The Arabs (Muslims) ruled over the world for about 900 years and contributed significantly to the different branches of knowledge between the seventh and the thirteenth centuries. Their rule was extended from South-West Asia to East Africa, the Sahara Desert including the Maghrib (Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria), Iberian Peninsula (Spain and Portugal), Southern France, Balkan Peninsula (Europe), Central Asia, Northern China, India, South-East Asia (Malaysia and Indonesia) and many of the islands in the Indian Ocean.

In 762 AD, the Arabs founded the new city of Baghdad and for more than a century it remained the centre of intellectual world. With the patronage of Khalifa Harun-al-Rashid, an academy called Baitul-Hikma was established at Baghdad. In this academy, scholars from all over the world were invited to teach and assist the Arab scholars and to train them in the translation the literature from the Greek, Roman, Latin, Persian, Sanskrit, and Hebrew into Arabic. Moreover, encouragement was given to the travellers to travel into the different parts of the world and to gather geographical information. The intellectual curiosity, integrity, and dedication of the Arab geographers helped in achieving to the great achievements of Islamic civilisation.

Growth of Geographical Knowledge

The main factors responsible for the growth and development of geographical knowledge during the period of Arabs may be summarised here.

[1] Inquisitive Nature and Open Mind

Khalifa Al- Mamun, who ascended to throne in 813 AD gave great support to the scholars. He favoured the Nestorians, Christians, and Jews of his kingdom, who till then were the custodians of the Greek sciences. The learned scholars of his court translated the works of Euclid, Plato, Aristotle, Eratosthenes, Strabo, and Ptolemy into Arabic. Ptolemy’s Almagast and the Outline of the World (Treatise of Geography) were also translated. They also studied the works of Aryabhat and Sanskrit treatise containing the principles of trigonometry. The Arabic translation of the Sidhanta was a landmark in the history of Arab Astronomy. Al-Khwarizmi prepared two editions of Sindhind and summarised it. Thus, Arabs collected geographical ideas from the Greeks, Romans, Jews, Iranians, Chinese, and Indians. On the basis of their observations, explorations, and studies, they developed their own concepts and theories with great vigour and zeal. They produced innumerable books covering the different aspects of Geography and allied sciences and carried their knowledge to far-off lands from the shores of the Atlantic to the Pacific and the Indian Oceans.

[2] Islamic Brotherhood

One of the basic principles of Islam is the principle of equality and fraternity. All muslims, irrespective of their colour, ethnicity, and language have an equal social status. There was a period when travellers could pass from China to the Atlantic Ocean, Indus to Cilicia (Turkey) without stepping outside the boundaries of the territories ruled by the Khalifa (Caliph) in Baghdad/ Damuscus. Even after this vast empire broke up into separate principalities, the journey of the period Muslim travellers was facilitated by that brotherhood of Islam which gives to the Muslim world its cosmopolitan character. It was due to this brotherhood that Ibn-Battuta was received with great enthusiasm in China. Travelling was always regarded as a part of education in Islam.


[3] The Haj (Pilgrimage)

Among the duties incumbent upon every Muslim, provided only that he had good health and sufficient wealth for expenses of the journey, the duty of making the pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in his life time has always been an important one. It was due to this religious obligation that thousands of devout persons from different nationalities and countries had a good opportunity to exchange their views and experiences about the geographical conditions of their mother lands.

[4] Trade and Commerce

Arabs were basically traders. In Islamic society, the merchant enjoys respect and consideration that is closely connected with the origin of this faith. Prophet Mohammad, the founder of Islam was himself a merchant, and thus, he conferred upon the profession of the trader an elevation and a dignity for it was this profession which helped him gain an entrance into the highest society. Several sayings traditionally ascribed to the Prophet assigned an hounarable position to the merchant in the Islamic hierarchy. For example, the saying “On the Day of Judgement an honest truthful Muslim merchant will take rank with the martyrs of the faith, underscores the importance of the merchant. It was this impetus that led the Arab traders to move into the distant lands thereby gaining geographical knowledge.

