Biography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1373

Article abstract: A major compiler of geographical, historical, and ethnographic information, Yaqut was the first Muslim scholar to use an encyclopedic organization for his material. His work gives modern scholars the most comprehensive insight on the state of knowledge in the thirteenth century Islamic world.

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Early Life

Yaqut ibn ʿAbdallah was born of Greek parents. He is known by two different sobriquets indicative of uncertainty about his origins: al-Rumi (“the Roman” or “the Byzantine”) and al-Hamawi, in reference to his claimed place of birth in Hama, Syria. Yaqut’s early life was one of slavery in the service of a prominent merchant in Hama. (The name Yaqut means “ruby”; slaves often received names of gems or other precious objects.) Slavery in medieval Islam, however, did not necessarily imply the dire fate usually assumed by Western students. Yaqut’s master quickly recognized his servant’s scholarly inclinations and gave him a solid, practical education, whereupon he became the merchant’s personal secretary for several years.

Yaqut and his merchant master moved to Baghdad around 1199. According to some sources, Yaqut married in Baghdad and fathered several children. When Yaqut reached his majority, however, his master, rather than endowing him with property and a place in the family inheritance order—gestures expected in the middle-class culture of the time—released Yaqut from his service. Forced to make his own way in the world, Yaqut took to wandering, copying and selling manuscripts for a living.

Yaqut’s travels took him first to Oman and the island of Qeshm at the mouth of the Persian Gulf, where he appears to have attempted some merchant ventures. He was seen in Tabrīz, in northwestern Iran, in 1213. During the next two years, he traveled through Egypt, Palestine, and Syria. In 1215, in Damascus, Yaqut ran afoul of politics. At this time, he was a follower of the Kharijites, a fervently democratic, almost anarchist movement which violently rejected the idea of a caliphate based on descent from Muhammad. The Kharijites argued that the caliph could be anyone, even a non-Arab (which is to say, from among the great majority of Muslims), and that selection should be based strictly on merit.

Yaqut’s Kharijite views did not sit well in Damascus, and he became embroiled in a fierce public quarrel that forced him to flee the city with the police on his heels. He withdrew all the way to the important library center of Marw in northeastern Iran, where he spent the next two years combing libraries. By 1218, Yaqut had reached the city of Khiva in Khwarizm, south of the Aral Sea. There, hearing of the impending advance of Genghis Khan and the Mongols, he decided to beat a hasty retreat back to Iraq.

Life’s Work

The scholarly fame of Yaqut rests principally on two works, the better known of which is his geographical dictionary Kitab muʿjam al-buldan (1224, 1228; partial translation as The Introductory Chapters of Yaqut’s “Muʿjam al-buldan,” 1959). The manuscript comprises some four thousand pages, with an introductory section discussing various theories of the nature of the world, followed by more than fourteen thousand entries. The second work is a dictionary of learned scholars, Muʿjam al-udaba (Yaqut’s Dictionary of Learned Men, 1907-1913), which covers about twenty-seven hundred manuscript pages and includes about one thousand important biographical sketches.

Yaqut completed the first draft of Kitab muʿjam al-buldan in Mosul in 1224 and the final version in Aleppo in 1228. The work is of particular significance because Yaqut was one of the last scholars in medieval Islam to have access to libraries east of the Caspian Sea—many of which were in long-established intellectual centers—before the Mongol invasions of that region which resulted in the loss of large amounts of material. Yaqut acknowledges in his introductory remarks that it was the intellectual environment of Marw which inspired him to write the work. It affords an unrivaled synopsis of what was known about the world, its structure, and its place in the cosmos, in the twilight of caliphal times.

Kitab muʿjam al-buldan is a much more organized study than some of its rambling predecessors in the broad fields of history, geography, and ethnography. The entries are arranged alphabetically, and most follow a consistent internal structure in which historical, cultural, and scientific material on each location is discussed and evaluated. Particularly with respect to cosmography and related questions about the nature of the earth, Yaqut often presents conflicting theories developed by earlier scholars.

Yaqut was more a compiler than a synthesizer of knowledge. He lived at a time when most of the creative impulse of Islamic culture in its youth had been spent, and scholars contented themselves with assembling the enormous mass of information gathered by preceding generations. In composing Kitab muʿjam al-buldan, Yaqut worked without official patronage or, indeed, much encouragement of any kind, a circumstance which explains his numerous caustic comments on the state of scholarship in Syria.

The introductory portions of Kitab muʿjam al-buldan represent a mix of Greek and Islamic learning. The cosmographical schemes show heavy Hellenistic influence. On other matters, Yaqut made extensive use of his Muslim predecessors. His material on oceanography, for example, comes almost verbatim from the writing of the eleventh century scholar al-Bīrūnī, who flourished in the lands east of the Caspian. References on eastern Asia derive from the tenth century historian al-Masudi. Many of Yaqut’s primary sources, however, have been lost or remain undiscovered.

Yaqut’s Dictionary of Learned Men is among several such compilations from various periods in medieval Islam which provide valuable data not only on individual scholars and intellectuals but also on the general state of learning and the scholarly environment in those times.

After his return from Khiva, Yaqut spent the remainder of his life in Mosul and in Aleppo, Syria. It is said that in later life he was in a position to offer financial assistance to the widow and children of his former master, who had been left destitute.

Summary

Kitab muʿjam al-buldan has been acclaimed as one of the most complete and comprehensive statements of geographical knowledge to survive from medieval Islam. Muslim scholars from later generations utilized it extensively. Many Arabic editions, some of them abridged, have appeared. Western scholars have also made extensive use of the work and in some cases have attempted to reconstruct the histories of whole periods or regions based on its authority.

Yaqut’s work is a valuable artifact of the knowledge of his age and, as such, has assisted Orientalists in identifying and, in some cases, eventually tracking down surviving manuscripts of authors once known only through his references. As new manuscripts are discovered, they generally confirm Yaqut’s accuracy of reference and breadth of learning.

Bibliography

De Slane, Baron MacGuckin, ed. and trans. Ibn Khallikan’s Biographical Dictionary. Vol. 4. London: Oriental Translation Fund, 1871. Contains a traditional biography of Yaqut, describing some of the influences on his career and his various activities. A good example of traditional biographical treatment of the figure.

Elahie, R. M. The Life and Works of Yaqut ibn ʿAbd Allah al-Hamawi. Lahore, Pakistan: Punjab University Press, 1965. A biographical sketch together with some translated passages; one of the few sources on Yaqut in English.

Rosenthal, Franz. A History of Muslim Historiography. 2d rev. ed. Leiden, Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1968. A broad survey covering such topics as the Muslim concept of history, the forms of Muslim historiography—such as annals and genealogies—and the wide-ranging topics addressed by Muslim historians (from astrology to political science). The frequent references to Yaqut as a source attest his importance, but no extended study of individual historians or their works is included. Index, but no bibliography.

Yaqut. The Introductory Chapters of Yaqut’s “Muʿjam al-buldan.” Leiden, Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1959. Virtually the only readily available source of Yaqut in English. An exhaustively annotated translation of the portion of the Kitab muʿjam al-buldan which lays out Yaqut’s cosmographical scheme. The introductory section is an excellent example of his dependence on Greek paradigms and his methods of citation of earlier Muslim writers. The notes are rich in citations of German- and Arabic-language studies, which constitute the bulk of research on this figure.

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