Connected Histories

'Bazaars' from Oxford Islamic Studies Online

About This Resource

The bazaar as an Islamic form of urban marketplace is described as background information to Stewart Gordon's When Asia Was the World. The article by Michael M.J. Fischer and Alyssa Gabbay is reprinted from  The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World in the Oxford Islamic Studies Online.


The Persian word for “market” (bāzār) refers to a range of economic and architectural forms from covered bazaars, periodic rural markets, and small neighborhood strips of shops in alleys to abstract understandings of markets as sectors of the economy involved in trade, especially those not under the control of the state banking system. As an occupational structure, the traditional bazaar contains commission agents, jobbers, hawkers, peddlers, wholesalers, long-distance merchants, brokers, money-changers, craftsmen, and shop assistants (see Rotblat, 1972). Beyond its purely commercial functions, the traditional bazaar comprises a rich system of social institutions, including mosques, guilds, ḥammāms (bathhouses), zūrkhānahs (traditional gymnasia), madrasahs (religious schools), and hayʿat-i maẕhabī (religious circles); in addition to providing venues for socializing, these have contributed to the bazaar's effectiveness in mobilizing for political change. Finally, the bazaar is a place of personal jihād (ethical struggle), where services on behalf of the communal good are performed and Islamic moral codes are acted upon.

Forms and Institutions.

These interlocking economic, social, and moral arenas can take a variety of shapes, given changing social and political circumstances. The traditional Iranian bazaar consists of a large covered brick complex containing both public buildings and lanes lined with small stalls. High, vaulted ceilings often have circular openings that admit shafts of light and provide ventilation. Many of the covered bazaars were built under the patronage of kings or governors as places where taxes as well as rents could be collected with ease. Some smaller covered bazaars were also constructed by groups of merchants, but the economic form of providing facilities and then charging rents to bāzārīs (shopkeepers) is a general one extending to shopping strips along modern streets and boulevards. Rents might often be designated as a waqf (religious endowment), and this has provided a link between the bazaar and the religious establishment, an alliance that has wielded much power in Iran.

Kings and governors also periodically tried to formalize and use the guild structure as a way of collecting rents and taxes and enforcing political controls. But this was only variably successful; the term for guild (ṣinf   ) was often reduced to a term meaning craft or occupation without any necessary implication of organization. Guild structures, when they existed, were more often autonomous of the state and attempted to regulate competition and disputes among their members. Bakers’ guilds, for instance, appeared quite frequently, regulating where new shops might be located and which immigrants into a community might be allowed to open a bakery. Bread shops and a few other businesses like butchers or grocers need to be distributed throughout the city, not just in the central bazaar. Other businesses tend to cluster together, so that one gets a cloth bazaar, a blacksmithʾs bazaar, and so on.

At the center of most traditional bazaars was a more opulent market hall, the so-called qayṣarīyah (from Qayṣar [Caesar]), where the ṣarrāfs (money-changers), and credit suppliers were located. Often the qayṣarīyah had heavy doors that could be closed at night for security. The supplying of credit was a mechanism that enforced a hierarchy of control: small merchants would get loans guaranteed by larger merchants. To default on a loan was the ultimate sin; better to get yet another loan even at a usurious rate, because to default is to be excluded from the system entirely. This hierarchy of control spilled over into social affairs as well through the various religious organizations funded and manned by the bāzārīs and craftsmen. These included not only mosques and hayʿats within the physical confines of the bazaar, but also religious leaders who would speak out against state policies that affected the bazaar. The hayʿats took various forms, ranging from weekly poetry and Qurʿān reading circles to young men's groups that practiced chants and pious exercises for the religious processions during the month of Muḥarram. These latter groups formed an organization which could be mobilized as needed and used also for political purposes.

The Bazaar and the State.

In addition to its extensive economic, social, and religious roles, the bazaar often exerted substantial political influence. Together with the religious establishment, the bazaar has been an important actor in most significant political events in Iran since the nineteenth century, including the Tobacco Revolt of 1891–1892, the Constitutional Revolution of 1906–1911, and the Islamic Revolution of 1977–1979. This latest uprising of bāzārīs had its roots in longstanding tension between the Pahlavi regime and the marketplace. Muhammad Reza Shah Pahlavi (r.1941–1979), opposed to what he saw as the shopkeepers’ fanaticism and backwardness, tried to render the bazaar impotent and redundant by denying it access to state resources and institutions and by supporting the construction of Western-style department stores and shopping boulevards. An anti-profiteering campaign launched by the state in 1975 enforced draconian measures on the bazaar, leading to an intensification of its hostility to the state. The bāzārīs were thus one of the first groups to mobilize in the anti-Pahlavi protests that led up to the revolution; they provided much of the funding for the uprising.