[5] Marine Adventures

Arab traders were active in the Arabian Sea, Indian Ocean, Red Sea, Mediterranean Sea, and Black Sea. Their adventures served as a great source of information about the salinity of sea and oceans, the monsoons, cyclones, and weather condition in different seas in different parts of the year.


The Arabs made an outstanding contribution in the fields of Mathematical, Physical, Regional, and Human Geography. They were largely influenced by the Greek traditions about the size and shape of the Earth. They accepted the geocentric concept of Ptolemy. According to the Arabs, the planets, in order of their distance from the Earth were: Moon, Mercury, Venus, Sun, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. It was imagined that each of these planets occupied a particular ‘sky’ or a separate sphere and each sky was under the authority of the planet to which it had been assigned. In this hypothesis, of all the planets which formed the seven skies, closest to the Earth was the planet of green emerald, the second closest was the planet of white silver, the third that of ruby-red, the fourth of white pearl, the fifth of red-gold, the sixth of yellow topaz, and the seventh of mass of fire (Noor). Similarly, there were seven earths, one inside the other, the lowest of them being (hell).

About the climate, Al-Balkhi in 921 AD gathered climatic data from the Arab travelers and prepared the first climatic atlas of the world titled, Kitab al Ashkal. Ibn-Majid and Al-Masudi gave a detailed description of the Indian monsoon & its origin and reversal of winds. Al-Maqdisi, in 985 AD divided the world into fourteen climatic divisions. Al-Beruni wrote Kitab-al-Hind (Geography of India) in 1030 AD. In this book, he described some important landforms of India including the rounded pebbles and shingles found in the Shiwaliks. Ibn-Sina (Avicenna) contributed significantly in Geomorphology, especially in explaining the processes of weathering and erosion. He also noted the presence of fossils in the sedimentary rocks and hills and mountains.

Arabs borrowed from the Greeks the division of the Earth into the five climatic divisions. The Persians, however, divided the world into seven empires or nations known in Persian as Kishwars. The word Mausim (Monsoon) is from the Arabic language.

For the determination of latitudes and longitudes they used Gnomon. The phenomenon of tides was also observed by them. Al-Masudi observed that the change in the colour of water of oceans is because of the variations in salinity. Ibn-Khaldun, Al-Biruni and Al-Masudi described the influence of climate on flora, fauna, and human societies.

Arab Geographers

There are a large number of Arab geographers who contributed to the different branches of Geography. The main contribution of some of the leading Arab geographers has been briefly given as under.

[1] Al-Balkhi

[2] Ibn-Hawqal

[3] Al-Masudi

[4] Al-Biruni

[5] Al-Idrisi

[6] Ibn-Batuta

[6] Ibn Khaldun


Al-Balkhi Contribution to Geography

[1] Al-Balkhi (850 – 934 AD)

Al-Balkhi who collected climatic data from the accounts of various Arab travelers and prepared the world’s first climatic atlas based on that data entitles Kitab-Al Ashkal in 921.

Key Points on Al-Balkhi:

[i] Al-Balkhi prepared the world’s first climatic atlas based on that data entitles Kitab-Al Ashkal in 921.

Ibn-Hawqal Contribution to Geography

[2] Ibn-Hawqal-Abu-al-Mohammad Qasim (912-978 AD)

He was a resident of Baghdad. His real name was Muhammad Abdul Qasim. He started his travels in May 943 AD and visited on foot different countries of the world, within the orbit of the authority of Holy Quran.

His book, ‘Book of Routes and Realms’ in which he described the Earth in length and breadth. The book gives a good account of mountains, rivers, cities, agriculture, cropping practices, and mode of irrigation, especially of the Muslim countries. He also described the Caspian Sea, Black sea, and the European countries.

