Knowledge versus Natural Disasters from Arabic Sources

The aim of this paper is to investigate the various aspects of preparedness and response to natural disasters in the Arabic speaking lands during the 15th and 16th centuries, with comparison to earlier writings. Two natural disasters are focused upon: earthquakes and typhoons. Relying on specialised literary sources dedicated to these matters, the author draws also on jurisprudence opinions and decrees to describe the variety with which disasters were perceived and the different means with which they were prevented in Islamic civilisations.

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Table of contents

1. Introduction
2. Windstorms
   2.1 Knowledge
   2.2 Prevention
   2.3 Life Boats
   2.4 Jurisprudence Verdicts
3. Earthquakes
   3.1 Explanation
   3.2 Prediction
   3.3 Protection
   3.4 Emergency Procedures
4. Conclusions

* * *

1. Introduction

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Figure 1: Title page of a manuscript copy of Ibn Mājid's book al-Fawā'id (The Benefits) preserved in the Ministry of Endowments Library in Kuwait.


The aim of the following article is to cover the various aspects of preparedness and response to natural disasters in the Arabic speaking lands (Middle East and North Africa) during the 15th and 16th centuries, with comparisons to the earlier periods of Islam. This period was selected because it features some literary and scientific accomplishments that help us as valuable sources for our study. The earliest surviving texts on earthquakes and navigation were written during this period. The article investigates the role of scholars and public institutions, comparing them to the period of "Islamic Renaissance" (9th-11th centuries). The period of our study was fertile in book production; yet historians of science and literature look at those works as a continuation of the earlier intellectual activity of Islam. Nevertheless, the earliest surviving Arabic books on earthquakes and navigation were written during the period of our study, as we shall see below.

The paper reviews how windstorms and earthquakes were perceived and interpreted, what preventive measures were taken and what actions took place during emergencies. We also look at the literature that was generated because of these natural disasters. The chronicles and other sources tell us about other natural disasters like floods, drought, famine and the resulting epidemics; but the available literature on natural disasters from the period of our study was devoted solely to earthquakes and windstorms. The attitudes toward other natural disasters are reviewed in other studies. Epidemics, for example, are covered in the paper published on this site at this link. [1]

Navigators Ibn Mājid and al-Mahrī mention the weather phenomena that help in forecasting a typhoon. They say that a navigator should know about the typhoon's indications. The protection against strong winds included shipwrights' observance to technical standards when building the ship. It was the responsibility of the guild leader, the market inspector, and the captains to inspect the whole hull of the ship while it is on land or dockyard.

After doing their best to avoid or overcome the windstorms in the sea, if still an accident takes place, here comes the role of jurisprudence to resolve the resultant matters. A number of treatises were written on navigation issues during the period of our study. Among the debated issues we find: lost passengers of sunken ships, rules of jettison, liability of the captain and/or the ship owner in case of total loss.

The perception and interpretation of earthquakes among Arabic authors varied and changed over the various periods of Islamic history. During the "Renaissance of Islam" (9th-11th centuries) the Arabic scientists adopted a physical theory. This trend continued afterwards. But, in a later time, attempts were made to introduce a non-physical explanation which eschews those physical and even the pseudo-physical theories. The paper compares the views of al-Suyūtī with those of Ibn al-Jazzār, who wrote in the aftermath of the earthquake of 1576.

The chronicles report that people who were affected by natural disasters left their houses and stayed in refugee camps under tents. When an earthquake started, or when a rumor went out saying that an earthquake is nearby, people fled into the parks, the desert, or to any open area. They stayed there for days, weeks, or months, until all successive shocks are over. In some areas people built wooden shacks around their houses to seek refuge and to sleep inside them at night. Another widespread practice was to go to mosques and churches for praying to end the earthquake. Here again the Islamic jurisprudents' opinions reacted with this type of disasters. They told the people to leave buildings instead of merely relying on prayers; they were also exempt from participating in congregational prayers in mosques.

