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

by Salah Zaimeche Published on: 21st September 2009

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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.


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 times. For example, his ranking of settlements according to their functions is quite prescient, his use of maps in accord with modern practice, and his excursion into determinism based on toponymy is, to say the least, unusual.[24]

4. The Originlity of Al-Muqaddasi’s Approach

In modern terms, large parts of Al-Muqaddasi’s work Ahsan al-taqasim would be qualified as an anthropological approach. His human geography marked by sensitivity to economic and social issues, his tight observations of habits and customs, his linkage between culture and social phenomena, lies indeed within the scope of social sciences.

He was probably the first, as he explains in the preface of his book, to have desired and conceived an original science, inspired perhaps by his predecessors, but surpassing them all to the advantage of what should certainly be called a true geography. Far removed from the “science of countries” (‘ilm al-buldan) inaugurated by al-Jahiz and systematised by Ibn al-Faqih, but also from the descriptive cosmography and the purely descriptive genre of his predecessors focussing on routes and kingdoms, al-Muqaddasi belongs to the school called the “atlas of Islam”, founded by al-Balkhi, continued by Al-Istakhri, and himself relayed by Ibn Hawqal, who was his contemporary.

image alt text

Figure 5: Front cover of Traveling Through Egypt: From 450 B.C. to the Twentieth Century, edited by Deborah Manley and Sahar Abdel-Hakim (The American University in Cairo Press, 2004). The book is an anthology compiled from selected records of travellers through Egypt from many countries and cultures over the centuries. We read in Al-Muqaddasi’s description of Cairo (p. 43): “Al-Fustat [old Cairo] is a metropolis in every sense of the word; here are together all the departments of the governement’s administration, and moreover, it is the seat of the Commander of the Faithful. It sets apart the Occident from the domain of the Arabs, is of wide extent, its inhabitants many. The region around is well cultivated. Its name is renowned, its glory increased; for truly it is the capital of Egypt”.).

In this context, al-Muqaddasi stands out as a pioneer. Without doubt he draws on his heritage, the innovation introduced by Al-Balkhi and consisting of describing the world of Islam, giving it priority and even exclusivity. But it is the systematisation of the subject matter and method which makes al-Muqaddasi the finest representative of the human geography of Islam in the 4th/10th century. Adopting a systematic approach in ordering and content, he created a useful science, notably for merchants and the cultivated man. This last point is particularly important; by invoking authorities, one should say challenging them, by injecting, when necessary, a noble tone aided by rhymed prose and poetry, the new discipline was to be given its letters-patent of nobility in the field of literature as well as in that of strict learning. As for ambition in content, the programme that the author assigns, from as early as the preface to the science that he intends to found, it covers all the fields that it is agreed upon to call geography today: physical, economic, political and human.[25]

That study is devoted to the world of Islam, and to it alone, apart from some very rare excursions into foreign lands and recollections of the universal cosmography outlined in the introduction to the work. This world, which is made up of two parts, mamlakat al-Arab (the kingdom of the Arabs)and mamlakat al-Ajam (kingdom of the Persians), Al-Muqaddasi joins together in a unique concept, that of mamlakat al-Islam: the Domain of Islam. Within this whole, as soon as unity has been reconstituted and established in principle, there reappears the distinction between Arabs and non-Arabs. On the one hand, six Arab provinces, namely the Maghrib, Egypt, Arabia, Sham, Iraq and Aqur (Jazira, Upper Mesopotamia); on the other, eight non-Arab provinces: Rihab (Armenia-Arran-Asharbayjan), Daylam, Jibal, Khuzistan, Fars, Kirman, Sind and the Mashriq, the latter term covering all the lands coming, more or less directly, under the authority of the Samanids, that is Sijistan, Afghanistan, Khurasan and Transoxiana (ma wara’ al-nahr). In order to assert the unity of the whole, beyond this major division into two blocs, a rigorous parallelism allocates to each of them a sea (Mediterranean and “Sea of the East” assigned respectively to the kingdom of the Arabs and to the kingdom of non-Arabs); a desert (Badiyat al-Arab and Mafazat Khurasan); and two double provinces with two capitals: Andalus (with Cordova as capital), and the Maghrib (with Kairouan as capital), a land to the south andto the north of the Oxus for the Mashriq, with two respective capitals, Nisabur and Samarkand. Another way of asserting the unity is the conception of the heart of Islam, Arabia, being also itself a province with two capitals, Mecca and Zabid.

