Al-Idrīsī, Abū, ‘Abd Allāh Muḥ̣ammad Ibn Muḥ̣ammad Ibn ‘Abd Allāh Ibn Idrīs, Al-Sharīf Al-Idrīsī
(b.Ceuta, Morocco, 1100; d. Ceuta, 1166)
Al-Idrīsī belonged to the house of the ’Alavī Idrīsīs, claimants to the caliphate who ruled in the region around Ceuta from 789 to 985; hence his title “al-Sharif” (the noble) al-Idrīsī. His ancestors were the nobles of Málaga but, unable to maintain their authority, they migrated to Ceuta in the eleventh century. Al-Idrīsī was educated in Córdoba, then an important European center of learning. He started his travels when he was hardly sixteen years old with a visit to Asia Minor. He later traveled along the southern coast of France, visited England, and journeyed widely in Spain and Morocco. In 1138 he received an invitation from Roger II, the Norman king of Sicily, to visit Palermo where he remained at the request of the king, who told him: “You belong to the house of the Caliphs. If you live among the Muslims, their kings will contrive to kill you, but if you stay with me you will be safe” (al-Safadī, cited from Arabskaya geograficheskaya literatura, Arabic trans., I, 282-283). Al-Idrīsī lived in Palermo until the last, years of his life, returning to Ceuta after Roger‘s death in 1154.
An important meeting ground of Arab and European culture, Sicily was at this time the political seat of the Normans, who were keenly interested in the promotion of the arts and sciences. It was in this atmosphere that al-Idrīsī, under the patronage of Roger II, collaborated with Christian scholars and made important contributions to geography and cartography. Roger himself displayed great interest in these subjects and wished to have a world map constructed and a comprehensive world geography produced that would present detailed information on various regions of the world. It is possible that his objective was political, but in any case he was unsatisfied with existing Greek and Arabic works. After sending envoys to collect firsthand information in various regions, he ordered the construction of a large circular map of the world in silver. Al-Idrīsī, with the assistance of technicians and other scholars, constructed the relief map, depicting on it the seven climes, rivers and gulfs, seas and islands, mountains, towns and ports, and other physical features. The data utilized were drawn from Greek and Arabic sources as well as from the accounts of Roger’s envoys and other travelers.
Only the geographical compendium with sectional maps, entitled Kitāb nuzhat al-mushtāq fi ikhtirāq al-āfāq, is extant today. The sectional maps are, in all probability, reproductions of the silver map; their basic framework is Ptolemaic. The inhabited world (oikoumenē), mainly of the northern hemisphere, is divided into seven latitudinal climes (iqlim), parallel to the equator. Each clime is subdivided longitudinally into ten sections; for each of the seventy sections there is a separate map. By joining the sections a total picture of the world known to the Arabs and the Normans may be obtained. But the placing of a vast amount of information, both ancient and contemporary, on a 1,000-year-old map by Ptolemy produced a somewhat distorted picture of the relative geographical positions of certain places. Again, the maps and their descriptions do not always concur in their details, probably because the two were compiled separately. It is also evident that the author’s knowledge of Europe, the Mediterranean region, and the Middle East was more accurate and reliable than that of other parts of the world. In addition, the maps were not drawn mathematically, and latitudes and longitudes known to Arab and Greek astronomers and geographers were not used in determining the geographical positions of place names.
The extremely rich and varied information presented in the text pertains to various countries of Europe, Asia, and North Africa and not only includes topographical details, demographic information, and reports of descriptive and physical geography but also describes socioeconomic and political conditions. It is thus a rich encyclopedia of the medieval period. The material is cataloged and indexed by section and then inserted into its proper place along with the sectional map. Al-Idrīsī’s geographical conceptions are based mainly on the theoretical works of Greek and early Arab geographers and astronomers: he displays no originality of thought in mathematical and astronomical geography. Among his important sources are Ptolemy’s Geography, Abu’l- Qāsim ibn Hawqal’s Kitaā sūrat al-ard, Abu’l- Qāsim ’Ubayd Allāh ibn Abd Allāh ibn Khurradādhbih’s Kitāab al-masālik wa’l-mamālik, and Abū Abd Allāh Muhammad ibn Ahmad al-Jayyānī’s Kitāb al-masālik wa’l-mamālik.
Al-Idrīsī’s work represents the best example of Arab-Norman scientific collaboration in geography and cartography of the Middle Ages. For several centuries the work was popular in Europe as a textbook; a number of abridgments were also produced, the first being published at Rome in 1592. A Latin translation by Joannes Hesronite and Gabriel Sionita was published at Paris in 1619 under the rather misleading title Geographia Nubiensis. Not until the middle of the nineteenth century was a complete two-volume French translation produced, by P. Amédée Jaubert, Géographie d’Edrisi (Paris, 1836-1840). Many scholars have edited and translated sections of the work pertaining to various countries. A complete edition of the text with translation and commentary is being prepared in Italy under the auspices of Istituto Universitario Orientale di Napoli and Istituto Italiano per il Medio e I’Estremo Oriente. Two fascicules of the text have appeared under the title Opus Geographicum.
See I. Y. Krachkovsky, Arabskaya geograficheskaya literatura (Moscow—Leningrad, 1957), translated into Arabic by Salāh al-Din ‘Uthmān Hāshim as Ta’rikh aladab al-jughrāfi al-‘Arabī, I (Cairo, 1963); Konrad Miller, Mappae Arabicae, 5 vols. (Stuttgart, 1926-1930); and Giovanni Oman, “Notizie bibliografiche sul geografo arabo al-Idrīsī (XII secolo) e sulle sue opere,” in Annali dell’ Istituto universitario orientale di Napoli, n.s. 11 (1961), 25-61.
S. Maqbul Ahmad