Key Points on Ibn-Hawqal:

[i] His book- ‘Book of Routes and Realms’


Al-Masudi Contribution to Geography

[3] Al-Masudi (896 – 956 AD)

He was born in Baghdad at the end of the ninth century and died in 956 AD at Fustat in Egypt. He was a trader, who travelled in the different parts of South-West Asia, northern Africa, Persia, Sham (Syria), Armenia, Azaerbaijan, Volga region, Central Asia, Sri Lanka, Madagascar (Qanbalu), Spain, and Egypt. He made an in-depth study of the Greek and Roman sources.

Al-Masudi had a clear conception of the sphericity of the Earth. He believed that the surface of the sea is curved, since when a ship approached the land, the coast and the objects there on gradually become more and more visible. He took Japan as the eastern limit of the land and the Eternal Islands (Atlantic Ocean) as the western limit. He named the seven seas while going from the Persian Gulf to China for trade. The names of the seven seas are:

[i] Sea of Persia,

[ii] Sea of Larvey (Delta of Indus to Kanniyakumari),

[iii] Sea of Harkend (Bay of Bengal),

[iv] Sea of Shalahet or Kalabar (Sea of Malacca),

[v] Sea of Kendrej (Gulf of Siam-Thailand),

[vi] Sea of Senf (Cochin China), and

[vii] Sea of Senj (Sea of China).

He navigated into the Caspian Sea and declared it as a lake. He was the first to establish that the Oxus flows into the Aral Lake. Volga river was described by him as an active commercial highway.

To the Atlantic Ocean, he gave the name of Dark-Green Sea. In Geomorphology, he visualised that landforms pass through a cycle of development from the youthful stage to maturity and finally to the old stage-the stage of peneplanation. He appreciated the role of cycle of erosion and adjustment of streams to structure in the evolution of landforms when he says, “there is no place on Earth that is always covered with water, nor one that is always land, but constant revolution takes place. The Earth grows and decline part by part.”

Al-Masudi gave a good account of the Indian Monsoon. He had a better idea than Ptolemy of Indian Ocean, Al-Masudi held that the Indian Ocean is connected with the Atlantic Ocean. He opined that salt in the sea and oceans comes from the land.

In the field of Human Geography, he tried to correlate man with environment. While describing the effect of environment on man, Al-Masudi said, “The power of the Earth varies in its influence on man on account of three factors i.e. water, natural vegetation, and topography”. Describing the lifestyle of nomads he said that life in the city changed man’s characters and therefore, they preferred life in the open where the air is free from pollution. The nomads are marked by the strength of resolution, wisdom, and physical fitness. The Turks, in his opinion, who migrated to India lost their national characteristics and acquired new characteristics suited to the new environment.

He gave a fairly reliable account of Sham (Syria), Persia, Central Asia, Georgia, Mesopotamia, Volga region and parts of India, China, and South-East Asian countries, he visited.

On the basis of language, he divided the habitable world into seven nationalities:

[i] Persia,

[ii] Chaldaeans (Arabs)

[iii] Greeks

[iv] Egyptian and Libyans

[v] Turks,

[vi] Hindus, and

[vii] Chinese.

In brief, Al-Masudi was such a geographer who examined the real document of Geography. The following books were written by him:

[1] Mura-al-Dahab (Golden Meadows),

[2] Kitab-al-Tanbhwal-Ishraf

[3] Kitab-al-Ausat, and

[4] Kitab-Akhbar-al-Zaman (in 30 volumes).

Most of these works, except Kitab-Muraj-al-Dahab (Golden Meadows) have been lost.


Key Points on Al-Masudi:

[i] Al-Masudi advocated that Earth has a spherical shape.

[ii] He believed that the surface of the sea is curved.

[iii] He named the seven seas while going from the Persian Gulf to China for trade.

[iv] He gave the name of Atlantic Ocean as Dark-Green Sea.

[v] Al-Masudi gave a good account of the Indian Monsoon.

