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Abu al-Hasan Ali ibn al-Husayn ibn Ali al-Mas'udi (transl: ) (born c. 896, Baghdad, Iraq died September 956, Cairo, Egypt), was an Arab historian and Geographer, known as the “Herodotus of the Arabs”. He was one of the first to combine History and scientific Geography in a large-scale work, Muruj adh-dhahab wa ma'adin al-jawahir (The Meadows of Gold and Mines of Gems), a world history.[1]

Birth, travels and literary outputEdit

Al-Masudi tells us that he was born in Baghdad. He was a descendant of Abdallah Ibn Masud, a companion of Muhammad. However, we know little else about his early years. He mentions his association with many scholars in the lands through which he travelled. However, most of what we know of him comes from the internal evidence of his own works. Although Shboul questions the furthest extent sometimes asserted for al-Mas'udi's travels, even his more conservative estimation (pp. 3-4) is impressive:

"Al-Mas'udi's travels actually occupied most of his life from at least 303/915 to very near the end. Besides Iraq, his journeys took him to most of the Persian provinces, Armenia, Azerbaijan and other regions of the Caspian Sea; as well as to Arabia, Syria and Egypt. He also travelled to the Indus Valley, and other parts of India, especially the western coast; and he voyaged more than once to East Africa. he also sailed on the Indian Ocean, the Red Sea, the Mediterranean and the Caspian."

Others include Sri Lanka and China among his travels. Lunde and Stone in the introduction to their English translation (p. 11) state that al-Masudi received much information on China from Abu Zaid al-Sirafi whom he met on the coast of the Persian Gulf. In Syria al-Masudi met the renowned Leo of Tripoli. Leo was a Byzantine admiral who converted to Islam. From him the historian received much of his information about Byzantium. He spent his last years in Syria and Egypt. In Egypt he found a copy of a Frankish king list from Clovis to Louis IV that had been written by an Andalusian bishop.

We know little for sure about how he supported himself during such extensive travels within and beyond the lands of Islam. Lunde and Stone speculate that like many travellers he may have been involved in trade.

The titles of more than twenty books attributed to him are known, including several about Islāmic beliefs and sects but most of his writings have been lost. His major work was Akhbār az-zamān (“The History of Time”) in 30 volumes. This seems to have been an encyclopaedic world history, taking in not only political history but also many facets of human knowledge and activity. A manuscript of one volume of this work is said to be preserved in Vienna; if this manuscript is genuine, it is all that has remained of the work. Al-Masʿūdī followed it with Kitāb al-awsa (“Book of the Middle”), variously described as a supplement to or an abridgment of the Akhbār az-zamān. The Kitāb is undoubtedly a chronological history. A manuscript in the Bodleian Library, Oxford, may possibly be one volume of it.

Neither of these works had much effect on scholars—in the case of Akhbār az-zamān, possibly because of its daunting length. So al-Masʿūdī rewrote the two combined works in less detail in a single book, to which he gave the fanciful title of Murūj adh-dhahab wa maʿādin al-jawāhir (“The Meadows of Gold and the Mines of Gems”). This book quickly became famous and established the author's reputation as a leading historian. Ibn Khaldūn, the great 14th-century Arab philosopher of history, describes al-Masūdī as an imam (“leader,” or “example”) for historians. Though an abridgment, Murūj adh-dhahab is still a substantial work. In his introduction, al-Masūdī lists more than 80 historical works known to him, but he also stresses the importance of his travels to “learn the peculiarities of various nations and parts of the world.” He claims that, in the book, he has dealt with every subject that may be useful or interesting.

The work is in 132 chapters. The second half is a straightforward history of Islām, beginning with the Prophet Muhammad, then dealing with the caliphs down to al-Masʿūdī's own time, one by one. While it often makes interesting reading because of its vivid description and entertaining anecdotes, this part of the book is superficial. It is seldom read now, as much better accounts can be found elsewhere, particularly in the writings of Muhammad.

