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Geography and cartography in medieval Islam

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Medieval Islamic geography and cartography refer to the study of geography and cartography in the Muslim world during the Islamic Golden Age (variously dated between the 8th century and 16th century). Muslim scholars made advances to the mapmaking traditions of earlier cultures,[1] particularly the Hellenistic geographers Ptolemy and Marinus of Tyre,[2]:193 combined with what explorers and merchants learned in their travels across the Old World (Afro-Eurasia).[1] Islamic geography had three major fields: exploration and navigation, physical geography, and cartography and mathematical geography.[1] Islamic geography reached its apex with Muhammad al-Idrisi in the 12th century.[3]

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  • ✪ The Medieval Islamicate World: Crash Course History of Science #7
  • ✪ Al Idrisi Great Muslim Geographer, Cartographer, Egyptologist
  • ✪ Muslim Scientists in Urdu and Hindi { qarun-e-ula}


The religion of Islam significantly influenced knowledge-making in the greater Mediterranean and western Asian world. Islamicate scholars—meaning people influenced by Islamic civilization, regardless of their religious views—gave us terms such as “algebra,” “azimuth,” “algorithm,” “alcohol,” “alkali,” and “alembic.” We’ll dive into Islamic medicine and philosophers such as the great Persian polymath Ibn Sina in future episodes. For now, let’s explore the beginnings of Islamicate natural philosophy. [Intro Music Plays] Islamicate power expanded rapidly after the Prophet Muhammad’s death in CE 632. What began as one vast Arab-governed state soon fractured into two spheres of political influence: a western one centered in southern Spain, with a capital at Córdoba, and an eastern one including the great cities of northern Africa as well as Arabia and Mesopotamia. This eastern empire, the highly urbanized Abbasid Caliphate, existed in some form, increasingly fragmented, from 750–1517. The Abbasid Caliphate was a crossroads or trading zone for Persian, Indian, and Byzantine cultures, as well as for the religions of Islam, Judaism, Christianity, and Zoroastrianism. Many languages flourished across the Abbasid Caliphate, as they did in the Emirate of Córdoba. This blend of cultures and belief systems made early Islamicate science cosmopolitan—that is, generally inclusive in character. A high literacy rate thanks to Islam’s focus on the Qur’an meant that many people—well, noble men, at least—could study natural philosophical texts. Further, Islam-the-religion called on its adherents to treat others as equals, helping make Islamicate knowledge production more egalitarian. And ongoing support by pious philanthropists including heads of states allowed Islamicate polymaths to study natural phenomena systematically. Baghdad, the first Abbasid capital, was founded by its second caliph, al-Mansur, in 754. A sprawling metropolis quickly grew up around the original, carefully planned city. And Baghdad became the largest urban area in the world by 930, with a population of one million. Key for our story today: Baghdad housed the Bayt al-Ḥikmah or House of Wisdom. This great library grew out of al-Mansur’s private collection, which he opened up to visiting scholars, including delegations from India. Al-Mansur’s successor, Caliph al-Rashid, carried on this tradition. Al-Rashid also supported the Translation Movement, which we’ll get to shortly. But first, let’s reflect on his rule as a great example of the cosmopolitan character of the early Abbasids. Charlemagne sent a mission from France to al-Rashid’s court in 799 with gifts. So in 802, al-Rashid sent Charlemagne an embassy including an elephant named Abul-Abbas and a water clock that featured clockwork knights who emerged once per hour. You could see the elephant’s journey as one origin of veterinary science: the Abbasid diplomats kept the elephant healthy walking from India to Baghdad to France, and it lived for years after in captivity. And, to the Franks, the water clock was simply mind-blowing, something they’d never even imagined! But it was al-Rashid’s successor, Caliph al-Maʾmūn, who in 832 refounded the House of Wisdom specifically as an international center for translation and research. Al-Maʾmūn was involved in the House’s daily operations, and he sponsored knowledge production programmatically, inspiring his successors to do the same. By 850, the House of Wisdom had become the largest library in the world. Al-Maʾmūn sponsored families of scholar–translators to bring useful texts into Arabic from Greek, Chinese, Sanskrit, Persian, and Syriac. This should be known as the “Useful Texts into Arabic Movement” but, for some reason, is called the Translation Movement instead. This movement