Ahmad Ibn Majid: One Of The Most Famous Arab Navigators Of All Times
BY: Habeeb Salloum/Contributing Writer
Shihab al-Din Ahmad ibn Majid al-Najdi, commonly known as Ibn Majid, was born in Julfar (today’s Ras Al Khaimah, United Arab Emirates) in the early 1430s and became a celebrity during the last half of that century. However, he spent most of his life in Muscat, which he described as the most well-known port in the world of his era.
One of the greatest and most illustrious Arab navigators of all times, he gained fame in the West as the one who guided Vasco da Gama, one of the most celebrated of medieval Portuguese explorers, to find his way from the east coast of Africa to India. His wide knowledge of the seas greatly impressed the Portuguese and, in their writings, they referred to him as the ‘Master of Astrological Navigation’.
However, in the Arab and Muslim worlds his fame was much greater. He is still remembered as the most famous compiler of seafaring manuals. These were written in detailed technical terms and provided an accurate knowledge of the sea currents and winds, such as the monsoons, which for centuries, helped to carry vessels from the Arabian Peninsula and Africa to India. Called by the Arabs ‘The Lion of the Seas’, he has remained, for hundreds of years, the patron saint of Muslim mariners.
Arab navigational skill has a long history and is part and parcel of the Arab heritage. The world’s earliest navigational and geographical charts were developed by the Canaanites who, probably simultaneously with the Egyptians, discovered the Atlantic Ocean. Later, the Greeks speculated on the idea that the earth was round.
Subsequently, the Arabs improved on this earlier knowledge and, from their maps, it is evident they knew that the earth was round. In the fields of the armillary sphere, they perfected the calendar, making it more accurate than the Gregorian, and invented or evolved older instruments to facilitate sailing the seas and trading with other countries in the known world of that time.
During these centuries, the Arabs wrote many books about navigation and the sea. The last of these great seafaring authors, called ‘the last great Arab captain of the sea’, was Ibn Majid who had an illustrious ancestry.
Descended from a long line of navigators and scholars, he became interested in the sea at an early age. The son and grandson of professional navigators, he was educated by his father as to the ways of the sea.
Along with his navigation skills, he also studied geography, astronomy, and Arabic literature. He memorized the Qur’an and became a well-read man, familiar with ancient Arabic poetry, history, literature and other subjects.
Ibn Majid authored many authoritative navigational studies, including some 40 works of poetry and prose, many of these relating to the seas. A good number incorporated earlier works of other seafarers such as the celebrated three 9th century captains, Layth ibn Kahlan, Muhammad ibn Shadhan and Sahl ibn Aban’, as well as those written by his own ancestors. However, these were improved on by the many years of his own experiences at sea.
From among these works were his Hawiyat, a poem of some 1,082 verses, which is a genuine treasury of navigational theory. It deals with the signs of the proximity of land, the lunar mansions and rhumbs, the Polar and other stars, and the Indian Ocean and the latitudes of its harbors. No less important were his series of books named al-Urdjuza covering the same subjects.
Perhaps, his most important work was his Kitab al-Fawa’id fi Usal ilm al-Bahar wa’l Qawa id (The Book of Profitable Things Concerning the First Principles and Rules of Navigation), which is written in a prose form and divided into 12 sections. Described as a ‘compendium of the known knowledge of theoretical and practical navigation’, the book covers such subjects as the origins and history of Arab navigation up to his time, compasses, the monsoons, naval routes and astronomical meteorology.
It not only provides incomparable detail on the Indian Ocean, its landmarks, the routes to be used in crossing it, and the region’s chief ports, but in it he includes information on islands such as Madagascar and the Comoros; and the Arabian Sea and the Red Sea, which he calls, ‘the most dangerous of all the seas in the world’. Except for a few corrections of latitude, the work has never been equaled, even in our own times, by any other sailing boats’ guidelines.
He used a compass and maps never before seen by Europeans and became renowned in the West for guiding Vasco da Gama, some writers say by force, to India – opening this important route to Western seafarers and the ‘Age of Discovery’. However, a number of historians, such as Shaykh Dr. Sultan Bin Mohammad Al-Qassimi, ruler of the UAE state of Sharjah, notes that Vasco da Gama was guided to India by a Gujarati Christian called Canani, not Ibn Majid.
Da Gama, in 1498, sailing up the east coast of Africa in search of a pilot to take him across the Indian Ocean to India, was met with suspicion and hostility from the Arab traders and sailors. However, in the port of Malindi, he found Ibn Majid who was willing to guide him. A master of navigation in the region, his guidance of Da Gama led to the downfall of Arab sea power in the Indian Ocean. In the ensuing centuries, Arab historians, realizing the consequences of the Portuguese, repeated a fictitious tale that Ibn Majid must have been drunk when he agreed to show Da Gama the way to India.
Ibn Majid’s rich contribution to the affairs of the sea benefited the sciences of geography and oceanography, especially in the Indian Ocean. Many important ocean ventures such as Magellan’s successful journey across the Indian Ocean are attributed to Ibn Majid’s guidance and nautical legacy.
So great was Ibn Majid’s aptitude as an expert on the seas that more than 350 years after his death, Sir Richard Burton, when sailing in a ship out of Aden in 1854, witnessed sailors praying in his honor.
A pioneer in the realm of navigation, Ibn Majid’s name is, and will remain, the pride of all ocean navigators. With his passing, Arab navigational skills passed on to the Portuguese, and others, but before this happened, the Arabs had contributed much to world geography, navigation and trade.
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