The interest given to Islamic geography and nautical sciences by a large number of authors mirrors its importance. Whether human geography,[1] or nautical sciences,[2] or other branches of the subject,[3] there is ample information and a great choice of reference material. General syntheses by one single author have also been abundant; a good one is by De Vaux,[4] and another is by Khratchokovsky.[5] The latter is 919 pages long, covering the works of 260 Muslim geographers, and it includes a bibliography of 54 pages, a work so thorough that it took its author forty years to complete ‘A work of a lifetime gifted to us,’ says M. Canard in his review of it.[6]


However, the abundance of works does not mean the matter is as adequately dealt with as one would wish. As usual, some crucial issues have remained obscured such as, for instance, the impact of Islamic nautical science on subsequent 15th–16th century discoveries. Another flaw is the constant attribution of Islamic geographical achievements to Greek predecessors even if such Greek influence limited itself to Ptolemy’s writing, focusing on place locations, with little or no contribution to other branches of the subject such as human geography or nautical science; this narrow focus is wrongly widened to generalised influence on Muslim geography.

The other problem is the tendency amongst many to inflate the works of the 10th century geographer al-Mas’udi (912-957) and set aside the rest.[7] Al-Mas’udi’s Muruj al-Dhahab wa Ma'adin al-Jawhar (Meadows of Gold and Mines of Gems) at best can compare to the works of the likes of al-Idrisi, al-Biruni, Yaqut, and al-Muqaddasi.[8] Other geographers accomplished much more. Al-Biruni  (973-1050), for instance, wrote the best material on the subject; his accomplishments, as briefly outlined here, included creating the branch of mathematical geography, determining with remarkable precision the coordinates of a number of places, introducing a simplified method of stereographic projection, describing India , explaining the occurrence of natural springs and of artificial wells by laws of hydrostatics, reflections on the Indus valley, such as that it was probably an ancient sea-basin which had gradually filed up with alluviums,[9] and scientific comments on the distribution of land and water on the face of the globe.[10]

Many authors dealing with Islamic geography, such as Ronan, also hold that Muslim geography declined after al-Masudi's death, which is incorrect. A brief look at any source shows that Muslim geography, in fact, peaked following al-Masudi's death. Ronan, like Renan, also blames the decline of both Muslim geography and society on the ‘heavy hand of Islam' in the 13th century[11] (an issue to be considered in the final part of this work), whilst ignoring that the Muslim land in the 13th century was devastated by invasions (crusades, Mongols, the loss of Muslim Spain, etc,) which destroyed scholarship, and killed geographical inquiry. One geographer, Yaqut, for instance, in the wake of the bloody Mongol devastation of eastern Islam in 1220 had to flee the city of Merw, where he was working on his geographical encyclopaedia, with nothing but the clothes he was wearing, clutching his manuscripts, running across Persia  to Mosul.[12]

Another problem relates to some modern studies of Muslim science and civilisation, which are very poor compared to those that preceded them up to a century; the article by Grosset Grange and H. Rouquette on Islamic nautical science in Rashed’s encyclopaedia of Arabic science,[13] for instance, is of very poor quality compared to works such as by Ferrand which are nearly a century older.[14]

Another problem relates to the contradictory nature of writing, which one finds in the same author, censuring and praising Islamic science at once. Hence, Tolmacheva, for instance, says:

‘It is thus obvious that while Islamic geography faithfully preserved ancient and foreign geographical concepts, it failed to produce its own form or to develop a viable synthesis of the old forms with the-new information. Its chief value, then, is not in the field of theory, but in the facts it accumulated, particularly because the total volume of preserved data is very considerable. Its significance goes beyond geography into other areas of knowledge, at least in part because of the prevalence of descriptive geography… and it was also customary to discuss other sciences in the introductions to geographical works. For some parts of the world, or certain periods of their history, medieval Islamic geographers provide major, if not the only, sources of information. Their works are thus invaluable and often indispensable to the study of history and historical ethnography, as well as historical geography and the history of science.’[15]


From what has just preceded, it becomes, thus, necessary to approach the subject from a more searching perspective.