began with Persian texts concerning astrology and astronomy. Remember that, across the ancient and medieval worlds, astronomy was the study of the heavens, and astrology the study of the influence of heavenly bodies on earthly matters. While both were studied, astrology was seen as more useful. After texts about the stars, the translators moved onto others. To feed this program, al-Maʾmūn sent emissaries to collect Greek scientific manuscripts from the Byzantines—and began demanding them as loot in war. The Translation Movement lasted from roughly 750–950. By 950, virtually every Greek scholarly text had been translated multiple times, and the libraries were brimming. Many translators of Baghdad particularly fell for the works of Aristotle. One of the greatest Islamicate philosophers, Ibn Rushd, is sometimes called “The Commentator,” meaning the number-one Aristotle fan. To this day, more classical Greek commentaries on Aristotle may be available in Arabic than English! Why was Caliph al-Maʾmūn so into the Persian and Greek science? For one, supporting translations was a sign of civic status, and a worthy cause. Al-Maʾmūn also saw scientific translation as highly practical. For example, a better understanding of astronomy led to more accurate official timekeeping for mosques. And improved geographical knowledge helped more accurately align prayers to Mecca. The Translation Movement also fostered a strong appreciation for reasoned thought, at least among the ruling and scholarly classes. This rubbed off on religious philosophy, giving rise to the school of mu‘tazilism. Mu‘tazila such as al-Maʾmūn believed that rationalism could be used to understand both the physical world and God. They brought the Greek tradition of reasoned debate about the nature of the cosmos into an Islamicate social context, looking beyond a literal reading of the Qur’an for sources of knowledge. In fact, places of learning under the Abbasid Caliphate included observatories, hospitals, and public libraries, as well as mosques and madrasas, or Islamic colleges. Madrasas were critical centers of knowledge transmission. There were thirty in Baghdad in the 1200s, and one hundred and fifty in Damascus by 1500. Each madrasa had its own library full of paper books. Paper had been introduced to western Asia from China, and paper factories appeared in Samarkand, Baghdad, Cairo, Morocco, and finally in Spain by 1150. While they were religious centers, madrasas were also places where students could learn law as well as Greek natural philosophy, including logic and arithmetic, astronomy, and astrology. Abbasid scholars didn’t merely translate foreign writers. In translating the texts, these polymaths wrote commentaries on them, comparing, summarizing, and analyzing them. Even when motivated by utilitarian concerns, the work of careful reading and comparison led many scholars to pursue new questions in natural philosophy. For example, observatories arose throughout the Islamicate world. Al-Maʾmūn built two observatories, one in Baghdad and another outside Damascus. At these sites, scholars refined astronomical handbooks, called zīj, that helped fix prayer times. In fact, by the late ninth century, Islamicate polymaths such as Abu Maʿshar, the famous Persian physician al-Razi —whom we’ll meet again soon—and the Indian-influenced al-Biruni were even proposing heliocentric models of the solar system. Their theories went against Aristotle but with observed data! In geography, Islamicate scholars extended Ptolemy’s system. Our scientific hero today, Caliph al-Maʾmūn, commissioned a measurement of earth’s circumference that was pretty amazing: two groups ventured into the desert, finding a specific location by following the stars. One group walked north and the other south, tracking the stars for one degree. They counted their paces. Then they walked back, remeasured, averaged the measurements… and multiplied by 360 to derive a circumference of 24,480 miles. The modern measurement? 24,901—less than 2% more accurate than the one made by al-Maʾmūn’s team. And don’t get me started on astrolabes! You know—mechanical devices used for measuring incline by astronomers and navigators? To determine the position of celestial bodies in the night sky? The ones Islamicate astronomers improved by adding the azimuth, or direction of compass bearing? And then merged with armillary spheres, or models of the entire cosmos constructed from rings and hoops that revolved on their axes, around 900? And then improved into geared mechanical astrolabes in 1235? I’m looking at you, Abi Bakr of Isfahan!? MEANWHILE—back at the House of Wisdom… In addition to translation and improvement on Greek natural philosophy, scholars were also innovating in new realms. In mathematics, medieval Islamicate scholars focused on arithmetic and algebra. They adopted the number zero and