Ibn-Batuta and Muslim Geography

Andrew J. Mogensen, Valparaiso University

The prominence of geography in Muslim scholarship—and perhaps even the existence of a distinct field of Muslim geography—stems from two factors: 1) the fact that Islam itself is concerned with proper cardinal directions and 2) that trade with distant lands demanded accurate maps or descriptions. At numerous times every day, millions of Muslims must turn toward Mecca and pray. Sometime during their lifetime, every Muslim must make the hajj, a pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca. These factors have demanded a basic knowledge of geography.

Overall, the Muslims' most important contribution to geography was not necessarily technical or scientific, but was in many ways archival—the preservation of the ancient works of the Greeks and the Romans through the dark ages of medieval Europe. Many of the works of Aristotle, Ptolemy, and other famous Greek, Egyptian, and Roman geographers were saved and translated by Muslim scholars.

The center of Islamic learning was Baghdad. Here great translation projects took place, converting the great works of different cultures into Arabic. One of these great projects was started by a man named Calif al-Mamun in 813 AD. He employed people of all races and religions to help translate books from around the world. He also paid each translator the weight of their books in gold. Great libraries and schools thrived on the works that the translators contributed.

Muslim traders had also been traveling as far west as Ireland and as far east as China or even possibly Japan. From these great traveling merchants came a need for maps and details about cities. Many of these traveling merchants kept detailed records of their journeys, sharing their experiences with other merchants or caravans, and sometimes even selling their information. Of all the contributions made to the field of geography by the Muslims during the period between 800 and 1400 AD, perhaps the three most influential Muslim geographers were ibn-Batuta, ibn-Khaldun, and al-Idrisi (Edrisi).

ibn-Batuta, 1304-1368

Born in Tangier into a traditional family of judges, ibn-Batuta was 21 years old when he set out to make a pilgrimage to Mecca and complete his studies of the law. On his way to Mecca he became fascinated with the people and places he visited. By the time he reached Mecca, he had decided to devote himself to travel instead of studying the law. From that point on, he carefully avoided traveling the same route twice, enabling him to see new routes and places.

Ibn-Batuta traveled all over the Arab peninsula, down the Red Sea, to Ethiopia, and along the east coast of Africa. He confirmed what ibn-Haukal had said about the torrid zone below the equator being populated when he traveled the coast and visited Arab trading markets.

He later traveled east and north to Baghdad, Persia, the Black Sea, the Russian steppes, eventually reaching Bukhara and Samarkand. He received a job from the Mongol emperor in Delhi and traveled through the mountains of Afghanistan. While at his post in Delhi he received the opportunity to travel widely in India.

Ibn-Batuta later was appointed to become the ambassador to China by the Mongol emperor. On his way to China he received the opportunity to see Indonesia, traveling to the Maldive Islands, Ceylon, Sumatra, and finally China.

After spending time in China, ibn-Batuta returned home in 1350. He traveled to Fez, the capitol of Morocco. He made a trip north into Spain, and he later made a trip south across the Sahara to Timbuktu. There he learned about the black Muslim tribes of West Africa.

Upon his return in 1353, he decided to settle in Fez and wrote accounts of his travels by order of the Sultan. He wrote about the many different places he had traveled to in his book Rehla (Travels). In the book he notes the different climates, peoples, and customs. Rehla made little impact on the Christian world. Ibn-Batuta was the most traveled person of his time, traveling an estimated 75,000 miles. He was the last of the great Muslim geographers, giving way to the European age of exploration.

ibn-Idrisi (Abu Abdallah Mohammed Edrisi), 1100-1166

A native of the Maghrib, this Muslim Moroccan was educated at the University of Cordoba in Spain, where he resided as a scholar. He was brought to Palermo in Sicily by King Roger II to work as a scholar. King Roger asked to send out people to verify and record the locations of uncertain landforms in order to update navigational records. With the information brought back, Idrisi had compiled a new geography book that corrected many discrepancies. Idrisi corrected the idea that the Indian Ocean was enclosed and that the Caspian Sea was a gulf to the world ocean. He corrected the charting of many rivers in Europe and Africa and several major mountain ranges. At Palermo, improvements were made in navigation and the use of coastal charts, and maps were corrected. It has been suggested that these corrections were the spark that set off the age of exploration. His most famous collection of information was known as The Book of Roger, written in Arabic but strangely not translated until 1619.