The bazaar owes its political clout largely to its economic power. Under the Pahlavis and today under the Islamic Republic, the bazaar and its credit systems are a major part of the Iranian economy. There was an attempt by the Pahlavi government to provide alternative credit and distribution systems through state banks and cooperatives, but modern formal banks required too much collateral and were unable to provide credit as flexibly as the bazaar. The fact that banks in Pahlavi Iran had bad loan rates of one-tenth of one percent—compare that with the rate of 3 to 4 percent in the United States—reflects this lack of flexibility. Thus, while the banking system was central to the state and large industrial sector, the bazaar remained central to the economy for commercial loans, and was therefore central to much of the political maneuvering on economic issues. The bazaar was also essential to the traditional agricultural and craft systems, both as outlet and for credit. Cloth and carpet weaving was often organized through the bazaar on a putting-out system using village craft labor (on the Kermān example, see Dillon, 1976; English, 1966).

After the Islamic Revolution, banks, insurance, large industries, undeveloped land, and some trade were nationalized. However, the bazaar later reassumed control of many international trading and wholesaling functions; scholars see this reversal as one of the key factors in the Iran bazaar's resilience, in contrast to markets in other oil-exporting states. Although various efforts have been made to extend the terms of traditional Islamic discussions about the market to a modern national economy, the bazaar itself remains a semiautonomous realm, with powerful economic and political interests that even the Islamic Republic must respect and negotiate with.

Moral Discourse of the Islamic Bazaar.

The moral discourse of the Islamic bazaar is built on notions of fair price and negotiated justice. The main Shī ʿī commercial code for the bazaar is still the more than century-old Makāsib (On Trade, literally “earnings”), the manual by Shaykh Murtaḍā Anṣārī of rules for exchange in the bazaar, and the sections on commerce in the various version of the Risālat tawḍīḥ al-masāʿil (Explanatory Text on Problems [of Religion]) issued by each of the marjaʿ al-taqlīd (highest rank of the ʿulamāʿ). There have been a few attempts at updating, mainly through ideological arguments about social justice and progressive politics, rather than through case examples as in the traditional manuals, or through the attempts by the Islamic Republic of Iran to rewrite the legal code of Iran.

The main concern in the moral discussions about bazaar economics is with ensuring that the parties are knowledgeable and willing in any buying or selling. For instance, children may not buy and sell, but may only act as agents of competent adults; goods may be returned if the buyer finds he bought them above the fair price or if the seller is uncertain of the price and finds he sold for too little. There are rules about what must be said for a sale to be considered final and arguments about the status of other transactions which are not so formal. Of these rules, those on ribā (interest and usury) are most central and problematic, particularly given the credit structure of the bazaar, with its highly differentiated interest rates, which often seem very high by standards of more integrated economies. In medieval and early modern Europe, both Christians and Jews eventually came to terms with the biblical injunction against usury by distinguishing between unjust return on money (usury) and just return (interest), thereby bringing the religious law into harmony with commercial practice and commonsense economic morality. In Islam this distinction is also argued, but it has not yet gained universal acceptance. Indeed, the majority opinion among conservative ʿulamāʿ remains that all interest is usury. The result is the use of ḥīlah sharʿī or kulāh-i sharʿī (a lawful stratagem or trick), qarz̤-i ḥasanah (“goodness-loan”) or mihrabānī (“kindness”), and mukhāṭarah (a putting at risk, venture)—ways of calculating interest as if it were something else.

There have also been experiments in the past several decades—especially under the Islamic Republic—with so-called Islamic banks which do not charge interest but treat all deposits as a pooling of shared risk in business gain and loss. From the legal history of the word ribā and its use in the early traditions, it seems clear that the prohibition of ribā was intended to counter excessive interest rates, and especially the debt enslavement that resulted from the practice of doubling the principal if a debtor asked for an extension of time to repay. It was also intended to make explicit equalities and inequalities of exchange and to reduce the uncertainties of speculation, as in the purchase of pregnant animals or of crops that were not yet ripe.

