Geographical Thought: Arabian Seat of Learning

By: Staff Reporter

Say ‘Arab’ to yourself and see what images it invokes – a vast, seemingly unending sea of sand, mirages, a lone bejeweled sheikh rocking back and forth on a leisurely moving camel. Perhaps nothing else would be in sight except a menacing vortex of sand.
To the less visual, and better informed it might be, Osama Bin Laden, Talibans, terrorism, militancy, Islamic fundamentalism, jehad and so on. Not all images are pleasant, but then there never was a perfect civilization.
The clamour of criticism seems to have drowned the voice of their invaluable achievements. The pink of it lies buried under the strokes of black. It is time for us to rip this shroud and have a peek at the golden times beneath.
The prophet Muhammad, like a skilled sculptor, chiseled out a civilization from the disorderly jumble of raw tribes binding them with a thread of peace and brotherhood. His teachings came to be regarded as the word of God and soon the rulers felt the urge to propagate this surging ocean of wisdom.

But, they knew no way other than conquering – thus, a streak of conquests followed to spread this wisdom. However, this worked well for the Arabs in terms of the acquisition of knowledge. Annexation of Persia in A. D. 641, and Egypt in A.D. 642, and the entire Arabian Peninsula by A.D. 732 ushered in a new period of learning for the Arabian scholars with the intermingling of the various sources of learning from the nations subdued.


The fall of the Roman Empire heralded an end to the Greeks and Romans days of glory, and the Arabian scholars slowly filled up the lacuna in scientific learning caused by the collapse. Being avid travelers they required a sound knowledge of geography to facilitate their conquests and travels.
This brought them in contact with different sources of knowledge varying from the Greek science available at Alexandria (works of Herodetus, Erastosthenes, Ptolemy and others) to the Indian science for calculations (Arya Bhatta’s `Suryasiddhanta’). Moreover, the conquest of the Iberian Peninsula opened the European world to them. Organized research and scientific documentation of findings saw its dawn with the Arabs, as Baghdad emerged, near the ruins of Babylon, as a center of learning in A.D. 762.
The academy of Baitul Hukma was set up under the patronage of Harun al-Rashid and thus began a legacy. The Arabs not only shaped geography but also contributed enormously to almost all the fields of study known in that period.

Let us acquaint ourselves with few of the well-known scholars and their findings.

Al-Idrisi (1099-1180 A.D.)
Born in Ceuta in 1099 AD, he was known as Abu-Abd-Allah Muhammad. Belonging to the family of rulers of Cordova, Caliph Idrisi, Al-Idrisi was his surname. Although we have little on his early life we do know that he was educated as the University of Cadova (Spain) and his writings suggest that he had been to Lisbon, Andalusia (Spain), England, Sicily, Morocco, Constantine, Asia-Minor and the interior parts of Africa.
He corrected the erroneous ideas of Ptolemy, stating that the Indian Ocean was not an enclosed ocean. Also, he opined that the Caspain Sea was not an arm of the World Ocean as formulated by ancient Greek geographers.
From extensive travelling, he could describe the exact courses of many of the rivers like Dhanube and Niger. He endorsed Aristotle’s view that Southern Hemisphere was not habitable due to intense heat.
In 1154 he completed his book titled `Amusements for him who Desires to Travel Around the World’.

Al-Masudi (?-956 A.D.)
Born in Baghdad towards the end of 9th century Al Masudi travelled down the east coast of Africa up to Mozambique. It was he who reported the phenomenon of monsoonal winds. He was also the one to discard the ancient Greek idea that the earth was flat, stating instead that it was spherical and, thereby, challenged the ideas of the Christian world at that time.
He gave the details of the seven-seas of the East, which, according to him, were situated between the Arab states and China (Table 1).
Al-Masudi called the Atlantic Ocean the ‘Dark Green Sea’ and was of the opinion that the Atlantic and the Indian Ocean were interconnected. He also brought out the fact that there existed a certain cycle in the processes of nature. The cycle of erosion and its relations to the evolution of various landscapes too could not escape his attention. He also talked of the fact that environment affects the physical and intellectual properties of men (Environmental Determinism).
He died in 956 at Fustat in Egypt. His works include Kitab-Muraj-al-Dhahab, Kitab-al-Taubh Wal Ishrag, Kitab-Akbar-al-zaman, Kitab-al-ausat, etc.


