Al-Mas'udi was an Arab historian, geographer and traveler. He is sometimes referred to as the "Herodotus of the Arabs". A polymath and prolific author of over twenty works on theology, history, geography, natural science and philosophy, his celebrated magnum opus Murūj al-Dhahab wa-Ma'ādin al-Jawhar, combines universal history with scientific geography, social commentary and biography, and is published in English in a multi-volume series as The Meadows of Gold and Mines of Gems.
Birth, travels and literary outputApart from what Al-Mas'udi writes of himself little is known. Born in Baghdad he was descended from Abdullah Ibn Mas'ud, a companion of Muhammad. He mentions many scholar associates met on his travels through many lands:
Al-Mas‘udi may have reached Sri Lanka and China although he is known to have met Abu Zaid al-Sirafi on the coast of the Persian Gulf and received information on China from him. He presumably gathered information on Byzantium from the Byzantine admiral, Leo of Tripoli, a convert-to-Islam whom he met in Syria where his last years were divided between there 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.
Little is known of his means and funding of his extensive travels within and beyond the lands of Islam, and it has been speculated that like many travelers he may have been involved in trade.
Towards the end of The Meadows of Gold, al-Mas‘udi wrote:
We know that al-Mas‘udi wrote a revised edition of Muruj adh-dhahab in 956 CE; however, only a draft version from 947 is extant. Al-Mas‘udi in his Tanbih states that the revised edition of Muruj adh-dhahab contained 365 chapters.
Al-Mas‘udi's intellectual environmentAl-Mas'udi lived at a time when books were available and cheap. Major towns like Baghdad had large public libraries and many individuals, such as as-Suli, a friend of Mas‘udi's, had private libraries, often containing thousands of volumes. Early in the Abbasid era the art of papermaking was brought to the Islamic world by Chinese prisoners after the battle of Talas and most large towns and cities had paper mills. Available cheap writing material contributed to the lively intellectual life.
Al-Mas‘udi often refers readers to his other books, assuming their availability. The high literacy and vigor of the Islamic world with its rich cultural heritage of Greek philosophy, Persian literature, Indian mathematics, contrasted with that of Europe, when the author of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle was writing. Islamic Abbasid society of al-Mas‘udi's world manifested a knowledge seeking, perceptive analytical attitude and scholarly-minded people associated naturally in this highly civilized atmosphere.
Al-Mas‘udi was a pupil, or junior colleague, of a number of prominent intellectuals, including the philologists al-Zajjaj, ibn Duraid, Niftawayh and ibn Anbari. He was acquainted with famous poets, including Kashajim, whom he probably met in Aleppo. He was well-read in philosophy, the works of al-Kindi and al-Razi, the Aristotelian thought of al-Farabi and the Platonic writings. It is probable al-Mas‘udi met al-Razi and al-Farabi, but only a meeting with al-Farabi's pupil Yahya ibn Adi, of whom he spoke highly, is recorded.
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 mentions meeting a number of influential jurists and the work of others and indicates training in jurisprudence. According to Al-Subki al-Mas‘udi was a student of ibn Surayj, the leading scholar of the Shafi'ite school. Al-Subki claimed he found al-Mas‘udi's notes of ibn Surayj's lectures. Al-Mas‘udi also met Shafi'ites during his stay in Egypt. He met Zahirites in Baghdad and Aleppo such as Ibn Jabir and Niftawayh; modern scholarship leans toward the view that Al-Mas‘udi was an adherent of the latter school.
Al-Mas‘udi 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 could suggest that he was one of their number. However, Shboul points out that his extant works do not specifically state that he was.
Al-Mas‘udi included the history of the ancient civilizations that had occupied the land upon which Islam later spread. He mentions the Assyrians, Babylonians, Egyptians and Persians among others. He is also the only Arab historian to refer to the kingdom of Urartu, when he speaks about the wars between the Assyrians and Armenians.
Al-Mas‘udi was aware of the influence of ancient Babylon on Persia. He had access to a wealth of translations by scholars such as ibn al-Muqaffa from Middle Persian into Arabic. In his travels, he also personally consulted Persian scholars and Zoroastrian priests. He thus had access to much material, factual and mythical. Like other Arabic historians, he was unclear on the Achaemenid dynasty, though he knew of Kurush. He was much clearer on the more recent dynasties and his estimation of the time between Alexander the Great and Ardashir is much more accurately depicted than it is in al-Tabari.
