Arab geographers’ reflections of history

Book: Arab Geographers’ Knowledge of Southern India
Author: Dr. Syed Muhammad Husayn Nainar
Publisher: Other Books, Calicut, Kerala
Year: first published in 1942. Reprinted in 2011
Price: Rs. 450
Pages: 184
ISBN No.: 978-93-8008-10-6
AG Khan 

The fact that Arab sailors had been braving the Arabian sea for several centuries prior to Vasco-de-Gama is no longer a secret. In fact he was guided by Abdul Majid who knew the area as accurately as he knew his own backyard. That Islam reached India during the Prophet’s (SWA) lifetime Malik bin Dinar settled in Kerala as his emissary. The Prophet’s uncle Saad ibn Waqqas reached the Indian coast twice, first at Manipur and then to China during the Prophet’s time.

This book is a study by Syed Muhammad Husayn for a doctoral thesis at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London under the guidance of the eminent British orientalist, Prof. H.A.R. Gibb. It was first published by the University of Madras in 1942 where Dr. Nainar served until his death in 1963. Among his notable contributions is the 13 volume encyclopaedic work, The History of the Nawab of Carnatic, an English translation of 10th century historical document in Arabic on the arrival of the Portugese in Kerala; a biography in Tamil on Seethakathi Vallab, a Muslim sage. He was a visiting professor in Indonesia and founded the Tamil daily Swantantira Nadu

Arab Geographersis a construction of India’s past from the narratives of famous Arab travellers. In his Foreword, L.D. Barnett lands the work which surmounts obstacles of confusion and regards it a valuable contribution to the study of an important aspect of Indian iniquities and of Arabic literature. With his knowledge of three languages – Arabic, English and Tamil he was highly competent in solving the riddle which the travellers had posed.

Divided into four chapters the book covers Geography, Ethnology, Kings and their Kingdoms and Products. Each chapter is preceded by a brief introduction in which the author forewarns the reader with probable confusion that the following narrative might create.

He apprises that a correct appraisal would be possible only by tapping various sources and then comparing them to solve the jig saw puzzle: Sanskrit authors, Greek and Roman geographers, Chinese travellers and annals of Marco Polo and Arabic works of travel and biography. In addition, archeological research must also be done in arriving at a correct appraisal. He confines himself only to Arab sources. He recalls that with the advent of Islam came a great impetus for travel commerce and adventure that persisted till the 14 century when Muslims receded to the background.

The accounts of Sulayman are the earliest, the fountainhead of all knowledge. Silsilat-al-Tawarikkh was the only manuscript Known to exist in Europe (p.19). He divides Arab travellers in five groups. Eight writers from Ibn Khurdadh beh to Mas’udi and Abul Faraz form the first group. They are Ibn KHudadh beh (844-848 A.D.), Ya’qubi (875 or 880), Ibnul Faqih (902), Ibn Rusta 903, Abu Zayd (950), Ma’sudi (943 and 955), Abul Faraz. The second group comprises Istakhari (50), Ibn Hawkal (975) and Maqdisi (985). In the third group is hailed Biruni (973-1048) for Indica being an unparalleled work. In the fourth group are Idrisi (1154), Yaqut (1179-1229), Qazwini (1203-1283), Dimishqi (1325) and Abul Fida (1273-1331). The fifth group has Ibn Battuta (1355) as the most celebrated authority.

He points out a funny error that Hind and Sind are described as two brothers – sons Tawqir Ibn Yaqtun ibn Ham ibn Nuh – a typical pedigree. He also points out that Damishqi mistook Ganges as a river in South India! while describing various places identified (as well as still confused) he first records the names of the travellers who described them, geographical location and their importance. We can identify a few modern names as Baruch/Broach for Barus. Karwar (Habar), Kasar god (Harqilya), Konkan (Komkam), Quilon (Kawlam) Kanchipuram (Kanja), Madura (Mandari) to name a few. He reports that the peop;e of Mankir had a million elephants. The king owned 60,000 whereas laundrymen 40,000 (p.61). abul Fida confuses Mansura (in Multan) to be in South India (p.65) Dimisqi mentions that most of the inhabitants of Shinkh (Cragnomore) are Jews.


Chapter II, III, and IV cover Ethnology, kings and kingdoms and commodities of sale at these places. These provide interesting data about dress, ornaments, character, cleanliness, manners, foods, drinks, amusements, marriage etc.

Ibn Rusta informs that in the whole of India, the man who kills a cow is punished with death (p.93)

Idrisi says that the town of Nahrwarah is frequented by a large number of Muslim traders. They are honourably treated by the king and his ministers, and get protection and safety (p.94). Custom of trial by red-hot iron or scalding water is described by which a person proves his innocence (p.95) and 96). Ibn Rusta furthers informs that adultery is not lawful with all kings of Hind. They put to death both the adulterers (p.97). There is, of course, mention of devdasis (women of the idol) who sell themselves for a fixed sum.

Among the products are enlisted various kinds of aloe, anbar, bamboo (qanna), banana, camphor, cardamom, cinnamon, clove, cocoanuts, crystal, fabrics, honey, mango, sulphur, copper, and pepper

This is a delightful account of interaction between the Arabs and Indians. On the one hand it provides useful information of India’s ancient history; while at the same, it shows the adventurous spirit of Arab travellers. It is an academic extravaganza for those who love knowledge for its own sake.

This article appeared in The Milli Gazette print issue of 1-15 December 2011 on page no. 27

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