Al-Masʿudi Biography


(History of the World: The Middle Ages)

Article abstract: A pioneer Arab historian, geographer, and chronicler, al-Masʿudi traveled extensively, gathering enormous quantities of information on poorly known lands. His work helped set the tone for future Arabic scholarship; he has been called the Herodotus of the Arabs.

Early Life

Abū al-Husayn ʿAlī ibn al-Husayn al-Masʿūdī came from an Arab family in Baghdad which claimed descent from one of the early Companions of the Prophet Muhammad, though some sources erroneously describe him as of North African origin. His educational background is unknown, but his career reflects a catholic and almost insatiable thirst for knowledge.

By the standards of the tenth century, al-Masʿudi was a peerless traveler and explorer, whose feats surpass those of Marco Polo more than three centuries later. He began his travels as a young man, visiting Iran, including the cities of Kerman and Istakhr, around 915. Subsequently, he fell in with a group of merchants bound for India and Ceylon. Later, al-Masʿudi seems to have found his way as far as southern China. On his return from China, he made a reconnaissance of the East African coast as far as Madagascar, then visited Oman and other parts of southern Arabia. There followed a visit to Iran, particularly the region of the Elburz Mountains, south of the Caspian Sea.

On yet another journey, al-Masʿudi visited the Levant. He examined various ruins in Antioch and reported on relics in the possession of a Christian church in Tiberias in 943. Two years later, he returned to Syria, settling there for most of the remainder of his life. From Syria, he paid several extended visits to Egypt. Although it is uncertain whether he traveled there, al-Masʿudi’s writing also demonstrates detailed knowledge of the lands of North Africa.

Al-Masʿudi’s written work is characterized by his adherence to the rationalist Mutazilite school of Islamic thought. The Mutazilites, who applied logical analysis to fundamental questions of human existence and religious law, combined an intellectual disposition with a preference for vocal activism.

Life’s Work

Regrettably, much of al-Masʿudi’s literary work has been lost, so that in modern times it is known only by the references of others and from his own summaries in extant material. Only a single volume remains extant, for example, out of perhaps thirty that constituted al-Masʿudi’s monumental attempt to write a history of the world. The surviving volume covers the myth of creation and geographical background as well as the legendary history of early Egypt.

The major work of al-Masʿudi which has survived is Muruj al-Dhahab wa-Maʿadin al-Jawhar (947; partial translation as Meadows of Gold and Mines of Gems, 1841). Apparently, there was a considerably larger, revised 956 edition of this work, but it is not extant. Al-Masʿudi laid out his philosophy of history and the natural world in Kitab al-Tanbih wal-Ishraf (book of indications and revisions), a summary of his life’s work.

In his books, al-Masʿudi presents a remarkable variety of information. His material on peoples and conditions on the periphery of the Islamic world is of vital importance, as modern knowledge of this aspect of Islamic history is extremely scanty. For modern scholars, however, al-Masʿudi’s style and critical commentary leave something to be desired. His presentation jumps from subject to subject, without following a consistent system. Al-Masʿudi made little attempt to distinguish among his sources or to obtain original versions of information, as, for example, the eleventh century geographer/historian...

(The entire section is 1521 words.)