The definition of the province is no less remarkable: the iqlim is seen as a geographic whole, strongly individualised through its physical characteristics and ready, in consequence of this very situation, at a given moment in history, to transform this individuality into a more or less asserted autonomy. At the head of the province is the misr, metropolis, ruling several surrounding districts (kura), themselves containing main towns (madina ) around a qasaba (or fort). Thus in the most minute detail, he concludes this ordered presentation of the mamlakat al-Islam, a new geography to which Al-Muqaddasi also wanted to give a new name, Ahsan al-taqasim fi ma’rifat al-aqalim, “the best division for the knowledge of the provinces.”

This science required a specialised vocabulary. Apart from the words cited, the author uses the distinguishing words nahiya and rustaq. The Rustaq is too small to constitute a district, but the nahiya, benefiting from a separate status within a fixed kura, occupies a situation of the same order, but in relation, especially, to the iqlim, taking account of its superior status as against the rustaq. Other specific terms touch on current vocabulary, of which certain specialised words relate for example to the scale of values for products. Finally, others appear in the form of tables or are designed, according to the different countries visited, as the terms of crafts, water transport, tools, weights and measures, and money.

The global presentation is clothed in the same rigour. The description of each province, after a general presentation which aims at a more elevated tone, opens into the division of the kura s and their towns followed by the description of them. After this, a general chapter of the province presents, in an order which may be varied and not always complete, the following information: climate, products and specialities, waters, mines, mountains, holy places, money, taxes, weights and measures, customs, marvels, calendar, political power, factions, schools and Quranic readings, marvels and -always present and ending the list- routes.

The work is also of value as a whole, due less perhaps to its gross data as than to its plan. The project, in the very size of its scale, is ultimately more of a dream than a reality. The superb construction of the mamlakat al-Islam was already condemned by history -the following centuries would see the political reality, the concept and even the expression disappear. Although with others he continues the eulogy of Baghdad, presented as the living and unifying symbol of this world, Al-Muqaddasi cannot fail to stress its decline, as against the two powers which were challenging it, Cordova and especially Fatimid Egypt, which he acknowledges is quite ready to take over from its rival. The work itself bears witness to these tensions, even in its composition: the two manuscripts of Berlin and Constantinople differ not only in variations of date, content and title[26], but also in the references made to the two powers of the Muslim East at the end of the 4th/10th century, the Fatimids and Samanids.[27]

5. Water as a Social Indicator

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 attracts attention most. Al-Muqaddasi wrote:[28]

“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.”

Figure 6: The Cisterns of Tawila located on Tawila river to the southwest of Aden in Yemen. The site consists of a series of tanks of varying shape and capacity, connected to one another. Originally there were about 53 tanks, but only 13 remain. The tanks were mentioned in the works of some Arab geographers such as Al-Hamadani in the 10th century and Al-Muqaddasi. (Source).

In Biyar, in the Al-Daylam region, he notes the scarcity of water, pointing out that water is distributed by a water clock, whilst the millstones are below ground, and the water flowing down. This being the desert, he observes, there is no other choice.[29] In Ahwaz, in Khuzistan, he notes:[30]

“On the stream are 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:[31]

“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!”

6. 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 and Dirham, 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:[32]

“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.”

Figure 7: View of Aleppo in northern Syria, the second largest Syrian city. Al-Muqaddasi visited Aleppo, perhaps around the years 354-64 H/965-75 CE. (Source).

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 sanjat (counterpoise weight) used are made of glass, and are stamped just as described about the ratls (pound).

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

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

Prices and their fluctuations, varying in relation to the size and wealth of every market place, are considered. Cairo, Al-Muqaddasi notes, has such low prices as to surprise him greatly.