Ibn-Khaldun, 1332-1406

Probably best known for his studies in human-environment relations, ibn-Khaldun was a great historian and geographer. Born on the Mediterranean coast of northwest Africa, Khaldun lived in Algeria, Tunisia, Spain, and Egypt. In 1377, he completed his introduction to world history, the Muqaddimah. In it, he discussed how humans and the environment interact. He also examined subjects like government, the sciences, cities, and physical geography. Many of his ideas, however, were based on Greek works.

Other Prominent Muslim Geographers

ibn-Haukal (ibn-Hauqal, Mohammed Abul Kassem), 943-969 AD

Born in Baghdad, the center of learning in his day, ibn Haukal was a traveler who spent much of his time writing about the areas and things he had seen. He spent the last 30 years of his life traveling to remote parts of Asia and Africa. One of his travels brought him 20º south of the equator along the African coast. One of the things he noticed was that there were large numbers of people living in areas that the Greeks said were uninhabitable.

One of his greatest collections of works was a book called The Description of the Earth (Configuration de la Terre), which included a detailed description of Muslim-held Spain, Italy, and the "Lands of the Romans," the term used by the Muslim world to describe the Byzantine Empire. His descriptions were accurate and very helpful to travelers.

Al-Masudi, 895-957 AD

Al-Masudi was a famous Muslim scholar and traveler who made significant discoveries in the fields of climatology and geomorphology. He had traveled as far south as present-day Mozambique, where he made many important discoveries. He noted the monsoon patterns and kept records of them. He described the evaporation of moisture from water surfaces and the condensation of moisture in the form of clouds in the tenth century. He believed that the environment influenced plant and animal life. He maintained that the Indian Ocean was an open sea, based on his travels and the reports of sailors. He noted the idea that most of the Earth's land was in the Northern Hemisphere, and that the Southern Hemisphere was mostly open oceans.

The most famous collection of his findings was also the most popular of any Muslim geographical work, a book titled The Meadows of Gold. It contained his view of the Earth and its seas, a Ptolemaic description of the cosmos, and regional geographical descriptions. The book was widely used in Muslim educational institutions.

Al-Biruni (Abu Rayhan Mohammed ibn Ahmad), 973-1050 AD

Al-Biruni's greatest contributions to geography were his discoveries in geomorphology and his amazing translation skills. He was from Khwarazm, now present-day Kazakhstan. He was given the title of "The Master" for his accomplishments in geology and geodesy, his translations of Indian works, and his linguistic skills. Some of his works include the study of a system of longitude and coordinates, historical geography, and theories of creation.

Al-Biruni noted many different things about geomorphology and astronomy. He noted that stones were smooth and rounded because of being tumbled around in mountain streams. He discovered that water can change the face of stone by erosion. He noted that alluvial material that landed close to mountains was coarse in texture, and that the material farther away was much finer in texture. Al-Biruni had suggested that it was almost always night at the south pole, and he mentioned that the Hindus believed that the moon caused the tides.

ibn-Khordadbeh, 820?-912? AD

Ibn-Khordadbeh was the postmaster general of the Abbasid caliphate and an author of many descriptive guides to different regions and cities. He assembled many volumes describing travel routes for merchants, including a book titled The Book of Roads and Provinces.

Works Cited

James, Preston Everett. All Possible Worlds: A History of Geography. New York: Wiley, 1981.

Kish, George. A Source Book in Geography. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1978.

Parry, J.H. The Age of Reconnaissance. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1981.

Wright, John Kirtland. Geographical Lore of the Time of the Crusades, American Geographical Society Research Series No. 15. New York: Rumford Press, 1925.

Faruqi, Ismail. The Cultural Atlas of Islam. New York: Macmillan Press, 1986.

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This page is maintained by the Department of Geography and Meteorology at Valparaiso University. Please send comments and corrections to Jon T. Kilpinen at jkilpinen@exodus.valpo.edu.

Last revised 25 March 1997 by JTK.