Reconstruction of Mas’udi’s world map, pre-956 AD, oriented with South at the top

Paul Lunde, in his article “Pillars of Hercules, Sea of Darkness”, writes that for the Latin Middle Ages, the Atlantic was Mare Tenebrosum; for the Arabs, Bahr al-Zulamat. Both phrases meant “The Sea of Darkness,” and anyone who has looked west from the northern coast of Portugal and seen the heavy cloudbanks lying across the horizon will admit the name is well-suited to the Atlantic. It was ill-omened: for Christians, the word tenebrosum suggested evil and evoked the Prince of Darkness. For Muslims, the Arabic word for “darkness,” al-zulumat, could not but call to mind the magnificent Qur’anic passage in Surah 24, al-Nur, “The Light,” in which the state of the unbeliever is described as being like “the depths of darkness in a vast deep ocean, overwhelmed with billows, topped by billows, topped by [dark] clouds - depths of darkness, one above the other.”

This name - and its analogue, “The Dark Sea,” Bahr al-Muzlim - sufficiently indicates medieval man’s fear and ignorance of the Atlantic Ocean. But the ocean had other, more propitious names as well. Two of these, The Green Sea and The Circumambient Ocean, appear in the passage just quoted from the famous 10th century Arab historian and geographer al-Mas’udi, whose works are full of fascinating geographical information.

The Arabs used other names also, such as the scholarly Uqiyanus, directly transliterated from the Greek word okeanos, and even, in later sources from the western Islamic world, Bahr al-Atlasi [The Sea of the Atlas Mountains] - an exact rendering of the word Atlantic.

The most frequent Arabic name for the Atlantic was al-Bahr al-Muhit, the Circumambient, or All-Encompassing, Ocean. This name embodied a very ancient notion. The Babylonians, and perhaps the Sumerians before them, envisaged the inhabited portion of the world as an upturned boat, a gufa, floating in the sea. This old Sumerian word was used to describe the round-bottomed reed boats used in the marshes of southern Iraq, where they are still known by the same name. The name and concept have proved extraordinarily persistent. The idea passed from Babylonia to the Greeks, and geographers from Herodotus and Hecataeus (Book I, #108/109) described the world as surrounded on all sides by a universal ocean, even when the limits of the known world had been expanded far beyond anything the Babylonians could have imagined.

Greek Conception of the Shape of the Earth

Long after Aristotle had demonstrated, in the fourth century B.C., that the world was a sphere, the old Babylonian image persisted. Writing almost 1400 years after Aristotle, and perfectly aware that the earth is spherical, al-Mas’udi could still compare it to an egg floating in water. The Arab historian Ibn Khaldun, writing 400 years after al-Mas’udi and almost 1900 years after Aristotle, compared the inhabited portion of the world to a grape floating in a saucer of water.

The ancient belief that nothing lay beyond the Pillars of Hercules became a tremendous psychological barrier. This belief was enshrined in the motto ne plus ultra, “there is nothing beyond,” a phrase echoed in al-Mas’udi’s account of the statues “which point as if to say: ‘There is no way beyond me....’”

Here is a tantalizing reference to early Atlantic voyages, this time from al-Mas’udi. The account must date from before AD 942, the date al-Mas’udi completed the book from which it is taken:

It is a generally accepted opinion that this sea - the Atlantic - is the source of all the other seas. They tell marvelous stories of it, which we have related in our work entitled The Historical Annals, where we speak of what was seen there by men who entered it at the risk of their lives and from which some have returned safe and sound. Thus, a man from Cordoba named Khashkhash got together a number of young men from the same city and they set sail on the ocean in ships they had fitted out. After a rather long absence, they returned with rich booty. This story is famous, and well-known to all Spaniards.

The Historical Annals, which presumably gave a much more detailed account of this and other voyages, is lost. That the story was preserved at all is probably due to the rarity of such voyages. On the other hand, this passage shows that Atlantic voyages were made, and remembered.

In what direction did
Khashkhash sail? If he went north, he may well have plundered the coasts of Portugal, France or even England. But the story occurs in the context of a discussion of the All-Encompassing Sea, not the coasts of northern Europe, which were relatively well-known to the Arab geographers. The context implies that Khashkhash sailed west. If so, the nearest place that could offer rich booty was the Caribbean.