the “Arabic” decimal-style numerals from India, using them so much that they became known to us as, well, Arabic. They also developed trigonometry. One example of this work in particular jumps out: in 820, at the House, Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi wrote Kitab al-Jabr, or The Compendious Book on Calculation by Completion and Balancing, an original manual of practical math. Al-Khwarizmi wasn’t the first to work on algebra, but he set out the general rules for solving equations that was highly influential for centuries. Algebra introduced a theory that treated rational numbers, irrational numbers, geometrical magnitudes—all numbers—as similar objects, ready to be manipulated. Or, as my dude himself says it: “When I consider what people generally want in calculating, I found that it always is a number.” Mic drop! This opened up the possibility of exploring new areas of mathematics such as algorithms, quadratic equations, and polynomial equations. Also at the House of Wisdom, thinkers such as Mohammad Mūsā worked on the basic laws of physics. Others focused on optics, performing many experiments. And doctors and philosophers trained and traded works. But what about the engineers—the scholars working on technē instead of epistēmē? The Abbasid state privileged public service and the interests of the state, focusing on improving useful arts such as hydraulic engineering and agricultural science. The Abbasids used the arch, rather than the Greek post and lintel system. And they constructed large dams, waterwheels, and qanats, or underground channels to tap groundwater. Abbasid technology thus resembled that of the Romans, with craftspeople, not scholars, typically building actual stuff. But a few stand-out engineers from this time period created wonders so—er—wondrous, that they deserve a little attention from ThoughtBubble: In 850, at the House of Wisdom, the Banū Mūsā brothers—Mohammad, just mentioned, and Ahmad and Hasan—wrote The Book of Ingenious Devices: a compendium of one hundred devices and how to use them. This included the earliest programmable machine, “The Instrument that Plays by Itself.” Medieval automation, whaaat!?h And it gets cooler. In 1206—far from Baghdad, in what is now Diyarbakır, Turkey—the polymath al-Jazarī wrote an even more amazing book on machines: The Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices also covers one hundred machines, with instructions on how to build them. Most of these are trick vessels, but others include water wheels, watermills, a giant water clock, elephant- and castle-shaped clocks, fountains improving upon designs by the Banū Mūsās, a candle clock, and musical automata. Al-Jazarī even designed a water-powered, perpetually-playing flute! How did these devices work? Well, it helped that al-Jazarī invented the camshaft, which would make it into Europe by the 1300s, an early version of the crankshaft, and the segmental gear. You can look up how these work online, but the point is: our modern world runs on them, and this guy figured them out in medieval times. That is so. Dang. Cool. But the coolest of al-Jazarī’s inventions were his full-on automata—medieval robots. He made humanoid machines including one that could serve water or tea. He made a flushing toilet with a nearby servant, who refilled the basin when flushed. And the pièce de résistance: al-Jazarī constructed a four-piece robot band that floated on a lake, entertaining party guests. The music? Most likely programmable, using tiny pegs and levers. Thanks Thought Bubble! We could spend several more episodes on science in the early Islamicate world. And we will come back to some of the people and themes mentioned today. There’s a common understanding of the history of medieval Eurasia and North Africa long-held by many English speakers is just plain wrong: instead of a “dark age” defined by conflicts between Muslims and Christians who didn’t understand one another, we encounter urban centers of trade and knowledge exchange populated by natural philosophers with a keen desire to build upon earlier insights regardless of their origins. Next time—we’ll build many cities and one very long canal in the rich Middle Kingdom, China. Crash Course History of Science is filmed in the Dr. Cheryl C. Kinney studio in Missoula, Montana and it’s made with the help of all this nice people and our animation team is Thought Cafe. Crash Course is a Complexly production. If you wanna keep imagining the world complexly with us, you can check out some of our other channels like Scishow, Eons, and Sexplanations. And, if you’d like to keep Crash Course free for everybody, forever, you can support the series at Patreon; a crowdfunding platform that allows you to support the content you love. Thank you to all of our patrons for making Crash Course possible with their continued support.