[1] See for instance:

-G. Ferrand: Relations de Voyages et textes geographiques  Arabes, Persans and Turks  relatifs a l’Extreme orient du VIIem au XVIIIem Siecles (Ernest Leroux, Paris, 1913-4.)

G. Ferrand: tr and ed: Voyage du marchand Arabe Sulayman en Inde et en Chine redige en 851… Paris; Edition Bossard; Vol vii; Les Classiques de l’Orient.

-A.Miquel: La Geography Humaine du Monde Musulman;  4 vols (Paris; 1967). La Ronciere: La Decouverte de l’Afrique au Moyen Age; Vol 1; Published as Vol 5 of the memoires de la Societe Royale de Geography d’Egypte (Cairo ; 1924).

[2] L.Bagrow: The Vasco de Gama's Pilot (Genoa, 1951).

-G. Ferrand:  Instructions Nautiques et Routiers Arabes et Portugais des XV et XVI Siecles, 3 Vols (Paris, 1921-)

-H. Grosset-Grange: La Science nautique Arabe, Jeune Marine, 1977-9, 16-29 (except 22).

----- Glossaire nautique Arabe ancien et moderne de l'Ocean Indien (Paris, 1993).

-G.F. Hourani: Arab Seafaring in the Indian Ocean  in Ancient and Early Medieval Times (Princeton, 1971).

-G. Tibbetts: Arab Navigation  in the Indian Ocean  Before the Coming of the Portuguese (London. 1971).

[3]A.F.L. Beeston: Idrisi’s account of the British Isles; Bulletin of the School of Oriental  and African Studies; 13 (1949), pp. 265-80.

A.Dallal: Al-Biruni  on Climate in Archives Internationales des Sciences; 34; pp. 3-18.

J.B. Harley and D. Woodward ed: History of Cartography in Prehistoric, Ancient and Medieval Europe, and the Mediterranean ; Chicago; 1987; Volume 2; Book 1: Cartography in the Traditional Islamic and South Asian Societies.

A. Jaubert: La Geographie d’Idrisi (Paris; 1836-40; Reprinted Amsterdam; 1975).

E.S. Kennedy: A Commentary upon Biruni’s Kitab tawhid al-Amakin; an 11th Century Treatise on Mathematical Geography (Beirut; 1973).

E.S and M.H. Kennedy: Geographical Coordinates of Localities from Islamic Sources (Frankfurt; 1987).

O.J and A.M. Tuulio Tallgren: Idrisi, la Finlande et les autres pays baltiques Orientaux; Helsinki; 1930.

[4] Barron Carra de Vaux: Les Penseurs de l’Islam, op cit;  vol ii; chaps 1-3; pp 1-100.

[5] I.J. Krckovskij: Izbrannye Socinenja (chosen works); Vol 4 (Moscow, 1957).

[6] In Arabica, Vol 5 (1958, Leiden), pp. 197-200.

[7] Such as C. Ronan: The Arabian, op cit, pp 229-33.

[8] Al-Muqaddasi, according to Sprenger, is the greatest geographer ever. Cited by Kramers, ‘La literature geographique classique des Musulmans', Analecta Orientalia, i (Leiden, 1954), p.181, in D.M. Dunlop: Arab Civilisation, op cit, at p. 165.

[9] G. Sarton: Introduction; Vol 1; op cit;  p.699.

 [10] In the printed version of Kitab al-tafhim, edited and translated by R. R. Wright: The Book of Instruction in the Elements of the Art of Astrology (London; Luzac; 1934), pp. 120-4. The map that accompanies it on p. 124 shows for the first time this new conception of the world. In G.R. Tibbetts: Later Cartographic Developments; in History of Cartography;( J.B. Harley and D. Woodward ed;) op cit; pp. 137-55;  p.141.