[vi] He divided the world into seven regios on the basis of languages.

[vii] Books of Al-Masudi: [a] Mura-al-Dahab (Golden Meadows), [b] Kitab-al-Tanbhwal-Ishraf [c] Kitab-al-Ausat, and [d] Kitab-Akhbar-al-Zaman.

Al-Biruni Contribution to Geography

[4] Al-Biruni (Abu-Rayhan Mohammad) (973 -1048 AD)

A Tajik by race, he was born on 4th September 973 AD. His father and mother expired at an early age. He passed the early days of his life on the banks of Oxus river in the river of Khwarizm (Khiva) situated in the Republic of Uzbekistan. He was man endowed with creative genius, sagacity, wisdom, international outlook, inductive reasoning, and dedication. He was free from the dogamatic conservativism and emotional bondages. Al-Biruni’s position as a scholar may be appreciated from the fact that the eleventh Century was declared as the age of Albiruni.

He learned Sanskrit at the age of 45 when he stayed in India. He travelled to Nagarkot, Mathura, Kannauj, and Somnath. He died at Ghazna in the year 1039 AD.

His main works are as follows:

Book Theme/Subject
[a] Kitab-al-Hind Geography of India
[b] Al- Tahid Origin of universe
[c] Risalah Day & Night
[d] Kitab al Tahqiq & Harkatab al Shams Movement of Sun
[e] Qanun al Masudi Eclipse
[f] Al Qanun al Masudi The Canon of King Masud of Afghanistan
[g] Rashikat al Hind The Zodiac in India

Kitab-al-Hind (1030) is regarded as his menumental work which deals with the geography of India, where he discussed Indian beliefs, Hindu literature, grammar, metres, chess, etc. but totally ignored Indian Music. He studied Samskhya, the Gita, Patanjali, Vishnu Dharma, and some of the Puranas.

His astronomical writings are discussed and approved the earth’s theory of rotation on its axis and correctly calculated the latitudes and longitudes of many places. He believed in the geocentric concept. The study of tides, he made at Somnath. He opined that the Indians are better equipped than Greeks and Romans, in solar and lunar studies and the study of eclipse. According to him, the Indo-Gangetic Plain was formed by the sediments brought down by the Himalayan rivers.

He gave the description of city of Qannauj. He has provided an accurate account of the seasons of India describing the nature of monsoon.

His correct view and reasoning led him to think that the institution of varna (caste), based on inequality, was the main obstacle in a rapport between the Hindus and the Muslims. He was one of the outstanding scholars and geographers of the medieval period.

Key Points on Al-Biruni:

[i] Eleventh Century was declared as the age of Albiruni.

[ii] He believed in the geocentric concept.

[iii] Kitab-al-Hind (1030) is regarded as his menumental work which deals with the geography of India

[iv] Albiruni Book & theme

Book Theme/Subject
[a] Kitab-al-Hind Geography of India
[b] Al- Tahid Origin of universe
[c] Risalah Day & Night
[d] Kitab al Tahqiq & Harkatab al Shams Movement of Sun
[e] Qanun al Masudi Eclipse
[f] Al Qanun al Masudi The Canon of King Masud of Afghanistan
[g] Rashikat al Hind The Zodiac in India

Al-Idrisi Contribution to Geography

[5] Al-Idrisi (Abu-Abd-Allah-Mohammad) (1100 – 1165 AD)

Al-Idrisi was one of the leading geographer of the twelfth century. He belonged to the family of Khalifa Al-Idris-the ruler of Cardova (Spain). He was born at Ceuta. He visited Lisbon, Spain, France, England, Sicily, Morocco, and Asia Minor.

At the invitation of Roger II (ruler of Sicily), he reached Palermo where he lived for a lot time.

Al Idrisi was contradicted and corrected many Greek ideas, including those put forth by Ptolemy. In 1154 AD, he wrote the book titled Amusements for Him Who Desires to Travel Around the World. In this book he corrected the Greek idea about the Indian Ocean being a closed sea.