Islamic geography began in the 8th century, influenced by Hellenistic geography,[4] combined with what explorers and merchants learned in their travels across the Old World (Afro-Eurasia).[1] Muslim scholars engaged in extensive exploration and navigation during the 9th-12th centuries, including journeys across the Muslim world, in addition to regions such as China, Southeast Asia and Southern Africa.[1] Various Islamic scholars contributed to the development of geography and cartography, with the most notable including Al-Khwārizmī, Abū Zayd al-Balkhī (founder of the "Balkhi school"), Al-Masudi, Abu Rayhan Biruni and Muhammad al-Idrisi.

Islamic geography was patronized by the Abbasid caliphs of Baghdad. An important influence in the development of cartography was the patronage of the Abbasid caliph al-Ma'mun, who reigned from 813 to 833. He commissioned several geographers to remeasure the distance on earth that corresponds to one degree of celestial meridian. Thus his patronage resulted in the refinement of the definition of the mile used by Arabs (mīl in Arabic) in comparison to the stadion used in the Hellenistic world. These efforts also enabled Muslims to calculate the circumference of the earth. Al-Mamun also commanded the production of a large map of the world, which has not survived,[5]:61–63 though it is known that its map projection type was based on Marinus of Tyre rather than Ptolemy.[2]:193

Islamic cartographers inherited Ptolemy's Almagest and Geography in the 9th century. These works stimulated an interest in geography (particularly gazetteers) but were not slavishly followed.[6] Instead, Arabian and Persian cartography followed Al-Khwārizmī in adopting a rectangular projection, shifting Ptolemy's Prime Meridian several degrees eastward, and modifying many of Ptolemy's geographical coordinates.

Having received Greek writings directly and without Latin intermediation, Arabian and Persian geographers made no use of T-O maps.[6]

In the 9th century, the Persian mathematician and geographer, Habash al-Hasib al-Marwazi, employed spherical trigonometry and map projection methods in order to convert polar coordinates to a different coordinate system centred on a specific point on the sphere, in this the Qibla, the direction to Mecca.[7] Abū Rayhān Bīrūnī (973–1048) later developed ideas which are seen as an anticipation of the polar coordinate system.[8] Around 1025, he describes a polar equi-azimuthal equidistant projection of the celestial sphere.[9]:153 However, this type of projection had been used in ancient Egyptian star-maps and was not to be fully developed until the 15 and 16th centuries.[10]

In the early 10th century, Abū Zayd al-Balkhī, originally from Balkh, founded the "Balkhī school" of terrestrial mapping in Baghdad. The geographers of this school also wrote extensively of the peoples, products, and customs of areas in the Muslim world, with little interest in the non-Muslim realms.[5] The "Balkhī school", which included geographers such as Estakhri, al-Muqaddasi and Ibn Hawqal, produced world atlases, each one featuring a world map and twenty regional maps.[2]:194

Suhrāb, a late 10th-century Muslim geographer, accompanied a book of geographical coordinates with instructions for making a rectangular world map, with equirectangular projection or cylindrical equidistant projection.[5] The earliest surviving rectangular coordinate map is dated to the 13th century and is attributed to Hamdallah al-Mustaqfi al-Qazwini, who based it on the work of Suhrāb. The orthogonal parallel lines were separated by one degree intervals, and the map was limited to Southwest Asia and Central Asia. The earliest surviving world maps based on a rectangular coordinate grid are attributed to al-Mustawfi in the 14th or 15th century (who used invervals of ten degrees for the lines), and to Hafiz-i Abru (died 1430).[2]:200–01

In the 11th century, the Karakhanid Turkic scholar Mahmud al-Kashgari was the first to draw a unique Islamic world map, [11] where he illuminated the cities and places of the Turkic peoples of Central and Inner Asia. He showed the lake Issyk-Kul (in nowadays Kyrgyzstan) as the centre of the world.

Ibn Battuta (1304–1368?) wrote "Rihlah" (Travels) based on three decades of journeys, covering more than 120,000 km through northern Africa, southern Europe, and much of Asia.

