The Technology of Geography

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The Technology of Geography



Methods . Personal observation was the first and foremost means by which Islamic geographers gathered information about the earth and its flora and fauna, land forms, bodies of water, and resources. Looking down at the ground, however, provided only part of the picture; geography could not exist without the use of external bodies—the sun, moon, planets, and stars—as reference points. The complex orbits and rotations of the various spheres, including the Earth, necessitated astronomical and mathematical studies. Advances in these fields served geographers’ need to explain climate, tides, atmospheric conditions, and to fix precisely the location of cities and places relative to each other. Observatories made such advances possible. Mus-lims maintained the observatory at Jundi-Shapur and built new ones at Baghdad, Palmyra, and Cairo, as well as in the hills outside Damascus. In Muslim Spain observatories were built in Toledo and Cordoba. In the thirteenth century Nasir al-Din al-Tusi directed studies at an observatory built by the Mongol Hulagu Khan at Maragha in Persia. The observatory had a variety of instruments and a library of about four hundred thousand books. The ruler Ulugh Beg built an observatory at Samarkand, at which he himself studied the stars.

Devices . Instruments of various kinds were vital for geographical study. The Muslim scientists inherited tools such as the annulus (a circular device for charting the heavens), the quadrant (a quarter-circle-shaped instrument for measuring angles from a vertical reference), and the clepsydra (water clock). The astrolabe existed in primitive form during Greek times and was essentially reinvented by the Muslims. Al-Zarqali (died 1087) of Toledo invented a new version called a safiha. Another new instrument was the dhat al-awtar, an advanced sundial comprising four square posts arranged so as to ascertain the time at different latitudes. There is an ongoing debate about the origins of the magnetic compass. Whether it originated in China or the Muslim lands, it was widely used in the Indian Ocean by Arab and Persian seafarers, and helped sailors venture far from the coasts. Navigators such as Ibn Majid, who wrote Al-Fawa’id fi Usul al-Bahr wa al Qawa’id (Principles of Navigation, circa 1490), used such devices along the coast of Africa, preparing the way for a sea route from Europe to India around the tip of Africa. The increasingly accurate astronomical and latitude and longitude data gathered over the centuries by Muslim scientists were compiled in a variety of charts known as zij that became vital research tools. Al-Zarqali, for example, corrected Ptolemy’s estimate of the length of the Mediterranean sea from 62 degrees to the nearly correct 42 degrees. His zij was translated into Latin in the twelfth century. Muslim navigation charts also gave impetus to the rise of portolani (charts listing sailing directions from one point to another) such as the Catalan Atlas (1375) among European ship captains.

Mapmakers . Maps drawn by Muslim scientists were also important resources. Al-Idrisi’s maps were known to European scholars. An official Chinese map of 1331 was drawn by Muslim geographers or by geographers using Muslim sources. Perhaps the most interesting example of the advanced state of Muslim mapmaking is the map prepared around 1513 by


In the medieval era geography was often viewed as one of several interrelated sciences rather than a distinct field, and much nonscientific literature also included geographical information. Modern scholars of Muslim history study a wide range of sources to ascertain the nature of Muslim geographic study and the way in which Muslims have viewed their place in the world, including:

Geographical Works: Muslim geographers wrote specialized treatises dealing with the shape of the earth, the extent and features of the inhabited land mass, trade and navigation routes, and ethnography.

Astronomical Works: Astronomers devised ways to determine the direction of Makkah and the daily times for Muslim worship, which in turn helped geographers to develop methods for creating accurate maps for travelers and pilgrims and for determining distances between places.

Conquest Accounts: The astounding speed with which the Muslims expanded their empire necessitated the constant flow of updated information to administrators, including accounts of the resources they encountered, the settlement patterns of tribes in various locales, and other geographic and ethnographic details.

Biographical Dictionaries: Islamic religious and legal studies placed great emphasis on the reputation of scholars and teachers. Specialized dictionaries provide valuable details about their lives and their places of origin.

Routes: As dynasties took stock of their territories, they commissioned studies of the best routes for military and commercial uses.

Travel Accounts: Merchants and scholars often kept journals, reporting on the strange new peoples, customs, and sites they encountered.

Popular Tales and Stories: Fictional works such as Alf Layla wa Layla (The Thousand and One Nights) and the Maqamat stories, picaresque morality tales often featuring a rogue, reveal much information about far-off places, agriculture, and trade goods produced in different environments.

Ottoman admiral Piri Reis. He used about twenty source maps, some ancient and some more recent, including one said to have been drawn by Christopher Columbus. He reduced his sources to a single scale, a difficult task at the time, and included the Antarctic landmass (under the ice), which went “undiscovered” until modern sonar determined its shape.


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

S. M. Ali, Arab Geography (Aligarh: Muslim University, 1960).

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