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Lessons from Al-Muqaddasi’s geography of the world’s regions

By Dr Mamnun Khan

Muhammad ibn Ahmad Shams al-Din al-Muqaddasi, known as al-Muqaddasi for short, was born in Jerusalem in the year 945/6. He came from an educated family, most notably his paternal grandfather – Abu Bakr al-Banna, from Egypt, was known as “the builder” because he built the walls and forts at the port of Akka (Acre).

Al-Muqaddasi was educated in Qur’an, Qira’at (forms of recitation) and was well-read in the works of earlier geographers. At the age of twenty, in 966, al-Muqaddasi performed Hajj but he visited Makkah on two further occasions in 977 and 987. It is thought that during this twenty-year period he travelled extensively covering all of the regions that he describes in his famous book, The Best Divisions for Knowledge of the Regions (Ahsan al-Taqasim fi Ma’arifah al-Aqalim).

His motivation for writing the book was, in his own words, to follow in the footsteps of scholars, and the learned and the pious, in their “desire to compose works so that their traces do not vanish from this earth.” And it was the subject Geography that he chose because he noticed that it was neglected by others. By Geography he meant, an accurate well-researched “account of the Islamic regions, with the deserts and the seas in them; the lakes and rivers there; a description of their famous metropoles, and noted settlements: the way stations that are well used and the roads that are frequented … diversity of peoples … their doctrinal schools … languages … measures … coins … food and drink … fruits … trade…” and so on.

By the late tenth century, (fourth century of the Islamic Hijri calendar) the Muslim world was vast, spanning from Zaragoza (known as “Saraqusta” at the time) in Spain in the West to the Western provinces of China in the East. Such diverse lands, peoples and cultures, had the Islamic faith as it’s distinct and unifying factor from the non-Muslim portion of the world.

Al-Muqaddasi divided the Muslim world into two broad regions – Arab and non-Arab, which he then subdivided into fourteen regions. The Arabian regions were:

  • Jazirat al-Arab (the Peninsula of the Arabs);
  • Iraq;
  • Aqur (land between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers); al-Sham (Syria);
  • al-Misr (Egypt); and
  • al-Maghrib (North West Africa).

The regions of the non-Arab Muslims are:

  • al-Mashriq;
  • al-Daylam;
  • al-Rihab;
  • al-Jabil;
  • Khuzistan;
  • Fars;
  • Kirman; and
  • al-Sind.

The book is an excellent source of accurate and detailed descriptions of conditions of these places in the tenth century, which requires critical study. There are also many things we can learn from al-Muqaddasi’s approach to research, scholarship and writing, which are briefly summarised below.

  • Al-Muqaddasi published the book at the age of forty, after a twenty-year period of research and travelling. He gave himself the time to mature and gain enough exposure to become an expert geographer and only then did he decide to publish the book.
  • Al-Muqaddasi familiarised himself with, and examined, the major works and authors in his field like al-Jayhani, al-Balkhi, al-Hamadhani, al-Jahiz and Ibn Khurradadhbih to understand their strengths and weaknesses. This gave him critical insight into what he would need to produce in order to contribute something original that would stand the test of time. For al-Muqaddasi it wasn’t enough to just follow the same methods and approaches that others had done in the past.
  • Al-Muqaddasi often went out of his way to learn new things, and paid great attention to detail so that he could properly analyse and classify things. For example, when he arrived in a new region he mentions that he enquired about the religious practices of people and their languages so that he could familiarise himself with them, and even did things like taste water in lakes so that he could accurately document its quality.
  • Al-Muqaddasi consulted experts and people of intelligence, to check and validate drafts of his work. He was aware of the mistakes of others and being a devout man of belief and trustworthiness meant he was even more keen to avoid error and be as accurate as possible.
  • Al-Muqaddasi sought to take reports only from the most trustworthy people, who were consistent with evidence that he had, and stayed away from being excessive in his arguments or censuring himself.
  • While al-Muqaddasi had the lofty goal of producing knowledge that would ensure the survival of his name, he remained humble and did it, he says, to worship Allah. This included enduring hardship, sacrificing time away from home and spending money towards his research. He also sought to practice what was lawful, avoided sinning and dealt honestly with people.

Bibliography

Al-Muqaddasi, The Best Divisions for Knowledge of the Regions, translated by Basil Collins, Ithaca Press, 2000.

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