Shboul (pp. 68-69) notes that al-Mas'udi rewrote Muruj. The extant version is only an earlier draft from 947, not the revised 956 edition. Lunde and Stone note that al-Masudi in his Tanbih states that the revised edition of the Meadows of Gold contained 365 chapters.

Al-Masudi's intellectual environmentEdit

Lunde and Stone provide a graphic reminder of the intellectual environment in which al-Masudi lived. "He lived at a time when books were readily available and relatively cheap. Aside from large public libraries in major towns like Baghdad, many individuals, like Mas'udi's friend al-Suli, had private libraries, often containing thousands of volumes. The prevalence of books and their low price was the result of the introduction of paper to the Islamic world by Chinese papermakers captured at the Battle of Talas in 751. Very soon afterwards there were paper mills in most large towns and cities. The introduction of paper coincided with the coming to power of the Abbasid dynasty, and there is no doubt that the availability of cheap writing material contributed to the growth of the Abbasid bureaucracy, postal system and lively intellectual life" (p. 14).

They note that Masudi often encourages his readers to consult other books he has written, expecting these to be accessible to his readership. They also note the stark contrast between contemporary European conditions confronting say the author of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and this highly literate Islamic world.

Ahmad Shboul (p. 29 ff.) mentions the rich blend of Greek philosophy, Persian literature, Indian mathematics and the rich heritage of the ancient cultures that went into the vigorous life of the day. This enabled the society of the day to manifest a knowledge seeking, perceptive and analytical attitude. There was a natural association of scholarly minded people in this highly civilized atmosphere, and al-Masoudi very much took part in this energizing activity.

Al-Masudi was a pupil or junior colleague of a number of prominent Iraqi intellectuals, including the philologists al-Zajjaj, ibn Durayd, Niftawayh and ibn Anbari. He was acquainted with famous poets, including Kashajim, whom he probably met in Aleppo. He was well read in philosophy, knowing the works of al-Kindi and al-Razi, the Aristotelian thought of al-Farabi and Platonic writings. Al-Masudi's extant writings do not confirm his meeting with his contemporaries al-Razi and al-Farabi, however such meetings were highly likely. He does record his meeting with al-Farabi's pupil Yahya ibn Adi, of whom he spoke highly.

In addition he was familiar with the medical work of Galen, with Ptolemaic astronomy, with the geographical work of Marinus and with the studies of Islamic geographers and astronomers.

He indicates training in jurisprudence. He met a number of influential jurists and was aware of the work of others. Al-Subki states that al-Masudi was a student of ibn Surayj, the leading scholar of the Shafi'ite school. Al-Subki claimed he found al-Masudi's notes of ibn Surayj's lectures. Al-Masudi also met Shafi'ites during his stay in Egypt. He met Zahirites in Baghdad and Aleppo. These include ibn Jabir and Niftawayh.

Al-Masudi knew leading Mu'tazilites, including al-Jubba, al-Nawbakhti, ibn Abdak al-Jurjani and Abu'l Qasim al-Balkhi al-Ka'bi. He was also well acquainted with previous Mu'tazilite literature. His reasoning, his phraseology, his expressed high esteem for Mu'tazilities lead many to assert he was one. However, Shboul points out that his extant works do not specifically state that he was.

Al-Masudi and pre-Islamic historyEdit

The first half of Muruj is of enormous value, although somewhat sprawling and confused in its design. It starts with the creation of the world and Jewish history. Then it intersperses chapters describing the history, geography, social life, and religious customs of non-Islāmic lands, such as India, Greece, and Rome, with accounts of the oceans, the calendars of various nations, climate, the solar system, and great temples. Among particularly interesting sections are those on pearl diving in the Persian Gulf, amber found in East Africa, Hindu burial customs, the land route to China, and navigation, with its various hazards, such as storms and waterspouts. The relative positions and characteristics of the seas are also explained.

Al-Masudi included the history of the ancient civilizations that had occupied the land upon which Islam later spread. He mentioned the Assyrians, Babylonians, Egyptians and Persians among others.

