Scientific Exploration

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Scientific Exploration



Land Beyond . The concept of exploration does not transfer easily from one culture to another. European history counts exploration as one of its great themes, but only from the fifteenth century onward. While, for example, ancient Greeks and Romans traveled from Morocco to India, they are rarely referred to as explorers. Exploration has implications of first discovery and often of territorial acquisition. European explorers of the fifteenth century and later were much given to claiming the territories they reached for their monarchs and for Christianity, blithely ignoring the interests of the indigenous inhabitants and the fact that traders or travelers from non-European regions might have already been well acquainted with the place. In short, the word exploration, when applied to journeys to places previously unknown to the journeys’ sponsors, is difficult to use outside the context of European imperialism. It has no exact translation in the languages of the Muslim world. It is often noted, however, that the terms dar al-Islam (abode of Islam) and dar al-harb (abode of war) played key roles in medieval Islamic thought. Legal texts, in particular, make distinctions between the status of individuals living under the rule of a Muslim government (that is, in the “abode of Islam”) and those living under non-Muslim rule (in the “abode of war”). These distinctions have led some scholars to attribute a sort of garrison mentality to medieval Islamic society, a view of the world that started from a principle of conquest and rested on a zealous commitment to bring the entire world into the Muslim fold by force of arms. If this supposition were true, one might expect to find a clear distinction in Muslim geographical texts between the “abode of Islam” and the “abode of war.” In fact, geographers made almost no reference to this legalistic division of the world, nor did cartographers inscribe a boundary between the two abodes on their maps. While from a legal point of view—for example, in determining the obligation of individual Muslims to the government of the territory in which they live—the distinction is important, in reality it seems to have been less substantial than the medieval European conception of Christendom as opposed to the land of the infidel.

Pilgrims . More important than legalistic territorial boundaries was the actual experience of travel. Certain elements of medieval Muslim society were much more given to long-distance travel than were most Europeans. Scholars and traders—often one and the same person—sometimes spent years on the road, as did pilgrims to Makkah. Moreover, the accounts of their travels became popular reading, and from the thirteenth century onward narrations of individual pilgrimages to Makkah became an established genre from Morocco to India. These travel writings were not chronicles of exploration, of course. To some degree, they were the opposite. A pilgrim might start from a little known place, possibly outside the orbit of Muslim political dominion, and make his way to the best known of places, the holy cities of Makkah and Madinah. Yet, some travel accounts presumed a reading audience interested in exotic and faraway places and therefore come closer to being accounts of exploration. Ahmad Ibn Fadlan, for example, traveled among and described the Turks of Central Asia as part of an embassy for the Abbasid Khalifah al-Muqtadir (ruled 908–932) to the king of the Volga Bulgars, a Turkic people living north of the Caspian Sea. Four centuries later, the best-known Muslim traveler of all, Ibn Battuta, spent years wandering from his native North Africa to Muslim and non-Muslim lands as far afield as China, India, and sub-Saharan Africa. Needless to say, travelers such as these had no royal commission to claim new territory or plant the flag of Islam. Whether afflicted with wanderlust or following the orders of monarchs, they were private individuals who were also aware of an audience for their narratives. Their actions were as much extensions of the established practice of traveling in pursuit of religious knowledge (rihla fi talab al-’ilm),whether through pilgrimage or sitting at the feet of a scholar in a distant city, as they were

self-conscious efforts at exploration for the benefit of a royal sponsor.

Geography . In one respect, however, some travelers did overlap in purpose with the later European explorers: they consciously contributed to cartography and the literature of geography. Geography was an important literary genre in the Islamic world from the ninth century onward. Some works are nothing but schematic descriptions of trade routes, listing the nightly stopping points between city A and city B. Others describe cities and towns in greater or lesser detail. Still others focus on the wonders or marvels (al-’aja’ib)that might be seen in different places, or on the sites of saintly tombs where a pious traveler might wish to pray. By the eleventh century it had become common to couch parts of such works in rhyming Arabic prose, a style that clearly signaled the writer’s desire to be considered a litterateur and not just a compiler of lore. Geographical works of these various types almost always concern broad regions, if not the entire Islamic world. Some include brief descriptions of non-Muslim lands as well. Works of more local interest, such as urban or provincial geographies, were also composed, many of them appearing as sections of local history books rather than as independent works.

