Al-Mas'udi, the "Herodotus of the Arabs," Travels Widely and Writes Influential Works of History

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Al-Mas'udi, the "Herodotus of the Arabs," Travels Widely and Writes Influential Works of History


The ranks of Arab writers, foremost among the medieval world's geographers, are full of adventurers who wrote about their journeys in travel memoirs. Works such as the Rihla of Ibn Battuta combine travelogue with analysis of local characteristics and customs. Yet few of these writers would qualify as scientific geographers in the modern sense—few, that is, aside from al-Mas'udi, author of numerous works on history and geography, the most famous of which is known in the West as The Meadows of Gold. In this, a universal history covering the period from the world's creation to his own time, al-Mas'udi gained a reputation as a historian on the order of the greatest among his profession: hence his title as "Herodotus of the Arabs."


In order to understand al-Mas'udi (895-956), it is useful to examine the career of Herodotus (c. 484-c. 424 b.c.) This is so not simply because al-Mas'udi has been compared with the Greek "Father of History," but also because The Meadows of Gold mirrors Herodotus's History in scope, character, and research methodology.

A native of Halicarnassus in Asia Minor (modern Turkey), Herodotus grew up inspired by Homer's Iliad and Odyssey. Looking around him at the Greece of his day, fresh from its victory in the Persian Wars (499-449 b.c.), he realized that the recent conflict was the Trojan War of his own day. Thus was born the History, a chronicle of the world up to the conclusion of the Greeks' war with Persia.

In setting down his History, Herodotus drew on all manner of geographical, social, and political details. He traveled throughout the known world, and this heightened exposure—he later said that he interviewed people from 30 foreign nations—gave great depth to his work. His research took him to Phoenicia, Egypt, Libya, Mesopotamia, Persia, and the Black Sea region. As he went, he interviewed people, made notes, and collected material.

Prior to Herodotus, historical writing had consisted either of mythology, which was interesting but useless from a scientific standpoint, or of dry annals and king lists, which were long on fact but short on analysis (or, for that matter, interest to the average reader.) Herodotus was the first to transcend the dichotomy between myths and annals, and indeed he pioneered the methodology of the modern historian: gathering facts, weighing those facts for truth and falsehood, finding an overall picture among the many details, and then writing a narrative based on this picture.

Yet though he was a pioneer of scientific history, Herodotus was not above recounting myths and outlandish stories if he believed that these could illustrate some larger truth. "I must tell what is said," he wrote, "but I am not bound to believe it, and this comment of mine holds [true] about my whole History." Thus while rumors and superstitions might not be "true," they often contained some grain of truth about the human condition.

Indeed, humanity was the ultimate subject of the History, and Herodotus might well be described as the first social scientist. Certainly his approach was in many ways surprisingly modern. For instance, he displayed a remarkable degree of regard for the customs and cultures of other lands—a surprising trait for someone from a civilization that used the word barbaroi to describe anyone who was not Greek. Like many aspects of Herodotus's worldview, this was a quality that would be shared by al-Mas'udi.


Because the Muslim holy book, the Quran, called upon the faithful to make a pilgrimage or hajj to the city of Mecca at least once in their lives if possible, Islam naturally encouraged travel and exploration. It did not, however, necessarily encourage toleration of other faiths; that element in the writing of al-Mas'udi was a reflection of the author's natural curiosity regarding the breadth of human experience.

Born in Baghdad, Abu al-Husayn Ali ibn al-Husayn al-Mas'udi probably began his travels at about the age of 30, when his writings tell of a trip to Persia. He continued east as far as Khurasan, in modern Afghanistan, and went on to India, traveling deep into the Deccan Plateau at the central part of the subcontinent. These journeys took him through lands inhabited by Zoroastrians in Persia and Hindus in India, and al-Mas'udi made it a point to visit their temples and learn about their customs.

Along the way, al-Mas'udi recorded extensive notes regarding plant and animal life, providing descriptions of coconuts, oranges, elephants, and peacocks. He also took down information he learned from others regarding China and Ceylon or Sri Lanka, but apparently did not visit those regions. (He associated Ceylon with "Sarandib," a land described in a passage from the Thousand and One Nights from which the English word "serendipity" is derived.)

After a few years' journey in the East, al-Mas'udi moved westward in 916 or 917, sailing to Oman and thence to East Africa. There, on the coastline of what is now Kenya, Tanzania, and Mozambique, Persian, and Arab merchants had been conducting trade for many years, and al-Mas'udi's is among the first written accounts of sub-Saharan Africa.

