Al-Muqaddasi and Human Geography: An Early Contribution to Social Sciences

Recent scholarly interest in the genesis of social sciences in Islamic culture is a noteworthy shift. Until recent times, the development of these fields was credited exclusively to the modern Western tradition, especially to the 19th century birth of humanities. The ground breaking contribution of Ibn Khaldun was recognized; however, the author of the Muqaddima stands as an isolated genius. In the following article, an attempt is made to broaden the field by highlighting the contributions of several other scholars in laying the foundation of social sciences in Islamic culture. After a short survey on Al-Biruni and Al-Raghib al-Isfahani, the focus of the article is dedicated to the 10th-century Palestinian geographer Al-Muqaddasi, who touched on various subjects of interest to the social sciences in his book Ahsan al-taqasim fi ma'rifat al-aqalim.

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Table of contents

1. Seeds of Social Sciences

2. Al-Muqaddasi: Short Biography

3. Ahsan a-Taqasim and its Scope

4. The Originlity of Al-Muqaddasi's Approach

5. Water as a Social Indicator

6. Fiscal Issues and Finance

7. City and Urban Developments

8. Bibliography

9. Notes

Figure 1a: Panel tile representing the Masjid al-Haram (Sacred Mosque). Made in Iznik, Turkey, 18th century. (Source).
Figure 1b: Turkish map of the Masjid al-Haram and related religious sites (Jabal al-Nour) 18th century (Source)

Recent scholarly interest in the genesis of social sciences in Islamic culture is a noteworthy shift. Until recent times, the development of these fields was credited exclusively to the modern Western tradition, especially to the 19th century birth of human sciences, such as sociology, psychology and later on ethnology and anthropology.

But modern commentators showed that amongst items to be included under the banner of social thought must be included early contributions by the scholars of the Islamic world. Master of the discipline is, of course, Ibn Khaldun. Nothing, indeed, in the annals of history precedes the quality of his work. He shaped the whole subject, setting up foundations upon which his successors built, not just in terms of methodology and contents, but also structure and approach. Before Ibn Khaldun, however, other Muslim scholars raised matters of social interest, which Ibn Khaldun corrected, improved, and developed.

The following article will consider one of the earliest Arabic contributions in this field by Al-Muqaddasi, the 10th century Palestinian geographer who touched on various subjects that will be later integrated into the field of social sciences.

The investigation of the roots of social sciences in Islamic culture looks to the aspects of daily life that shaped the living Islam, the every day practicalities rather than the principles of the Muslim faith. It is a very rich field, with chapters on daily life, customs, social structure, institutions, politics, economics, the role of women, the cultural dimension in its connection with social structures, and the role of the individual in the Muslim community. Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh) is studied in its attempt to achieve the goals of rationality, universality and equality set out in the Quran. The dynamics of Islamic society sought to reflect these ideals, with individuals trying to satisfy the religious commands by going beyond worship and ritual. Recent studies show the adaptability of Islam and its ability to take into account local traditions, which has allowed the faith to spread far afield to large parts of Asia, Africa and Europe. They also describe how, more recently, education has begun to take an increasingly important role in guiding Muslims, giving them confidence in their own values, and imbuing them with their faith.[2]

Among the social sciences, anthropology is a recent field. It studies human beings in their living and under all aspects, physical (anatomy, physiology, pathology, evolution) and cultural (social, psychological and geographical). One of its favourite methodological tools is the comparison of cultures and societies separated by large geographical boundaries, in order to grasp the differences and distinctive traits in social organisation, cultural dimensions and beliefs, historical roots, etc.