His wide-ranging interests included the Greeks and the Romans. Again, like other 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 holds for Rome prior to Caesar. However, he is the earliest extant Arabic author to mention the Roman founding myth of Romulus and Remus.
In al-Mas‘udi'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 recognized that Arabia had a long and rich history. He also 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 Middle Persian and Indian books to the Thousand and One Nights.
Travels in lands beyond IslamAhmad Shboul notes that al-Mas'udi 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-Mas‘udi. He also described the geography of many lands beyond the Abbasid Caliphate, as well as the customs and religious beliefs of many peoples.
His normal inquiries of travelers 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 what had been the extensive authority of the Khaqan, though this was no longer the case by al-Mas‘udi'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 is an important early source for the study of Russian history and the history of Ukraine. Again, while he may have read such earlier Arabic authors as Ibn Khordadbeh, Ibn al-Faqih, ibn Rustah and Ibn Fadlan, al-Mas‘udi presented most of his material based on his personal observations and contacts made while traveling. He informed the Arabic reader that the Rus were more than just a few traders. They were 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.
His Kuhsabin were probably Kashubians.
Al-Mas'udi was also very well informed about Byzantine affairs, even internal political events and the unfolding of palace coups. He recorded the effect of the westward migration of various tribes 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.
One example of Al-Mas‘udi's influence on Muslim knowledge of the Byzantine world is that the use of the name Istanbul can be traced to his writings during the year 947, centuries before the eventual Ottoman use of this term. He writes that the Greeks call it "the City" ; "and when they wish to express that it is the capital of the Empire because of its greatness they say Istan Bulin. They do not call it Constantinople. It is only Arabs who so designate it". A present-day analogy would be the use of the phrases "I am going Downtown" or "I am going into the City" by those who live near say Chicago or London respectively.
He has some knowledge of other peoples of eastern and western Europe, even far away Britain and Anglo-Saxon England. 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. He makes several references to people interpreted as Vikings, described by him as Majus, they came to Al-Andalus from the North.
Al-Mas‘udi's global interest included Africa. He was well aware of peoples in the eastern portion of the continent. 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-Mas‘udi and the AbbasidsLunde and Stone have provided the English reader with a fluent translation of some three-quarters of al-Mas‘udi's material on the Abbasids from the Muruj al-dhahab. 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 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-Mas‘udi quotes the lines 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 al-Rashid'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.
''At-Tanbih wa-l-'Ishraf''Kitab at-Tanbih wa-l-'Ishraf, 'Book of Admonition and Revision'; an abridged Muruj adh-Dhahab, about one-fifth its length, containing new material on the Byzantines, that al-Mas‘udi wrote shortly before his death.
- Les Prairies d’or. Translated by Barbier de Meynard and Pavet de Courteille. 9 vols. Paris, Societe Asiatique, Imprimerie impériale, 1861-69; Imprimerie nationale, 1871-77. Revised Arabic edition by Charles Pellat 5 vols. Universite Libanaise, Beirut, 1966-74. Incomplete revised French edition by Pellat. Lunde and Stone's English edition of Abbasid material, 1989.
Religious InfluencesSome early commentators on al-Masudi indicate the influence of religious antagonisms. The Sunni scholar Ibn Hajar wrote: " books are imprecise because he was a Shi‘a, a Muʿtazila.". Adh-Dhahabi and Taj al-Din al-Subki believed he espoused heretical Mu'tazilite doctrine. Indications of Shi‘i theology are cited in the following:
1. Aga Buzurg al-Tehrani in Mawsu'a al-Dhari'a ila Tasanif al-Shi'a; 2. Isma'il al-Baghdadi in Hadīyat al-ʻārifīn; 3. Bahr al-'Uloom in al-Fawa'id al-Rijalia; 4. Al-Hilli in Khulasa al-Aqwal; 5. Al-Najashi in his book on Rijal; 6. Al-Tafrashi in Naqd al-Rijal; 7. Al-'Amli in Amal al-Aamal; 8. Al-Barujardi in Tara'if al-Maqal''