Al-Mas‘

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AL-MAS‘ūDī, ABU ’L-HASAN ‘ALī IBN AL-HUSAYN IBN ‘ALī

(b. Bahdad; d. al-Fuṣtạ̄t [old Cairo], Egypt, September/October 956 or 957)

geography, history.

While still relatively young, al-Mas‘ūdi left Baghdad about 915, spending the rest of his life traveling until he settled in Egypt toward the end of his life. He journeyed extensively in Khurāsān, Sijistān (southern Afghanistan), Kirmān, Fārs, Qūmis, Jurjān, ̣Tabaristān, Jibāl (Media), Khūzostān, Iraq (southern half of Mesopotamia), and Jazīra (northern half of Mesopotamia)until 941; and in Syria, Yemen, ̣Ha̧dramawt, Shạhr, and Egypt between 941 and 956. He also visited Sind, India, and East Africa and sailed on the Caspian Sea, the Mediterranean, the Red Sea, and the Arabian Sea. His claims to have visited Java, Indochina, or China do not seem to be correct, however, since there is no internal evidence to support them in his extent works. Nor did he visit Madagascar, Ceylon, or Tibet, as is believed by some scholars. Apart from his urge to see the wonders of the world (al-‘ajā’ib), his travels were motivated by his conviction that true knowledge could be acquired only through personal experience and observation.

Al-Mas‘ūdī was a prolific writer; nearly thirty-seven works can be enumerated from his extant writings and from other sources. He wrote on a great variety of subjects: history, geography, jurisprudence, theology, genealogy, and the art of government and administration. Only two of these works have survived completely: Murūj al-dhahab was ma‘ādin al-jawhar, completed in November/December 947 and revised in 956, and Al-Tanbīh wa’l-ishrāf, completed a year before his death. His magnum opus, Kitāb Akhbār al-zamām wa ,man abādahu ’l-̣̣idthān, a world history and geography in about thirty volumes (funūn), is lost except for its first volume, which is preserved in Vienna (there is another manuscript in Berlin; see C. Brockelmann, Encyclopaedia of Islam, 1st ed.). A number of manuscripts and printed works bearing different titles—Mukhtaşar al-‘ajā’ ib (French translation by Carra de Vaux, L’abrfégé des merveilles [Paris, 1898]); Kitāb Akhbār al-zamān wa man abādahu ‘-̣hidthān (‘Abd Allāh al-Şāwī, ed. [Cairo, 1938]); Kitāb al-Ausạt; Kitāb ‘ajā’ib al-dunyā (or Kitāb al-‘ajā’ib)—are incorrectly ascribed to him. In fact, they seem to belong to the ‘ajā’ib literature produced in abundance in the medieval period. This consisted of collections of sailors’ tales about the Indian Ocean and legends about ancient Egypt, among other subjects. Similarly, Ithbāt al-waşiyya li‘l-Imām ‘Ali ibn Abi ̣Tālib (al-Najaf, Iraq, 1955) does does not seem to be al-Mas‘ūdi’s work.

Al-Mas‘ūdi was a Mu‘tazilite thinker with Shi‘a leanings. Believing that knowledge accumulated and advanced with the passage of time, he disagreed with those scholars who uncritically accepted the “ancients” (salaf) as final authorities and who minimized the importance of the knowledge of the contemporary savants (khalaf): “And often a latter-day writer, because of his great accumulation of experiences, and of his wariness of an uncritical imitation of his predecessors and of his caution against pitfalls, is better in his documentation and more thorough in his authorship. Again, since he discovers new things not known to former generations, the sciences steadily progress to unknown limits and ends” (Tanbih, p. 76). Thus we find him openly challenging traditionalism (taqlid), which from the twelfth century exerted a deadly influence on the progress of scientific knowledge and learning and hence was the main cause of the decline of the Islamic society in the Middle Ages.

As a historian al-Mas‘ūdi made important contributions to Arab historiography in the Middle Ages. He believed that to obtain a true and objective picture of the history of a nation, a historian ought to consult the primary sources available in that country and not depend upon secondary sources, which are likely to distort facts. He followed this principle in the case of the history of ancient Iran (Tanbih, p. 105). For his history of the world he not only utilized a large number of Arabic historical works available to him but also incorporated into it the vast amount of rich material on different countries and kingdoms that he had collected during his travels. Besides dealing with the history of Islam in the traditional manner—from the time of the Prophet Mụhammad up to his own times—he surveyed the histories of important nations and races who lived before the rise of Islam in the seventh century and also covered, as far as possible, the contemporary histroy of the Byzantine Empire, some European nations, India, and China. His approach to history was, therefore, both scientific and objective. He was one of the first Muslim historians to set the trend of secularism in historiography, for he included in his works the histories of a large number of non-Islamic nations. In his enthusiasm to record everything at his disposal, however, he uncritically related legends and popular beliefs side by side with history.

