Nautical Sciences


Seafaring and Nautical Science:


It is worth beginning with some common flaws related to the history of seafaring and nautical sciences. The first flaw is the common misconception that the Muslim contribution to the subject in any form or manner is negligible because simply the Muslims feared the sea. The second relates to the common practice consisting in attributing accomplishments in the field to entities other than Muslims; mainstream history suppressing the Muslim role, and then giving many explanations for such breakthroughs, explanations which are not just different from each other but also very often fundamentally contradict each other.

The first of these two flaws can be looked at briefly; the second will get lengthier treatment under two separate headings.


With regard to the first generalised misconception, we are told that the Muslims did not contribute to maritime discoveries for the simple reason that the Muslims feared the sea. Thus, Udovitch, an otherwise much appreciated scholar by this author, says:

‘For the pre-Ottoman Muslim policies around the Mediterranean , the sea was a menacing frontier.’[1] 

Hillenbrand devotes a good amount of space to stress this point of Muslim antipathy for, and fear of, the sea.[2] One instance she gives to support this view is a mid 13th century (during the crusades) alleged conversation, reported by the contemporary historian, Ibn Wasil, between the captured French king, St Louis (Louis IX), and the Muslim Emir Husam Eddin, who had been deputed to guard him. Husam Eddin said to his royal prisoner:[3]

‘How could it have come into the mind of a man as perspicacious and judicious as the king to entrust himself thus to the sea on fragile piece of wood, to launch (himself) into a Muslim country defended by numerous armies and to expose himself and his troops to an almost certain death? At these words the king smiled and said nothing. So the emir went on as follows:

'One of our religious scholars thinks that anyone who exposes himself and his belongings twice to the sea must be considered as mad and that his testimony can no longer be accepted in law.’

Thereupon the king smiled again and said: 'He who said that was right'.[4]

This story is for Hillenbrand evidence confirming the Muslim fear of the sea. This, in truth, is evidence of wanting scholarship, for a reported conversation is by no means  evidence. Facts prove truth, not conversations, and facts show that the Muslims sailed to China  as early as the 8th century, and that to conquer Spain from 712 onwards, the Muslims had to cross the sea, and they did so to conquer all islands of the Mediterranean  (Corsica, Crete, Sicily , Majorca…), and countless more instances of the sort. Michael the Syrian, a Syriac chronicler, speaks of 5000 Muslim vessels, including supply vessels, attacking Constantinople in 717.[5] The Aghlabid fleet, which left Sousse, in southern Tunisia , for the conquest of Sicily in 827, included 200 large ships, supported by another 300 ships coming from Muslim Spain, participating to the taking of Palermo  in 830.[6] The Umayyad fleet, which was based in Almeria and Al-Qasr (Alcacer do Sal), included 200 large ships, ready to sail for expeditions in the Mediterranean.[7] And on top of all these fleets, always ready for sea-warfare, could be added ships engaged in civilian activities, trade, above all, which crossed the Mediterranean, from Syria  to the Ebro, and also navies navigating in the Gulf, the Red Sea, and elsewhere.[8] Thus, there was plenty of evidence to contradict this ridiculous notion of Muslim fear of the sea.

Even more baffling, is when one finds Western scholarship attacking the Muslims for their fear of the sea, and the same scholarship attacking them for quite the reverse, for dominating the sea and ruining sea-trade. Pirenne and his followers, for instance, blame the decline of Europe on the fact that the Mediterranean  became a Muslim lake.[9] Much more baffling, even, is when one reads about Muslims fearing the sea, and yet causing terror on the sea, through piracy. Western literature is crammed with this Muslim piracy terrorising shipping, and devastating Christian coastlines as far as England and even beyond, beginning from the late 7th century.[10] We read of Muslims ‘infesting’ the Mediterranean in the late Middle Ages.[11] We read of them causing havoc from the 16th, through the 17th, and 18th, until the 19th century such as when Brockelmann, for instance, says:

‘In order to bring this piratical pestilence under control, the Spaniards had attacked North Africa  a number of times and had occupied the small mountainous islands lying opposite Algiers  at cannon’s range, from which they controlled the entry into the harbour. After the death of Ferdinand the Catholic, the Algerians, hampered in their most important vocation, summoned Aruj for help against the Spaniards….      

Down to the beginning of the 19th century the Beys of Tunisia  and the Deys of Algiers , as well as the Qaramanlis in Tripolitania and the rulers of Morocco , had diligently pursued a career of piracy, which being directed against the Christians, was regarded by the Muslims as a meritorious war of faith.’[12]

The mere mention of Algiers  prior to the conquest by France in 1830, Earle notes, tended to create a picture of bloodthirsty pirates attacking Christian shipping.[13] An opinion, which is still valid in historical and generalised perception to this very day.[14]

Which causes one to ponder: how come a people so afraid of the sea, so inept at anything to do with the sea, could cause such terror on the sea for twelve centuries. One of these views, at least, does not hold truth; most certainly neither does.


This matter having been addressed, it is now worth looking in greater detail at the second generalised weakness of mainstream history, which offers us a crowd of explanations for the modern maritime discoveries, explanations, which are deficient to their very core, and which are also contradictory with each other.

[1] A.L. Udovitch: An Eleventh century Islamic Treatise on the Law of the Sea; in Annales Islamologiques; XXVII (1993), pp. 37-54; at p, 38.

[2] C. Hillenbrand: The Crusades, Islamic Perspectives (Edinburgh University Press; 1999), pp. 556 ff.

[3] Michaud, Histoire des Croisades, IV, 449; in C. Hillenbrand: Crusades; p. 559.

[4] C. Cahen: 'St. Louis et l'Islam', in Journal Asiatique; 1970, pp. 3-12; quoting Ibn Wasil, at pp. 6-7, in C. Hillenbrand; p. 559.

[5] Edited and Translated by J.B. Chabot; II; p. 484; in M. Lombard: Les Textiles; op cit; p. 202.

[6] M. Lombard: Les Textiles; op cit; p. 202.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] H. Pirenne: Mohammed and Charlemagne; op cit.

[10] See, for instance, B.M. Kreutz: Before the Normans; op cit; for repeated instances of early Muslim sea-borne attacks on the Mediterranean  realm.

[11] A. Cortesao: Nautical Science and the Renaissance; in ARCHEION; vol 2; pp. 1075-92; p. 1080.

[12] C. Brockelmann: History of the Islamic Peoples (Routledge and Kegan Paul; London; 1950), p. 292; p. 397.

[13] P. Earle: Corsairs of Malta and Barbary (London; 1970), p. 10.

[14] BBC 2: Time Watch; 10 January 2003, seen by this author.




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