Al-Maqdisi Travels Throughout the Muslim World

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Al-Maqdisi Travels Throughout the Muslim World


The most important writings on geography and exploration during the period from the tenth to the twelfth centuries emerged from the Muslim world. There a series of journeyers and geographers chronicled their travels and categorized the towns and physical features of the Islamic realms, a vast network of empires that stretched from Spain to India, and from eastern Europe to the desert kingdoms of West Africa. Among the first of these writers was al-Maqdisi, who traveled throughout much of the Arab and Muslim world, and who in 985 began writing about his journeys in Best Division for Knowing the Provinces.


It is understandable that both scientific geography and the art of travel writing would flourish in the realms controlled by the Muslims. Not only did those lands enjoy the greatest flowering of civilization in the Western world up to that time since the golden age of Rome, if not of Greece, the Muslim caliphates constituted by far the largest Western empires since Rome. Thus it became increasingly necessary to possess knowledge concerning the many towns, roads, and physical features of the lands where Allah was the acknowledged God, and Arabic the lingua franca.

When Muhammad (c. 570-632) began his ministry as prophet of Allah in 613, the Arabian peninsula was a remote, forgotten corner of the world. By the time he died in 632, Muslims controlled the western and southern portions of the peninsula, but the sophisticated urban centers to the north—Damascus, Jerusalem (the town of al-Maqdisi's birth), and Baghdad—remained beyond the reach of Islam. That situation changed rapidly in the decades immediately following Muhammad's death, however, as the four caliphs who succeeded him as spiritual and political leaders of Islam conquered Syria, Egypt, Iraq, and much of Persia.

Under the Umayyad caliphate (661-750), the boundaries of Islamic lands spread to the edges of India and China in the East, and to Spain and North Africa in the West. Islam's westward expansion halted with the defeat of Muslim troops by the Frankish majordomo Charles Martel (c. 688-741) at Tours in 732, and though the Muslims gained a victory over China's T'ang dynasty at Talas in 751, the momentum had gone out of Arab efforts to conquer the world. The Abbasid caliphate (750-1258) simply maintained the gains established under its predecessors until it lost its authority, first to the Turks and later to the non-Muslim Mongol invaders.

Yet it was during the period from the tenth to the twelfth centuries, when the caliphate's strength had not yet been fully dissipated, that the cultural centers of Baghdad, Damascus, Jerusalem, and other cities produced some of the Medieval era's greatest thinkers. These included the historian and geographer al-Mas'udi (d.957), known as "the Herodotus of the Arabs" for his contributions to Middle Eastern historiography. Yet al-Mas'udi was not simply a scholar abstracted from the real world: like the Greek historian Herodotus (c. 484-c. 424 b.c.) to whom he was compared, he traveled widely, compiling notes for his writings.

The writings of Ahmad Ibn Fadlan (fl. 920s), most of which have been lost but which exerted considerable influence in medieval Islam, represented another strain in Muslim geographical writing: the nonscholarly work of a journeyer. Thus Ibn Fadlan wrote memorably about his experiences among the Varangians or Vikings of Russia.


In assessing the work of Muhammad ibn Ahmad al-Maqdisi (945-1000), sometimes known as al-Muqaddasi, it is useful to compare his career to that of his contemporary Ibn Hawkal (920-990). Both traveled throughout most of the Muslim world, though the journeys of Ibn Hawkal—which included forays to Spain, West Africa, India, and Sicily—were more extensive. Both wrote about their travels, Ibn Hawkal in Of Ways and Provinces and On the Shape of the Earth, and al-Maqdisi in Ahsan al-taqasim fi ma'rifat al-aqalim, whose title is translated in English as The Best Division for Knowing the Provinces or The Best Divisions for Knowledge of the Regions.

Most interesting of all, both were suspected as agents of the Fatimid regime in Egypt, whose leaders belonged to the Ismaili sect of Shi'a Islam. Though Shi'ites are most commonly associated in the modern mind with the grim fundamentalists who seized power in Iran in 1979, a number of Medieval Shi'ite groups were characterized by a much greater degree of tolerance. Such was the case with the Fatimids, named after Muhammad's daughter Fatima, who (in the beginning, at least) espoused a highly tolerant faith with elements of a universal religion.

Claiming leadership over all Islamic lands, the Fatimids began their conquests in northwestern Africa in 893. During the reign of the Fatimid caliph Moizz (953-975), they seized power over Egypt, and eventually their realms stretched from Sicily and Algeria to western Arabia and Palestine. The center of their empire, however, remained in Egypt, where in 973 they established their capital at Cairo.

Ibn Hawkal's trips took place during the period of Fatimid ascendancy in Egypt, and some scholars believe that he functioned as a spy for the Fatimids. In writing about the Spanish city of Cordoba, for instance, he speculated that the Umayyad remnant that controlled the Iberian peninsula might be vulnerable to foreign attack—an observation some have interpreted as a field report to the Fatimid leaders in North Africa. Similarly, Ibn Hawkal just happened to be in Egypt in 969, as the Fatimids were completing their decades-long effort to win control of that country.

