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]