The most important contribution of Al-Idrisi to Geography was his world map. On the map, he plotted the various geographical features based on the Islamic and Christian sources. The map contains numerous details of the world including the defined courses of Danube and Niger. The world map is oriented with the south on top-a common feature of Islamic map.

He did not agree with Greek’s classification of the world into five climatic divisions and provided a more sophisticated classification based on climate.

Key Points on Al-Idrisi:

[i] In 1154 AD, he wrote the book titled Amusements for Him Who Desires to Travel Around the World.

[ii] Al Idrisi who made corrections to Ptolemy’s book.

Ibn Battuta Contribution to Geography

[6] Ibn Battuta (Abdullah Muhammad) (1304- 1369 AD)

Ibn-Battuta was one of the great Arab travellers. He was born at Tangier (Morocco) at the entrance of the Mediterranean Sea. He was from a family that produced many Muslim judges (Qazis).

He visited Mecca, Egypt, Asia-Minor, Syria, Iraq, Persia, Afghanistan, Arabia, Zanzibar, Siberian Steppes, Khwarizm (Uzbaikistan), Central Asia, Oman, Yemen, Ethiopia, India, Maldives, Sri-Lanka, Sumatra, China, Sardinia, Garanada (Spain), and Timbaktu on the Niger river.

He travelled for about 28 years and covered more than 75,000 miles during this period. He was a man of endless energy.

His primary interest was on people, also described the physical conditions of various regions that he visited.

His description of house types and building materials in desert is very interesting and informative.

He came to Delhi on an invitation of Mohammad Bin Tughlaq and served as a Qazi of Delhi. Ibn Battuta was also appointed as ambassador to China. His book, Rihlah threw light on soils, habitat, agriculture, economy, society, and political history of the Muslim world.

Key Points on Battuta:

[i] His book, Rihlah threw light on soils, habitat, agriculture, economy, society, and political history of the Muslim world.

[ii] He came to Delhi on an invitation of Mohammad Bin Tughlaq and served as a Qazi of Delhi.

Ibn Khaldun Contribution to Geography

[7] Ibn Khaldun (1332 AD- 1406 AD)

He was born on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea in north-west Africa. Most of time he lived in the cities of Algier, Tunisia, and Spain. At the age of 45, he completed his monumental work known as ‘Muqaddimah’. This book deals with the description and explanation of human society in its various aspects. The work has been divided into six sections:

[1] Civilisation, Geography, and Anthropology,

[2] Discussion on Nomadic Culture and its Comparison with Sedentary Culture,

[3] Dynasties and Kingdoms,

[4] Life in Villages and Cities-How Cities are Organised,

[5] Professions, Means of Livelihood, and

[6] Classification of Sciences.

In his writings it is mentioned that northern hemisphere is more densely populated than the southern. The population along the equator is sparse, but there is an increasing concentration away from it up to 60 degrees. Further away there is little or no population.

He was emphasized the role of fertile land in the origin of settlements. He has argued that the origin of the large cities has always been in the form of small settlements.

Ibn Khaldun was considered as one of the early environmental determinists as he tried to correlate-man-and his environment in a scientific way.

Also credited of establishing political geography in the middle period where he discusses the rise and fall of dynasties and empires.

Essentially, Ibn-Khaldun, the great historian, was an environmental determinist, who tried to explain the impact of environment on the economy and society of the different parts of the world. Central to his argument was the view that states develop through a natural sequence of growth. maturity, decline, and fall, because group solidarity is inevitably eroded by the process of civilisation. The same concept was later developed by Ratzel in the form of Lebansraum (living space)

Key Points on Ibn Khaldun:

[i] His monumental work known as ‘Muqaddimah’

[ii] He was an environmental determinist.

[iii] He also contributed in the field of political geography.

N.B- Notes will be updated time to time

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