Al-Muqaddasi: An Encyclopaedic Scholar

by Salah Zaimeche Published on: 1st July 2002

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Al-Muqaddasi (or Al-Maqdisi), originally from Al-Quds (Jerusalem), hence his name, is by far one of the most instructive of all early Islamic writers on the society of Islam.

Summarised extracts from a full article:
Islamic Social Sciences by Salah Zaimeche

Al-Muqaddasi (or Al-Maqdisi)(endnote 1), (b. 946 – d. 1000 C.E.), originally from Al-Quds (Jerusalem), hence his name, is by far one of the most instructive of all early Islamic writers on the society of Islam. His works, generally, can be found under the subject of geography.

His best known treatise Ahsan at-Taqasim fi Ma’arifat Al-Aqalim(endnote 2) (the best divisions in the knowledge of the Climes) was completed around 985. A good summary of it is given by Kramers,(endnote 3) extracts of which can be found in Dunlop’s Arab Civilisation.(endnote 4) In this work, Al-Muqaddasi gives an overall view of the lands he visited, and gives the approximate distances from one frontier to the other.

Then, he deals with each region separately. He divides his work in two parts, first enumerating localities and providing adequate description of each, especially the main urban centres. He then proceeds to other subjects: population, its ethnic diversity, social groups… moves onto commerce, mineral resources, archaeological monuments, currencies, weights etc, and also to the political enviroment. This approach is in contrast with his predecessors, whose focus was much narrower, whilst Al-Muqaddasi wanted to encompass aspects of interest to merchants, travellers, and people of culture.(endnote 5) Thus, it becomes no longer the sort of traditional `geography’, but a work that seeks to understand and explain the foundations and the functioning of Islamic society. Out of this, excellent information, regarding many subjects can be gleaned.

Water Management

On water management and hydraulic technology, much can be learnt from Al-Muqaddasi’s treatise. In Egypt, it is the description of the Nilometer, which grabs attention most, which goes:(endnote 6)

It is a pond in the middle of which is a tall column whereon are the marks in cubits and fingers; in charge of it is a superintendent, and around it are doors that fit together tightly. A report is presented to the ruler every day of the amount the water has risen, whereupon the herald proclaims, `God hath augmented today the blessed Nile by so much; its increase last year on this day was so much; and may God bring it to completeness!’ The rise is not proclaimed until after it has reached twelve cubits, it is announced to the ruler only, for at twelve cubits the water does not extend to the cultivated villages of the countryside. However, when the height of the water reached fourteen cubits, the lower portion of the region is watered; but if it reaches sixteen cubits, there is general rejoicing, for there will be a good year.’

In Biyar, in the Al-Daylam region, he notes the scarcity of water, pointing out that water is distributed by waterclock, whilst the millstones are below ground, and the water flowing down. This being the desert, he observes, there is no other choice.(endnote 7) And in Al-Ahwaz, in Khuzistan he notes:(endnote 8)

`On the stream is a number of wheels which the water turns, and they are of a kind called na`ura. Here also the water flows in raised canals to reservoirs in the town. Some channels flow to the gardens. The main stream flows from beyond the island about shouting distance to a reservoir, remarkably built from the rock, and here it forms a pool…. On the reservoir are gates which are opened when the water rises…. At the lower portion at a place called Karshanan, whence the boats sail to Al-Basra. There are some remarkable mills on the river’

Still on water, but on a more anecdotal note, Al-Muqaddasi makes the following observation:(endnote 9)

`Should you want to assess the water of a place, visit their clothmakers and druggists, and scrutinize their faces. If you see water in them, you may know that the excellence of the water is in proportion to the freshness of countenance; if they appear to you like the faces of the dead, and you see their heads are drooping, make a hasty retreat from there!’

Fiscal Issues and Finance

Currency, its uses, and its users, as well as its fluctuations, constitutes a major aspect of interest for Al-Muqaddasi. Dinar, Dirhem, their multiples, and sub-multiples, as well as each region’s local currencies are dealt with in their most intricate functions. Thus, for the Maghrib region, Al-Muqaddasi states:(endnote 10)

`The coinage: in all the provinces of this region, as far as the boundaries of the province of Damascus, the standard is the dinar, which is lighter than the mithqal by a habba, that is to say a grain of barley. The coin bears an inscription in the round.

There is also the small rub`, (quarter of a dinar); these two coins pass current by number, [rather than the weight]. The dirham also is short in legal weight. A half dirham is called a qirat; there is also the quarter, the eighth part, and the sixteenth part which is called a kharnuba.. All of these circulate by number [rather than by weight], but their use thus does not bring any reduction in price. The sanja (counterpoise weights) used are made of glass, and are stamped just as described about the ratls.

The ratl of the city of Tunis is twelve uqiya (ounce), this latter being twelve dirhams (weight).’

Quotations from one currency to the other also receive attention from the author, as well as their emission, control, regulations, and much else. The wealth of those involved in currency dealing is also garnered.

Prices, their fluctuations, varying in relation to size and wealth for every market place, are considered; Cairo, a place, which Al-Muqaddasi notes, has so low prices as to surprise him deeply.

Al Muqaddasi could hardly ignore taxes, he himself being a trader on occasions, finding them light and bearable in some places, and perverse and disastrous in others. Thus, in parts of the Arab peninsula, we can observe that:(endnote 11)

`At Adan, merchandise is appraised in terms of Zakawi dinars, then one tenth of the value is exacted in Athari dinars. It is estimated that one third of the wealth of the merchants reaches the treasury of the ruler, for here the inspection is strict. The levies at places on the coast are light, except at Ghalafiqa. Tolls are levied by land: on the caravans going between Judda and Makka, at Al-qarin, and batn marr-at each place half of a dinar… The ruler of Sa’ada does not levy a tax on anybody, except that he takes the quarter of the tithe from the merchants.