Being a trader himself, Al-Muqaddasi could hardly ignore taxes, 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:[33]

“At Aden, 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 Jueddah and Makka, at Al-Qarin, and Batn marrat, each place half of a dinar… The ruler of Sa’da does not levy a tax on anybody, except that he takes the quarter of the tithe from the merchants.

“In Oman a dirham 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 Yemen formerly was divided into three departments, a governor over Al-Janad and its districts, another over San’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 Yeman six hundred thousand dinars, of Yemem and Al-Bayrayn five hundred thousand dinars, and of Oman three hundred thousand dinars.”

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 of each measure and weight referred to. He would also dwell on the history of each; and so minute it becomes in all the detail, that it ends like the finance page of a broad­sheet newspaper, with values, stocks and shares exhibited in all their minute variations, so tedious for the general reader, so fascinating to the expert.[34]

7. 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 offers an excellent summary of Al-Muqaddasi’s interest in the subject.[35]

Figure 8: Picture of the harbour in Adan, Yemen, taken on board a ship, in ca.1901-10. Al-Muqaddasi visited Yemen and Aden during his journeys in the Arabian peninsula. (Source).

Al-Muqaddasi differentiates between town and city by the presence of the great mosque, and its minbar (pulpit where the imam (leader of prayer) stands to deliver sermons), symbols of Islamic authority. In connection with this, he states:[36]

“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 probes 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. So do daily concerns such 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.[37]
He also studies carefully how a place is run, and its citizens act, dwelling most particularly on such factors as order, cleanliness, morality and the 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.[38] Thus on Aden, in Yemen, he notes:[39]

“It is the corridor of Al-Sin, the seaport of Al-Yaman, the granary of Al-Maghrib, and entreport of 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 body fat. However some local customs form a major part of his interest, one from Pre-Islamic and newly Islamised Egypt of very great interest, and which Al-Muqaddasi narrates:[40]

“It seems that when Egypt was conquered, its people came to Amr Ibn Al-‘Asi 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 invasion.[41]

Figure 9: The Quran Gate in Shiraz, a part of the great city wall built under the Buwayhids in the 11th century. Shiraz is the sixth most populous city in Iran and is the capital of Fars Province. Al-Muqaddasi took the decision to compose his work Ahsan al-taqasim in 375 H/985 CE while in Shiraz, at a time when he tells us that he had passed the age of forty. (Source).

8. Bibliography

Ahmad, S.M., “Al-Maqdisi”, in Dictionary of Scientific Biography. New York: Charles Scribner‘s Sons, vol 9. 1970-1980, vol. 9, p. 88.

Al-Muqaddasi, Descriptio imperii moslemici. Edited by M. J. Goeje. Leyden: Brill, 1877. Reprint Brill, 1967. Reprint, Frankfurt: Institute for the History of Arabic-Islamic Science, 1992.

Al-Muqaddasi, Palestine under the Moslems. A description of Syria and the Holy Land, from A.D. 650 to 1500. Translated from the works of The Mediaeval Arab Geographers by Guy Le Strange. Published for the Committee of the Palestine Exploration Fund. London: Alexander P. Watt, 1890.

Muqaddasi, Ahsan al-taqasim fi ma’rifat al-aqalim = Descriptio Imperii Moslemici, edited by Michaël Jan de Goeje. Leiden: Brill, 1906, “Bibliotheca Geographorum Arabicorum, 3”, 2nd edition.

Al-Muqaddasi, Description de l’Occident musulman au IVe=Xe Siècle by Al-Muqaddasi (Chams Ad-Din Abu Abd Allah). Texte arabe et traduction française en regard avec une introduction, des notes et index par Charles Pellat. Alger, Carbonel, 1950

Al-Muqaddasi, Ahsan at-taqasim fi ma’rifat al-aqalim: La Meilleure Répartition pour la Connaissance des Provinces. Traduction française partielle, annotée par André Miquel.Damas: Institut Français de Damas, 1963.

Al-Muqaddasi, Ahsanu-t-taqasim fi ma’rifat al-aqalim. Frankfurt: Institute for the History of Arabic-Islamic Science, 1989.