Al-Mas‘ūdī conceived of geography as an essential prerequisite of history, and hence a survey of world geography preceded his account of world history. He emphasized that geographical environment deeply influenced the character, temperament, and structure —as well as the color—of the animal and plant life found in a particular region. He was fully acquainted with ancient Greek, Indian, and Iranian geographical thought and concepts through Arabic translations of the literature and was equally well versed in contemporary Arabic geographical literature. His knowledge of geography covered almost all branches of the subject, and his system was based mainly on the Greeks. Thus, he belonged to the “secular” school of Arab geographers rather than to the Islamic Balkhi school, the followers of which took Mecca as the center of the world and made their geographical ideas conform to the concepts found in the Koran. Having had a wide experience of the оìkоυµένη and endowed with a critical mind, al-Mas‘ūdī was able to challenge some of the concepts of the “theoretician” and to rectify the confused knowledge of the Arab geographers of his time. For instance, he was not fully convinced of the Ptolemaic theory of the existence of a terra incognita in the southern hemisphere, according to which the Indian Ocean was believed to be surrounded by land on all sides except in the east, where it was joined with the Pacific by a sea passage. He says he was told by the sailors of the Indian Ocean (al-bạhr al-̣habashi) that this sea had no limits toward the south (Murūj, I, 281–282; see S. M. Ahmad, “The Arabs and the Rounding of the Cape of Good Hope,” in Dr. Zakir Husain presentation Volume [New Delhi, 1968]).

Al-Mas‘ūdū was not a philosopher, but he was deeply interested in Greek philosophy, as is evident from his writings. As a theologian he refuted the Greek materialist concept that the world is eternal (qadim) and argued in favor of the Islamic belief that the world had come into existence in time (̣hādith). His style is simple and direct; but he made full use of Arabic poetry, which imparts a literary touch to his writings. There is little doubt that he was one of the most original thinkers of medieval Islam.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

I. Original Works. Al-Mas‘ūdi’s extant works are Murūj al-dhabab wa ma‘ādin al-Jawhar, Les prairies d’or, Arabic text and French trans. by C. Barbier de Meynard and Pavet de Courteille, 9 vols. (Paris, 1861–1877), also rev. ed. of the Arabic text by Charles Pellat, 3 vols. (Beirut, 1966–1970); and kitāb al-Tanbih wa ’l-ishrāf, M. J. de Goeje, ed., vol. VIII of Bibliotheca Geographorum Arabicorum (Leiden, 1893–1894), trans. into French by Carra de Vaux as Le livre de l’avertissemment et de la revision (Paris, 1897).

II. Secondary Literature. See S. Maqbul Ahmad, “Al-Mas‘ūdi’s Contributions to Medieval Arab Geography,” in Islamic Culture (Hyderabad), 27 , no. 2 (Apr. 1953), 61–77, and 28 , no. 1 (Jan. 1954), 275–286; and “Travels of Abu ’l-̣hasan ‘Ali ibn al-̣Husayn al-Mas‘ūdi,” ibid., 28 , no. 4 (oct. 1954), 509–524; C. Brockelmann, “Al-Mas‘ūdi,” in Encyclopaedia of Islam, 1st ed. (Leiden, 1936); I. I. Krachkovsky, Istoria arabskoy geograficheskoy literatury (Moscow-Leningrad, 1957), trans. into Arabic by Şalạ̄h al-Din ‘Uthmān Hāshim as Ta’rikh al-adab al-jughrāfi al-‘Arabi (Cairo, 1963), pt. 1, 177–186; Al-Mas‘ūdi Millenary Commemoration Volume, S. Maqbul Ahmad and A. Rahman, eds. (Aligarh, 1960); and M. Reinaud, Géographie d’l Aboulféda, I, Introduction générale à la géographic des orientaux (Paris, 1848).

On the ‘ajā’ib literature, see S. M. Ahmad, “The Aligarh Manuscript of al-Mas‘ūdi’s ‘Ajāib al-Dunyā,” in Majalla-i ‘Ulūm-i Islāmiya (1960), 102–110; C. Brockelmann, Geschichte dder arabischen Literatur, I (Leiden, 1943), 150– 152 and supp. I (Leiden, 1937), 220–221; Carra de Vaux, in Journal Asiatique, 9th ser., 7; ̣Hājji Khalifa, Kashf aḷzunūn, II (Istabul, 1943), 1126; Qụtbuddin Collection, no. 36/1, Maulana Azad Library, Aligarh; M. Reinaud, Géographie d’ Aboulféda, I, Introduction générale à la géographie des orientaux (Paris, 1848); and P. Voorhoeve, Handlist of Arabic Manuscripts (Leiden, 1957), 4.

S. Maqbul Ahmad

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