" And His are the ships sailing smoothly through the seas, lofty as mountains." <Qur'an-Rahman 55:24>

Muslim civilization always has been moving. Both the Arabs and the conquerors from Central Asia were originally nomadic and inherited a tradition of travel. Students and scholars went on long journeys to sit at the feet of famous teachers, for the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him); himself encouraged travel even "as far as China" for learning. The wealth of cities depended upon trade. And the Faith of Islam asked of the faithful the most powerful of all reasons for travel, the Pilgrimage. So Muslims traveled the length and width of the vast Islamic Empires and beyond, especially for trade purposes. Muslims traveled by land and by sea and through their trips they began an "Age of Travel and Exploration" far beyond their homelands.

" We have honoured the sons of Adam, provided them with transport on land and sea..."<Qur'an-Al 'Isrâ 17:70>

AstrolabeMuslim sailors used equipment to help them on their journeys. The astrolabe was used to read the position of the stars and planets. In this way, they could read their position on the sea in terms of latitude. These astrolabes were a great scientific achievement of the Muslims. In the fourteenth century the Muslims also used the compass which was first invented by the Chinese. This also helped them travel even without the sun or stars to guide them. And of course the Muslims made maps of the safest journeys. These maps were often kept secret from others by the ship captains who were competing for trade routes.

Zanzibar Coastal Dhow The dhow is a sailing vessel that is still used in the Indian Ocean today. It utilized the winds of the monsoons to go north in the summer and south in the winter. Dhows went up and down the coast of East Africa, and from the Red Sea to the "Spice Islands" of Indonesia, and to Southeast Asia. The dhow shown here is a small one and is still used along the coast. The Muslims built large "oceangoing dhows" that could carry a crew of twenty or more and a lot of cargo and supplies. The oceangoing dhow called the "baghlah" is no longer built. It was the traditional deep-sea dhow; it had a high cabin in the back, with five windows and a poop deck like European galleons (former large trading ship).

The Muslims were masters of the sea. They had maps, equipment and experience that were far beyond what was available in Europe.One of the most famous gegrapher is Al-Idrisi who made a globe or sphere of silver weighing 400 kilograms for the Christian King Roger II of Sicily. Some scholars regard him as the greatest geographer and mapmaker of the Middle Ages. He put together a geographical encyclopedia with many maps.

Furthermore, the Muslims controlled most of the trade routes from the Eastern Mediterranean to China, India and the Spice Islands of Southeast Asia. Because of these factors, European traders had to look for new ways of competing in trade. Moreover, Muslim geographers had proposed that the earth was round, and even estimated fairly accurately its size, and measured its longitude and latitude hundreds of years before. It is also even claimed that they had discovered America before Columbus. Christopher Columbus would have known about this from living among sailors in Spanish and Italian ports. Perhaps he even heard stories of earlier adventures across the Sea of Darkness.In one of his letters, Columbus named Averroes who helped him guess the existence of the new world.

In 1492, Christopher Columbus set sail on three small ships from Spain with a Muslim navigator (a person who has skills in getting from place to place), an Arab translator, maps, and equipment. His goal was to sail across the Atlantic and reach China and India. Of course he was mistaken about the size of the earth and the existence of the Americas to block his way. But his trip was the beginning of new ways for Europeans to look at the world.

" When distress seizes you at sea, those that ye call upon, besides Himself, leave you in lurch! But when He brings you back safe to land, ye turn away (from Him). Most ungrateful man!" <Qur'an-Al 'Isrâ 17:67>

Ibn BattutaIbn Battuta (1305 - 1369?) was perhaps the greatest traveler of the Middle Ages, having traveled about 75,000 miles in 29 years! He is especially important to history because of his written reports of his travels. From these records we can learn about the cultures that he visited. The book about his travels is the only historical source of information about many of the places he visited which included the East African coast, the Empire of Mali in West Africa, Arabia, Iraq, Iran, Turkey, India, China, Spain, and many, many more! As a Muslim, he took advantage of the generosity shown to pilgrims and travelers in the Empire. He was often given gifts (of horses, gold, and even slaves) and stayed for free in dormitories, private homes, and even in the palaces of Muslim rulers. For seven years he worked for the Sultan in Delhi, India. On his travels he met several Sultans who welcomed him into their company. His descriptions are filled with adventures and stories.

Leo Africanus (Hasan a-Wazan) was a traveler and mapmaker who lived from 1485-1554. He was captured by Christian pirates and presented to the Pope as a slave. He later was commissioned to write about and make maps of his travels in West Africa. His description of Timbuktu (now in the country of Mali) tells of the city famous for trade of African products and for scholarship with a thriving trade in books. (source:"Leo Africanus: Description of Timbuktu" Washington State University.)

Prominent Arab figures who excelled in philosophy, arts and sciences played a substantial role in enriching civilization and Ibn al-Haitham is one of those outstanding characters who thought he can control the geography of Egypt by controling the Nile river floods. He worked as a clerk for some caliphs. Working in a governmental job did not suit his bent, so he devoted his time and efforts to his own scientific studies. He was renowned for his knowledge of the sciences and philosophy, even when he was still young.


Water in the light of the Qur'an
Life in the Ocean