Al-Muqaddasi, The Best Divisions for the Knowledge of the Regions. Ahsan al-Taqasim Fi Ma’rifat al-Aqalim. Translated into English by Basil Anthony Collins. (Great Books of Islamic Civilization). Reading: Centre for Muslim Contribution to Civilization, Garnet Publishing, 1994; paperback 2000.

Ashtor, Eliyahu, “Levantine Weights and Standard Parcels: A contribution to the Metrology of the later Middle Ages”, Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, 45, 1982, pp. 471-88.

Collins, Basil Anthony, Al-Muqaddasi: The Man and His Work. With Selected Passages Translated from the Arabic. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, Department of Geography, 1974.

Dunlop, D. M., Arab civilisation to AD 1500. London: Longman, 1971.

FSTC, Al-Muqaddasi: The Geographer from Palestine (published 9 January 2009).

Ibn Khaldun, “Muqqadima: On the cause which increases or reduces the revenues of empire”, in Bulletin d’Etudes Arabes, vol. 7, pp. 11-15 [extracted from De Slane’s edition, vol. 2, pp. 91-94].

Kramers, Johannes Hendrik, Analecta Orientalia: Posthumous Writings and Selected Minor Works. Leiden, 1954-1956, 2 vols., “La Littérature classique géographique musulmans, vol. 1 (1954), pp. 182-183.

Miquel, André, “Les Portes D’Alep chez Al-Muqaddasi”. Arabica (Brill), vol. 7, N° 1, 1960, pp. 60-71.

Miquel, A., La géographie humaine du monde musulman, jusqu’au milieu du XIe siècle. Paris-The Hague, 1967-88, 4 vols.

Miquel, A. and Digard, J.-P., “Géographie et ethnographie: le cas d’al-Muqaddasî (IV-Xè siècles)”, in Le cuisinier et le philosophe. Hommage à Maxime Rodinson. Etudes d’ethnographie historique du Proche-Orient., Paris: P. Maisonneuve et Larose, 1982.

[Wikipedia], Al-Muqaddai (retrieved 28.01.2010).

Zakariyeh, Mohammed: Maqdisi: An 11th Century Palestinian Consciousness, Double Issue 22 & 23, 2005, Jerusalem Quarterly (Journal dedicated to the history and life of the city of Jerusalem (formerly the Jerusalem Quarterly File), published by the Institute of Jerusalem Studies (IJS), an affiliate of the Institute for Palestine Studies), pp. 86-92. Arabic version: Al-Jughrafi al-Maqdisi wa-nass al-hawiya al-filistiniya, Hawliyat al-Quds, n° 3, Spring 2005.

Mecca in 1910, photo from Library of Congress, Matson Collection (Source)