Maps . Though written descriptions of non-Muslim lands are usually sketchy, world maps are not uncommon in Islamic cartography. In fact, Muslim world maps are the earliest extant attempts from any culture at depicting the entire world. They are usually circular in format with south at the top and north at the bottom. They depict the various continents surrounded by a single great ocean. The geometric center of the encircling sea varies somewhat, but is usually in the vicinity of Iran, perhaps indicating a pre-Islamic cartographic tradition. Almost all the maps made prior to the fifteenth century are highly geometric and schematic and demonstrate a general lack of interest in physical accuracy. They—or more often the provincial maps usually accompanying them—supplement the geographical texts in which they are typically inserted by listing many cities and places and indicating which are connected to which by overland routes. Taken altogether, the particular characteristics of medieval Muslim travel literature, geography, and cartography bespeak a society that, despite changing and often severe political divisions, was conscious of the great territorial expanse of Islam. The divisive politics that accompanied the decline of central khilafal power from the tenth century onward did not erode the cosmopolitan outlook of literate Muslims. On the other hand, this viewpoint diminished sharply when pushed beyond the boundaries of the Islamic world. As with communications and transportation, travel writing, geography, and cartography contributed substantially to the prevailing sense that the Islamic world had a material as well as a doctrinal unity.


In his Tahqiq al-Hind (The Precise Description of India), the eleventh-century geographer al~Biruni described the location of India in the known world, beginning with the Indian Ocean;

This southern ocean does not form the utmost southern limit of the inhabitable world. On the contrary, the latter stretches still more southward in the shape of large and small islands which fill the ocean. In this southern region land and water dispute with each other their position, so that in one place the continent protrudes into the sea, whilst in another the sea penetrates deeply into the continent. The continent protrudes far into the sea in the western half of the earth, and extends its shores far into the south.… On its coast, and the islands before the coast, live the various tribes of the Zanj,

There are several bays or gulfs which penetrate into the continent on this western half of the earth, the bay of Ber-bera, that of Klysma (the Red Sea), and that of Persia (the Persian Gulf); and between these gulfs the western continent protrudes more or less into the ocean. In the eastern half of the earth the sea penetrates as deeply into the northern continent as the continent in the western half protrudes into the southern sea, and in many places it has formed bays and estuaries which run far into the continent—bays being parts of the sea, estuaries being the outlets of rivers towards the sea. This sea is mostly called from some island in it or from the coast which borders it. Here, however, we are concerned only with that part of the sea which is bordered by the continent of India, and therefore is called the Indian Ocean.

As to the orographic configuration of the inhabitable world, imagine a range of towering mountains like the vertebrae of a pine stretching through the middle latitude of the earth, and in longitude from east to west, passing through China, Tibet, the country of the Turks, Kabul, Badhakhshan, Tokharistan, Bamiyan, Elghor, Khurasan, Media, Adharbaijan, Armenia, the Roman Empire, the country of the Franks and of the Jalalika (Galicians). Long as this range is, it has also a considerable breadth, and besides, many windings which enclose inhabited plains watered by streams which descend from the mountains both towards north and south. One of these plains is India, limited in the south by the above-mentioned Indian Ocean, and on all three other sides by the lofty mountains, the waters of which flow down to it, But if you have seen the soil of India with your own eyes and meditate on its nature—if you consider the rounded stones found in the earth however deep you dig, stones that are huge near the mountains and where the rivers have a violent current; stones that are of smaller size at greater distance from the mountains, and where the streams flow more slowly; stones that appear pulverized in the shape of sand where the streams begin to stagnate near their mouths and near the sea—if you consider all this, you could scarcely help thinking that India has once been a sea which by degrees has been filled up by the alluvium of the streams.

Source : Atberuni’c India, translated by Edward C, Sachau, edited by Ainslie T. Embree (New York: Norton, 1971), pp. 196–198.


Ross E. Dunn, Adventures oflbn Battuta, A Muslim Traveler of the Fourteenth Century (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986).

Dale F. Eickelman and James Piscatori, eds. Muslim Travellers: Pilgrim-age, Migration, and the Religious Imagination (London: Routledge, 1990).

Ibn Battuta, Travels in Asia and Africa, 1325–1354, 3 volumes, translated by H. A. R. Gibb (London: Routledge, 1929).

G. Le Strange, The Lands of the Eastern Caliphate: Mesopotamia, Persia, and Central Asia from the Moslem Conquest to the Time of Timur (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1905).

G. R. Tibbetts, A Study of the Arabic Texts Containing Material on South-East Asia (Leiden: Brill, 1979).

Andre Wink, Al-Hind, The Making of the Indi-Islamic World (Leiden: Brill, 1990).

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