In his history of anthropology, Marvin Harris indicates two major frameworks within which empirical anthropology has arisen: interest in comparisons of people over space and interest in longterm human processes or humans as viewed through time. Harris dates both to classical Greece and classical Rome, specifically Herodotus, often called the "father of history" who first formulated some of the persisting problems of anthropology, and the Roman historian Tacitus, who wrote many of our only surviving contemporary accounts of several ancient Celtic and Germanic peoples.[3]

Medieval scholars may be considered forerunners of modern anthropology as well, insofar as they conducted detailed studies of the customs of peoples considered "different" from themselves in terms of geography. The Italian traveller Giovanni da Pian del Carpine (d. 1252) was one of the first Europeans to enter the court of the Great Khan of the Mongol Empire and author of the earliest important Western account of northern and central Asia that he wrote as an account of his stay among the Mongols. His report was unusual in its detailed depiction of a non-European culture.[4]

Marco Polo's systematic observations of nature, anthropology, and geography are another example of studying human variation across space. Polo's travels took him across such a diverse human landscape and his accounts of the peoples he met as he journeyed were so detailed that they earned him fame as an early forerunner of modern anthropology.[5]

Several Islamic scholars showed clear anthropological insights in their works. One of the first to carry out comparative ethnographic-type studies was the scientist Abu Rayhan al-Biruni in the 11th century, who wrote about the people, customs, and religions of the Indian subcontinent. Like modern anthropologists, he engaged in extensive participant observation with a given group of people, learnt their language and studied their primary texts, and presented his findings with objectivity and neutrality using cross-cultural comparisons. He wrote detailed comparative studies on the religions and cultures in the Middle East, Mediterranean and especially South Asia.[6]Biruni's tradition of comparative cross-cultural study continued in the Muslim world through to Ibn Khaldun's work in the 14th century.[7]

Figure 2: View of the Palestinian market in Jerusalem. Al-Quds was the home town of Al-Muqaddasi who was born there sometime around 930-935 CE. (Source). See Muqaddasi: A Muslim Native of Jerusalem (extracted from F. E. Peters , Jerusalem, Princeton University Press, 1995) and Zakariyeh Mohammed, Maqdisi: An 11th Century Palestinian Consciousness.

The investigation of "the anthropological matter" in the texts of Islamic culture highlights the precious contribution of the Arab and Muslim scholars in its pre-modern history. Through the rehabilitation of this ancient legacy of anthropological heritage written in Arabic, a link is thus established between the past and the present. In this connection, emphasis is placed on the anthropological dimension in the corpus of Ibn Khaldun, especially in Al-Muqaddima, on the ties between Al-Jahiz and the anthropological sciences, and the place reserved for human sciences in two key books of Al-Raghib al-Isfahani, Al-Dharia'a ila makarim al-sharia'a and Kitab Tafsil al-nash'atayn wa-tahsil al-sa'adadatayn.[8]

Abu 'l-Qasim al-Husayn b. Muhammad b. al-Mufadhdhal al-Raghib al-Isfahani was a religious and literary scholar. Information about his life is extremely scanty, but according to al-Suyuti's statement in the Bughya, he died in the early 5th H/11th CE. His works, of which at least a dozen are extant, enjoyed a considerable popularity, and they exerted a recognizable influence on Al-Ghazali and other later figures.

The best-known works of Al-Raghib are of literary scope, such as Muhadhrat al- udaba' wa-muhawarat al-shu'ara' wa 'l-bulagha' and Majma' al- balagha. Al-Raghib's predilection for subtle semantic analysis is apparent in his works on the semantics and exegesis of the Quran, the Mufradat alfaz al-Qur'an, Durrat al- ta'wil fi mutashabih al-tanzil, and his Tafsir.

The anthropological scope of Al-Raghib's work appears in his best-known ethical work Al-Dhari'a ila makarim al-shari'a (The Book of Means to the Noble Qualities of the Law), where he combined religious scholarship and philosophy.[9] This work is structured in terms of a Platonic-Aristotelian psychology, with separate chapters on man's faculties in general, his intellect, the concupiscent and irascible faculties, justice, labour and money, and human acts. The pervasive philosophical influence is highly reminiscent of Miskawayh (died in 421/1030). Al-Raghib's general perspective is, however, considerably more Islamicised than Miskawayh's, with virtually every assertion being backed up by appropriate citations from the Quran and hadith. The work's ultimate influence was considerable, as it was Al-Ghazali's direct source for a good half of his Mizan al-'amal , as well as for significant sections of his Ihya' 'ulum al-din and Ma'arij al-Quds. Al-Raghib also wrote a companion piece to the Dhari'a, the Tafsil al-nash'atayn wa-tahsil al-sa'adatayn, which presents many of the same ideas but stresses even more explicitly the complementarity of reason and religion.

