Al-Maqdisī (or Muqaddas
AL-MAQDISī (OR MUQADDASī), SHAMS AL-DīN ABū ‘ABDALLāH MUḤAMMAD IBN AḤMAD IBN ABī BAKR AL-BANNā’ AL-SHāMī AL-MAQDISī AL-BASHSHāRī
(b. Bayt al-Maqdis [Jerusalem], ca. a.d. 946; d. ca. the end of the tenth century)
Al-Maqdisī spend most of his youth in Jerusalem, then traveled throughout the Mamlakat al-Islām (the “Kingdom of Islam”), excepting only al-Andalus (southern Spain), Sind, and Sijistān (southern Afghanistan). He also vistied Sicily. His great geographical compendium, the Kitāb ahsan al-taqāsīm fī ma‘rifat al-aqālīm, which he completed in Shīrāz in a.d. 985, would indicate, among other things, that he was knowledgeable in Islamic jurisprudence and a follower of the Hanafī school of Islamic law.
The geographical writers of the Middle Ages—both western and Arab—had mainly dealt in narrow segments of the subject, producing individual works on mathematical, physical, or descriptive geography, or writing of trade routes and kingdoms or toponymy. Al-Maqdisī was not satisfied with such works; he criticized those of al-Jayhānī, Abū Zayd Aḥmad ibn Sahl al-Balkhī, Ibn al-Faqīh al-Hamadhānī and Ibn Khurradādhbih, for example, for being directed to the specific needs of specific rulers, or for simply being too brief to be of practical use. He himself therefore planned a work of wider scope, designed to meet the needs and requirements of a wider audience—merchants, travelers, and people of culture. Of geography, he wrote that “It is a science in which kings and nobles take a keen interest, [while] the judges and the jurists seek it and the common people and the leaders love it.” Al-Maqudisī’s view of the subject embraced a variety of topics, including various sects and schisms, trade and commerce, weights and measures, customs and traditions, coinage and monetary systems, and languages and dialects; to all of these subjects he brought a critical mind and narrative and investigative skills.
Although al-Maqdisī brought a new aim to geography, his method was that of the Balkhī school, of whom the chief adherents were, besides al-balkhī himself, al-Istakhrī (who lived in the first half of the tenth century) and Ibn Hawqyal (who completed his geographical work in a.d. 977). The Balkhī geographers limited their descriptive writings to the Mamlakat al-Islīm and attempted to align their geographical concepts with those of the Koran and the Hadīth (“Traditions of the Prophet”). An example of al-Maqdisī’s use of the holy books may be found in his discourse on the seas, in which he argued that the Koranic verse describing the “confluence of the two seas between which was situated al-barzakh [the interstice]” actually referred to the meeting of the Mediterranean Sea and the Indian Ocean (which most Arab geographers though to be a lake) at the Isthmus of Suez, since al-barzakh was the land between the al-Faramā and al-Qulzum of the Koran. Like the Balkhī geographers, al-Maqdisī also confined himself to the Mamlakat al-Islām and began his account with the description of the “Island of Arabia,” which must take precedence since it contained both the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. As he noted in the Kitāb ahsan al-taqāsim, he neither visited the countries of the infidels nor saw any point in describing them.
Al-Maqdisī nonetheless held independent views and differed from the Balkhī geographers on a number of points. He tried to judge every geographical problem independently and in a scholarly manner; he observed, regarding the authenticity of his own work:
Know that many scholars and ministers have written on the subject [of geography] but most [of their writing], nay, all of it, is based upon hearsay, while we have entered every region and have acquired knowledge through experience. Moreover, we did not cease investigation, enquiry, and [attempts to gain] insight into the unknown [al-ghayb]. Thus, our book is arranged in three parts: first, what we have observed; second, what we have heard from trustworthy sources; and third, what we have found in books written on this subject and others.
Al-Maqdisī began his Kitāb ạsan al-taqāsīim with general remarks on a number of subjects, among them seas and rivers; place names and their variants (including names common to more than one place); the special characteristics of various regions; the sects of Islam and the non-Muslim inhabitants of the Islamic world; personal travel narratives; and sections entitled “Places About Which There are Differences of Opinion,” “Epitome for the Jurists,” and “World Aqālīm [regions or administrative districts] and the Position of the Qibla.” These introductory passages embody some of al-Maqdisī’s innovations; he was, for example, the first Arab geographer to determine and standardize the meanings and connotations of Arabic geographical terms, and the first to provide a list of towns and other features for quick reference.