Muslim astronomers and geographers were aware of magnetic declination by the 15th century, when the Egyptian astronomer 'Abd al-'Aziz al-Wafa'i (d. 1469/1471) measured it as 7 degrees from Cairo.[12]

Regional cartography

Islamic regional cartography is usually categorized into three groups: that produced by the "Balkhī school", the type devised by Muhammad al-Idrisi, and the type that are uniquely foundin the Book of curiosities.[5]

The maps by the Balkhī schools were defined by political, not longitudinal boundaries and covered only the Muslim world. In these maps the distances between various "stops" (cities or rivers) were equalized. The only shapes used in designs were verticals, horizontals, 90-degree angles, and arcs of circles; unnecessary geographical details were eliminated. This approach is similar to that used in subway maps, most notable used in the "London Underground Tube Map" in 1931 by Harry Beck.[5]:85–87

Al-Idrīsī defined his maps differently. He considered the extent of the known world to be 160° in longitude, and divided the region into ten parts, each 16° wide. In terms of latitude, he portioned the known world into seven 'climes', determined by the length of the longest day. In his maps, many dominant geographical features can be found.[5]

Book on the appearance of the Earth

Muhammad ibn Mūsā al-Khwārizmī's Kitāb ṣūrat al-Arḍ ("Book on the appearance of the Earth") was completed in 833. It is a revised and completed version of Ptolemy's Geography, consisting of a list of 2402 coordinates of cities and other geographical features following a general introduction.[13]

Al-Khwārizmī, Al-Ma'mun's most famous geographer, corrected Ptolemy's gross overestimate for the length of the Mediterranean Sea[2]:188 (from the Canary Islands to the eastern shores of the Mediterranean); Ptolemy overestimated it at 63 degrees of longitude, while al-Khwarizmi almost correctly estimated it at nearly 50 degrees of longitude. Al-Ma'mun's geographers "also depicted the Atlantic and Indian Oceans as open bodies of water, not land-locked seas as Ptolemy had done. "[14] Al-Khwarizmi thus set the Prime Meridian of the Old World at the eastern shore of the Mediterranean, 10–13 degrees to the east of Alexandria (the prime meridian previously set by Ptolemy) and 70 degrees to the west of Baghdad. Most medieval Muslim geographers continued to use al-Khwarizmi's prime meridian.[2]:188 Other prime meridians used were set by Abū Muhammad al-Hasan al-Hamdānī and Habash al-Hasib al-Marwazi at Ujjain, a centre of Indian astronomy, and by another anonymous writer at Basra.[2]:189


Diagram illustrating a method proposed and used by Al-Biruni to estimate the radius and circumference of the Earth in the 11th century.
Diagram illustrating a method proposed and used by Al-Biruni to estimate the radius and circumference of the Earth in the 11th century.

Abu Rayhan al-Biruni (973–1048) gave an estimate of 6,339.6 km for the Earth radius, which is only 17.15 km less than the modern value of 6,356.7523142 km (WGS84 polar radius "b"). In contrast to his predecessors who measured the Earth's circumference by sighting the Sun simultaneously from two different locations, Al-Biruni developed a new method of using trigonometric calculations based on the angle between a plain and mountain top which yielded more accurate measurements of the Earth's circumference and made it possible for it to be measured by a single person from a single location.[15][16][17] Al-Biruni's method's motivation was to avoid "walking across hot, dusty deserts" and the idea came to him when he was on top of a tall mountain in India (present day Pind Dadan Khan, Pakistan).[17] From the top of the mountain, he sighted the dip angle which, along with the mountain's height (which he calculated beforehand), he applied to the law of sines formula. This was the earliest known use of dip angle and the earliest practical use of the law of sines.[16][17]

Around 1025, Al-Biruni was the first to describe a polar equi-azimuthal equidistant projection of the celestial sphere.[18]

In his Codex Masudicus (1037), Al-Biruni theorized the existence of a landmass along the vast ocean between Asia and Europe, or what is today known as the Americas. He deduced its existence on the basis of his accurate estimations of the Earth's circumference and Afro-Eurasia's size, which he found spanned only two-fifths of the Earth's circumference, and his discovery of the concept of specific gravity, from which he deduced that the geological processes that gave rise to Eurasia must've also given rise to lands in the vast ocean between Asia and Europe. He also theorized that the landmass must be inhabited by human beings, which he deduced from his knowledge of humans inhabiting the broad north-south band stretching from Russia to South India and Sub-Saharan Africa, theorizing that the landmass would most likely lie along the same band.[19][20] He was the first to predict "the existence of land to the east and west of Eurasia, which later on was discovered to be America and Japan".[20]