9. Notes

[1.] The original article was produced by Salah Zaimeche, Salim Al-Hassani and Ahmed Salem. The members of the new FSTC Research Team have re-edited and revised this new version. The team now comprises of Mohammed Abattouy, Salim Al-Hassani, Mohammed El-Gomati, Salim Ayduz, Savas Konur, Cem Nizamoglu, Anne-Maria Brennan, Maurice Coles, Ian Fenn, Amar Nazir and Margaret Morris.
[2.] See for a fresh look at these issues The Different Aspects of Islamic Culture, vol. 2: The Individual and Society in Islam, edited by Abdelwahab Bouhdiba and Ma ‘ruf al-Dawalibi, Paris, UNESCO, 1998 (French version 1998; Arabic version 2000). See also International Symposium on Anthropology in Islamic Culture: report on a congress organised in Kairouan in 9-11 April 2009 as apart of the festivities marking the celebration of the “Kairouan Capital of Islamic Culture”.
[3.] Marvin Harris, The Rise of Anthropological Theory, Alta Mira Press, 2000 (revised from 1968 edition), pp. 8-52; Murray Leaf, Man, Mind and Science: A History of Anthropology, Columbia University Press, 1979, pp. 1-13; Paul A. Erickson and Liam D. Murphy, A History of Anthropological Theory, Broadview Press, 2003, pp. 21-25.
[4.] See The long and wonderful voyage of Frier Iohn de Plano Carpini: Reworking of Carpini’s account by Richard Hakluyt in Latin and English (electronic edition published by eBooks@Adelaide; last updated 15 January 2010); and Timothy Mason, Resources for a History of Anthropology (retrieved 1.02.2010).
[5.] See John Hubbard Marco Polo’s Asia, December 1994 (retrieved 1.02.2010) and John Howland Rowe, The Renaissance Foundations of Anthropology, American Anthropologist, vol. 67 (1), 1965, pp. 1-20 (retrieved 1.02.2010).
[6.] Akbar S. Ahmed, “Al-Beruni: The First Anthropologist”, RAIN (published by the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland), No. 60 (Feb., 1984), pp. 9-10. See also J. T. Walbridge, “Explaining Away the Greek Gods in Islam”, Journal of the History of Ideas vol. 59 (3), 1998, pp. 389-403; and Richard Tapper, “‘Islamic Anthropology’ and the ‘Anthropology of Islam'”, Anthropological Quarterly vol. 68 (3), 1995, pp. 185-193.
[7.] A. S. Ahmed, “Al-Beruni: The First Anthropologist”, op. cit.
[8.] See Yasien Mohamed, “The Ethical Philosophy of Al-Raghib Al-Isfahani.- Journal of Islamic Studies (Oxford), vol. 6, 1995, pp. 51-75; Yasein Mohamed The Path to Virtue: The Ethical Philosophy of al-Raghib al-Isfahani, Kuala Lumpur: ISTAC, 2006 (reviewed by Rashid Begg in Journal for Islamic Studies, vol. 29, 2009, pp. 145-47).
[9.] Al-Raghib al-Isfahani, Al-Dhari’a ila makarim al-shari’a,edited by Abu Yazid al-Ajami, Cairo, 1985; paperback Cairo: Dar al-Salam, 2007.
[10.] E.K. Rowson, “Al-Raghib al-Isfahani”, Encyclopaedia of Islam, Second Edition. Brill Online, 2010 (print version: vol. 8, p. 389). See also W. Madelung, “Ar-Ragib al-Isfahani und die Ethik al-Ghazalis”, in Islamwissenschaftliche Abhandlungen Fritz Meier zum 60sten Geburtstag, edited by R. Gramlich, Wiesbaden, 1974, pp. 152-63; Salah al-Din Abd Latif al-Nahi, Al-khwalid min ara’ alRaghibal-Isfahani fi falsafat al-akhlaq wa ‘l-tashri’ wa ‘l-tasawwuf, Amman, 1987; Umar Abd al-Rahman al-Sarisi, AlRaghibal-Isfahani wa-juhuduhu fi ‘l-lugha wa ‘l-adab, Amman, 1987.
[11.] Al-Muqaddasi, Ahsan at-Taqasim fi Ma’rifat il-Aqalim: La meilleure répartition pour la connaissance des provinces. Traduction française partielle, annotée par André Miquel, Damascus: Publications de l’Institut français de Damas, 1963, pp. XVI-XVII.
[12.]Ibid, pp. 46, 163, 188, 357, 367
[13.] Ibid, pp. XVI-XVII.
[14.] Ibid, pp. 8-9.
[15.] A. Miquel, “Al- Mukaddasi”, Encyclopaedia of Islam, Second Edition. Brill Online 2010; print version: vol. 7, p. 492.
[16.] Al-Muqaddasi, Ahsan at-taqasim fi Ma’rifat al-Aqalim, in Bibliotheca geographorum arabicum, edited by M.J. de Goeje, Leiden, 1906, vol. 3, 2nd edition; a partial French translation is by André Miquel (Damascus, 1963; op. cit). A recent full translation into English was done by Basil Anthony Collins (Reading, Garnet Publishing, 1994; paperback 2000). See bibliography below for other publications of the book.
[17.] Johannes Hendrik Kramers, Analecta Orientalia: Posthumous Writings and Selected Minor Works. Leiden, 1954-1956, 2 vols., “La Littérature classique géographique des musulmans“, vol. 1 (1954), pp. 182-183.
[18.] D.M. Dunlop, Arab civilisation to AD 1500, Longman, 1971, pp. 116-117.

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