According to al-maqdisī, the Islamic world was not symmetrical, but rather irregular in shape. He divided this world into fourteen regions (aqālīm), of which he designated six—the “Island of Arabia,” ‘Irāq (southern Mesopotamia), Aqūr (al-Jazīra, or northern mesopotamia), al-shām (Syria), Mịr (Egypt), and al-Maghrib—as ‘Arab. The remaining eight—al-Mashriq (the kingdom of the Samanids), al-Daylam (Gilan and the mountainous regions east of the Caspian Sea), al-Rihāb (Azerbaydzhan, Arran, and Armenia), al-Jibāl (ancient Media), Khūzistān (the area south of Media and east of Mesopotamia), Fārs (ancient Persia), Kirmān (the region to the south of Fārs), and al-Sind—he called ‘Ajam, Persian. Each of these districts, it may be noted, is demarcated by well-defined physical boundaries, which al-Maqdisī undoubtedly took into account. In commenting upon them, he further divided his remarks on each region into two sections, of which one was dedicated to physical features, toponymy, and political subdivisions, while the other contained a discussion of general features.
Al-Maqdisī drew a map of each iqlīm, indicating regional boundaries and trade routes in red, sandy areas in yellow, salt seas in green, rivers in blue, and mountains in ochre. Although most of the maps have been lost, it is possible to reconstruct them to some degree by considering those made by other geographers of the Balkhīschool, the conventions of which al-Maqdisī again followed (although his book suggests that he specifically disagreed with some of the maps drawn by al-Balkhī). The world maps of this school are round, showing the land mass encircled by an ocean from which the Mediterranean Sea and the Indian Ocean flow, almost meeting at the Isthmus of Suez. The boundaries of the various aqālim are then shown within the land mass. Because of this high degree of stylization, these maps are less accurate than the more detailed maps of specific regions, which conform more closely to the geographers’ descriptions; since the maps that al-Maqdisī drew for the Kitāb ahsan al-taqāsī were of the latter type, some fair amount of accuracy may be assumed.
Al-Maqdisī’s book is also notable for its literary style. He wrote in an ornamental and varied manner, occasionally framing his comments in rhymed prose (saj‘). He used the local dialect of each region in describing it, or, when he did not do so, he explained, he used the Syrian dialect that was native to him. Through this imitation, the language of his section on al-Mashriq is the most rhetorical, since the people of this area were perfect in Arabic; but because the language of the people of Egypt and al-Maghrib was weak and unadorned, and that of the inhabitants of al-Baṭā’ih (the swamps of Iraq) ugly, so, too, is the language in which al-Maqdisī wrote of them.
Al-Maqdisī’s geographical work, Kitāb aḥsan al-taqāsīm fi ma‘rifat al-aqālim (“The Best Division for Knowledge of Regions”), is in M. J. de Goeje, ed., Bibliotheca geographorum arabicorum, 2nd ed., III (Leiden, 1906). An English trans. up to the iqlīm of Egypt is G. Ranking and R. Azoo, Ahsanu-t-taqāsīm fi ma‘rifat-i-l-aqālim, in Bibliotheca indica, n.s. (Calcutta, 1897–1910); a French trans. is A. Miquel, al-Muqaddasī, Aḥsan al-Taqāsīm fi Ma’rifat al-Aqālim, La meilleure épartition pour la connaissance des provinces (Damascus, 1963); and an Urdu trans. is Khurshid Ahmad Fāriq, Islāmī dunyā dawswīn ṣadī ‘īswī mēn (Delhi, 1962).
See I. I. Krakovsky, Istoria arabskoy geograficheskoy literatury(Mosocow-Leningrad, 1957); translated into Arabic by Salāḥ al-Dīn ‘Uthmān Hāshim as Ta’rikh al-adab al-jughrāfī al-‘Arabī (cairo, 1963).
S. Maqbul Ahmad