Arab geographers and scholars have played a significant role in the evolution and development of Geography as a discipline since medieval times. The Arabs built upon the original base provided by the geographers of Ancient Greece, whose works had been translated into Arabic. Thus, while Europe had entered into the “dark age”, marred by the decline of scientific learning, the Arabs revived Geography. The great ascendancy of scientific inquiry in Arabia can be attributed to several factors. Under the influence of Islam, the society was transformed from a multitude of tribes, divided by inter-tribal feuds into integral components of a larger, all-inclusive identity, based on adherence to a common set of religious beliefs and practices. The conquest of regions such as Spain and Portugal also provided stimulus to the rise of interest in geographical learning. Additionally, the Arab monopoly over the spice trade between India and Europe necessitated travels between places spread over a large expanse of territory. Owing to these travels, Arabs gained considerable knowledge about geographical environment in tropical regions. 

With the widening of geographical horizon, the Arabs approached scientific learning with alacrity. As Baghdad (founded in 726 A.D.) became a major centre of learning, major scientific works on Astronomy and Geography were translated into Arabic. As for instance, during the rule of Mamun Abbasi (786 A.D.), Almagest (written by Ptolemy) was translated into Arabic under the title Soratolarz (meaning, shape of the Earth). In addition, new texts were written after duly incorporating the new knowledge derived from the records of observations made by Arab merchants and explorers. Another of Ptolemy’s books, Tetrabiblon was also translated into Arabic under the title al-Makalat al-arbąa. Other Greek texts translated into Arabic, include Timael (Ar: Asarol-o-lomeeye), edited by Plato and Decaelo (Ar: Asma-ol-Alam) and Metaphysics (Ar: Mabaddo-tabeeye) edited by Aristotle.

Arabs took keen interest in the size, geometry and puerility of the Earth; the oceans, particularly the causes of tides; geomorphologic processes; regional climatic divisions; the distribution of flora and fauna; and the creation and use of various tools – especially maps. With the acquisition of mapping skills came the development of world maps called Mappa Mundi including Pslater, Marino, Sanuto, Borgain, East World, Fra Moura, and the Image de Munde. Idrisi (1100-1156 A.D.) constructed a silver plan sphere, showing the world, as well as a 70-part world map.  

The exploratory voyages undertaken by Arabs led to revival in geographical learning. Owing to Ibn-Hakul’s excursion to the south of the equator (between 943 to 973 A.D.), the wrong notion regarding the inhabitability of the torrid zone (as perpetuated by Aristotle) was abandoned. Around the same time, his contemporary, Al-Masudi reported the phenomenon of Monsoon winds, while travelling down the East coast of Africa upto Mozambique. Another scholar named Al-Maqsidi had corroborated (in 985 A.D.) that the climate of any place is not only a function of its latitude, but also of its position on the east or west side of a landmass. He also proved that most of the Earth’s landmass lies to the north of the equator. The prominent Arab geographer named Muqaddasi was a pioneer of fieldwork and believed that geographical fact can only be experienced personally through observation. His book titled Ahsanol Taghaseem (meaning, the main divisions of the world) was based on many field trips in parts of the Islamic world. Based on his various observations, he divided the Islamic territories into 14 regions with relevant maps pertaining to their physical and human properties. Al-Idrisi (around 1099-1180 A.D.) contradicted and corrected many Greek ideas, including those put forth by Ptolemy. In his book on Geography (1154 A.D.), he corrected the Greek idea about the Indian Ocean being a closed sea. He also amended the positions of many rivers including the Danube and the Niger. 

The habitability of the torrid zone was also validated by the great Arab explorer Ibn Batuta, who reported the existence of an Arab trading post 20 degrees South of the Equator. He travelled extensively during the fourteenth century and wrote detailed accounts of his travels for posterity.

Another Muslim scholar who made a mark in the field of Geography was Ibn-Khaldun (1342-1405 A.D.). In the introduction to the book Muqaddimah, he identified two sets of influences on man’s progress (i.e., history): one, the physical (natural) environment, and two, the social environment derived from culture and belief. This distinction between the two sets of influences was a notable intellectual achievement for his time. Kimble (1938) was prompted to remark that Ibn-Khaldun had “discovered…the true scope and nature of geographical inquiry.” Thus, Ibn-Khaldun’s idea can be considered as a precursor to the evolution of the discipline into two distinct branches, viz., human geography and physical geography.

In addition, Ibn-Khaldun is also credited with presenting one of the earliest concepts of the life cycle of states. According to him, the tribe and the city are two distinct stages in the evolution of social organisation in a desert environment. While the nomads represented the primitive stage of social organisation, the city dwellers represented the last stage in the development of social life. The sedentary lifestyle of the urban community leads to the ultimate decay in the social organisation. He was also one of the earliest scholars to stress the need for studying man-environment relationships. 

Thus, Arabs played an intrinsic role in the historiography of Geography. While Europe itself had forgotten the Greek heritage in geography, the Arabs held the banner aloft by translating the major Greek works in Geography and adding on to the existing knowledge. With the help of these translations and contacts with Arabia, the Europeans revived geography as a living science in the fifteenth century. 

(Author is a PhD scholar at CSRD, JNU)

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Shivangi Pandey

Shivangi Pandey is a research scholar at CSRD, JNU.

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