24 May 2020

The Spherical Wisdom of the Turner

As we plough on, degree by degree, through the details of the lunar mansions, which means coming to terms with the subtleties related to the intersection of synodic and tropical moon cycles, Ibn Mājid throws us yet another unexpected glimpse into a comprehensive cosmological vision underpinning the science of navigation—as every other medieval artisanship: “Understand this wisdom, only comparable to what is effected by the one who makes the spheres turn” (dawwār al-adwār).

All the rotating precision which makes orientation possible is thus devolved to its ultimate cause, the prime mover who, like a turner or a potter (a traditional Biblical image), keeps giving shape to the universe through the motion of a cosmic lathe—or revolving in his divine mind the archetypal ideas.


Astronomicum Caesareum, 16th century

It is little wonder that the ups and downs of sublunary existence are under the sway of a wheel, Fortune’s, which at times is like a tornado, and at times an immovable mover like the Ka‘bah (one of whose epithets is, precisely, dawwār). Same idea in India with the King of the World, the chakravartin, “through whom the wheel is moving” or “he who controls by means of a wheel.”

The Arabic divine name of al-Dawwār is quite uncommon in Islamic sources, but it’s all about the tornator—tornado and turner at once—qui tornavit coelum et terram, et sphaerica solis et lunae cunctarumque corpora stellarum torno suo, “who with his lathe turns heaven and earth, and the sphaeric bodies of sun, moon and all other stars”—or more concisely and familiarly: amor che move il sole e l'altre stelle. [JA]

17 May 2020

Do You Have What it Takes?

What does it take to be an Arab pilot in the fifteenth century? According to Ibn Mājid’s second Fā’idah, a great deal. It is not enough to master the astronomical and geographical knowledge needed to plan and to make a voyage in the Indian Ocean. Before all that, a pilot should be a person of great character. Learned and accepted among the people, he “should know patience from slowness, distinguish between haste and movement… moderate the words in his speech; be just, righteous and harming no one.” Otherwise —if he fails to meet such values— he is not a pilot in principle.

Such praise for a good character is not an innovation of Ibn Mājid. In Arabic literature on navigation, it is sometimes found linked to the pilots’ responsibility for maintaining a safe voyage. Writing in the tenth century, Buzurg ibn Shahriyār tells the story of a great oceanic storm and how the pilots were even then bound by oaths to preserve the well-being of his ship: “we pilots live with its peace and die with its ruin.”


Man overboard!
British Library Ms. IO Islamic 843, Folio 42v

Following the second Fā’idah, the secret to meet such responsibilities is the combination of two factors: mastery of technical knowledge and possession of a great character. Holding such a combination, a pilot would be prepared to face the challenges posed by oceanic voyages. Thus —Ibn Mājid suddenly concludes—, if one is in possession of a great character, then he should begin to learn the twenty-eight Mansions of the Moon (manāzil). And so, we move to the third Fā’idah! [IB]

10 May 2020

The Magic Circle

Being didactic is a notable trait of Ibn Mājid’s style. These are not cold, detached manuals. Instead, you find throughout his works series of imperatives exhorting the “seeker”, the “questioner”: “understand and know, strive and realize your knowledge,” because “the cases and causes of the sea are many.”

Now, the first thing on the list is “the actual knowledge” of “the magic circle of the rhumbs and mansions (mandal al-akhnān wa-al-manāzil).”

