Muslim Geographical Studies

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Muslim Geographical Studies


Early Writings . Early Arabic/Muslim writings, like those of the predecessor civilizations, tended to include many geographical myths and fantastic narratives or notions. One interesting conception, perhaps purely didactic in intent, was the idea that the known inhabited land mass resembled a great bird. The head was China, the right wing India, the left wing al-Khazar, the chest Syria, Iraq, and Arabia, and the tail North Africa. With vast lands stretched before them, Muslims wanted to learn about the unknown, a desire that led to the production of aja‘ib literature, which recounted the wonders and strange creatures and plants of far-away lands. One such work is Kitab al-Ajnas ala Mi thal al-Ghareeb (Book of Species Which Show Peculiar Characteristics) by Nadar ibn Shima’il (born 740). The great literateur al-Jahiz (died 868) wrote Kitab al-Amsar wa Aja‘ib al-Euldan (Book of Cities and Marvels of Countries).

Practical Motives . At the same time, pragmatic considerations and a penchant for accuracy set in. Muslims

needed to determine the direction of Makkah from various locations for the performance of prayers and to fix the times for the five daily prayers, which varied according to latitude. They also needed an understanding of terrain, routes, and locales for provisioning of animals in order to plan for the annual pilgrimage to Makkah, as well as to execute the day-to-day business of the empire. The knowledge of geography, distance, and the characteristics of different climes also helped them to anticipate conditions for fasting during Ramadan.

Foundations . The well-known mathematician Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khawarizmi is said to have laid the foundations for Arabic geographical science in the ninth century. Working at the Bayt al-Hikmah (House of Wisdom) established in 830 by Khalifah al-Ma‘mun in Baghdad, al-Khawarizmi prepared a book titled Kitab Surat al-Ard (Book of the Image of the World). He was followed closely by al-Kindi (died 873) and Ahmad al-Sarakhsi (died 899) who wrote what may be the first Arabic work titled Kitab al-Masalik wa al-Mamalik (Book of Routes and Kingdoms). Another mid-ninth-century author of this kind of book was Ibn Khurdadhbih, an Abbasid postmaster well known for his thorough work, written in 848, which includes not only information on the Muslim world but also descriptions of China, Japan, and Korea. Around this time, Ahmad al-Ya‘qubi (died 897), sometimes called the “father of Muslim geography,” wrote a compendium titled Kitab al-Buldan (Book of Countries), which provided sigificant details of various countries or regions and their inhabitants. During this early period there were three main strands of geographical writing: human geography, administrative geography, and the geography of individual countries. These studies were bolstered by astronomical and mathematical data as astronomical and mathematical works, like those of geography, gained their own space in the body of scientific knowledge. The surat al-ard works include the Greek notion of climes or zones, in addition to Islamic cosmological diagrams and maps, and they locate the position of the earth in the heavens, a process related to ilm al-haya (knowledge of the structure of the universe), involving the hierarchical order of the spheres and the divisions of the Zodiac. The masalik wa al-mamalik sliterature, on the other hand, was mainly concerned with fixing the geographical positions of places relative to each other, rather than the larger, more schematic approach.

Journeys . Travel accounts also contributed to geographical knowledge. The famous Ibn Battuta, who traveled more than seventy-five thousand miles over a period of more than thirty years, described pearl fisheries in the Persian Gulf, the markets along the Nile, the coral islands of the Maldives, the intense cold of the Ukraine, and many other facets of terrain and human life. Other travelers, such as Ibn Jubayr of Valencia and Hafiz Abru of Persia, provided similar details in their accounts.

New Developments . During the tenth century, Muslim geographic works became increasingly sophisticated. The

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seventh volume of the encyclopedia the Persian Abu Ali Ibn Rustah wrote in Isfahan in 903 deals with geography. It discusses the extent of the earth, the founding of Mak-kah and Madinah, seas and rivers, climate, and the geography of Iran and surrounding lands. Ahmad Ibn Fadlan’s account of his journey as ambassador to the court of the Volga Bulgars in 921 provides a thorough description of the regions around the Caspian Sea and to the northeast of the Black Sea, areas about which Ptolemy and the first century Greek geographer Strabo knew little. In 945 Coptic Christian scholar Ibn Serapion compiled a work in which he described Mesopotamia and its rivers and extensive canal system. Another Christian, Abu al-Faraj, an accountant working in the revenue department at Baghdad, wrote Kitab al-Kharaj (Land Tax Book, 928), in which he summarizes the taxable lands and commodities in various areas of the empire.

Cartography . Muslim mapmaking became more prevalent around the tenth century. Abu Zaid al-Balkhi (died 934), a student of al-Kindi, was one of the early Muslim mapmakers. He valued a statistical approach to information, and his works focus on explanations of charts. Abu Ishaq al-Istakhri, who lived in the mid tenth century, wrote a “routes and kingdoms” book in which he included colored maps for each country. The well-known traveler and geographer Shams al-Din Abd Allah Muhammad al-Muqaddasi (circa 945 - circa 990) wrote Ahsan al-Taqasim ft Ma‘rifat al-Aqalim (The Best Divisions for the Knowledge of the Climes). Always seeking to improve geographical knowledge, Al-Muqaddasi studied his predecessors’ works, discussing their merits and drawbacks and stating that geography had received insufficient attention from earlier scientific writers. He therefore set about collecting from all parts of the Islamic world data based on personal travel and direct observation. He divided the Muslim lands into fourteen regions and prepared separate maps for each one, using various cartographic symbols and representing relief. Routes were colored red; deserts, yellow; salt seas, green; rivers, blue; and mountains, brown. Unlike many of his ancient predecessors, he considered the earth to be nearly spherical (an idea rooted in the Qur’an), dividing it into two equal parts by the equator, the southern being mostly water and the northern mainly land. Abu al-Qasim Ibn Hawqal (born circa 925) traveled extensively for thirty years before preparing his surat al-ard book. Such travel was essential for the creation of increasingly sophisticated maps. Abu al-Hasan al-Mas‘udi (died 956), born in Baghdad, traveled far and wide on the Indian Ocean, in Palestine, Syria, and elsewhere. His Muruj al-Dhahab wa Ma’adin al-Jawahir (Meadows of Gold and Mines of Precious Stones, 947) is an historical-geographical encyclopedia, discussing earthquakes, geological formations, the nature of the Dead Sea, and windmills in Sijistan. Prefiguring Charles Darwin’s theory, al-Mas‘udi’s last book deals with the notion of evolution. In the eleventh century the great geographer al-Biruni wrote that the earth is round and charted latitudes and longitudes for many places. In the twelfth century al-Idrisi made accurate, detailed maps of the Mediterranean region.


Nafis Ahmad, Muslim Contribution to Geography (Lahore: Sh. Muhammad Ashraf, 1972).

S. Maqbul Ahmad, “Djughrafiya,” in Encyclopedia of Islam, new edition, CD-ROM (Leiden: Brill, 1999).

Seyyed H. Nasr, Science and Civilization in Islam (London: Islamic Texts Society, 1987).

Ahmad Nazmi, “Some Aspects of the Image of the World in Muslim Tradition, Legends, and Geographical Literature,” Studia Arabistyczne i Islamistyczne, 6 (1998): 87-102.