Al-Maqdisi, on the other hand, has been regarded as a Fatimid propagandist but not as an outright spy, and in reading his work, his prejudices are clear. Not only did he favor Shi'ites over the mainstream Sunni Muslims, he was outspoken in his preference for Muslim lands over those of Christians. He did not bother to visit the latter, he indicated, because he did not consider Christians worthy of study, and in the places he visited, he judged the presence of Christians and Jews as a sign of religious impurity in the Muslim majority. In this he prefigured the intolerance that would come to characterize the Fatimids as their regime, which remained in power until 1171, began to go into decline.

Though he came from a famous family of architects and builders, al-Maqdisi chose to pursue a much more varied career that involved him in numerous professions. As for his travels, these began in 966, when he was 21 years old, and seem to have continued after the time he began writing The Best Division at age 40. The exact order of his journeys is not known, though it is clear he sailed all the way around the Arabian peninsula; journeyed deep into Central Asia as far north as Samarkand and Bukhara in modern-day Uzbekistan; spent a year in Yemen; and crossed deserts in Persia and Arabia numerous times.

The extent of al-Maqdisi's journeys may not have been as great as those of Ibn Hawkal, but like Ibn Hawkal he was careful to include copious details on each place he visited. Indeed, al-Maqdisi's painstaking attention to matters such as climate, local economies, ethnicities, cultures, and units of weight and measurement make The Best Division one of the great works of Islamic geography.

Furthermore, al-Maqdisi is one of the first examples of a traveler who became fully engaged in his environment, literally working his way from country to country. At various times he was employed as a teacher, scribe, courier, doctor, lawyer, papermaker, bookbinder, and even a muezzin, a Muslim temple crier who calls the faithful to prayer. He associated with all social classes, experiencing the hard knocks of life at the bottom of the social ladder, as well as the luxuries of the privileged few at the top. He was robbed several times and thrown into jail as a spy, but at other times he rode in sedan chairs alongside the wealthy, and interacted socially as an equal with nobles.

All these factors made The Best Division a highly readable and influential work, and one that provided particularly useful knowledge concerning Mesopotamia, Syria, and Central Asia. In his career, al-Maqdisi helped set the pattern for a number of traveler/geographers who followed, among them al-Idrisi (1100-c. 1165), who fled political troubles in the Arab world to work as geographer for the Norman ruler Roger II of Sicily, and the former slave Yaqut (1179-1229), whose work provides a lasting portrait of Central Asia just before the Mongols arrived and forever changed the character of the place.

But perhaps the most obvious link is with the medieval Arab journeyer/geographer who is least obscure in the Christian West: Ibn Battuta (1304-1368). As with al-Maqdisi, who made the hajj or pilgrimage to Mecca three times, Ibn Battuta's journeys centered around a series of pilgrimages—in his case, four. Certainly Ibn Battuta traveled much further than al-Maqdisi—indeed, Ibn Battuta probably traveled further than anyone in the premodern era, including Marco Polo (1254-1324)—but he followed the pattern of engagement in the local culture established by al-Maqdisi and others. And yet for all the breadth of his travels, even Ibn Battuta did not experience as wide a variety of social interactions, nor did he work in as varied a range of professions, as al-Maqdisi.

Thus it is unfortunate to note that al-Maqdisi is virtually unknown in the West, and hardly more recognized in the Arabic-speaking world. The bulk of scholarship in English on his travels and writings centers on the work of Basil Anthony Collins, who translated The Best Division. Thus in a group whose most prominent figure, Ibn Battuta, is hardly a household name to begin with, al-Maqdisi is even more shrouded in obscurity. What makes this doubly unfortunate is the fact that al-Maqdisi and other early writers kept the geographer's profession alive at a time when Europe was turned inward. By the time of Ibn Battuta, at least, Europeans had rediscovered the outside world, largely through their contacts with Arabs and Byzantines in the Crusades. Ironically, however, few Europeans then or now recognized the debt they owed al-Maqdisi and other Arab writers of his time.


Further Reading

Alavi, S. M. Ziauddin. Arab Geography in the Ninth and Tenth Centuries. Aligarh, India: Aligarh Muslim University, 1965.

Collins, Basil Anthony. Al-Muqaddasi: The Man and His Work: With Selected Passages Translated from the Arabic. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 1974.

Al-Muqaddasi. The Best Divisions for Knowledge of the Regions: A Translation of Ahsan al-taqasim fi ma'rifat alaqalim, translated by Basil Anthony Collins. Reading, England: Centre for Muslim Contribution to Civilisation, 1994.


Al-Maqdisi Travels Throughout the Muslim World