Other works of Al-Raghib al-Isfahani, in the form of brief epistles, were found recently in an Istanbul manuscript (Esad Efendi 3645). They deal with education, classification of sciences and relationships in society. Their titles are: Risala fi anna fadhilat al-insan bi 'l-'ulum, Risala fi dhikr al-wahid wa-'l-ahad, Risala fi adab mukhalatat al-nas, and Risala fi maratib al-'ulum.[10]

2. Al-Muqaddasi: Short Biography

The full name of our scholar is Shams al-Din Abu 'Abd Allah Muhammad b. Ahmad b. Abi Bakr al-Banna' al-Shami al-Muqaddasi. His name Al-Muqaddasi is also transliterated as Al-Maqdisi and al-Mukaddasi. He is the best representative of Arabic geography in the second half of the 4th/10th century.

The events of his life story, which are not well known, are only available to us through his main book, the famous Ahsan at-taqasim fi ma'rifat al-aqalim (The Best Divisions for Knowledge of the Regions). He lived in the 10th century (around 930-935 and 1000 CE).[11] Very much attached to the Palestine of his birth and to the town whose name he bears (Muqaddasi or Maqdisi, from Al-Quds or Bayt al-Maqdis, Jerusalem), he probably belonged to a middle-class family. His paternal grandfather, Abu Bakr, an architect and/or builder, has his claim to fame for having built, on the orders of Ibn Tulun, the maritime defences of Acre. His mother's family came originally from Biyar, a small town of Khurasan. The author's maternal grandfather, being himself an expert in the art of construction, emigrated to Jerusalem.[12]

From certain events reported in his own work, it can be inferred that he lived at least until about 380 H/990 CE.[13] A few dates only mark out his life: two pilgrimages to Mecca in 356/967 and 367 H/978 CE, a journey to Aleppo, perhaps, around the years 354-64 H/965-75 CE, a visit to Khurasan in 374 H/984 CE, and the decision to compose the work, taken in Shiraz, in 375 H/985 CE, at a time when Al-Muqaddasi tells us that he had passed the age of forty. [14]

Figure 3a: Photo of Mekka in 1850. Al-Muqaddasi performed two pilgrimages to the holy shrines in Mecca and Madina in 356 H/967 CE and 367 H/978 CE. (Source)

It can reasonably be supposed that he received the education that his social origins merited; the use, in his work, here and there, of rhymed prose, and even poetry, bear witness to a classical training in grammar and literature, while the arguments on a basis of the Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh)and the discussions of the various theological and juridical schools provide evidence of a marked interest in these fundamental disciplines, an interest gained certainly at an early stage in an educational process. But these displays of a culture that could be termed classical, as well as the other traces of different fields of learning, history, philology and theology, are kept in the background to the benefit of the work itself, which brings them together in a project of singular unity.[15]

Al-Muqaddasi's intellectual life began early, around his twentieth year, when he performed the pilgrimage to Mecca. He determined then to devote himself to the study of geography. For the purpose of acquiring the necessary information, he undertook a series of journeys which lasted over a score of years, and carried him in turn through all the countries of Islam. In 985 CE that he set out to write his book Ahsan at-taqasim fi ma'arifat al-aqalim, which gives us a systematic account of all the places and regions he visited. The book was translated into several languages.[16] A good summary of it is given by Kramers,[17] and extracts can be found in Dunlop's classical book.[18]

Ahsan a-Taqasim fi Ma'rifat al-Aqalim is the outcome of the journeys undertaken by the author over two decades, and which took him in turn through all the countries of Islam. The book came out as a detailed report and a systematic account of all the places and regions he had visited. Setting out from Jerusalem, Al-Muqaddasi visited nearly every part of the Muslim world.

