Al-Idrisi and Representations of the Medieval Muslim World

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Al-Idrisi and Representations of the Medieval Muslim World


Ash-Sharif al-Idrisi (1100-1165?) wrote one of the greatest works of medieval geography and produced the first world map to use a grid system of vertical and horizontal lines to designate geographic subdivisions and climatic zones. As a geographer and adviser to Roger II, the Norman king of Sicily, he also helped to bridge the distinct cultures of Europe and the Islamic world. While in Sicily, al-Idrisi constructed a silver planisphere that was covered with a map of the world. This map, which featured trade routes, major cities, and geographic details, was remarkably accurate for the time.

Furthermore, al-Idrisi composed the Kitab Nuzhat al-Mushtaqfi Ikhtiraq al-Afaq, or The Delight of Him Who Desires to Journey Through the Climates. This text, also known as the Al-Kitab ar-Rujari, or The Book of Roger, was intended to accompany the silver planisphere. It contains detailed maps and records important geographical information on Asia, Africa, and European countries. Al-Idrisi compiled material from personal experience and eyewitness reports along with information taken from Arabic and Greek maps and geographic texts.


Al-Idrisi was born in Sabtah, a Spanish settlement in Morocco. He came from a long line of nobility, caliphs, and holy men. His closest ancestors were the Hammudids of a caliphate in Spain and North Africa that lasted from 1016 until 1058. Al-Idrisi spent his youth traveling through this area. He also traveled through Portugal, northern Spain, and the French Atlantic coast. He had even journeyed as far as Asia Minor by the age of 16.

There is some dispute regarding the importance of al-Idrisi's geographic works. The maps that Roger II commissioned him to make exhibit great detail, but are not particularly innovative or creative. While Roger II was displeased with Greek and Muslim maps, al-Idrisi's maps simply compiled Greek and Muslim information into a single form.


Al-Idrisi's Kitab ar-Rujari is often considered more influential than his maps. It represents a serious attempt to link descriptive and astronomical geography. However, al-Idrisi has been criticized for merely compiling information from previous sources. Likewise, some scholars have argued that al-Idrisi was unable to accurately master the mathematical skills necessary to record geographic details accurately. His Kitab ar-Rujari is significant because it was distributed widely and in Latin. Also, it was indispensable as a source of information for areas such as the Mediterranean basin and the Balkans.

His maps are also significant in that they include several unique features. Al-Idrisi developed a cartographic system that divided the world into seven distinct climatic zones. These zones move from north to south and predate lines of latitude. The seven climates, called aqalim, are divided into 10 sections that move from east to west. These sections are called ajza. The 70 sections that result from the intersection of aqalim and ajza are provided with their own maps in the Kitab ar-Rujari. This is the first instance in European cartography of purely geographic lines of distinction. Older maps marked political divisions, but were not organized into the geographic sections that al-Idrisi employed.

Of course, even political divisions were problematic for cartography at that time. Borders were constantly shifting or were not clearly defined. Also, political units were not the solid monoliths with which we are familiar. Even the dar al-Islam, the preeminent power of the time, was a confusing amalgamation of places, people, and cultures. Sea borders were easily recognized, but land borders were much more problematic. Al-Idrisi's maps, for instance, mark centers of power, but do not clearly delineate their boundaries. Such maps reflect a view of the dar al-Islam as a series of loosely connected points, and not as a single discrete unit.

In such a system, some of the points were especially isolated and surrounded by hostile powers. In order to understand al-Idrisi's geographic work, one must also consider the role of Spain, or al-Andalus, in the dar al-Islam. In addition, study of al-Idrisi's work requires that the cultural connotations of terms such as "near" and "far" be considered. The texts and maps that al-Idrisi produced in Sicily help to clarify the conceptual distances that separated or united areas and cultures.

The time al-Idrisi spent studying in Cordoba as a young man more than likely shaped his awareness of distance and cultural distinctions. Indeed, al-Idrisi's entrance into the service of Roger II of Sicily in about 1145 exemplifies such divisions in the medieval world. As-Safadi, a fourteenth-century Arab scholar, indicates that Roger II invited al-Idrisi to Sicily with these words:

You are a member of the caliphal family. For that reason, when you happen to be among Muslims, their kings will seek to kill you, whereas when you are with me you are assured of the safety of your person.