Tabula Rogeriana

The Arab geographer, Muhammad al-Idrisi, produced his medieval atlas, Tabula Rogeriana or The Recreation for Him Who Wishes to Travel Through the Countries, in 1154. He incorporated the knowledge of Africa, the Indian Ocean and the Far East gathered by Arab merchants and explorers with the information inherited from the classical geographers to create the most accurate map of the world in pre-modern times.[21] With funding from Roger II of Sicily (1097–1154), al-Idrisi drew on the knowledge collected at the University of Cordoba and paid draftsmen to make journeys and map their routes. The book describes the earth as a sphere with a circumference of 22,900 miles (36,900 km) but maps it in 70 rectangular sections. Notable features include the correct dual sources of the Nile, the coast of Ghana and mentions of Norway. Climate zones were a chief organizational principle. A second and shortened copy from 1192 called Garden of Joys is known by scholars as the Little Idrisi.[22]

On the work of al-Idrisi, S. P. Scott commented:[21]

The compilation of Edrisi marks an era in the history of science. Not only is its historical information most interesting and valuable, but its descriptions of many parts of the earth are still authoritative. For three centuries geographers copied his maps without alteration. The relative position of the lakes which form the Nile, as delineated in his work, does not differ greatly from that established by Baker and Stanley more than seven hundred years afterwards, and their number is the same. The mechanical genius of the author was not inferior to his erudition. The celestial and terrestrial planisphere of silver which he constructed for his royal patron was nearly six feet in diameter, and weighed four hundred and fifty pounds; upon the one side the zodiac and the constellations, upon the other—divided for convenience into segments—the bodies of land and water, with the respective situations of the various countries, were engraved.

— S. P. Scott, History of the Moorish Empire in Europe

Al-Idrisi's atlas, originally called the Nuzhat in Arabic, served as a major tool for Italian, Dutch and French mapmakers from the 16th century to the 18th century.[23]

Piri Reis map

The Piri Reis map is a world map compiled in 1513 by the Ottoman admiral and cartographer Piri Reis. Approximately one third of the map survives; it shows the western coasts of Europe and North Africa and the coast of Brazil with reasonable accuracy. Various Atlantic islands, including the Azores and Canary Islands, are depicted, as is the mythical island of Antillia and possibly Japan.


Muslim scholars invented and refined a number of scientific instruments in mathematical geography and cartography. These included the astrolabe, quadrant, gnomon, celestial sphere, sundial, and compass.[1]


Astrolabes were adopted and further developed in the medieval Islamic world, where Muslim astronomers introduced angular scales to the design,[24] adding circles indicating azimuths on the horizon.[25] It was widely used throughout the Muslim world, chiefly as an aid to navigation and as a way of finding the Qibla, the direction of Mecca. Eighth-century mathematician Muhammad al-Fazari is the first person credited with building the astrolabe in the Islamic world.[26]

The mathematical background was established by Muslim astronomer Albatenius in his treatise Kitab az-Zij (c. 920 AD), which was translated into Latin by Plato Tiburtinus (De Motu Stellarum). The earliest surviving astrolabe is dated AH 315 (927–28 AD).[27] In the Islamic world, astrolabes were used to find the times of sunrise and the rising of fixed stars, to help schedule morning prayers (salat). In the 10th century, al-Sufi first described over 1,000 different uses of an astrolabe, in areas as diverse as astronomy, astrology, navigation, surveying, timekeeping, prayer, Salat, Qibla, etc.[28][29]


Al-Ashraf's diagram of the compass and Qibla. From MS Cairo TR 105, copied in Yemen, 1293.[30]
Al-Ashraf's diagram of the compass and Qibla. From MS Cairo TR 105, copied in Yemen, 1293.[30]