Apart from the rules of fair price and the prohibition on biting usury, there are also the principle of the public good and that of substituting (tabdīl) something better used to modify endowment contracts. Bazaar exchanges involve tension between individual rights and the good of the community, a tension only vaguely regulated by personal morality and litigation. This vagueness is recognized in al-Ghazālīʾs metaphor that the bazaar is an arena of jihād, an internal holy war to maintain one's morality when there is temptation to take unfair advantage. Other commentators speak of the role of the merchant as an occupation taken up as a service to the community and not for its own sake (farḍ al-kifāyah); it is something dangerous to one's own morality, but the risk is shouldered because it is a task the community must have performed. Another formulation is that the bazaar should be regulated under ḥisbah (the religious obligation to do what is right), and there were officials, muḥtasib, who helped maintain order, set prices, and collect taxes. This is a role that had already been institutionalized in Greco-Roman markets, and it is an office still so named in Saudi Arabia, in the Berber sūqs of Morocco (where prices are adjudicated by the muḥtasib after consulting on production prices with the wholesalers), and in a few other places. Finally, there is a notion that although Islam protects private property, such property is ultimately held only in usufruct and stewardship ownership on behalf of God and the community, which thus gives the community the right to intervene and establish rules of just use, exchange, and taxation.

In addition to the moral codes embedded in Islamic law and speculations on social justice, the social institutions located in the bazaar have their own cultural forms of moral discourse. Of these the hayʿats, zūrkhānahs, and ḥammāms (as places where people gather, gossip, and discuss communal affairs) have been mentioned. The zūrkhānah in particular cultivates a certain youthful heroic sense of responsibility. For young men there is the chivalrous notion of the javānmard (noble youth). This is paired with the negative notion of the tough hooligan: the gardankuluft (bully, ruffian), jāhil (fool, reckless one), awbāsh (ruffians, mob), or lūṭī (rogue). Middle-aged men who maintain their physical prowess and enforce community peace are called dāsh; older men who can only exert moral influence are called darvīsh and attempt to live by a code of being darvīsh (simple, honest, direct, unconcerned with social pretension). The ideologies encoded in these character types have been generalized and disseminated, as through the Iranian cinema (see Fischer, 1984). The last great lūṭīs of the Tehran bazaar were Ṭayyib, who collected a tax on goods moving in and out of a fruit bazaar; and his rival and successor, Shaʿbān Bimukh (The Brainless) Qummī, who led royalist toughs in the 1950s and 1960s, and was rewarded by the shah with a showplace zūrkhānah.

Scholarship on Bazaars.

Descriptive accounts of bazaars are nearly inexhaustible: their local forms and social, economic, political, and cultural inflections vary from the sūqs of the Maghrib (North Africa) to the Hindu-influenced bazaars of India and beyond (e.g., Geertz, 1963, 1965, 1979; Fox, 1969; Goitein, 1967, 1973; Östör, 1984; Rudolph, 1987). The Persian bazaar is focused on here because its structure illustrates that of a variety of bazaars. But even for Persian bazaars one could go on in ever more detail about the secret languages of various guilds, about the specializations of different crafts in different places (Centlivres, 1972), about the differences in the relative numbers of wholesalers and retailers in different bazaars (and the implications for social control), about the relations between the bazaar and the public and large industrial sectors, about the class differences among bāzārīs and their implications, and so forth.

Analytic theories of bazaars—the evolution of trade forms, location theories of economic spatial arrangements, sociological forms of exchange and their ritualization, economic theories of capital fragmentation—also have large literatures. Most of these literatures, however, see the bazaar as but one phase in the transition and/or complexity of trade. There is also a naive literature on the “Islamic City,” which usually restricts itself to observing that the public spaces of the Islamic city are constructed around the mosque, bazaar, and palace, and that the streets are labyrinthine; little real knowledge of the workings of the bazaar is demonstrated. Sometimes cited are Max Weberʾs sociological observations on the differences between western European cities founded with autonomous charters (which have thus been important players in the evolution of political forms of the state) and Asian cities, characterized by strong and exclusive kinship and clan ties, lacking such autonomy; these are now supplemented by a small but growing literature by social historians on the formation of local elites in urban centers and their relations to landownership, bazaars, control of regional trade and taxation, and imperial structures. There are now also many descriptive accounts by geographers of cities with bazaars, including maps and sometimes statistical information on the numbers and kinds of shops. Novels also occasionally provide rich insight into the social worlds and the economic structures of the bazaar (e.g., Hidāyat, 1979; Narayan, 1953). Finally, several recent studies use social-movement theory to explain the Iranian bazaarʾs relationship with the state and the religious establishment.