[11] C. Ronan: The Arabian; op cit; p.  230.

[12] W. Durant: The Age of Faith; op cit; p. 329.

[13] H. Grosset Grange (in collaboration with Henri Rouquette): Arabic Nautical Science, in Encyclopaedia (Rashed ed);  op cit; pp 202-42.

[14] G. Ferrand: Relations de Voyages et textes; op cit.

[15] M.A. Tolmacheva: Geography and cartography: Islamic; Dictionary of the Middle Ages; Vol 5; pp 391-5; at p. 394.


Piri Reis Cartography


Muslim Geography: Foundations
Exploring Muslim geography, once more, raises the matter of what factors were behind the sudden drive for geographical knowledge in early Islam; amongst such factors, the role of the faith comes to the fore again as the main and crucial factor. Islam urged people to open their horizons and know about the wonders of God’s creation, which acted as a fundamental stimulus for geographical curiosity. Journeys were also undertaken to build the records of the Prophet’s sayings (Hadith) or for the purposes of administration and trade, or simply to satisfy curiosity, to say nothing of pilgrimage. Hence, roughly, the same combinations of observance of the faith and practical necessities that account for the rise of other sciences and aspects of Islamic civilisation. These central elements are considered in succession, beginning with the direct role of the faith.

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The Vast Scope of Islamic Geography
Muslim geographers dealt with a vast variety of subjects, and covered nearly all of the known world of their time. It is impossible to give justice to all works and authors, and all that can be attempted here is the sort of outline that shows as much as possible, whilst trying to cover the vast scope of subjects covered by Muslim geographers. Focus, first is on the geographers of eastern Islam.
Amongst the earliest works from the East is Kitab al-Sifat By Nadjar B. Sumaiyil (b. 740), some chapters of which are devoted to the sun and the moon, wells and the seas, winds, snow, and rain. Al-Jahiz (ca. 776-868) wrote Ajaib al-Buldan (the Wonders of the World), which discusses amongst other things the important cities of the Islamic world; his other work, Kitab al-Hayawan (The Book of Animals) deals amongst other things with adaptation to environment. Al-Kindi (813-870) wrote on tides, as well as on the shape and size of earth, whilst his works on meteorology and geology deal with physical geography, and his works on medicine supply information on the distribution of plants and animals.

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Cartography and Earth Representation
The development of Muslim cartography highlights and confirms all previous observations made, that the development of Muslim sciences was in response to practical necessities; that Muslims corrected their predecessors through repeated experiment, calculation, and the use of instruments, and in the end, Islamic contributions were the foundations of our modern discoveries, including in this case maritime and other discoveries.
The need for maps was imposed on Muslims by conditions pertaining to the historical situation, which followed the rise and early advance of Islam in the late 7th-early 8th century. Tibbetts notes how, prior to the establishment of Islam in the 7th century, there is no evidence that the early Arabs accepted the idea of representing landscape in a systematic way. Toward the end of the first century of Islam, we do find a few literary references to military maps. A map was prepared ca 83 H/702 of the country of Daylam, south of the Caspian Sea, for al-Hajaj Ibn Yusuf (d. 714), the governor of the Eastern Province so that the military situation could be understood from his capital in Iraq. Similarly he ordered a plan for Bukhara so that he could acquaint himself with the layout of the city while preparing to besiege it in 707. A map of the swamps of al-Batiba near Basra was also said to be available in the time of the Abbasid Caliph, al-Mansur, this time because of a dispute over fresh water. A plan was also reputedly drawn in 758 for the round city of Baghdad planned for Caliph al-Mansur. Since this was a strongly walled fortress in which only the privileged lived, the drawing was less a city plan than an architect’s site plan, but since the city had a diameter of two kilometres or more, the plan may have been a substantial cartographic attempt.

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See Nautical Sciences