The Rise of Islamic Geography and Cartography in Middle Ages

The Tabula Rogeriana, drawn by Muhammad al-Idrisi for Roger II of Sicily in 1154.

After the fall of the Roman Empire in the fifth century, the average European’s knowledge of the world around them was limited to their local area and to maps provided by the religious authorities. The exploration of the fifteenth and sixteenth century would not likely have come as soon as they had were it not for the geographers of the Islamic world.

After its beginning in the 8th century, Islamic geography was patronized by the Abbasid caliphs of Baghdad. Various Islamic scholars contributed to its development, and the most notable include Al-Khwārizmī, Abū Zayd al-Balkhī (founder of the ‘Balkhī school’), Abu Rayhan Al Biruni and Avicenna. Muslim geography reached its apex with Muhammad al-Idrisi in the 12th century. Later developments took place under Turks, particularly under the Ottoman Empire, with notable scholars such as Mahmud al-Kashgari and Piri Reis.

Baghdad became the intellectual capital of the empire and issued a request for books from throughout the world. Traders were given the weight of the book in gold. Over time, Baghdad accumulated a wealth of knowledge and many key geographical works from the Greeks and Romans. Ptolemy’s Almagest, which was a reference to the location and movement of heavenly bodies along with his Geography, a description of the world and a gazetteer of places, were two of the first books translated, thus keeping their information in existence. With their extensive libraries, the Islamic view of the world between 800 and 1400 was much more accurate than the Christian view of the world.

The Muslims were natural explorers since Holy Koran mandated a pilgrimage (hajj) to Mecca for every able-bodied male at least once in their life. With thousands traveling from the farthest reaches of the Islamic Empire to Mecca, dozens of travel guides were written to assist in the trip. Pilgrimage during the seventh to tenth month of the Islamic calendar each year led to further exploration beyond the Arabian Peninsula. By the eleventh century, Islamic traders had explored the eastern coast of Africa to 20 degrees south of the Equator (near contemporary Mozambique). Islamic geography was primarily a continuation of the Greek and Roman scholarship which had been lost in Christian Europe. There were some additions to the collective knowledge by their geographers, especially Al-Idrisi, Ibn-Batuta, and Ibn-Khaldun. Al-Idrisi (also transliterated as Edrisi, 1099-1166 or 1180) served King Roger II of Sicily. He worked for the king in Palermo and wrote a geography of the world called Amusement for Him Who Desires to Travel Around the World which wasn’t translated into Latin until 1619. He determined the circumference of the earth to be about 23,000 miles (it is actually 24,901.55 miles).

Ibn-Batuta (1304-1369 or 1377) is known as the “Muslim Marco Polo.” In 1325 he traveled to Mecca for a pilgrimage and while there decided to devote his life to travel. Among other places, he visited Africa, Russia, India, and China. He served the Chinese Emperor, the Mongol Emperor, and the Islamic Sultan in a variety of diplomatic positions. During his life, he traveled approximately 75,000 miles, which at the time was farther than anyone else in the world had traveled. He dictated a book which was an encyclopedia of Islamic practices around the world. Ibn-Khaldun (1332-1406) wrote a comprehensive world history and geography. He discussed the effects of the environment on humans so he is known as one of the first environmental determinists. He felt that the northern and southern extremes of the earth were the least civilized. By translating important Greek and Roman texts and by contributing to the knowledge of the world, Islamic scholars helped provide the information which allowed the discovery and exploration of the New World in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

Islamic geography includes many branches. Amongst these are mapping, travellers’ descriptions of lands and regions they pass, geodesy, maritime exploration etc.. Because of this diversity and vastness, this subject will be divided into sub sections. The following will deal with the descriptions made by Muslim travellers and geographers of lands and countries they passed through. Such accounts are the first of some places that include China, where the Muslims preceded Marco Pollo by centuries, thus becoming gems of information. One such accounts, Ibn Fadlan’s description of Northern Europe, and Scandinavia, in particular, has become the inspiration for the famed novelist Michael Crichton’s Thirteenth Warrior. As a whole, if the translations of Muslim scientific works in the 12th century represented a huge transfer of science, Muslim geography opened up a vast knowledge of the world, part of such world in those days only the realm of fantasy, somehow like the vision of Mars today.

Freedom of Travel

Islam urged people to open their minds and horizons, and know about the wonders of God’s creation. The vast land of Islam was also unhindered by frontiers as Al-Biruni observes in The Book of the Demarkation of the Limits of the Areas.`Islam,’ he states, has already penetrated from the eastern countries of the earth to the Western. It spreads westwards to Spain (Andalus), eastward to the borderland of China and to the middle of India, southward to Abyssinia and the countries of Zanj (i.e., South Africa, the Malay Archipelago and Java), northward to the countries of the Turks and Slavs. Thus the different people are brought together in mutual understanding, which only God’s own Art can bring to pass…..’ Obtaining information concerning places, thus, became easier and safer, besides correcting (Greek (Ptolemaic) `Geography’, where places in the east were to be found actually in the west, and vice versa.Bulliet is also of the opinion that the Islamic society was a place where long distance travel was common, an impression supported by the rarity of historical evidence of political barriers to travel, even between hostile states, or by efforts of governments to control the movements of their subjects. The measure of a prosperous and strong Islamic state, then, was that the routes were so secure that travelers could move wherever they wished without molestation.