  • Anṣārī, Murtaḍā. Kitāb al-makāsib (The Book of Trade). Najaf, 1972.
  • Ashraf, Ahmad. “Bazaar-Mosque Alliance: The Social Basis of Revolts and Revolutions.”International Journal of Politics, Culture, and Society1, no. 4 (1988): 538–567. Thorough analysis of the dynamics of the Iranian bazaar-mosque alliance in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
  • Bonine, Michael E.“Shops and Shopkeepers: Dynamics of an Iranian Provincial Bazaar.” In Modern Iran: The Dialectics of Continuity and Change, edited by Michael E. Bonine and Nikki R. Keddie, pp. 233–258. Albany, N.Y., 1981.
  • Bonine, Michael E., et al.“Bāzār.” In Encyclopaedia Iranica. London and Boston, 1983–. Informed treatments of a diverse array of the bazaarʾs features and history.
  • Centlivres, Pierre. Un Bazar d’Asie Centrale: Forme et Organisation du Bazar de Tashkurghān. Wiesbaden, 1972. The bazaar of the Afghan city formerly and now again known as Khulm.
  • Dillon, Robert. “Carpet Capitalism and Craft Involution in Kirman, Iran.” Ph.D. diss., Columbia University, 1976.
  • Ekhtiar, Maryam. “From Workshop and Bazaar to Academy: Art Training and Production in Qajar Iran.” In Royal Persian Paintings: The Qajar Epoch, 1785–1925, edited by Layla S. Diba with Maryam Ekhtiar, pp. 50–65. London, 1998. Describes how the bazaar functioned as a setting for the production of much of Iranʾs art during the Qājār era, with painters and designers operating out of stalls as independent craftsmen.
  • English, Paul W.City and Village in Iran. Madison, Wis., 1966.
  • Fischer, Michael M. J.“Persian Society: Transition and Strain.” In Twentieth-Century Iran, edited by Hossein Amirsadeghi and R. W. Ferrier, pp. 171–195. London, 1977.
  • Fischer, Michael M. J.Iran: From Religious Dispute to Revolution. Cambridge, Mass., 1980.
  • Fischer, Michael M. J.“Towards a Third World Poetics: Seeing through Short Stories and Film in the Iranian Culture Area.”Knowledge and Society5 (1984): 171–241.
  • Fischer, Michael M. J., and Mehdi Abedi. Debating Muslims. Madison, Wis., 1990. See pages 143–146.
  • Fox, Richard G.From Zamindar to Ballot Box: Community Change in a North Indian Market. Ithaca, N.Y., 1969.
  • Geertz, Clifford. Peddlers and Princes: Social Change and Economic Modernization in Two Indonesian Towns. Chicago, 1963.
  • Geertz, Clifford. The Social History of an Indonesian Town. Cambridge, Mass., 1965.
  • Geertz, Clifford. “Suq: The Bazaar Economy in Sefrou.” In Meaning and Order in Moroccan Society, edited by Clifford Geertz et al., pp. 123–313. Cambridge, U.K., 1979.
  • Goitein, S. D.A Mediterranean Society, Vol. 1, Economic Foundations. Berkeley, 1967.
  • Goitein, S. D.Letters of Medieval Jewish Traders. Princeton, N.J., 1973.
  • Hidāyat, Ṣādiq. Hājī Āghā: Portrait of an Iranian Confidence Man. Austin, Tex., 1979.
  • Ḥijāzī, ʿAbd al-Riz̤ā. Sīstim-i iqtiṣādī-yi Islām (Islamʾs Economic System). Qom, 1970.
  • Keshavarzian, Arang. Bazaar and State in Iran: The Politics of the Tehran Marketplace. Cambridge, U.K., 2007. Excellent resource on the politicization of the bazaar; especially valuable for its investigation of the unexpectedly negative impact of the Islamic Revolution on the Tehran bazaar.
  • Khansari, Mehdi, and Minouch Yavari. The Persian Bazaar: Veiled Space of Desire. Washington D.C., 1993. Black-and-white and color photographs of Iranian bazaars convey the architectural intricacy and beauty of these structures, particularly their geometric ornamentation.
