Search for knowledge, desire for Haj and interest in trade
and innate propensity to see the world and explore its marvels led the Arabs to
contribute immensely to geographical science. They travelled by land and sea to
distant China, for example, Ibni Wahb in 870 AD. We read of a Muslim embassy to
the court of the Chinese emperor Tai-Tsung in 628 AD (three years before the
Nestorian missionaries) by sea to Canton in a trading vessel from Yanbu, the
port of Madinah and building a mosque there for the Arab traders. An unknown
author has written (in 851 AD) an account of a certain merchant Sulayman who
roamed about the Far East. It is from this account that the civilized world
first came to know of the topography and physical features of the East Indies.
The practice of thumb-impression as a means of identification in China was made
known by Sulayman to the Arabs. The first authentic account about Russia was
published by Ahamad Ibni Fadlan Ibni Hammad who was deputed by Khalifah Al-Muqtadir
in 921 AD to the court of the king of Bulgharians on the River Volga. Abu-Zaid
Al-Balkhi set the example of writing systematic account of countries under the
Muslim sway when he was at the court of a Samanid prince. This work is lost but
Al-Istakhri’s (flourished in 950 AD) elaborate “Masalik wal-Mamalik” that has
come down to us with coloured maps of countries and other details is said to be
based on it.
Al-Mas’udi’s history is rich in georaphical details also.
He is the first to mention wind-mills in Sijistan and writes about Muslim
traders actively engaged in business in Bohemi. Ibni-Hawqal (943-977 AD) revised
later Al-Istakhri’s book after travelling as far as Spain to gain first-hand
knowledge. Al-Muqaddasi (or Maqdist) who visited all the Islamic countries
except Spain, Sijistan and India during an itinerary of twenty years, wrote (in
985 or 986 AD) an account of his experiences in his delightful book
“Ahsan-Al-Taqasim Fi Ma’rifat Al-Aqalim”.
It is appropriate to speak in this connection of Ibni-Khurdadhbih’s (d: 912 AD) first publication (near about 846 AD) of the
useful series of road books, which he had issued as the Director of the Post and
Intelligence Department in Al-Jibal. Ibni-Wadih Al-Ya’qubi’s “Kitab ul-Buldan”
(which appeared in 891 or 892 AD) contained in addition to ordinary geographical
matter useful information on economical and other topics. Qudamah, a Christian
by birth, and appointed Revenue Accountant in Baghdad after 928 AD, became a
convert to Islam and discussed in his book “Al-Kharaj” the various provinces of
the Abbasid Khilafat, its system of taxation and postal service. Al-Hasan Ibni
Ahmad Al-Hamdani (who died in prison in San’a in 945 AD) deserves special
mention on account of his books “Al-Iklil” and “Jazirat Al-Arab”, which contain
valuable information on pre-Islamic and Islamic Arabia. The “Rasa’l-i-Ikhwan-Al-Safa”,
a series of papers issued by a secret society in Persia about 970 AD, among
other interesting matter boldly surmises large-scale climatic changes to be
taking place on the earth in course of ages, fertile lands passing into deserts
the sea encroaching on land and the land rising out of the sea.
By far the most comprehensive writer of geography during
the closing years of the Abbasid period was Yaqut (whose “Mujam Al-Udaba” was
referred to in biographies). He was a Greek boy purchased by a merchant of Hamah
and given liberal education. For a number of years he accompanied his master as
his commercial clerk and was later enfranchised. He then took to copying and
selling manuscripts and travelled extensively in the pursuit of this profession,
collecting valuable material for his encyclopaedic geographical dictionary, “Mu’jam-ul-Buldan”,
commenced at Mawsil in 1224 AD and completed at Halab in 1228 AD, where he died.
It is a veritable store-house of geographical knowledge of the time containing
useful information on ethnography and natural sciences as well.
We have to speak of Abu-al-Fida’ also in the list of
prominent geographers. Though engaged in wars ever since he was 12 years old his
zeal for science and power of observation enabled him to incorporate in his work
on history important geographical matter, like the latitude and longitude of a
number of cities, deduced mostly from his own observations. It may be remarked
in passing that longitudes were reckoned in those days (following Pliny) from
the Canary Islands.
Ahmad al-Qalqashandi (d: 1418 AD) who held important posts
under the Mamluk Sultans of Egypt was author of “Subh al-A’sha” and gives useful
geographical information in that work.
The Arabs made free use of the magnetic compass and the
stars to help them navigate their ships on the high seas. They may not have been
the first to observe the directive properties of the compass needle but they
certainly anticipated the Chinese in its use in navigation. Ahmad Ibni Majid of
Najd, who is generally credited with having piloted Vasco da Gama’s ship from
Africa to India in 1496 AD, wrote a book called “Al-Fawa’id Fi Usul-Al-Bahr Wal
Qawa’id”, which has been edited by G. Ferrand in Paris 1921-23 AD. It may be
noted here that Ahmad Ibni Majid styled himself as the fourth Sea-Lion (for
skill in navigation), the other three being Muhammad Ibni Shadhan, Sahl Ibni
Aban and Laith Ibni Kahlan, that probably flourished in the first half of the
twelfth century. In all probability, the Arabs initiated also the use of charts
to steer their ships into the sea-ports they frequented, long before the
Venetians and Genoese prepared their portalani. For trade reasons they must have
kept these charts secret for a long time.