves, not surprisingly, also came under the jurisdiction of the Muhtasib. The water had to be clean and fresh and the stone floors well scrubbed. The washing of felt or leather or anything that smelled unpleasant was not allowed, and sufferers from leprosy or skin diseases were rigorously excluded.

The sale of milk was regulated even more strictly than that of water. All veseels used were to be kept covered and washed daily. All dairies had to be whitewashed and paved and the roofs frequently renovated. It was illegal to skim milk or to dilute it or adulterate it in any way, and various tests were devised to check on its quality.

The Muhtasib was also expected to keep a close check on all doctors, surgeons, blood-letters and apothecaries. Before the year 931, there seems to have been nothing to prevent anyone who wished from taking up those professions, but in that year the Caliph al-Muqtadi learned that one of his subjects had died as the result of a mistake made by a private doctor. He wrote an order in his own had that the Muhtasib should institute a medical licensing test to be administered by one of his own cout physicians. This was done, and in the first year, 860 doctors were licensed in Baghdad alone. Those newly entering the profession were directed to take up a particular specialty on the basis of their examination. Ophthalmologists were under particular scrutiny and considerable efforts were made to insure that unlicensed persons did not attempt to remove cataracts or perform other eye operations.

Unfortunately, those regulations and the periodic efforts to ban the unskilled and often totally unscrupulous quacks of both sexes were largely failures - the populace often felt more at ease with someone reassuring whom they knew, even if he was ignorant; in any case they could not afford the fees charged by the highly trained doctors, not all of whom gave their labor for charity.

The Muhtasib was also charged with checking the doctor's equipment and administering the Hippocratic Oath. The former entailed not only seeing that each man had the tools he needed for his specialty - magnificent boxes of surgical instruments have survived from Safavid and Qaj ar Iran - but also controlling the quality of the metal used in making them, the artisans again being under oath not to use imperfect metal or inferior methods of manufacture. The druggist likewise came under the watchful eye of the Muhtasib, and the adulteration of expensive drugs with cheaper ones was severly punished. The Muhtasib also had the right to appear unexpectedly, at any hour of the day or night, to inspect the shop and to make sure that it was tidy and everything clean and scoured, including the jars containing drugs.

The Hippocratic Oath, with variations, has probably existed ever since the medical profession began. Almost certainly, it stretches back beyond Greece into ancient Iran and India. The oath which the doctors of Baghdad swore before the Muhtasib more than 1,000 years ago included, among other things, prohibitions against preparing, administering or purveying poisons; revealing confidences made by patients; and taking liberties with female patients. The same oath, or a version of it, is taken today by doctors all over the world, though it is no longer administered by a government official with the sweeping powers of interference for the public good that the Muhtasibs of the Golden Age enjoyed.

Caroline Stone specialized in medieval languages at Cambridge and is currently preparing an English version of of al-Mas'udi's "The Meadows of Gold."

From the Treatise of Ibn Abdun, written in 12th century Seville.

§ 95    The weights used should be of glass or iron, carefully made and checked, and with the stamp of the superintendent clearly visible; merchants must not be allowed to use stone weights because these are too anonymous. It is important to check the ratl weights of the merchants two or three times a year, as well as the lesser weights of all the scales used in the town - and this should be done throughout all corporations and guilds.

§ 108    Fig vendors must not sell string bags of fruit already tied up; this enables them to mix good and bad quality figs and to sell all the nets at one price, which is pure robbery. Figs should not be sold unless the buyer is allowed to examine them, as always used to be done, especially since there are large and small figs and each sort should be sold at its correct value.

§ 130    Fruit should not be sold before it is ripe, since it is valueless. Exception will be made in the case of green grapes, which are good for pregnant women and invalids. Large size cucumbers which can easily be counted must not be sold by weight.

§ 109    No seller of fruit or vegetables is to weigh his merchandise by picking up his scales himself; on the contrary, they are to be hung from a fixed point.

§ 113    Sellers of eggs should have pots of water in front of them to test for bad eggs.

§ 225    Saffron should not be sold as a paste cut into pastilles, because then it is adulterated and bad, but as separate stamens.

§ 127    The copper cauldrons of the harisa vendors and the pans of those who sell fritters and other fried stuffs must be tinned and nothing but tinned: for oil turns rancid (some even say poisonous), in contact with copper.

§ 134    When someone has gold or silver coins tested by an assayer and when some part of the precious metal is subsequently shown to be debased, it is up to that assayer to give back the equivalent value, since he has committed a fault which is in fact fraudulent and has cheated one who trusted him.

§ 139    No one should be allowed to claim mastery over an art which he does not possess, above all in the case of the practice of medicine, since this can lead to the loss of human lives: in truth it is the earth covering the tombs of dead men which hides the mistakes of the physician.... Each artisans activities should be limited to the exercise of his own trade; only those whose experience is recognized may claim to have mastered a skill.

§ 177    No itinerant merchant should be allowed to shelter under an umbrella unless it is higher than a man on horseback, otherwise the passersby risk having their eyes poked out.

§ 195    A beast of burden should not be left standing in the bazaar, because it blocks the road and hinders people from passing, and it might... kick someone walking by.

§ 188    Building must be forbidden on places where earth is dug to make plaster and on gravel pits, for these places are of public use.

§ 213    Metal workers and brass beaters must be made to stop the noisy part of their work during the canonical times of prayer.

This article appeared on pages 22-25 of the September/October 1977 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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