Long before Al-Idrisi accepted Aristotle’s idea of the uninhabitability of what was called the ‘torrid zone’, Mohammad Abdul Qasim, also known as Ibn-Hawqul, travelled into the regions demarcated as such and emerged unscathed, thus completely thwarting the myth.
He was an avid traveler and was interested in the books of voyages, explorations, travelogues, and itineraries since his childhood. Starting in 943 he visited several countries, within the orbit of Koranic influence, on foot. From his extensive travels he observed that the Caspian Sea had no connection with Northern Ocean and that Europe was an island.
His treatise is called ‘A Book of Routes and Realms’. He gave an account of the European countries, too besides the world of Arabs.

Ibn-Khaldun (1332-1406 AD)
If Ibn- Hawqal opposed the Aristotelian idea of the uninhabitablility of torrid zone, Ibn khaldan supported it. Born on the Mediterranean coast of North-West Africa he spent the better part of his life in Algeria, Tunisia, and Spain and spent the twilight of his existence in Egypt.
He completed his masterpiece `Muqaddimah’ at the age of 45. The work has six sections. The first, deals with civilization, geography and anthropology, the second is a discussion on the contrast between nomadic and sedentary culture, the third on dynasties, kingdoms, while the fourth deals with life in villages and cities, the fifth is about professions and means of livelihood and finally the sixth is about the classification of sciences. In short, the work describes and discusses human society in its various aspects.
Ibn Khaldun identified two sets of influences on man’s progress: his physical environment and social environment. He studied tribes and cities as two distinct stages in evolution of social organisation. To him tribes represented the pure, untouched and primitive form while the cities was the last stage in the social development of humans.

Ibn-Battuta (1304-1369 AD)
Born in 1304 A.D. in Tangier, his name was Abdallah Muhammad and Ibn Batuta, as he is generally called, was his surname. Although, a Negro by origin he was considered to be an Arab scholar. The images of new countries and different people fascinated him, and in his eagerness to visit them he left his homeland for Haj at the age of 21 in 1325.
He travelled far and wide, visited Egypt, Syria, Persia, Arabia, Zanazibar, Bukhara, India, Maldives, Ceylone, Sumatra and China. He navigated along the eastern coast of Africa 100 south of equator upto Kilwa, and that’s where he got to know of a Arab trading post at Sojala in Mozambique, 20° south of equator.
This fuelled him to reconfirm the habitability of the torrid zone in East Africa. Travelling for 25 years he set a record by covering 75,000 miles. His interest in Human Geography far exceeded his interest in Physical Geography, which is why his writings include several anthropological facts.

Al-Biruni (?-1048 A.D.)
Abul-Rayham and Mohammad alias Al Biruni, was invited to India by Mohammad Ghaznavi. During his stay in India he kept himself busy writing `Kitab-al-Hind’, travelling and making contributions to mathematical, physical and regional geography.
In Kitab-al-Hind he mentions Indian geographers determining cardinal points in relation to four cities Yemakota in east, Lanka in South, Romeka in West and Siddhap in North. His measurement of latitudes and longitudes, and the maps of Iran and Transoxina drawn by him are indeed exact.
According to him the distance between Lanka and Indian coast was 30 Yojanas. He also elaborated upon the general physical structure and the cultural landscape of India. He talked of the periodicity of Indian monsoon and its immense relevance to the agricultural output. He left the world for divine abode in 1048. AD. Notable among his works are Tarikhul-Hind, Al-Qanun-al Masudi and Pasind Atharal Baquiya.


He was a climatologist in the tenth century and a contemoporary of Al-Masudi. Al-Maqudisi propounded the idea that not only the latitude but also its location, determines the climate of a place. Whether a place was located in the east or west coast, interior of a continent or near the ocean boundary, all affected the climate according to him. The hypothesis of there being more land mass in the Northern Hemisphere than in the Southern Hemisphere was propounded by him.

Arab Geography is characterized by its generalization on the basis of the empirical facts. The Arabs had on their side the patronage of caliph Harun al-Rashid, which worked up a conducive environment for the flood of new ideas to spread throughout the Muslim world.
Then the translation of Greek works and the use of decimal system brought into Baghdad from the Hindus, all came together to stand by the side of the Arabs who, once on, were never to look back.

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