The earliest reference to a compass in the Muslim world occurs in a Persian talebook from 1232,[31][32] where a compass is used for navigation during a trip in the Red Sea or the Persian Gulf.[33] The fish-shaped iron leaf described indicates that this early Chinese design has spread outside of China.[34] The earliest Arabic reference to a compass, in the form of magnetic needle in a bowl of water, comes from a work by Baylak al-Qibjāqī, written in 1282 while in Cairo.[31][35] Al-Qibjāqī described a needle-and-bowl compass used for navigation on a voyage he took from Syria to Alexandria in 1242.[31] Since the author describes having witnessed the use of a compass on a ship trip some forty years earlier, some scholars are inclined to antedate its first appearance in the Arab world accordingly.[31] Al-Qibjāqī also reports that sailors in the Indian Ocean used iron fish instead of needles.[36]

Late in the 13th century, the Yemeni Sultan and astronomer al-Malik al-Ashraf described the use of the compass as a "Qibla indicator" to find the direction to Mecca.[37] In a treatise about astrolabes and sundials, al-Ashraf includes several paragraphs on the construction of a compass bowl (ṭāsa). He then uses the compass to determine the north point, the meridian (khaṭṭ niṣf al-nahār), and the Qibla. This is the first mention of a compass in a medieval Islamic scientific text and its earliest known use as a Qibla indicator, although al-Ashraf did not claim to be the first to use it for this purpose.[30][38]

In 1300, an Arabic treatise written by the Egyptian astronomer and muezzin Ibn Simʿūn describes a dry compass used for determining qibla. Like Peregrinus' compass, however, Ibn Simʿūn's compass did not feature a compass card.[30] In the 14th century, the Syrian astronomer and timekeeper Ibn al-Shatir (1304–1375) invented a timekeeping device incorporating both a universal sundial and a magnetic compass. He invented it for the purpose of finding the times of prayers.[39] Arab navigators also introduced the 32-point compass rose during this time.[40] In 1399, an Egyptian reports two different kinds of magnetic compass. One instrument is a “fish” made of willow wood or pumpkin, into which a magnetic needle is inserted and sealed with tar or wax to prevent the penetration of water. The other instrument is a dry compass.[36]

In the 15th century, the description given by Ibn Majid while aligning the compass with the pole star indicates that he was aware of magnetic declination. An explicit value for the declination is given by ʿIzz al-Dīn al-Wafāʾī (fl. 1450s in Cairo).[33]

Pre modern Arabic sources refer to the compass using the term ṭāsa (lit. "bowl") for the floating compass, or ālat al-qiblah ("qibla instrument") for a device used for orienting towards Mecca.[33]

Friedrich Hirth suggested that Arab and Persian traders, who learned about the polarity of the magnetic needle from the Chinese, applied the compass for navigation before the Chinese did.[41] However, Needham described this theory as "erroneous" and "it originates because of a mistraslation" of the term chia-ling found in Zhu Yu's book Pingchow Table Talks.[42]

Notable geographers


See also


  1. ^ a b c d e f Buang, Amriah (2014). "Geography in the Islamic World". Encyclopaedia of the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine in Non-Western Cultures. Springer. doi:10.1007/978-94-007-3934-5_8611-2. A prominent feature of the achievement of Muslim scholars in mathematical geography and cartography was the invention of scientific instruments of measurement. Among these were the astrolab (astrolabe), the ruba (quadrant), the gnomon, the celestial sphere, the sundial, and the compass.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g Kennedy, Edward S. (1996). "Mathematical Geography". In Rashed, Roshdi; Morelon, Régis (eds.). Encyclopedia of the History of Arabic Science. 3. Routledge. pp. 185–201. ISBN 978-0-415-12410-2.
  3. ^
  4. ^ Gerald R. Tibbetts, The Beginnings of a Cartographic Tradition, in: John Brian Harley, David Woodward: Cartography in the Traditional Islamic and South Asian Societies, Chicago, 1992, pp. 90–107 (97-100), ISBN 0-226-31635-1
  5. ^ a b c d e f Edson and Savage-Smith (2004)[full citation needed]
  6. ^ a b Edson & Savage-Smith 2004, pp. 61–63.
  7. ^ Koetsier, T.; Bergmans, L. (2005). Mathematics and the Divine. Elsevier. p. 169. ISBN 978-0-444-50328-2.
  8. ^ O'Connor, John J.; Robertson, Edmund F., "Abu Arrayhan Muhammad ibn Ahmad al-Biruni", MacTutor History of Mathematics archive, University of St Andrews.
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