The Islamic Geographical Tradition

Ancient history of Arabs is one of the most mysterious pages of the history of mankind. Insulation of the Arabian states and tribes from well-developed centers of civilization, as Egypt, Mesopotamia and later formations, caused poor knowledge about history and geography of the lands of the modern United Arab Emirates and Yemen. Nowadays, the Islamic geographical tradition of both countries has different methodological approaches. The essay is going to discover the main postulates of both sources and compare their vision on geography of both countries.

It is curious that the earliest literary works all over the world were devoted to description of the journeys. Thus, the text of Tarikh Al-Mustabsir belongs to the stories and tales of travels to distant lands, in other words, to one of the oldest genres of the world literature. Works of Al-Muqaddasi and Ibn al-Mujawir are useful for reconstructing the history of the UAE and Yemen. From these sources, contemporary readers know that, historically, Yemen and the United Arab Emirates occupied different territories than they have today.

In 985, Al-Muqaddasi book was an impressive geographical literary work written on the basis of personal experience and observations of the Islamic world. The ancient historian proposed a new division of the Earth. In his conception, there were 14 regions. According to Al-Muqaddasi and other geographical sources: much of the present Dhofar coast of Oman was then part of Yemen including Hadhramaut. At the same time, the north-eastern cost, which today belongs to the United Arab Emirates as a part of the Persian Gulf, one day, made a part of the Yemeni territories. The contemporary historians underline that the information presented in the book is based on observations, author’s personal opinions, descriptions of the nature and customs of different Arabian countries. Technically, the Al-Muqaddasi book is the first Arabic writing on geography, which includes colored images and maps that people still use today. The book represents an ethnographic essay and has a unique narrative style. It provides a description of cities, societies and geography of the Islamic world at the end of the 10th century. Al-Muqaddasi devoted his research to the Islamic world. He divided it into two main parts: "mamlaka al-Arab" (the Kingdom of Arabs) - six Arab provinces: Maghreb, Egypt, Arabia, Sham, Iraq and Acura and "mamlaka al-Ajam" ( the Kingdom of non-Arabs/Persian) - eight non-Arab provinces: Rihab (Armenia - Arran - Azerbaijan), Daylam, Jibal, Khuzestan, Fars, Kirman, Sindh and Mashriq. Together they formed “mamlaka al-Islam. The author provided the information about the fundamental differences between Arabs and non-Arabs. However, despite the significant differences, the author underlines their unity around the two capitals Nisabur and Samarkand, respectively. Al-Muqaddasi visited in the 10th century the port city of Sohar in Oman. He admired his accomplishment and wealth and wrote that the city is a treasure trove of the East and the threshold of the Yemeni market. The historians underline deep Persian traditions, which influenced the narrative style and ideas of the text. It places the work at the level of Iranian scholar tradition.

Tarikh Al-Mustabsir is a historiography by Ibn al-Mujawir. He was able to visit the places of the Arabian Peninsula where no one had been before. He sailed along the Red Sea, visited Ethiopia and then moving to the south along the coast of East Africa reached Kilwa. There he learned about the existence of the Arab factor in Sofala, which is in Mozambique. Having returned to Mecca, he soon embarked on a new path and visited Baghdad, traveled through Persia and the lands adjacent to the Black Sea. Having crossed the Russian steppe, he eventually reached Bukhara and Samarkand and from there through the mountains of Afghanistan the explorer reached India. Ibn al-Mujawir dedicated a lot of words to Yemen. However, its work is deprived of scholar elements as Al-Muqaddasi's. He wrote about the presence of Christianity in Northern Yemen, which is a very interesting fact considering that later Yemen became a center of Islam. This fact cannot be ignored. However, some historians consider it to be a grave mistake. The historians underline deep Persian traditions which influenced the narrative style and ideas of the text, which refers it to the Iranian tradition. More about it can be found in some case brief examples

The main importance of the Arabic geographical literature is in new facts, but not in theories. In general, the Islamic geographical tradition remained underdeveloped and used in most cases the Greek methodology, without the development of new concepts. It includes the Transmission of Indian, Iranian and Greek geographical knowledge to the Arabs. The Arabian historiographers gathered in the field of geography a lot of material, but were unable to process it into a coherent academic system. In addition, they constantly mixed reality with imagination. Thus, a lot of information is doubtful. Al-Muqaddasi proposed a classification of settlements, described their function. He presented a good description of the countries of the modern United Arab Emirates and Yemen. The historiographer draw first colored maps. In the Islamic methodology of geographical tradition, Al-Muqaddasi occupies a leading position. Ibn al-Mujawir elaborated a detailed description of the same territories in another historical period. He paid specific attention to Yemen and the role of religions in the country. Both texts have plenty details and precious information for modern historiographers. They represent two excellent pieces of art.


Started by Isabelle Butler at May 12, 2020 - 9:38 AM