In Uman a dirhem is levied on every date palm tree. I have found in the work of Ibn Khurradadhbih that the revenue of Al-Yaman is six hundred thousand Dinars; I do not know what he means by this, because I did not see it in Kitab Al-Kharaj (the Book of Tribute). In fact, rather, it is well known that the Peninsula of the Arabs is on a tithing system. The province of Al-Yaman formerly was divided into three departments, a governor over Al-Janad and its districts, another over Sana’a and its districts, and a third over Hadhramawt and its districts. Qudama bin Ja’afar Al-Katib has noted that the revenue of Al-Haramayn (the two sacred cities) is one hundred thousand dinars, of Al-Yaman six hundred thousand dinars, of Al-Yamam and Al-Bayrayn five hundred thousand dinars,and of Uman three hundred thousand dinars.’ The taxation in Islam has a different basis from other systems. The usual term ‘Zakat’ is normally interpreted in the ‘purification of wealth’. It is different from paying contributions or donations normally, refered to as ‘Sadaqa’.

Weights and Measures

For weights and measures, Al-Muqaddasi shows the same attention to specific detail. For each province, he names, measures, compares and explains fluctuations and variations each measure and weight applies to. He would also dwell on the history of each; and so minute it all becomes in the detail, it ends like the finance page of a broad-sheet newspaper, with values, stocks and shares exhibited in all their minute variations, so tedious for the general reader, fascinating to the expert.(endnote 12)

City and Urban Developments

The Islamic urban setting, its evolution, diversity, complexity, economy and politics is what attracts most of the attention of Al-Muqaddasi. It re-occurs in each chapter, for every region and place he visits. A. Miquel,(endnote 13) in French, though, offers an excellent summary of Al-Muqaddasi’s interest in the subject. Al-Muqaddasi differentiates between town and city by the presence of the great mosque, and its minbar, symbols of Islamic authority. In connection with this, he states what follows:(endnote 14)

`Now, if someone should say: `Why have you considered Halab the capital of the district, while there is a town bearing the same name?’ I reply to him: `I have already stated that the capitals are compared with generals and towns with troops. Hence it should not be right that we assign to Halab, with all its eminence, and its being the seat of government and the location of the government offices, or to Antakiya with all its excellence, or to Balis, with its teeming population, the position of towns subordinate to a small and ruined city.’

Al-Muqaddasi delves most particularly on the defensive structures of every city. Walls, their height, thickness, distances between each, fortifications, access in and out, their location according to the general topography, and in relation to the rest, artificial obstacles, in particular, draw his attention. And so do daily concerns as trade and exchanges, markets and the urban economy as a whole. Al-Muqaddasi studies markets, their expansion and decline, providing also a bill of health for each, the revenues derived from them, both daily and monthly, and how such revenues are distributed.(endnote 15) How a location is run, and its citizens act, he also studies carefully, dwelling most particularly on such factors as order, cleanliness, morality and state of learning, all of which he considers for each and every place visited.

Considering the links between topography and urban expansion, he notes that in places such as Arabia, it is the sea alone that explains the presence of towns and people, opening up frontiers beyond the sea itself for trade and exchange.(endnote 16) Thus on Adan, in the Yemen, he notes:(endnote 17)

`It is the corridor of Al-Sin, the seaport of Al-Yaman, the granary of Al-Maghrib, and entreport of various kinds of merchandise. There are many mansions in it. It is a source of good fortune to those who visit it, a source of prosperity to those who settle in it…. The Prophet-God’s peace and blessings be upon him, gave his blessing to the markets of Mina and Adan.’

The impact of space and climate on physical features are well observed, too, the author noticing that colder places, such as Ferghana and Khwarizm, thicken beards and increase amounts of fats in bodies. But it is some local customs which form a major point of his interest, one from Pre-Islamic and Newly Islamised Egypt of very good interest, and which Al-Muqaddasi narrates:(endnote 18)

`It seems that when Egypt was conquered, its people came to Amr Ibn Al-As during the beginning of the month of Bawna and they said: `Oh Prince, regarding this Nile of ours there is a practice embodied in tradition without which it will not flow. On the twelfth night of this month we select a virgin girl who is the firstborn to her parents, and we recompense them both. We dress her in jewellery and raiment the best there are, then we cast her into the river.’ Said Amr to them, `This will not come to pass, ever, because Islam supersedes what was there before it.’ So they waited that month, and the next month, and the following month, but the Nile flowed with not a little and not a lot. As a result the people were on the point of emigrating, on seeing which Amr wrote to Umar bin Al-Khattab on the matter. He replied, `you acted correctly in what you did, for Islam supersedes whatever preceded it,’ and he sent a slip of paper within his letter, saying to Amr, `I have sent you a slip of paper which you should throw into the Nile.’ When the letter arrived, Amr opened it and perceived what was on the slip of paper: `From the servant of God, Umar, Commander of the Faithful, to the Nile of Egypt, now then! If you flow by your own power alone, then flow not! If, however, it be the One God, the Conqueror, that causes you to flow then we ask Him-exalted be He-to make you flow.’ Amr threw the paper into the Nile before the festival of the Cross, for the people had been preparing to emigrate. But when they arose on the morning of the Festival of the Cross, God had caused the river to flow so that it reached a height of sixteen cubits. God had thus prohibited that evil custom among them to this day.’

Diets, clothing, dialects, discrepancies of all sorts, form other elements of study for the many ethnic groups of the vast Muslim land. A diversity in union, which Miquel notes in his conclusive words, was to be completely shattered by the Mongol irruption.(endnote 19)


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