Vocational unionist activities in old Arab history

Arabic News19 June 1998

Industry and crafts unions, the Sunf as defined by the Abbasid historian Ibn Manzour, is a group of carpenters, ironsmiths, tailors, plowmen, wheel makers, canal engineers, or others organized in one craft, union or cooperative.

The Sunf is an example of an Arab contribution to the history of world unionism and cooperatives. It is unfair not to speak about the Sunf phenomenon when recalling the history of workers in all nations.

The organization of workers in trade unions, the granting of vocations and professions and the law of industrial security represent advanced accomplishments realized in Europe. However, the aim of this topic is only to shed light on an old aspect of Arab social and economic activities or what is known in Arab history in the fifth century AD ‘al-Asnaf’ (plural of Sunf) phenomenon.

These activities regarded assortments of professions aimed at organizing workers' skills and refining them in order to promote production. These professions were later organized in cooperatives. However, the expansion of agriculture, particularly in the Abbasid era, led to the promotion of the sugar industry, textiles, perfumes, wax and soap.

These industries tripled the number of workers and craftsmen required, enabling setting up of various cooperatives for each of these professions and crafts. There was a special Souk (street/market) for every craft. The Abbasid caliphs helped increase the number of skilled craftsmen through granting them loans and housing facilities in the cities. These human conglomerations of workers produced a sense of continuity, cooperation and honest competition among workers of different skills.

There was a sheikh for every craft. He was known for his high technical knowledge and for his good reputation among his countrymen, The sheikh's instructions to those who wanted to join a particular cooperative were: familiarize one's self very well with the secrets of the craft of the cooperative, respect the laws of the cooperative, and pass the scheduled technical program.

The Sheikh was the head of the organizing body. He was usually elected by all the cooperative's members. He represented his fellow members in resolving disputes and in fixing the prices of the cooperative's products.

Second to the sheikh was the teacher, the third was the pupil, and the rookie was the fourth. Rookie workers had to be trained morally and technically by the teacher and then presented to the sheikh for enrollment in a certain cooperative.

The profession is seen by Arabs as a noble act representing the bond that aligns the craftsmen's dignity to that of his work. Many Arab family names stem from the nature of their crafts. Al-Asnaf was a key word expressing firm belief in civilization and human cooperation.