2. Windstorms

People had to recognize various types of dangerous windstorms and their effects. They needed to forecast their coming. Consequently they wanted to be prepared for them.

2.1 Knowledge

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Figure 2: Front cover of Tahrīk al-silsilah fī-mā yata'allaqu bi'l-zalzalah (Shaking the chain about earthquakes) by Al-‘Ajlūnī (Amman, 2005).

In ethno-astronomical and meteorological treatises and in lexicographical texts, written by Arabic philologists in earlier Islam, nearly one hundred words depict different kinds of winds according to their effects, qualities and directions. Theses lexicons formed the Arabic terminology that was inherited from pre-Islamic period.

In the period from the 9th century CE onwards, some books on meteorology were written, following the translation of Greek books. Al-Kindī (d. ca. 873) stated that the wind is due to the movement of the air, expanded by the heat of the sun towards colder places where the air is more concentrated. [2]

These ideas continued in the latter works in the 12th and 13th centuries. Al-Tīfāshī (1184-1253) says: "The hurricane is the wind which evolves around itself and ascends to the atmosphere." [3] Al-Qazwīnī (1203-1283) also repeats the ideas of al-Kindī and gives a definition to the hurricane similar to that of al-Tīfāshī, but with more details. [4] Ibn Manglī (d. ca 1377) mentions ten officers who run the naval ship, among them the officer in charge of weather observations. [5]

The earliest surviving navigational texts are those of Ahmed ibn Mājid (fl. 1462-1500), from today's Ras al-Khaymah, United Arab Emirates, and Sulaymān al-Mahrī (fl. 1511-1553), from Sukutra island in Yemen. As skilled navigators, they apply scientific knowledge to practical aspects of their profession. Ibn Mājid says about forecasting a typhoon: "It is desirable that a navigator should know about the typhoon and its indications. The most correct things that we know about it are the high temperature of the sea water, rainfall, and the sudden changing of the wind. There is also ‘the typhoon of the evenings', which comes after midday. There are three sorts of dangerous typhoons, such as the typhoon which comes around the 40th day of the year. [6] It cuts up the clouds as if they were cow skins. There is lightning and whirlpools in the water; and the water becomes warm". [7]

Al- Mahrī describes five types of typhoons that are experienced in the Indian Ocean. He gives the dates (i.e. which day of the year) and places of each type. For example, the third type in his list is what he calls ‘the typhoon of forty': "it hits inside Hurmuz sea on the 40th day of nayrūz". [8] It is the same one mentioned by Ibn Mājid. He adds that typhoons hit in some years and disappear in other years. He then says: "The typhoons have indications. Among those is the increase of dust on land and sea, the lightning and the clouds covering the sky. This happens when the sky has clouds like cow skins; and on top of those cumulating clouds". [9]

2.2 Prevention

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Figure 3: An Indian ocean navigator using the instrument named kamāl for measuring the latitude of his location. On the use of this instrument click here.


After knowing the dangers of windstorms in the sea, navigators and concerned authorities had to take preventive measures. A part of the muhtasib (market superintendent) duties was to observe the construction of vessels at the shipyard. His main task was to insure the shipwrights' adherence to technical standards and prevent them from using inferior and inadequate raw materials. [10] Ibn Mājid asks each sailor to "inspect the whole hull of the ship while it is on land/dockyard and write down all its imperfections". [11] During the maritime venture he asks the sailor to "inspect the equipment of the ship every once in a while". [12] According to Ibn Bassām (flourished ca. 1022-1050), who was a muhtasib himself, the exacting and thorough inspection were intended "to avoid human and financial losses". He says that a chief of shipwrights must be appointed for this purpose. [13] The merchants looked for the worthiness of a vessel; new vessels were more reliable of course. [14]

Then came the prevention of overloading. Several methods of calculating the capacity of a ship in terms of merchandise, weight, or number of passengers were available. Ibn Bassām states that "the ship can be freighted with cargo as long as the waterline alongside the outer hull is visible". [15]