When Ibn Mājid elaborates on the details of the relation between the thirty-two rhumbs and the twenty-eight lunar mansions, on how to lay them upon the circle of the compass in order to plot your course, the immediate and unexpected analogy is that of the Far Eastern luopan, the geomantic compass (or Feng Shui compass), an outright “magic circle” where a central magnetic needle is surrounded by the concentric sequences of signs in spheres of knowledge. “Ponder and ask for advice, and wake the night and be resolute.” Every time, the pilot is virtually at the centre of the universe to perform his task. [JA]

3 May 2020

Cosmic Magnetism

Last Wednesday we were once again taken by Ibn Mājid on an entertaining and unexpected detour, and once again on occasion of the magnetic compass (or rather on the stone itself, al-maghnātīs, lodestone). Adding to the association with King David, we learnt that according to other sources, the discovery of al-maghnātīs is due to al-Khidr, the enigmatic Qur’anic sage and immortal wanderer who looks after travellers and craftsmen… or according to others, it was discovered by Alexander the Great (Dhu’l-Qarnayn)—and anyway the two of them were cousins!

And then things took a cosmic turn: “For the seven heavens and the earth are suspended (or “held together”) by the Magnet of Power” (maghnāṭīs al-qudrah, but those uppercase letters certainly look appropriate here!). I have tried to find similar images in Islamic or other cosmologies, but so far it seems quite unique. There may be something in Indian or Chinese mythology, and it might shed light on the still debated ultimate origin of the magnetic compass. Suggestions are welcome.
Lodesone picture from the collection at Kenyon College.
Then, to round off his explanation, as if to make sure people get his meaning, Ibn Mājid regales us with the only thing he dared write “on such an uncertain matter”, which happens to be a love poem:
Your house is the magnet of my feet when I walk
And you yourself the magnet of my heart and my eyes.
Now, this was unexpected: like Aristotle, when compelled to make understandable the basic force that holds the universe together, he calls upon love and desire. It is quite something to imagine the audience of Ibn Mājid reading these lines, but perhaps less than taking in the gist of his analogy: that from Ibn Mājid’s feet, to the planets and galaxies, to any little magnetic compass in our hands, the same cosmic force is drawing us and guiding us to our destination. [JA]

25 Apr 2020

The Killer Stone

As we continue to read on the mythical origins of navigation, ever so gradually entering into nautical technicalities, we came to a passage where the importance of the magnetic compass for navigation is mentioned. The word used is al-maghnātīs, magnetite, or rather, given the context, a piece of lodestone or naturally charged magnetite. As expected, Ibn Mājid tells us that the craft of navigation is not complete without it. What is unexpected is the scriptural turn: this maghnātis was an invention of King David (yes, the Biblical and Qur’anic prophet), and moreover, it was with this stone that he killed Goliath.

From a manuscript of Stories of the Prophets
Spencer Collection, The New York Public Library.
David stands on the left with his sling.
We do not normally associate a magnetic compass with violence, but this association echoes somewhat the violent origin of the word “route”, ultimately from the Latin (via) rupta, the broken way, as when someone breaks a way through and is “groundbreaking” and “trailblazing”. A “rutter” is, accordingly and originally, the testimony to a violent act, often having to do with braving the perils of long journeys, but essentially and always the internal violence of forcing the limits of knowledge.

The image of the giant, symbol of hostile ignorance and evil, as “the (magnetic) stone sank into his forehead” (1 Samuel 17), is a powerful reminder of the inner struggle of every scientific endeavour and of the image of the “crest-jewel” and the “sword of discrimination”. The implicit imperative, for anyone engaged in any path of knowledge, is the one in the Mahabharata: “Fight, son of Pandu, and win!” [JA]

18 Apr 2020

Nautical Silsilah

One, two, three, four… following directly from our latest post, and in an amazing diachronic echo, our latest reading sessions brought us to the passage in the Fawā’id where Ibn Mājid speaks of his genealogy, his chain (silsilah) of succession of nautical masters, and of how he saw it —the resemblance to al-Maqdisī’s passage is uncanny— written on a rutter (rahmānaj) handed from father to son, and dated AH 530 (about AD 1135). Last time we were left with a gap of about 500 years between al-Maqdisī and Ibn Mājid, and now we seem to have a teasing glimpse of intermediary links in the transmission.

