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Arabs – the founders of geography

Source : Islam Magazine | Makhachkala | 2005

In the Middle Ages Arab geographers were the most versed in the knowledge of paths, roads and routes.
The interest to the observations of natural phenomena was an intrinsic characteristic of Arabs from the very beginning. They determined routes on land and at sea with the help of stars. Some pieces of knowledge in astronomy helped them to determine the weather, time of sowing, etc. This knowledge had been passing on from one generation to another.

Arabs used to give great importance to the stars, their appearance and disappearance. They called these phenomena “al-Anwa”, that is, attributing a phenomenon (example, the rain) to the appearance of a star. They had studied stars thoroughly and named several hundred of them. This is covered in the book of Abu Rayhan Muhammad Ibn Ahmad al-Bayruni, who died in 1048.

Orientalist V.V. Barthold notes that the development of the Muslim civilization began with putting in order matters in their own state and managing the command of the army. Muslim rulers started with the organization of the postal service, and for this purpose they paved and repaired roads. Prophet Muhammad himself (PBUH) paid great attention to the postal service. During the reign of Caliph Umar Ibn al-Khattab (may Allah be pleased with him), the work of postal service advanced, while under the Umayyads it became the first issue in state affairs. As such, the caliph Abd al-Malik Ibn Marwan ordered to pave the road from Damascus and Jerusalem to the southern cities of Al-Sham to maintain their activities and for facilitation of tax collection.

At the time of Abbasids, Muslim scholars took a keen interest in the shape of the Earth and everything on its surface. Thus, Caliph Abu Jafar al-Mansur ordered to translate some sciences, particularly astronomy, into Arabic. It was then that Claudius Ptolemy’s book "Geography" was translated into Arabic at the request of Caliph al-Ma’mun. This book was frequently referred to in the works of the great mathematician and astronomer al-Khwarizmi. His book “The Shape of the Earth” opened a new age in the geographical knowledge. This is the first work of Arab geography and it is kept in the library of Strasbourg.

In the 2-3 centuries AH, astronomy in the Islamic world gained a widespread development. Thus, in the 4th century AH, Muslim scholars laid the foundation for a descriptive geography, which was based on the maps. Many orientalists note that in the Middle Ages Arab geographers were the most versed in the knowledge of paths, roads and routes. They were able to determine the precise distance of communication lines. Among these geographers are Ibn Hardazabah and Abu al-Faraj Ibn Jafar. The book “Al-masalik wal-mamalik” (“Roads and Provinces”), written by Ibn Hardazabah, is considered to be the first book in the school of Islamic geography. Ibn Hardazabah was a Persian by birth; he worked as chief of postal service in Maida, the mountainous province of Iran. He described in detail the sea routes leading to India and China, as well as to Central Asia, Byzantium and Andalusia. He described the culture, agriculture, plant and animal kingdoms of different countries, as well as the trade routes between the Orient and Europe.

Abu al-Faraj Kudamat Ibn Jafar headed the chancellery during the reign of al-Muktadir Billahi al-Abasi (272 AH). He travelled to all parts of the Abbasid Caliphate, using his knowledge of history, human activities, lines of communication. He wrote the book “Al-Haraj” which was constantly used by the Caliph to supervise the state of affairs in the Caliphate and to move troops to the desired location.

The book “Al-Buldan” (“Cities and Countries”) is one of the earliest writings about geography. Its author is historian and geographer Abul-Abbas Ahmad Ibn Ya’qub Ibn Ja’far, known as al-Yaqubi. He made long journeys to Armenia, Iran, India, Egypt and Western countries.

In the 4th century AH, Islamic geography, as well as other sciences, started to develop extensively. Journeys are the basis for the descriptive geography, while astronomy is the basis of cartography. Islamic geography was based on the maps created by al-Idrisi.

Eminent geographer of the 4th century AH Abul-Hasan Ali Ibn al-Husayn al-Masudi, a descendant of the Companion of the Prophet (PBUH), Abdullah Ibn Masud, travelled to the cities of the ancient world, from India to the Atlantic Ocean, and from the Red Sea to the Caspian. He also took journeys to Asia Minor and Iraq, and then settled in Egypt in 341 AH, where he died four years later. Among his books, the most famous ones are “Marwaj az-Zahab” (“The Place of Gold Sales”) and “Madin ul-Jawhar” (“The Place of Jewelry Extraction”), which were translated into French in 1861 by orientalist Ernest Renan.
Arab traveler Ibn Fadlan holds a special place in the development of geography. His journey in 309 AH is still being studied by European researchers. Abu Ishaq al-Astarahi in his book “Roads and Provinces” divided the Muslim world into 20 geographic regions, described the boundaries, listed the cities and the roads leading to them, as well as the lives of the people, conditions of trade and agriculture. Abul-Kasim Muhammad Ibn Ali Ibn Hawkal was a merchant, and visited most of the cities of the Islamic world from 336 to 340 AH, including the cities of Egypt, Armenia and Azerbaijan.

