Ibn Mājid, Shih

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(fl. Najd, Saudi Arabia, fifteenth century a.d.)


Ibn Mājid inherited his profession; both his father and grandfather were mu ‘allim, “masters of navigation”, and both were known as experts in the navigation of the Red Sea, dreaded by sailors. Of the Arab navigators of the Middle Ages, none surpassed Ibn Mājid himself in the intimate knowledge and experience of both the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean. He knew almost all the sea routes from the Red Sea to East Africa, and from East Africa to China; proud of his achievements, he styled himself “The Successor of the Lions,” or “The Lion of the Sea in Fury” (in his Ḥāwiyat al-ikhtiṣār fī uṣūl ‘ilm al-biḥār, dated a.h. 866, or a.d. 1462, fol. 88b). He became a legend among pious mariners, who called him “Shaykh Mājid” and recited the Fātiḥa, the first chapter of the Koran, in his memory before embarking on certain seas.1

Ibn Mājid was well versed in the works of a number of both Muslim and Greek geographers, astronomers, and navigators. He considered the study of these sources to be essential to Arab navigators, and is known to have read books by Ptolemy, Abu’l-Ḥasan al-Marrākushi, al-ṣūfī, al-ṭūṣī, Yāqūt al-Ḥamawī, Ibn Sa‘īd, al-Battānī, Ibn ̣awqal, and Ulūgh Bēg—as well as the the works of three ‘Abbāsid sailors, Muḥammad ibn Shādān, Sahl ibn Abān, and Layth ibn Kahlān, whom he dismissed as mere compilers.2

Ibn Mājid himself wrote at least thirty-eight works, in both prose and poetry, of which twenty-five are extant. In these he took up a wide variety of astronomical and nautical subjects, including the lunar mansions; the stars that correspond to the thirty-eight rhumbs (khanns) of the mariner’s compass; sea routes of the Indian Ocean and the latitude of harbors; birds as landmarks; coastlines; the “ten large islands” of the Indian Ocean (Arabia, Madagascar, Sumatra, Java, Taiwan, Ceylon, Zanzibar, Bahrein, Ibn Gāwān, and Socotra); a systematic survey of the coastal regions of Asia and Africa (in which he revealed a more detailed knowledge of the coasts of the Indian Ocean than those of the Mediterranean or Caspian Sea); the Red Sea; Arabian, Coptic, Byzantine, and Persian years; bāshī, the computation of the elevation of the polestar from its minimum height above the horizon; the proper direction of the Kaaba; landfalls, in particular landfalls on capes during monsoons; certain northern stars; months of the Byzantine calendar; general instructions for navigators; reefs and deeps; signs indicating land; observations of both constellations (Aquarius) and individual stars (Canopus, Arcturus); majrās (a course of a journey by sea); and European, especially Portuguese, navigators of the Indian Ocean. Ibn Mājid is, in addition, known to have revised and enlarged a book, called aḷijā-ziyya and written in verse of the rajaz form, originally composed by his father.3

Of all his works, however, Ibn Mājid’s Kitāb al-Fawā’id, dated a.h. 895 (a.d. 1490), was the one most valuable to navigators. Indeed, the Turkish navigator Sīdī ‘Ali Re’is (who died in 1562) had, during a stay in Basra, acquired a copy of this book, together with Ibn Mājid’s Hāwiya and some more nearly contemporary works of Sulaymān al-Mahrī, because, according to him, it was extremely difficult to navigate the Indian Ocean without them.4 A modern scholar, Gabriel Ferrand, correctly described the Kitāb al-Fawā’id as a “compendium of the known knowledge of theoretical and practical navigation” and as “a kind of synthesis of nautical science of the latter years of the Middle Ages.” Ferrand described Ibn Mājid himself as the first writer on nautical science in its modern sense, adding that, apart from the inevitable errors in latitudes, his description of the Red Sea for navigational purposes had never been equaled.5

The Kitāb al-Fawā’id also makes it clear that Ibn Mājid did not actually invent the mariner’s compass, although others have claimed that invention for him. Indeed, in folio 46b, he specified only that he fixed the needle (al-maghnāṭīs, or “magnet”) to the case of the instrument. He did boast, however, that the compass used by the Arab navigators of the Indian Ocean was much superior to that employed by their Egyptian or Maghribi (North African) counterparts, since the Arab compass was divided into thirty-two, rather than only sixteen, sections. He further claimed that the Egyptians and Maghribis were unable to sail Arab ships, while Arabs could handle Egyptian and Maghribi vessels with great ease.6

Ibn Mājid’s Al-sufāliyya is also of particular interest, since in it he records (folio 94a) the expeditions of the “Franks,” or Portuguese (although the term was also used for Europeans in general). He was aware of the Portuguese circumnavigation of the Cape of Good Hope, an event that took place near the end of his life, and further aware of Portuguese navigation in the Indian Ocean. He wrote that the Franks, having passed through al-madkhal (“the place of entry”) that lay between the Maghrib and Sofala (Mozambique), reached the latter coast in a.h. 900 (a.d. 1495), and proceeded to India. He gave a further account of their return to Portugal, by way of Zanzibar and through the same “passage of the Franks,” and of their second voyage, in a.h. 906 (a.d. 1501) to India, where they purchased houses and settled down, having been befriended by the Sāmrī rulers (the zamorin kings of Kerala).