For a decade beginning in 918, al-Mas'udi traveled around Iraq, Syria, the Arabian peninsula, and Palestine. In the latter region, he visited Christian churches, talked with Jewish and Christian scholars, and went to Nazareth, where Jesus had spent his early years. He also observed the Samaritans, Jews who had remained in the area during the Babylonian captivity in the sixth century b.c. Their separation from mainstream Jews had made them a pariah class in the time of Jesus, as evidenced by the shock with which the disciples met Jesus' kindness to Samaritans in the New Testament.

In 927 al-Mas'udi visited the ancient center of Palmyra, perched on a caravan route through the Syrian Desert. He then traveled southward, where he met members of the Sabaeans, a sect distinct both from Judaism and Islam. By February 928, he was in the city of Hit in western Iraq, and there witnessed the city's siege by Karmathians, a violent Islamic splinter group linked with the Assassins.

Continuing northward and eastward, between 932 and 941 al-Mas'udi roamed throughout the Caucasus and the southwestern edge of Central Asia. There he explored the area around two of the world's largest inland seas, the Caspian and the Aral. The former, at more than 143,000 square miles (370,370 square km, or about the size of Montana) is by far the world's largest lake, and the latter is fourth-largest, at approximately 25,000 square miles or 64,750 square kilometers. However, it would be many centuries before explorers from civilized lands discovered the second- and third-largest, Lake Superior in North America and Lake Victoria in Africa, respectively; so as far as al-Mas'udi was concerned, the Aral Sea was second only to the Caspian. He provided the first written description of the Aral, and became the first geographer to correctly note that the fresh-water Caspian is not connected to the Black Sea.

While in the region, al-Mas'udi collected valuable information about non-Muslim peoples, and his work includes some of the first written descriptions concerning Russians, Bulgars, and Khazars, a Turkic people who adopted the Jewish religion.

Apparently it was only in 941 that the well-traveled al-Mas'udi got around to making the hajj to Mecca, after which he went to what is now Yemen at the southern tip of the Arabian peninsula. He followed this with a visit to Egypt, where in 942 he had an opportunity to observe yet another variety of religious experience among the Coptic Christians celebrating Epiphany. He spent the last decade of his life traveling back and forth between Syria and Egypt.

In the course of his career, al-Mas'udi wrote some 20 books, many of which have been completely lost. Among his works was the 30-volume Akhbar az-zaman (History of time), which—perhaps because of its overwhelming scope and intimidating title—failed to capture the attention of scholars. This was also the case with a second historical work, so al-Mas'udi resolved to condense the two ponderous books in a single, more concise work. The latter, written during his final years in Egypt and Syria, became Muruj adh-dhahab wa ma'adin al-jawahir, or The Meadows of Gold and Mines of Gems.

Like Herodotus's History, Meadows of Gold examines the grand sweep of history from the creation of the world to the present time, and includes among its narrative detailed observations on culture, customs, flora and fauna, and ethnicity. Pearl-diving in the Persian Gulf, the great temples of the world, hazards posed to mariners by waterspouts, and the burial customs of the Hindus are but a few of the topics covered in the Meadows of Gold. The latter volume succeeded where the others had failed, and earned al-Mas'udi acclaim throughout the Western world. Thus no less an authority than Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406), the renowned Islamic philosopher of history, pronounced al-Mas'udi an imam—a leader or guide—for all historians.

A map of the world drawn by al-Mas'udi illustrates his penetrating knowledge of geography. Among the features he depicted, some for the first time, was the meeting of the Indian and Atlantic oceans at the southern tip of Africa; the correct position of the Nile valley; the locations of the Indus and Ganges rivers of India, with Sri Lanka at the subcontinent's southern tip; and the outlines of the Caspian and Aral seas. Yet it was his writing that earned al-Mas'udi the reputation as "Herodotus of the Arabs." Indeed, he deserves to be called the inheritor of Herodotus's mantle not only among Arabs, but among all peoples. Certainly he continued his forebear's work as a pioneer of historical writing and the social sciences, in the process becoming one of the first writers to combine scientific geography, multifaceted history, and a detailed discussion of the peoples of the known world.


Further Reading


Ahmad, S. Maqbul, and A. Rahman, eds. Al-Mas'udi: Millennary Commemoration Volume. Aligarh, India: Indian Society for the History of Science, 1960.

Horne, Charles F., ed. The Sacred Books and Early Literature of the East, Volume VI: Medieval Arabia. New York: Parke, Austin, and Lipscomb, 1917.

Al-Mas'udi. The Meadows of Gold: the Abbasids. Translated by Paul Lunde and Caroline Stone. London: Kegan Paul, 1989.

Shboul, Ahmad M. H. Al-Mas'udi and His World: A Muslim Humanist and His Interest in Non-Muslims. London: Ithaca Press, 1979.

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Al-Mas'udi, the "Herodotus of the Arabs," Travels Widely and Writes Influential Works of History

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