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Muslim Contributions to Geography

This is the fifth article of a series that will be focused on influential Muslim scientists. To see if any other articles have been uploaded, search the tag or keywords ‘Muslim scientists’ 

The rapid expansion of Islam, requirement of annual pilgrimage of Hajj, Qur’anic teachings about roaming the world for observations and analysis, commercial and political interests of Muslims necessitated advancements and developments in the science of geography in the Islamic world.

Along with Hajj and religious journeying to holy sites, the rapid growth of dynamic Islamic civilization needed commerce on an unprecedented rate, this requirement accelerated growth of well serviced roads. “Soon after eight century the Mediterranean became virtually a Muslim highway. Heavily used sea and land routes eventually connected  all the Muslim lands, extended around and through India to SouthEast Asia and China, stretched north along the Volga River to Scandinavia, and an deep into Africa. Muslims raiding corsairs even reached Iceland. Linking commercial, cultural, and religious centers, this network carried generations of trading fleets and caravans bearing goods between all Muslim regions and some beyond, promoting a standard that was more remarkably uniform and more advanced than that generally known in Europe at that time.”  [1]

The Muslims’ interest in geography not only included the lands of Andalusia, North Africa, South Europe, Asia but also great oceans and seas. With the perfection of Astrolabes, the sailing over high seas became easier in Muslim world. The means of navigation were improved which strengthened the spirit of touring around the world for trade, knowledge, and other purposes. In the Muslim world, the subject of astronomy has been closely associated with geography. For many observations like determining the latitudes and longitudes, degree of arc and so forth, there were many methods which were used. The great scholar Al-Biruni made detailed studies on the measurements of the surface of Earth, and for this contribution he is regarded as the “father of geodesy.” Al-Biruni, in his book entitled The Book of the Demarkation of the Limits of Areas, he makes observations about studying geography and exploring the knowledge related to earth, its climate, and different regions and people :

“Islam has already penetrated from the Eastern countries of the Earth to the Western; it spreads westward to Spain, eastward to the borderland of China and to the middle of India, southward to Abyssinia and to the countries of Zanj (i.e. South Africa, the Malay Archipelago and Java), northward the countries of the Turks and Slavs. Thus the different people are brought together in the mutual understanding, which only God’s own art can bring to pass…..To obtain the information concerning the places of the earth has now become incomparably easier and safer (than it was before).” [2]

The Muslim scholars were immensely motivated by the verses of holy Qur’an which encourage men to travel in the world and make observations about civilizations and nations to derive lessons and guidance from their stories. In this regard, Yaqut al-Hamawi, the thirteenth century Muslim geographer mentions the verses of holy Qur’an which inspires to travel and learn lessons in his famous book Geographical Dictionary.

Among early Muslim geographers, in the ninth century, Hisham al-Kalbi made study of Arabia, Muhammad bin Musa al-Khawarazmi, the famous mathematician and astronomer, laid the foundations of Geography among the Muslims with his book Shape of the Earth, al-Kindi wrote Descriptions of the Inhabited Parts of the Earth, and  al-Yaqubi made topographical studies in his book Book Of Countries. In the same century, Ahmad  al-Sarakhsi, and Ibn Khurdadhbih and others composed a series works entitled Routes and Kingdoms for studying the various routes and provinces to be used by postal system. This study of routes was continued in tenth century Abu Zaid al-Balkhi, al-Istakhiri, and ibn Hauqal. Around the same period, Muslim sailors increased the navigation in the Indian ocean, and discovered the Far East. Other writings of the period include the large collection of writings on geographical subjects in the form of encyclopedia by Ibn Rustah, the accounts of travels of ibn Fadlan, Figures of the Climes by Abu Zaid al-Balkhi,  al-Maqdisi composed Best Division for the Knowledge of the Climes, and the famous historian Abul Hasan al-Masudi authored Meadows of Gold, and Mines of Gems which is great source of knowledge on natural history and geography. The  Ibn Rustah traveled through Volga and Caspian regions, al-Balkhi was an early map maker, and al-Maqdisi journeyed throughout Islamic lands.

In the subsequent centuries, there were born many noted Muslim geographers. Al-Biruni devised a new method for measuring latitudes and longitudes, and carried out measurements of roundness of earth, determination of elevation of many cities, and studied geography of India. Abu Abdallah al-Idrisi authored Book of Roger for Roger II, this book makes most elaborate description of the world in medieval periods. “Al-Idrisi’s works contributed greatly to the geographical education of the Western Europeans, who were soon to embark on an age of exploration … Muslim geographers played their part in this epic adventure: on his trip around Africa … the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama employed an Arab pilot who wrote a guide for mariners crossing Indian ocean.” [3]

The Muslim geographers’ immense contribution in the field of geography, oceanography, and related sciences paved the way for understanding of geography and discovery and exploration of new parts of the earth.

[1] Science in Medieval Islam, An illustrated Introduction, by Howard R. Turner
[2] From al-Biruni’s The Book of the Demarkation of the Limits of Areas as quoted by Hussein Nasr in Science and Civilization in Islam
[3] Science in Medieval Islam, An illustrated Introduction, by Howard R. Turner

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