Mapping the World

Some of the great contributions to geography by early Muslims who were driven by an intense interest not only to gain knowledge but also to serve others rather than greed or fame - a genuine Islamic outlook.

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We tend to take many things for granted. We are presently equipped with numerous means of communications and transport over land, sea and air which could take us swiftly all over the globe. So much so that we tend to travel far and wide for our own purposes without ever wondering the immense contributions others have made for our convenience. Even if we have all the means of transport, we could not possibly travel as much as we do if we do not have sufficient information about our destinations, such as the distance, the exact location, the surrounding landscape, vegetation and the detailed directions.

It was during the Abbasid Caliphate when Islamic civilisation was said to have reached its peak. The Caliphs commissioned reports on roads to help their postmasters deliver messages to addresses within their empire. These accounts which initially resulted in the Book of Routes, laid the foundation for more intensive information gathering about far-away places and foreign lands with their physical landscape, production capabilities and commercial activities. With the development of more accurate astronomy and mathematics, map plotting became a respected branch of science.

Map of Abbasid Caliphate - Click to Enlarge

Geography became an important field of study especially with the work of Al-Khwarizmi, one of the earliest scientific descriptive geographers and a highly talented mathematician. His famous book, The Form of the Earth, inspired a generation of writers in Baghdad and Muslim Spain (Al-Andalus). It became a major source of inspiration to unearth, analyse and record geographical data among many well-known scholars after him.

Al-Razi, known in Europe as Rhazes compiled a basic geography of the Iberian Peninsula, and his contemporary, Mohammed Ibn Yousef Al-Warraq, committed to paper the topography of North Africa.

The Muslim merchants of Muslim Spain brought back a wealth of detailed information about regions as far north as the Baltic, which the geographers gradually incorporated into later editions of their work.

One valuable source of material was the pilgrim guidebooks, which were initially based on word-of-mouth accounts of routes to Makkah and Medinah from distant regions. These accounts which were later put into written form were passed on to travellers who had to take the long and difficult journey from all corners of the empire, to perform their holy pilgrimage. This shows how much the Muslims valued the convenience of their fellow Muslims and their habit of keeping itineraries of their travels.

In Muslim Spain, the passion for keeping travelogues thrived. This inspired the compilation of the most comprehensive world atlas of the time by a highly celebrated Moroccan scholar, Al-Idrisi. He enjoyed exalted status at the court of Roger II in Palermo mainly because of the accuracy of the 70 maps which he produced charting previously undocumented territories. He plotted the entire continents of Europe and Asia and Africa, north of the Equator, two centuries before Marco Polo. He was so remarkable that he was nicknamed the strobe of the Arabs. He described continents joined at Suez and identified mountain ranges including the Mountains of the Moon, the s ource of the Nile, in present day Uganda. Apart from the distinguished geographers and mapmakers, the professional Muslim tourists also contributed their knowledge by providing detailed accounts of their travels.

The famous Moroccan traveller Ibn Battuta lived by the motto - never, if possible, cover any road a second time. Fifty years younger than Marco Polo, he travelled 75,000 miles in thirty years, on horse, camel, foot and boat, through all manner of lands, including West Africa where he visited Timbuktu, Mali and Niger. His interest was not only confined to geography. He vividly described the prevailing political, economic and social conditions, the position of women and religious matters. He was appointed Qadi (Chief Judge) of Delhi, and spent the last twenty-three years of his life as Qadi of Fez, Morocco, writing his comprehensive travel document.

In the eleventh century, two Muslim writers collected and collated much of the information assembled by their predecessors into a convenient form. The first of them, Al-Bakri, the son of the governor of the province of Huelua and Saltes, was an important minister at the court of Seville who undertook several diplomatic missions. Despite his busy official duties, he was an accomplished scholar and litterateur. He wrote an important geographical work devoted to the Arabian Peninsula and the names of various places. The alphabetically arranged compilation included the names of villages, towns, valleys and monuments which he recalled from the Hadith and histories. His other major work was an encyclopaedic treatment of the entire world.

Ibn Jubair of Valencia, secretary to the Governor of Granada was one of those who habitually recorded his journeys to Makkah, the Hajj, in the form of a journal giving a detailed account of the Eastern Mediterranean world. His work enhanced the value of keeping itineraries and road books which went well beyond the branch of geography.

Botanist cum geographer, Ibn Baitar of Malaga was driven by his genuine interest in pharmaceutical herbs and flowers to explore every nook and cranny of the Iberian Peninsula and the Maghreb (Morocco). He produced an alphabetically arranged compendium of medical plants which greatly assisted the world's pharmacists, as well as fascinating linguists, for he gave the Berber, Arabic and often Romance names of plants.

Ibn Khaldun, a Tunisian adventurer, university professor and diplomat, is known for his works of sociology, economics, commerce, history, philosophy, political science and anthropology. He wrote his famous History of The World during a period of enforced exile. In the first volume, Al Muqaddimah, he gave a profound and detailed analysis of Islamic society, referring to other cultures by way of comparison. He traced the rise and fall of human societies in an early, unprecedented and unsurpassed science of civilisation.

From the above account of some of the contributions to geography by Muslims during the Islamic era, two facts could be clearly discerned. Geography was developed through the toils of Muslims. Secondly, they were driven by the Islamic outlook of wishing not only to gain knowledge but also to serve others.

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