Al-madkhal was an object of much concern to Arab mariners, who believed it to be a sea channel that lay south of the Mountains of the Moon (the source of the Nile) and connected the Indian Ocean with the Atlantic. According to Ptolemaic tradition, the whole of the southern hemisphere was terra incognita, an extension of the southern coast of Africa; Arab maps of the period show the Indian Ocean as a lake, connected by a sea passage to the Pacific, and lacking any communication with the Atlantic. Al-Bīrūnī, however, had posited a channel between the Indian Ocean and the “Sea of Darkness”—the Atlantic—and had placed it somewhere south of the source of the Nile, between Sofala and the cape al-Ra’sūn (probably in the region of the Agulhas currents on modern maps). Abu ’l-Fidā’ quoted him in his own Taqwīm al-Buldān, a work known to Ibn Mājid, who considered his predecessor’s theory to be proved by the accomplishments of “the experienced ones,” the Portuguese.

Camoëns mentioned Ibn Mājid in The Lusiads, while a later Arab historian, Quṭb al-Dīn al-Nahrwālī, accused him of having drunkenly confided to the chief of the Franks (al-amilandī), Vasco da Gama, the navigational information that allowed him to sail from East Africa to India.


1. Ferrand, Instructions nautiques, III, 227–228.

2.Kitāb al-Fawā’id, fols, 3b—4a; cf. Ferreand, op. cit., 229–233.

3.Ibid., fol. 78a–b.

4. See Ferrand, in Encyclopaedia of Islam, 1st ed., IV, 363.

5.Ibid., 365.

6.Ibid., and ff.


I. Original Works. Twenty-two of Ibn Mājid’s works have been published in facsimile by G. Ferrand, Instructions nautiques et routiers arabes et portugais des XV’ et XVI’ siècles, 3 vols. (Paris, 1921–1928). These include both prose and poetical works (urjūza): Kitāb al-Fawā’id fi uṣūl‘ilm al-bahr wa ‘l-qawā‘id (a.h. 895, a.d. 1490); Ḥāwiyat al-ikhtis ̣ār fi uṣūlilm al-najhūlāt fi’l-najhūlāt fi’l-bahr wa ’l-nujūm wa ’l-burūj(not dated, but probabaly written before A.H.894,A.D.1489);Urjūza fi ‘ilm albiḥār (a.h. 866, a.d. 1462);Al-Mu‘ arraba (a.h. 890, a.d. 1485); Kiblat al-Islām fi jami‘ al-dunyā; (a.h. 893, a.d. 1488); Urjūza Barr al-‘Arab fi Khalij Fārs; Urjūza fi qismat al-jamma al‘ā Banāt Na‘ sh (a.h. 900, a.d. 1494–1495); Kanz al-Ma‘ālima wa dhakhiratihim Urjūza fi ‘l-natakhāt li-Barr al-Hind wa Barr al-‘Arab; Mimiyyāt al-abdāt Urjūza Mukhammasa; Urjūza on the Byzantine months, rhyming in nūn (not dated, but probably written before 1475 or 1489); D¸rībat al-d¸arā’ib; Urjūza dedicated to the caliph ‘Ali ibn Abī Tālib (not dated, but written before 1475 or 1489); Al-Qaṣīda al-Makkiyya; Nādirat al-abdāl; Al-Qaṣīda al-Bā’iyya, called Al-Dhahabiyya (dated 16 Dhu 1-Ḥijja 882, or 21 March 1478); Al-Fā’iqa; (not dated, but written before 1475); Al—Baligha; nine short prose sections (faṣl); Urjūza called Al-Sab‘iiyya; untitle Qasīda (not dated, but written before 1475, 1478, or 1489); and Qaṣīda called Al-Hādiya (not dated, written before 1475, 1478, or 1489).

Three further urjūzas, Al-Sufāliyya, Al-Ma’laqiyya, and Al-Tāiyya, have been published, with Russian translations and notes, by T.A. Shumovsky, Thalāth rāhmānajāt al-majhūla li Aḥmad ibn Mājid: Tri nyeizvyestnioye lotsii Akhmada ibn Madzida arabskogo lostmana Vasko da Gami (MOSCOW-Leingrad, 1957).

Thirteen other works, specifically mentioned by Ibn Mājid in Kitāb al-Fawā’id, are no longer known.

II. Secondary Literature. See S. Maqbul Ahmad, “The Arabs and the Rounding of the Cape of Good Hope,” in Dr. Zakir Husain Presentation Volume (New Delhi, 1968), 90–100; M. Reinaud, Géographie d’Aboulféda, vol. I of Introduction générale à la géographie des orientaux (Paris, 1848); and Encyclopaedia of Islam, 2nd ed., III (Leiden, 1968), 856–859.

S. Maqbul Ahmad

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