If a loss occurs because of violating standards, the liabilities falls on the captain first, then the leasers (merchants) if they asked for the overloading, and finally on the owner if he was involved in the violation. [16] Ship-owners, navigators and shipwrights in the Indian Ocean were likely to constitute a band of their own. Even in the Mediterranean, members of one craft from different faiths were connected with one another in many ways such as geographical concentration, mutual financial help, formal partnership, and organized corporations of craftsmen. [17]

Another method of protection against foundering was to withdraw from the deep water to the nearest port. This happened on Saturday, November 13th 1518, when a number of ships left Alexandria aiming Istanbul; but a hurricane or typhoon forced them to sail back to Rosetta. [18]

2.3 Life Boats

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Figure 4: Front cover of the Arabic text of Al-Minhāj al-fākhir fī ‘ilm al-bahr al-zākhir by Sulaymān Al-Mahrī (Damascus, 1970).

Another precaution against bad weather in the sea was to keep life boats on the main ship. Life boats were known and used by large ships during the classical period of Islam (9th to 13th centuries CE) by the Arab and Muslim navigators in all the seas that they used. [19] Turning to the period of our study, Ibn Mājid mentions, in many places of his works, that these boats are used when the big ships cannot outstand strong windstorms. He mentions that these boats are also good for short distance travel during windy seasons. Talking about the Maldives islands he says: "and the voyage among the Maldives need not be interrupted if there is strong south wind and a lot of rain, for you can go for from island to island, especially when the islands can be seen from each other. Boats, like the ones which carry tambul [20] can still travel when the sea is closed. It is possible to travel from Konkan to Konbāya and its neighbourhood when small reliable ships are used, but not the big ships". [21]

2.4 Jurisprudence Verdicts

After doing their best to avoid or overcome the windstorms in the sea, if people still face an accident, here comes the role of jurisprudence to resolve the resultant matters. The period of our study was fertile in jurisprudence literature. The following authors had their inputs on the subject of jettison and distribution of losses in their general works on jurisprudence: [22]

  • Ibn Bassām of Tinnīs in Egypt (flourished ca. 1022-1050)
  • Al-Wansharīsī of today's Algeria (1430-1508)
  • Ibn Nujaym of Egypt (d. 1563)
  • Muhaqqiq al-Thānī of today's Jordan (d. 1533)
  • Al-Minhājī of Egypt (d. 1475).

The following treatises were written solely on navigational issues: [23]

1. Khalaf ibn Abī Firās of Kairouan, in today's Tunisia (fl.1010 AD); his treatise was studied by Udovitch in 1993 [24] and by Khalilieh. [25]

2. Al-Suyūtī of Egypt (d. 1505); his treatise' titled Precious Gems on the Regulations of the Sea and the Ship is not extant.

3. Ibn Nujaym; his treatise is An Epistle on the Ship if it Founders or Breaks, Who is Liable. The author was asked about a person who leased a ship to utilize it for commercial service between Suez and Jeddah. During the voyage between the two ports the ship foundered and everything on board was lost. The question was about the liability of the renter towards the owner. [26]

4. Ibn Sarrāj of Granada (d. 1444) produced a nāzilah or fatwā (legal opinion) about Muslim captives who escaped from a ship of European pirates. [27]

5. Several nawāzil (plural of nāzilah, i.e. jurisprudence verdict) by Ibn ‘Āsim of Granada (d. after 1453) on the aftermaths of ship accidents. One of them was about the carrack ship which foundered near Alexandria in 1397. The following are examples of raised questions: [28]

  • What is the legal opinion about the inherited properties of the missing passengers?
  • How long can their wives wait before considering them as widows?
  • If those missing passengers appointed financial agents before they went on voyage, do these agents continue acting as before or should they pass their money and goods to the inheritors?