Ibn Mājid keeps a fine balance between criticism and praise of earlier pilots, and he has a striking awareness of two things. First, the value of his knowledge, a “technoscience” properly, variously mentioned as ‘ilm, knowledge, fann, art, ikhtirā‘ah, invention, tajribah, experimentation, and qualified as muṣaḥḥaḥah mujarrabah, authenticated by experience. Second, the unbroken continuity (istimrārīyah) in the transmission of his experiential knowledge, encapsulated in his catchy sentence: nihāyat al-mutaqaddim bidāyat al-muta’akhir “the end point of the ancestors is the starting point of the successors.”


This principle is found in earlier books of Islamic jurisprudence, as a crucial guarantee in the dialectics between preservation and innovation, between circumspect veneration and daring creativity. And the very title of our book is at play here: every chapter is just a fā’idah (singular of fawā’id), an accrual, something added to a previous treasure, almost like a dividend, welcome as a benefit, and yet entirely depending on the existence of the previously accumulated riches. This is also, it will be noted, perfecly in tune with Ibn Mājid’s insistence on referring to himself, humbly and proudly, as “the fourth of three.”


Please note that our Wednesday reading sessions are now online, and we welcome new readers (check the details here!). [JA]

5 Apr 2020

The Missing Lions

This week we were led to wonder about the earliest Arab nautical texts. That Ibn Mājid was not the first author is evident, for he himself mentions three earlier authors famously known as the “three lions of the sea.” Were they the first to write about navigation? How far back does this tradition go?

We have been looking at Aḥsan al-taqāsīm fī maʿrifat al-aqālīm (The Best Division for Acquaintance with the Lands), by al-Maqdisī (=al-Muqaddasī). According to this 10th century geographer, there are only two seas in the polity of Islam: the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean. It is remarkable that the Red Sea, instead of being perceived as a separate entity, is considered part of a unity with the North Indian Ocean. This is in perfect continuity with the Ancient Greek notion of the “Red Sea” (Eruthre Thalassa), practically from Suez to at least the west coast of India.

This 11th century map shows the two seas (south is up!):
the Mediterranean on the right and the “Indian Ocean” on the left.
Even more interesting for our research, al-Maqdisī speaks with admiration of the seamen he met: captains, navigators and merchants, “… and I saw they have notebooks (dafātir) from which they learn, and on which they rely and act.” In other words, al-Maqdisī alerts us as clearly as possible to the existence of a widespread nautical literature, already in the 10th century. From then to the earliest texts known today (15th century), we have five centuries of lost navigational texts! We wonder about the physical format of those notebooks, their resilience, their destinies… and we keep on the lookout, hopeful for bibliographical surprises. [IB]

28 Mar 2020

Noachian Musings

The opening chapter of Ibn Mājid’s Fawā’id starts right at the beginning of navigation, explaining that “the first one to ride the sea, and the first one to deal systematically with its concerns (rattaba asbābahu) and the first one to craft a ship” was Noah. This is perfectly in tune with the Abrahamic view of history, finding echoes in the textual traditions of Judaism and Christianity.

What is not so common and I have kept pondering after our first reading session (and while we contemplate moving our meetings to the cyberspace) is the relation between the stars of Ursa Major and the parts of the ship.

According to this very ancient and fundamental idea, master craftsmen on earth are always imitating a heavenly model. This is what is called mimesis in Greek, a word of subtly metaphysical reach, of ritual liturgical meaning, and quite simply the reason why “imitation is the best way to be original.” From another angle, this correspondence between the ship design and the constellations bespeaks yet another aspect of mimesis: since number comes directly from the observation of the stars (Plato, Epinomis), and given that artistic (meaning here also technical) design is in practice based on number, it will only be normal that the design of the prototype of all ships is patterned after the order of Heaven.
Noah has particular rights to our attention these days, since he must rank somewhere there first among the patron saints and precursors of quarantine: he spent forty days and forty nights on a floating zoo, with bleak prospects, without internet, but, we can surmise, with a trusting heart. Let us keep Noah afloat in our minds! [JA]