Andrew J. Mogensen, Valparaiso University
The prominence of geography in Muslim scholarship—and perhaps even the existence of a distinct field of Muslim geography—stems from two factors: 1) the fact that Islam itself is concerned with proper cardinal directions and 2) that trade with distant lands demanded accurate maps or descriptions. At numerous times every day, millions of Muslims must turn toward Mecca and pray. Sometime during their lifetime, every Muslim must make the hajj, a pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca. These factors have demanded a basic knowledge of geography.
Overall, the Muslims’ most important contribution to geography was not necessarily technical or scientific, but was in many ways archival—the preservation of the ancient works of the Greeks and the Romans through the dark ages of medieval Europe. Many of the works of Aristotle, Ptolemy, and other famous Greek, Egyptian, and Roman geographers were saved and translated by Muslim scholars.
The center of Islamic learning was Baghdad. Here great translation projects took place, converting the great works of different cultures into Arabic. One of these great projects was started by a man named Calif al-Mamun in 813 AD. He employed people of all races and religions to help translate books from around the world. He also paid each translator the weight of their books in gold. Great libraries and schools thrived on the works that the translators contributed.
Muslim traders had also been traveling as far west as Ireland and as far east as China or even possibly Japan. From these great traveling merchants came a need for maps and details about cities. Many of these traveling merchants kept detailed records of their journeys, sharing their experiences with other merchants or caravans, and sometimes even selling their information. Of all the contributions made to the field of geography by the Muslims during the period between 800 and 1400 AD, perhaps the three most influential Muslim geographers were ibn-Batuta, ibn-Khaldun, and al-Idrisi (Edrisi).
Ibn-Idrisi (Abu Abdallah Mohammed Edrisi), 1100-1166
and other Prominent Muslim Geographers
Ibn-Haukal (ibn-Hauqal, Mohammed Abul Kassem), 943-969 AD
Al-Masudi, 895-957 AD
Al-Biruni (Abu Rayhan Mohammed ibn Ahmad), 973-1050 AD
Ibn-Khordadbeh, 820?-912? AD