Scholars are uncertain about al-Idrisi's reasons for relocating to Sicily. Some have surmised that he was viewed as a renegade by Muslims only after he began to serve a Christian king. Others, however, contend that al-Idrisi was in serious danger of assassination attempts before he even accepted Roger II's offer.

Regardless, his relocation to Sicily secured his fame, and is indicative of major developments in the medieval world. Muslim geographers had long produced accurate maps and documents of the world. However, by the twelfth century, the "center" of the world was shifting, for numerous political and cultural reasons, from the dar al-Islam (the political, cultural, and economic entity that extended from Spain, referred to as al-Andalus, to the Middle East) to Western Europe.

By the end of the twelfth century, the Dar al-Islam had controlled Mediterranean commerce, culture, and science for over three centuries. During this period, the Muslim world stretched from Spain to the Middle East. When the Umayads were defeated by the Abbasids in the middle of the ninth century, the Muslim political, cultural, and economic focus shifted from Damascus, a city near Jerusalem, to Baghdad, which is landlocked and further east.

Most of Europe was removed from the Muslim sphere of influence, and the nascent European nation-states were unable to generate enough power or political stability to successfully confront and overtake the Muslim world by military or economic means.

The one European exception to this situation was Spain, which existed at the western fringes of Muslim consciousness. In Cordoba, the intellectual heart of al-Andalus, citizens mimicked the fashions and manners of Baghdad and traveled eastward in search of cultural, spiritual, and intellectual fulfillment.

Al-Andalus, which constituted the southern half of the Iberian peninsula, became part of the Islamic world in 711, when a Muslim army crossed the Straits of Gibraltar and ousted the Visigoths. The period from the tenth to the twelfth century marked a time of considerable commercial stability for al-Andalus. The east-west axis that the Muslims had established across the Mediterranean helped to secure their power. Likewise, al-Andalus benefited considerably from the movement of goods between west and east. Andalusian markets eagerly consumed eastern goods, and could rely on the Middle East as a stable market for the exportation of Iberian products.

However, another component also aided medieval Spain. The proximity of al-Andalus to the Christian European world helped to boost its economic prestige. Indeed, during this period the Iberian peninsula was part of both the Muslim and Christian worlds. While the border between northern Christian Spain and southern Muslim Spain shifted towards the south over the centuries, the Iberian peninsula operated as a gateway between these two spheres of influence.

The Spain that al-Idrisi encountered during his education at Cordoba was a unique hybrid of European and Muslim influence. However, while Andalusian cities such as Cordoba embraced Muslim influence, Christian Europe fought against it. Indeed, Roger II's father, Roger de Hauteville, helped to cut the Muslim stranglehold on Mediterranean trade. Roger de Hauteville's conquest of Sicily assumed the trappings of a crusade; in 1063, Pope Alexander II presented him with a papal banner that was to be carried at the head of the army. Likewise, the Pope granted absolution to all soldiers who helped in the battle effort. The upheaval in Italy paralleled the violence brought on by the crusades. In fact, the crusaders stormed Jerusalem in 1099, only a few years after Roger de Hauteville secured Sicily. In 1072, Roger I crushed the Byzantine navy, and relied on his own naval power to establish a new kingdom on the Mediterranean.

His son, Roger II, continued this path. He took power in 1112 at the young age of 17. By 1122 he had attacked North Africa in an attempt to avenge an attack on Italy by Saracen and Spanish Muslim fleets. However, as his offer to al-Idrisi attests, he was also interested in learning the secrets the Muslims had employed to maintain control of the Mediterranean for such a long time.

Indeed, al-Idrisi's fame is linked to Roger's success in asserting the power of a European nation on the Mediterranean. Navigators and traders from the Mediterranean, as well as from the Atlantic and the North Sea, frequented Sicily after Roger's victory. Sicily quickly asserted itself as a new center of influence. Even after al-Idrisi's death, his books remained extremely popular among European audiences for several centuries.


Further Reading

Ahmad, Nafis. Muslim Contribution to Geography. Lahore: Muhammed Ashraf, 1947.

Brauer, R.W. Boundaries and Frontiers in Medieval Muslim Geography. Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1995.

Constable, Olivia Remie. Trade and Traders in Muslim Spain: The Commercial Realignment of the Iberian Peninsula, 900-1500. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Fletcher, Richard. Moorish Spain. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1992.

Imamuddin, S.M. Muslim Spain 711-1492 AD: A Sociological Study. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1981.

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Al-Idrisi and Representations of the Medieval Muslim World

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