Figure 3b: Mecca in 1718 by Adriaan Reland (Source)

The book is an epic geographical treatise and also a great work of literature, based on some twenty years of personal experiences and observations noted in his survey of the realm of Islam, from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean. Early in the second half of the 19th century the German orientalist Aloys Sprenger, brought to the attention of the West, a manuscript of Al-Muqaddasi's work. Sprenger's enthusiasm over the content of the manuscript is reflected in his judgment that its author is the greatest geographer of all time; this view is shared by many scholars.

A good description of Al-Muqaddasi's treatise is provided by J. H. Kramers who concludes that "there is ... no subject of interest to modern geography which is not treated by Al-Muqaddasi". [19] From his part, André Miquel, the French specialist of Islamic geography, calls the book as one of "total geographical science".[20]

Le Strange comments on Al-Mukaddassi's work by saying: "His description of Palestine, and especially of Jerusalem, his native city, is one of the best parts of the work. All he wrote is the fruit of his own observation, and his descriptions of the manners and customs of the various countries, bear the stamp of a shrewd and observant mind, fortified by profound knowledge of both books and men."[21]

3. Ahsan a-Taqasim and its Scope

In Ahsan al-taqasim, Al-Muqaddasi gives an overall view of the lands he visited, and gives the approximate distances from one frontier to the other. Al-Muqaddasi divides the Islamic world in 14 "Iqlim-s" (climes or regions) [22]; then, he deals with each region separately. The book is divided in two parts. The first enumerates localities and provides adequate descriptions of each, especially the main urban centres. He then proceeds, in the second part, to other subjects: population, its ethnic diversity, social groups, commerce, natural and mineral resources, archaeological monuments, currencies, markets and weights, and the political situation. This approach is in contrast to that of his predecessors, whose focus was much narrower, whilst Al-Muqaddasi wanted to encompass aspects of interest to merchants, travellers, and people of culture.[23] Thus, departing from the usual traditional geography', Al-Muqaddasi's approach seeks to understand and explain the foundations of Islamic society and its very functioning. Out of this, excellent information may be gleaned, regarding many subjects such as water management, fiscal issues and finance, weights and measures, and city and urban developments.

Al-Muqaddasi Al-Muqaddasi

Figure 4a: Several recent editions of Al-Muqaddasi's book: Ahsan at-Taqasim fi ma'rifat al-aqalim, La meilleure répartition pour la connaissance des provinces, partial French translation by André Miquel (Damascus, 1963); Figure 4b:Un Palestinien sur la route: le monde musulman vers l'an mille by André Miquel (Paris, 2008); Figure 4c:The Best Divisions for Knowledge of the Regions, English translation by Basil Collins (Reading, 1994).

Technically, the most important distinction of Ahsan at-taqasim is that it was the first Arabic work of geography ever to providee maps in natural colors, which is the usual practice today. The Ahsan at-Taqasim is marked by a narrative style organised like a modern ethnographic essay. In this sense, the book is a real social, urban and geographical account of the realm of Islam in the late 10th century. During his travels, the author noted his observations on the region's topography, climate, hydrology, vegetation, development, architecture, language, religion and culture. This work speaks of an interested and interesting man, seeing his world through a frame of reference derived from his deeply held religious belief, striving scrupulously to get at the truth of the matter as a true scientist.

Following a tight methodology of observation, he brought to geography actual ethnographic experiences of having been to at least most of the places he describes. In this way he is attempting to be far more scientific and systematic in his approach, hence the kinds of typologies that he offers. It is this penchant for classification that makes him such a favourite source for historians of economic history, archaeologists and other contemporary scholars in the field of Islamic studies.

In Ahsan at-Taqasim, Al-Muqaddasi shows himself to be a hardy, intelligent, versatile, resourceful and well-informed man. He designed his book to appeal to a variety of interests, and even to entertain. Yet, quite strikingly, his perspective on aspects of the geographical method touches on concerns which have received greater attention only in more recent time