6. Al-Azharī of Egypt (18th century); his treatise is composed of 16 folios (32 pages); it was not published yet. It was studied by the current author in 2002. [29]

The Islamic rules of jettison decree that under adverse weather conditions the shipmaster was allowed to cast cargo overboard. In case of ordinary jettison, where there was time for consultation, the captain had to confer with the merchants or their agents and with the crew members before tossing the cargo overboard. Ordinarily, the heaviest cargo, if it was accessible, had to be thrown first; otherwise, light goods and those nearest at hand would be jettisoned when the danger of foundering was imminent. Moreover, most scholars disapproved throwing humans overboard regardless of their social and religious affiliation. Classical Muslim jurists employed three legal methods to controvert or corroborate the act of jettison. First, the captain and his crew could protect themselves by taking an oath that throwing cargo overboard was imperative. Second, testimonies of other sailors and passengers sailing in a convoy could substantiate or rebut the captain's oral deposition. Third, the judge could require experts in maritime industry and technology to inspect the ship's hull if it had suffered damage en route to its destination.

In addition to the oral testimonies, arguments raised regarding the jetsam's description were also settled by presenting documentary evidence to the court. These documentary proofs were of four types. Initially, the cargo book was considered as the most reliable source owing to the fact that the complete details of the quality and quantity of the cargo were registered before the ship set sail. Alternatively, the merchant, for his part, would summon his booklet to the court. This booklet contained, among other things, reports about goods delivered to or from certain ports. Thirdly, like the two aforesaid written documentation, leasing contracts, especially those that contained particular articles concerning the quality and quantity of the shipment, would also be considered by the judicial authorities. Lastly, letters of speedy transmission, which usually reached the consignment receiver before the arrival of the vessel at port, might have been regarded as of great legal importance.

When part of the shipment was jettisoned, the owners of jetsam became partners, proportionately, in the goods that remained safe. However, losses incurred in casting cargo overboard would be evaluated proportionately, taking into account the quantity and quality of the jetsam, and shared by those involved.

The assessment of the jetsam remained controversial. The most sensible among the various evaluations is based on the current market price at the port of embarkation, regardless of when the cargo was purchased. [30]

3. Earthquakes

Like other natural disasters, earthquakes are a fact of life in many parts of the world. We try here to understand how people explained earthquakes by giving reasons to them, how they predicted them, what protective measures they took against them, and what actions they took during the emergencies when the shock took place.

3.1 Explanation

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Figure 5: With a length of 83.7 meters and a bow of 18.5 meters wide, Al-Hashemi II is the world's largest wooden ship, it serves as a banquet hall in Kuwait city. (Source).


Earthquakes were discussed by scholars since early Islam. Al-Kindī (d. ca. 873) wrote an epistle titled "The Science of Winds in the Bowels of the Earth, which Produce Many Earthquakes and Cave-ins". [31] Ibn Sīnā (d. 1037) quoted the opinions of Greek scholars who attributed earthquakes to pressured gases that are kept inside the earth. But he did not agree with them completely; he opposed their theories by giving natural explanations. In his opinion a great pressure must be exerted on the trapped air inside the earth. This pressure can be from water entering into cavities, collapse of some earth parts, and solar eclipse which results in cooling the pressured gases [32]

Some historians of science thought that "after the 10th-11th centuries, Muslim theory more generally eschewed even pseudo-physical explanations, and regarded earthquakes simply as of God's will". [33] Another researcher says: "The Arabs adopted logic and physical philosophy to explain earthquakes since the 10th Century A.D. But they diverted from this approach towards the end of Mamlūk period; and they attacked it during the Ottoman period". [34]

Both assumptions are erroneous. Al-Qazwīnī (1203-1283) says that gases are pressurized until they become liquids and then escape by causing earthquakes and volcanoes. [35] Al-Tīfāshī (1184 -1253) says that congested gases cause earthquakes because of the pressure they exert on earth crust. [36] Al