Persia was a vast empire with a history ancient before the arrival of Islam. Al-Mus'udi was aware of the influence of ancient Babylon on Persia. He had access to the harvest of translations, by such as ibn al-Muqaffa, into Arabic from Pahlavi. He also in his travels personally consulted Persian scholars and Zoroastrian priests. He thus had access to much material, factual and mythical. As all Arabic historians he was unclear on the Achaemenid dynasty, though he knew of Kurush, Cyrus the Great. He was much clearer on the more recent dynasties and his estimation of the time between Alexander the Great and Ardashir is much more accurate than al-Tabari's.

His wide ranging interest included the Greeks and the Romans. Again, as all Arabic historians, he was unclear on Greece before the Macedonian dynasty that produced Alexander the Great. He is aware that there were kings before this, but is unclear on their names and reigns. He also seems unfamiliar with such additional aspects of Greek political life as Athenian democratic institutions. The same situation holds for Rome prior to Caesar. He is, though, the earliest extant Arabic author to mention the founding myth of Romulus and Remus.

In al-Masudi's view the greatest contribution of the Greeks was philosophy. He was aware of the progression of Greek philosophy from the pre-Socratics onward.

He also was keenly interested in the earlier events of the Arabian peninsula. He knew this had a long history. He was well-aware of the mixture of interesting facts in pre-Islamic times, in myths and controversial details from competing tribes and even referred to the similarity between some of this material and the legendary and story telling contributions of some Pahlavi and Indian books to the Thousand and One Nights.

Al-Masudi and lands beyond IslamEdit

Shboul notes that al-Masudi is distinguished above his contemporaries for the extent of his interest in and coverage of the non-Islamic lands and peoples of his day. Other authors, even Christians writing in Arabic in the Caliphate, had less to say about the Byzantine Empire than al-Masudi. He also described the geography of many lands beyond the Caliphate, as well as the customs and religious beliefs of many peoples.

His normal inquiries of travellers and extensive reading of previous writers were supplemented in the case of India with his personal experiences in the western part of the subcontinent. He demonstrates a deep understanding of historical change, tracing current conditions to the unfolding of events over generations and centuries. He perceived the significance of interstate relations and of the interaction of Muslims and Hindus in the various states of the subcontinent.

He described previous rulers in China, underlined the importance of the revolt by Huang Chao in the late Tang dynasty, and mentioned, though less detailed than for India, Chinese beliefs. His brief portrayal of Southeast Asia stands out for its degree of accuracy and clarity. He surveyed the vast areas inhabited by Turkic peoples, commenting on the extensive authority of the Khaqan previously, though no longer in al-Masudi's time. He conveyed the great diversity of Turkic peoples, including the distinction between sedentary and nomadic Turks. He spoke of the significance of the Khazars and provided much fresh material on them.

His account of the Rus' (people) is an important early source for the study of Russian history. Again, while he may have read such earlier Arabic authors as ibn Khurradad, ibn al-Faqih, ibn Rusta and ibn Fadlan, al-Masudi presented most of his material based on his personal observations and contacts made while travelling. He informed the Arabic reader that the Rus are more than some traders. They are a diverse and varied collection of peoples. He noted their independent attitude, the absence of a strong central authority among them, and their paganism. He was very well informed on Rus trade with the Byzantines and on the competence of the Rus in sailing merchant vessels and warships. He was aware that the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea are two separate bodies of water.

Al-Masudi was very well informed about Byzantine affairs, even internal political events and the unfolding of palace coups. He recorded the effect of westward migration upon the Byzantines, especially the invading Bulgars. He spoke of Byzantine relations with western Europe. And, of course, he was attentively interested in Byzantine-Islamic relations.

He has some knowledge of other peoples of eastern and western Europe, even far away Britain. He names it, though he is sketchy about it. He knows Paris as the Frankish capital. He obtained a copy of a list of Frankish rulers from Clovis to his own time.

Al-Masudi's global interest included Africa. He was well aware of peoples in the eastern portion of the continent (mentioning interesting details of the Zanj, for example). He knows less of West Africa, though he names such contemporary states as Zagawa, Kawkaw and Ghana. He described the relations of African states with each other and with Islam. He provided material on the cultures and beliefs of non Islamic Africans.

