Muhammed ibn Ahmad al-Maqdisi
Muhammed ibn Ahmad al-Maqdisi
Muhammed ibn Ahmad al-Maqdisi, an Arab traveler and writer, is best known for his geographical work Ahsan al-taqasim fi macrifat al-aqalim. This extremely influential text was designed for readers at all levels of society, and appealed to merchants as well as to commoners. Al-Maqdisi, who was born in Jerusalem, traveled extensively in order to gain material for this work, which provided a clear and detailed account of the medieval Muslim world. In the process, he developed an almost scientific method for collecting information and examining the human geography of the region.
Al-Maqdisi constructed Ahsan al-taqasim fi macrifat al-aqalim as an articulation of a human geography. His prose depicts the lives and customs of the people he met. Likewise, al-Maqdisi wrote in an elegant style. Much of the book is in rhymed prose and skillfully intertwines personal observation with popular fables. Above all, the work was intended to instruct and entertain. To this extent, al-Maqdisi's volume is a good example of an adab, the polite literature of the medieval Muslim world.
But al-Maqdisi's work is significant for more than its broad appeal. His writing guided and entertained because of his personal experience in fact-finding. He compiled the information that became the Ahsan al-taqasim fi macrifat al-aqalim on travels that spanned nearly 20 years. He felt that he would be unable to provide a clear illustration of life in the Islamic kingdoms and territories until he had traveled them all.
During the tenth century, the Islamic kingdoms and territories covered a considerable expanse and ranged from the Middle East through northern Africa and into Spain. And, while these areas may have been united under a single ruler and religion, the local cultures of these places maintained their distinctive features. Indeed, in the territories, different aspects of Muslim culture merged with native customs and produced distinct cultural variants based on the Muslim model.
Al-Maqdisi was interested in depicting all of these social variations and reveled in such cultural diversity. He visited public preachers and assemblies where stories and legends were narrated. He was careful to associate with people of all classes, asking them questions concerning their habits and beliefs. He viewed his information collection process as a science: he did not compile or arrange his material in a random fashion. For al-Maqdisi, the lives and experiences of people were qualities that could be measured in the same way that a writer could examine the climate or landforms of a given region.
While this information gathering process signals the development of a new method for geographical inquiry, al-Maqdisi's writing is also distinctly medieval. Indeed, al-Maqdisi was the last of the geographers who were part of the classical school. His focus on metaphysics and geometry echoes the focus of medieval science and mathematics, disciplines which, in the medieval era, closely bordered geography.
Al-Maqdisi was indebted to his predecessor, al-Balkhi, who more closely fit the mold of the classical school. Al-Balkhi created a set of 20 maps that outlined the world. Al-Maqdisi evidently consulted this work for his own geographical constructions. However, al-Maqdisi's socioeconomic descriptions of the regions he explored helped to expand the geographical possibilities of the classical school.
And, while he helped to create a human geography, al-Maqdisi's topographical information was also more precise than that presented by his predecessors. The methodical and scientific approach that he applied to the collection of personal information also enabled him to create a work that was much more reliable than any previously available on the subject. While his work was not devoid of error, al-Maqdisi's emphasis on accurately recording his observations helped to ensure the popularity of his book.