Interactions with China

It was around the middle of the tenth century that Muslim ships reached the Chinese town of Khanfu, now Canton, and where soon was to grow an important Muslim colony. The first description of China precedes that, in fact, and dates from the early ninth century. It is the work of a merchant: Suleiman, and a navigator Ibn Wahab, whose accounts are taken up by a Muslim of Siraf: Abu Zeid Hassan.Abu Zeid makes the point that he does not reproduce distorted accounts and stories by sailors; and that it is better to relate truth however much shorter. He informs us that boats sailing for China departed from Basrah and Siraf. Chinese boats, much larger than the Muslims’ (see related aritcle below, “Zheng He, the Chinese Muslim Admiral”), also visited Siraf, where was loaded merchandise brought from Basrah. From there boats sailed to the Arabian coast, to Muscat, then Oman, and from there to India; then various other points of anchorage where exchanges were made, and finally to China.

The most frequented Chinese port was that of Khanfu. Muslim traders had their own establishments, and exchanges took place involving the emperor’s officials who chose what suited him before any other person. From Khanfu some Muslim traders travelled as far as the empire’s capital, Khomda; a two month journey.

Ibn Wahab tells of his encounters with the Chinese emperor, and some of his views on religions. He also describes the Chinese capital, divided in two halves; separated by a long, wide road. On one side resided the emperor and his entourage and administration, and on the other lived the people and merchants. Early in the day, officials and servants from the first half enter the second, made their purchases, and then left and were not seen again.China, according to Muslim merchants, was a safe country, and well administered; laws concerning travellers securing both good surveillance and security.The Travels of Al-Muqaddasi, Ibn Khurdadhbih, Abul al-Fida and Yaqut.

Another traveller of great ability, travelling many centuries before Ibn Battuta is Al-Muqaddasi (originally from Al-Quds: Jerusalem). Large accounts of his travels are seen in another report (on Islamic social sciences). He has the distinction of being the first geographer to produce maps in natural colours, which is the practice today. On his travels, he set off from Jerusalem, and visited nearly every part of the Muslim world. His book Ahsan at-Taqasim fi Ma’arifat al-Aqalim (the best divisions in the knowledge of the Climes) was completed around 985 A.D. Good accounts of such work are given by J.H. Kramers who concludes that `There is thus no subject of interest to modern geography which is not treated by al-Muqaddasi,’ who, a ccording to Miquel, is the creator of `total geographical science.

Other travellers and geographers described extensively the land of Islam. Amongst them is Al-Ya’qubi’s Kitab al-Buldan (Book of Countries,)( completed in 891 after a long time spent in travels, giving the names of towns and countries, their people, rulers, distances between towns and cities, taxes, topography, water resources etc. Ibn Khurdadhbih (d.912 A.D), wrote al-Masalik wal Mamalik (Book of Roads and Provinces,) which gave a full map and description of the main trade routes of the Muslim world, references to distant lands such as China, Korea and Japan, and decriptions of the Southern Asiatic coast as far as Brahamputra, The Andaman Islands, Malaya and Java.

The geography treatise of Abu al-Fida (1273-1331), entitled Taqwim al-Buldan, has been known quite early and had a huge reputation in the Latin West, which is expressed by the so many translations of it, either partial or complete. Hence, in the mid 17th century it had an unedited translation by Schickard. J. Gravious in 1650 published in London extracts relating to Kharezm and Transoxonia. A Latin translation was made in Leiden in 1746 by Reiske, published in 1770 and 1771. F.D. Michaelis published the part related to Egypt, Eichhorn the one about Africa, whilst Solvet, in 1839, edited and translated The Maghreb in Algiers; and Reinaud and de Slane published the complete text and half the French translation in Paris in the 1840s. It was left to S. Guyard to complete the task in 1883.Abu al-Fida also remarks the spherical shape of the earth, and makes other observations, well elaborated by Carra de Vaux.

Then, long after all these travellers, at the age of the great European discoveries, al-Wazzan (1483-1552), compiled a book on the topography, peoples’ flora and fauna of Africa, a work, which according to Kettani,(endnote 31) was later plagiarised by Marmol and other European scholars. Final reference is to Yaqut al-Hamawi (d.626 H/1229 A.D) Mu’jam al-Buldan (dictionary of countries), a work of encyclopaedic dimensions, which includes both his observations, and also his knowledge from earlier sources. For every country, region, town and city, all in alphabetical order, Yaqut offers exact location, gives names, describes its monuments and wealth, its history, its population, and its leading figures, a work of unique value to scholarship.

Source(s) :


Muslim Heritage


About Rashid Faridi

I am Rashid Aziz Faridi ,Writer, Teacher and a Voracious Reader.
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4 Responses to The Rise of Islamic Geography and Cartography in Middle Ages

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