In general his surviving works reveal an intensely curious mind, a universalist eagerly acquiring as extensive a background of the entire world as possible. The geographical range of his material and the reach of his ever inquiring spirit is truly impressive.

Al-Masudi and the AbbasidsEdit

Lunde and Stone (see bibliography) have provided the English reader with a fluent translation of some three quarters of al-Masudi's material on the Abbasids. This is in the form of more than two hundred passages, many of these containing amusing and informative anecdotes. The very first one recounts the meeting of al-Mansur and a blind poet unaware of the identity of his distinguished interlocutor. The poet on two separate occasions recites praise poems for the defeated Umayyads to the Abbasid caliph; al-Mansur good naturedly rewards him.

There is the tale (p. 28 ff.) of the arrow that landed at al-Mansur's feet with verses inscribed in each of the three feathers and along the shaft causing him to investigate the unjust imprisonment of a distinguished notable from Hamadan. There is the story of the singer Harun al-Rashid asks to keep singing until the caliph falls asleep. Then a handsome young man arrives, snatches the lute from the singer's hand and shows him how it really should be done. On awakening Harun is told of this and suggests his singer had a supernatural visitation. Al-Masudi quotes the lines (five in English) of this remarkable song.

These anecdotes provide glimpses of other aspects of these prominent people, sharing, actually, greater realization of their humanity and the human concerns of their officials and ordinary subjects.

One of the more interesting passages is the account of the symposium held at the home of Harun's famous vizier Yahya the Barmakid on the topic of love. A dozen leading thinkers provide their definition of love and then a thirteenth, a Magian judge, speaks at greater length on that theme.

In all, this is a very charming introduction or addition to one's knowledge of the Abbasid dynasty.

Al-Masudi's original approachEdit

Al-Masūdī's approach to his task was original: he gave as much weight to social, economic, religious, and cultural matters as to politics. Moreover, he utilized information obtained from sources not previously regarded as reliable. He related what he learned from merchants, local writers (including non-Muslims), and others he met on his travels. He displayed interest in all religions, including Hinduism and Zoroastrianism, as well as Judaism and Christianity.[2]

He also wrote the Al-Tanbih wa-l-Ashraf (). This is about one fifth the size of al-Muruj. It was finished shortly before his death.

Editions, translations and influenceEdit

A complete French translation of The Meadows of Gold was published along with the Arabic text in Paris by the Societe Asiatique in nine volumes between 1861 and 1877. Barbier de Meynard and Pavet de Courteille were the French translators for this edition. A century later, between 1966 and 1974 Charles Pellat revised the Arabic text for a more accurate edition published in five volumes by the Universite Libanaise in Beirut. Pellat also began revising the French translation. Lunde and Stone's English translation of material on the Abbasids appeared in 1989.

Ahmad Shboul (p. xviii) notes some of the impact the French translation had on European intellectuals. E. Renan compared al-Masudi to the Second Century A.D. Greek writer Pausanias (geographer). Others compared the Arab author to the Roman writer Pliny the Elder. Even before al-Masudi's work was available in a European language, orientalists had compared him to Herodotus, the ancient Greek historian called "The Father of History." Shboul finds such comparisons to the very best in Europe's Classical past very interesting.

Among al-Masudi's living descendants is Dr. Abdulaziz Almsaodi, the author of: Alzubairy and the issue of Hizb Allah in Yemen.

See alsoEdit

  • List of Islamic scholars
  • List of Arab scientists and scholars

ReferencesEdit

  • 2 "Masūdī, al-." Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica 2007 Ultimate Reference Suite. Chicago: Encyclopædia Britannica, 2006.

Further readingEdit

  • Ahmad A. M. Shboul, Al-Mas'udi and His World, Ithaca Press, London, 1979
  • Mas'udi, The Meadows of Gold, The Abbasids, transl. Paul Lunde and Caroline Stone, Kegan Paul, London and New York, 1989

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