  • Mannan, Muhammad Abdul. Islamic Economics: Theory and Practice. Boulder, Colo., and Lahore, 1986.
  • McLachlan, Keith. “The Survival of the Bazaar Economy in Iran and the Contemporary Middle East.” In Technology, Tradition, and Survival: Aspects of Material Culture in the Middle East and Central Asia, edited by Richard Tapper and Keith McLachlan, pp. 217–233. London, 2003. Assesses factors contributing to the resilience of Iranʾs bazaar when those of other countries have lost their relevance.
  • Mines, Mattison. The Warrior Merchants: Textiles, Trade, and Territory in South India. Cambridge, U.K., 1984.
  • Naficy, Mehdy. “The Bazaar-Mosque Encounter: On the Role of Religious Associations in the Iranian Revolution of 1979.” In Proceedings of the Second European Conference of Iranian Studies, edited by Bert G. Fragner, et al., pp. 503–510. Rome, 1995. Considers the origin, development, and various functions of religious circles among small tradesmen and artisans in Iranian bazaars.
  • Narayan, R. K.The Financial Expert. New York, 1953.
  • Östör, Ákos. Culture and Power: Legend, Ritual, Bazaar, and Rebellion in a Bengali Society. New Delhi, and Beverly Hills, Calif, 1984.
  • Poulson, Stephen C.“Social Structure: Relations between the Religious Elite, the Bazaar, the State, and the Crowd in Iran.” Chap. 5 in Social Movements in Twentieth-Century Iran: Culture, Ideology, and Mobilizing Frameworks. Lanham, Md., 2005. Succinct overview of the various groups comprising the traditional mobilizing structures of Iranian societies and their relations.
  • Rotblat, Howard J.“Stability and Change in an Iranian Provincial Bazaar.” Ph.D. diss., University of Chicago, 1972.
  • Rudner, David. “Caste and Commerce in Indian Society: A Case Study of Nattukottai Chettiars.” Ph.D. diss., University of Pennsylvania, 1985.
  • Rudolph, Lloyd I, and Susanne Hoeber Rudolph. In Pursuit of Lakshmi: The Political Economy of the Indian State. Chicago, 1987.
  • Ṣadr, Muḥammad Bāqir al-. Iqtiṣādunā. 2d ed. Beirut, 1977. Translated into English as Our Economics. 2 vols. in 4. Tehran, 1982–1984.
  • Smith, Benjamin. “Collective Action With and Without Islam: Mobilizing the Bazaar in Iran.” Chap. 7 in Islamic Activism: A Social Movement Theory Approach, edited by Quintan Wiktorowicz. Bloomington, Ind., 2004. Argues that Iranian merchants have been motivated more by economic concerns than religious ones in their uprisings against the state.
  • Ṭāliqānī, Maḥmūd. Islām va mālikīyat. 10th ed. Tehran, 1965. Translated into English by Ahmad Jabbari and Farhang Rajaee as Islam and Ownership. Lexington, Ky., 1983.
  • Thaiss, Gustav. “The Bazaar as a Case Study of Religion and Social Change.” In Iran Faces the Seventies, edited by Ehsan Yarshater, pp. 189–216. New York, 1971. Useful for its analysis of religious circles (hayʿat-i maz-habī) and kinship ties within the pre-Revolution bazaar.
  • Weiss, Walter M., and Kurt-Michael Westermann. The Bazaar: Markets and Merchants of the Islamic World. London, 1998. Readable and informative introduction to many of the central aspects of the bazaar, including its crafts, customs, and history. Westermannʾs photographs capture bazaar life in countries ranging from Morocco to Egypt to Turkey.


Fischer, Michael M. J. and Alyssa Gabbay. "Bazaar." In The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World. Oxford Islamic Studies Online,

How to Cite This Page

"Muslim Journeys | Item #265: 'Bazaars' from Oxford Islamic Studies Online", July 20, 2024