Childhood & Early Life
Muhammad al-Idrisi was born in the Andalusian city of Ceuta, a Spanish enclave in Morocco, in 1100 AD where his grandfather had settled after fleeing from Malaga in the year 1057 AD.
Al-Idrisi was the descendant of Idrisid, the ruler of Morocco, who was a direct descendant of Hazrat Hasa, the grandson of Prophet Muhammad.
He studied for a number of years in at the University of Cordoba, Spain, also known as Al-Andalus, which was famous for its Spanish Muslim scholars. He spent much of his early life in travelling through Spain and North Africa to acquire geographical knowledge about the regions.
He travelled to Anatolia or Asia Minor when he was barely sixteen-year-old.
He covered the Muslim regions in many parts of Europe in his travels which included the Pyrenees, the French coast on the Atlantic, Portugal, Hungary and York in England.
With the information he collected from his travels in Europe, Asia and Africa, he could create a rough map of the whole world.
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Muhammad aI-Idrisi taught geography at Constanine, Algeria at one point of time.
He had to move to Palermo, Sicily, as the environment in Andalusia was unstable and conflict-ridden. There he joined Abu al-Salt and other contemporary people. He was welcomed by the Normans who had overthrown the Arabs loyal to the ‘Fatimids’ and allowed some of the Muslims to stay on in exchange of the knowledge they provided.
Al-Idrisi used the information gathered by explorers and Islamic merchants, Islamic maps, Norman voyagers and his own knowledge while traveling in Africa, the Far east and the regions of the Indian Ocean to create the most accurate maps to be found during the time before the modern age.
He stayed at the court of the Norman king Roger II of Sicily for eighteen years and in 1154 AD created a map of the Eurasian region containing a part of North Africa, western Asia and Southern Europe for the King. The map was created on a pure silver disk almost 80 inches in diameter weighing almost 300 pounds and had legends written in Arabic. The book accompanying the map is known as the ‘Book of Roger’.
He corrected the wrong interpretation of the Indian Ocean enclosed by land on all sides and the wrong concept that the Caspian Sea was a part of the larger ocean. He also determined the course of the rivers Danube and Niger in his maps. In his opinion the Southern hemisphere was so hot that it was inhabitable.
He also created an enlarged version of the book for William I, Roger’s son and successor, but this work was lost.
He left Sicily in 1161 AD probably due to the Anti-Muslim riots that took place.
Later he made a world map on a sphere weighing almost 400 kilos. He recorded the seven continents with their major cities, rivers and lakes and trade routes on this global map which was perhaps the most accurate map created in the Middle ages. He incorporated the five different climatic zones - one torrid, two temperate and two cold zones in his map.
Unlike the belief in the Christian world that the Earth was a flat plate-like formation, Muhammad al-Idris was the first person to claim that the Earth was round, waters adhered to its surface, and was surrounded by a blanket of air.
He even calculated the circumference of the Earth to be 22,900 miles which was off by only eight percent from the calculations made during the modern times.
Islamic geographers such as Ibn Khaldun, Piri Reis and Ibn Battula were all inspired by the maps drawn by Muhammad al-Idrisi. Explorers like Vasco Da Gama and Christopher Columbus consulted maps drawn by Muhammad before starting on their voyages.
His comprehensive work with the title ‘Rawd-Unnas wa-Nuzhat al-Nafs’ provides a lot of accurate details about Sudan, the Niger above Timbuktu and the river Nile. He corrected the earlier mistakes about the location of the lakes from where the Nile started its journey and the path it followed. His earlier representations of the river do not differ very much from a modern map. His maps were considered a standard for almost three centuries.
He had found that not much had been added to the knowledge of medical plants since the time of the Greeks. He collected medicinal plants wherever he went and added them to the existing list in various languages such as Latin, Berber, Arabic, Hindi, Greek and Persian.
An abridged version of ‘Kitab Nuzhat al-mushtaq fi dhikr al-amsar wa-al-aqtar wa-al-budan wa-al-juzurwa-al-mada in wa-al-afaq’ was translated into Latin and published in Rome in 1592 AD, translated into French and published in Paris in 1619 AD. The complete Arabic text of the book was translated into French by Pierre Amedee Jaubert in the middle of the nineteenth century. A critical edition of the full Arabic text was published in 1970.
His book ‘Rawd-Unnas wa-Nuzhat al-Nafs’ was a detailed account of the Niger, Sudan and Egypt especially the river Nile.
The book ‘Kitab al-Jami-li-Sifat Ashtat al-Nabatat’ is based on medical plants. He also wrote books on fauna and on zoology and was an accomplished poet.