In the period from 350 to 358 AH, he travelled to Iraq, Khorasan and Persia. Shamsuddin Abu Abdullah Ibn Abi Bakrin al-Maksidi, also known as al-Bashari, is the most significant figure of the classical Islamic geography. He visited most of the Islamic countries and wrote a book “Ahsan ut-Takasim fi Marifat il-Akalim” (“The best way of regional division in terms of climate”). One of the great experts in geography was Abdullah Ibn Abi Musaib al-Akri (died in 487 AH), who lived in Andalusia. Kut al-Hamawi also lived there. He was the author of the works on the history of Western Asia, as well as the book “Muja al-Buldan” - the main geography guide.

Muhammad Ibn Abdelziz al-Sharif al-Idrisi was considered as the most famous Muslim scholar in geography. He developed the theory of the seven parts of the world, studied the Arabic version of Greek scholar Claudius Ptolemy’s “Geography”. Al-Idrisi was born in 493 AH, or 1100 AD, in the Moroccan city of Ceuta. He studied at the University of Cordoba, visited the cities of Andalusia, France, England and North Africa. While performing the pilgrimage, he visited the Hijaz, Egypt, Asia Minor and Greece. If we speak of Arab travelers and geographers, we can not but mention the name of al-Idrisi’s fellow countryman, Muhammad Ibn Ab-Dar-Rahim Ibn Sulayman Ibn Rabiga al-Granadi, known as Abu Hamid. He was born in Granada in 473 AH. His manuscript is kept in Madrid, at the Academy of Historical Sciences. In 500 AH, Abu Hamid left Andalusia. He visited the most remote cities in Europe, and then travelled to Africa – to Tunisia and Alexandria - by sea. He described the islands and volcanoes of the Mediterranean Sea, and also gave a detailed presentation of one of the Wonders of the Ancient World – the Pharos of Alexandria. Abu Hamid is thought to be the last Arab traveler who saw the Pharos in operation.

Seafaring of Arabs

Seafaring of Arabs is referred to in the ancient writings of Strabo and Ptolemy. They mention that the maritime activities of Arabs date back to the ancient times. The sea is inseparably linked with fishing, trade, and with the aspiration to get to know other people and their culture. Long journeys of the experienced sailors gave the Arabs an opportunity to specify and expand the knowledge in the fields of astronomy and geography.

The Arabs were the first to use the seasonal winds in the trade journeys between the Red Sea, East Africa and India. They held the leading positions in the trade between the East and the West due to their ethics superiority in trade relations. The Indian Ocean was open to all who wished to compete with Arabs in trade, and, though, it was safe, due to their generosity.

As the rule of Arabs in Andalusia started to weaken, the influx of adventurers from Europe and scientific delegations to study the eastern countries began. At the beginning of the 17 century Portugal and Spain began to carry out geographic researches. The large profits which they received from the trade with the East forced the European rulers to think about new ways for trade. Thus, King Henry of Portugal sent several delegations to India via Western Africa. Portuguese explorer Bartolomeu Dias managed to reach Southern Africa and named the southernmost tip of the mainland as the Cape of Storms. And in 1498, another Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama with the help of the famous Arab navigator Ahmad Ibn Majid Shihabuddin reached the Cape of Storms and named it as the Cape of Good Hope.

Eminent scientist Ahmad Zaki Basha confirmed that da Gama met with Ibn Majid and found at him lots of maps and marine devices. He also said that it was Ibn Majid who had shown the Spaniard the way to India and accompanied him there. Da Gama testified that Arabs had very well developed marine sciences. The confidence of Arab geographers in the Earth being spherical helped Christopher Columbus arrive in India through the West by sea, and eventually led to the discovery of a new continent - America.

Taken from Spiritual and Educational Magazine “Islam”, № 1 (11), Makhachkala, 2005