Masʿūdī, al-

▪ Arab historian
in full  Abū Al-ḥusayn ʿalī Ibn Al-ḥusayn Al-masʿūdī  
born 9th century, , Baghdad, Iraq
died 957, al-Fusṭāṭ, Egypt

      historian and traveler, known as the “Herodotus of the Arabs.” He was the first Arab to combine history and scientific geography in a large-scale work, Murūj adh-dhahab wa maʿādin al-jawāhir (“The Meadows of Gold and Mines of Gems”), a world history.

      As a child, al-Masʿūdī showed an extraordinary love of learning, an excellent memory, a capacity to write quickly, and a boundless curiosity that led him to study a wide variety of subjects, ranging from history and geography—his main interests—to comparative religion and science. He was not content to learn merely from books and teachers but traveled widely to gain firsthand knowledge of the countries about which he wrote. His travels extended to Syria, Iran, Armenia, the shores of the Caspian Sea, the Indus Valley, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), Oman in Arabia, and the east coast of Africa as far south as Zanzibar, at least, and, possibly, Madagascar.

      The titles of more than 20 books attributed to him are known, including several about Islāmic beliefs and sects and even one about poisons, 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-awsaṭ (“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-Masʿūdī as an imam (“leader,” or “example”) for historians. Though an abridgment, Murūj adh-dhahab is still a substantial work. In his introduction, al-Masʿūdī 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 Muḥammad, 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 aṭ-Ṭabarī.

      The first half, in contrast, is of great value, though 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-Masʿūdī'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 retailed 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. But he tended to reproduce uncritically what he heard; thus, his explanations of natural phenomena are often incorrect. Yet he was no worse, in this respect, than medieval European travelers such as Marco Polo and Sir John Mandeville.

      Al-Masʿūdī had no settled abode for most of his adult life. In 945 he settled in Damascus. Two years later, he left there for al-Fusṭāṭ (old Cairo), where he remained until his death in 957. It was there, in the last year of his life, that he wrote Kitāb at-tanbīh wa al-ishrāf (“The Book of Notification and Verification”), in which he summarized, corrected, and brought up-to-date the contents of his former writings, especially the three historical works.

John A. Haywood
 

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Universalium. 2010.

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