A review of Muslim Geography

Muslim geography opened up a vast knowledge of the world. Islam urged people to open their minds and horizons, and know about the wonders of God's creation and thus Muslim geographers ventured across the known and unknown world.

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A Review of Muslim Geography
 by Salah Zaimeche

Muslim geography is a subject that has been vastly explored by scholarship. The rich bibliography attests to that. The best work in the field is that of I.Y. Kratchokovsky in Russian. The book is 919 pages long, covering the works of 260 Muslim geographers, and includes a bibliography of 54 pages, a so thorough work that has taken its author forty years to complete. "A work of a lifetime gifted to us," says M. Canard in his review of Kratchokovsky's work. Translated in part into French, it has been translated from Russian into Arabic by the well known translator Salah El-Din Othman Hashem and first published in early 1960s (a revised second edition was published in Beirut at Dar Al-Gharb Al-Islami in 1987).

Muslim 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.(endnote 4) `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.(endnote 5) 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.(endnote 6) 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. (endnote 7)

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.(endnote 8) 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.(endnote 9) 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.(endnote 10) 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.(endnote 11)

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.(endnote 12) China, according to Muslim merchants, was a safe country, and well administered; laws concerning travellers securing both good surveillance and security.(endnote 13)

The Travels of Al-Muqaddasi, Ibn Khurdadhbih, Abul al-Fida and Yaqut

See related links below for other Famous Muslim Travelers

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(endnote 24) who concludes that `There is thus no subject of interest to modern geography which is not treated by al-Muqaddasi,' who, according to Miquel, is the creator of `total geographical science.'(endnote 25)

Other travellers and geographers described extensively the land of Islam. Amongst them is Al-Ya'qubi's Kitab al-Buldan (Book of Countries,)(endnote 26) 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.(endnote 27)

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.(endnote 28) 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.(endnote 29) Abu al-Fida also remarks the spherical shape of the earth, and makes other observations, well elaborated by Carra de Vaux.(endnote 30)

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.

Gabriel Ferrand on Muslim Travellers

The last work to consider is not by a Muslim, but by Gabriel Ferrand, a compilation however of accounts by Muslim travellers of the Far East between the 7th and 18th century.(endnote 32) Ferrand deals with thirty nine texts, thirty three of which are from Arabic sources, five Persian, and one Turkish.

One of the early travellers to be covered is Al-Yaqubi (875 or 880) who observes (p.49) that China is an immense country that can be reached by crossing seven seas; each of these with its own colour, wind, fish, and breeze which could not be found in another, the seventh of such, the Sea of Cankhay only sailable by a southern wind.

Ibn al-Fakih (902), another traveller draws very interesting comparisons between China and India, their customs, food diets, codes of dress, rituals, and also flora and fauna (pp 54-66). Ibn Rosteh (903) on the other hand focuses attention on some Khmer king, surrounded by eighty judges, and his ferocious treatment of his subjects indulging in drink of alcohol and wine, and also his kind and generous treatment of the Muslims.

Abu Zayd (d.976) also deals with the Khmer land (p.86 onwards) and its vast population, a land in which indecency, he notes, is absent. Abu'l Faraj (988) dwells on India (pp 118 onwards), its people, customs, and religious observations. He also devotes much attention to China (pp 130 onwards), and relates that it has 300 cities, all with considerable numbers of people. Whoever travels in China, he notes, registers his name, the date of his journey, his genealogy, his description, age, what he carries with himself, and his following. Such a register is kept until the journey is safely completed, the reason of which being the fear that anything might harm the traveller and bring shame to the ruler.

Ferrand devotes a large section to extracts from Ibn al-Baytar's medical flora of those lands (pp 234-295), and not just from his own observations but also that of his predecessors. Kazwini receives good attention, too, most particularly his accounts of the marvellous creatures that thrive in the Sea of China (pp 302-4), notably very large fish (whales?), giant tortoises, and monstrous snakes which land on the shores to swallow whole buffalos and elephants.

Ibn Said al-Maghribi (like Kazwini a traveller of the 13th century) has the distinction of locating each place (and so many of them) according to its latitude and longitude (pp.326-352). He dwells most particularly on the Indian Ocean islands, and other Indian coastal towns and cities, for each island giving the length of its coast, and making a meticulous description of what laid in between, the nature of the land, the length of mountains, distances between places and so on...

Al-Dimashqi (1325) also gives very detailed accounts of each island (pp 363-393), its population, flora, fauna, customs etc... On the island of Komor, also called Malay Island, are many towns and cities, rich-dense forests with huge, tall trees, and white elephants. Also there lives the giant bird: Rokh, a bird whose eggs are like cupolas; the story being that some sailors broke and ate the contents of one such egg, and were pursued on the sea by the Rokh, breaking and carrying huge rocks, which it then hurled at them, relentlessly, the sailors only escaping with their lives under the cover of night.

This story, like other accounts by travellers, forming the basis of many of the tales which enrich Islamic literature such as the adventures of Sindbad the Sailor, and One Thousand and One Night.

The subject of Muslim Geography is vast and requires volumes to embrace. For the Muslims in Europe and America, the life and contributions of the famous geogrpher Al-Idris, who lived under Roger the second, is a good example of how muslims in the westcan live and still contribute in a non-Islamic society.

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