The voyages of the mugharrirun and Khashkhash were private undertakings, apparently motivated by curiosity and bravado. The mugharrirun were “ordinary people”; the companions of Khashkhash were simply “young men of Cordoba.” This is probably why we know so little about them. Medieval historians focused their attention on the ruler and his court, and to a certain extent on the “urban elite.” The doings of private citizens, particularly of the humbler classes, are only incidentally mentioned by Arab historians of the Middle Ages - or indeed, by their Christian counterparts. We know as much as we do about the efforts of Prince Henry the Navigator to find the sea-route to the Indies because these expeditions were sponsored by the Crown, and the same is true of the four voyages of Columbus. Documents, logs and maps were placed in royal archives and were available to the historians of the time, whereas knowledge of the mugharrirun and Khashkhash has come down to us only because of the chance interest of al-Idrisi and al-Mas’udi. It is probable, however, that they entered sailors’ lore along the Atlantic seaboard and joined the tales of other fabulous islands to the west - the Antilles, Brazil, St. Brendan’s Isle, the Green Isle.

Abul Hasan Ali Al-Masu’di (Masoudi) (ca. 895?-957 CE) tells us that he was born in Baghdad. He was a descendant of Abdullah Ibn Mas’ud, a companion of the Prophet Muhammad. However, we know little else about his early years. He mentions his association with many scholars in the lands through which he travelled. However, most of what we know of him comes from the internal evidence of his own works. Although his biographer Ahmad Shboul questions the furthest extent sometimes asserted for al-Mas’udi’s travels, even his more conservative estimation is impressive: Al-Mas’udi’s travels actually occupied most of his life from at least 915 to very near the end. His journeys took him to most of the Persian provinces, Armenia, Azerbaijan and other regions of the Caspian Sea; as well as to Arabia, Syria and Egypt. He also travelled to the Indus Valley, and other parts of India, especially the western coast; and he voyaged more than once to East Africa. He also sailed on the Indian Ocean, the Red Sea, the Mediterranean and the Caspian. Others journeys include Sri Lanka and China among his travels. Lunde and Stone in the introduction to their English translation state that al-Mas’udi received much information on China from Abu Zaid al-Sirafi whom he met on the coast of the Persian Gulf. In Syria al-Mas’udi met the renowned Leo of Tripoli who was a Byzantine admiral who converted to Islam. From him the historian received much of his information about Byzantium. He spent his last years in Syria and Egypt. In Egypt he found a copy of a Frankish king list from Clovis to Louis IV that had been written by an Andalusian bishop.

We know little for sure about how he supported himself during such extensive travels within and beyond the lands of Islam. Lunde and Stone speculate that like many travelers he may have been involved in trade. As both a historian and geographer al-Mas’udi presents China in the context of the entire world known to him in his Muruj al-dhahab wa-mdadin al-jawhar [Meadows of Gold and Mines of Gems]. Thus having been well traveled throughout both the ‘Abbasid empire and India during his lifetime, al-Mas’udi acquired a variety of sources that he used to compile his encyclopedic historical and geographical masterpiece. Near the ending, of the The Meadows of Gold the author Al-Masudi wrote:

The information we have gathered here is the fruit of long years of research and painful efforts of our voyages and journeys across the East and the West, and of the various nations that lie beyond the regions of Islam. The author of this work compares himself to a man, who having found pearls of all kinds and colours and gathers them together into a necklace of and makes them into an ornament that its possessor guards with great care. my aim has been to trace the lands and the histories of many peoples, and I have no other.

The geographical sections, which are among the most interesting to modern readers, are either accounts of his own very far-flung travels or, where there are gaps in his personal experience, accounts gleaned from sources he considered reliable. For example, referring to other scholars, he tells us that “their researches on the latitude of the earth have proved that the inhabited area extends from the equator as far north as Thule, beyond Britain, and there the longest day lasts 20 hours.”

Again, when discussing some methods of water divining, he quotes textbooks on agriculture. On the topic of India, he says of Jahiz, the great scholar, thinker and wit, of whom he elsewhere tells many admiring stories:

Al-Jahiz claims that the Indus, the river of Sind, comes from the Nile and adduces the presence of crocodiles in the Indus as proof. I do not know where he could have found such an argument, but he puts the theory forward un his book, Of the Great Cities and Marvels of the Earth. It is an excellent work, but since the author never sailed, nor indeed traveled sufficiently to be acquainted with the kingdoms and cities, he did not know that the Indus in Sind has perfectly well-known sources.

Al-Mas’udi claims he visited China, yet he actually depended very much on previous accounts to write his section on China and what he learned from contemporaries like Abu Zayd. The eighty-five sources that he lists at the beginning of his book include Ibn Khurradadhbih’s Book of Routes and Realms. Like Ibn Khurradadhbih, he states that China was one of the seven ancient nations that existed before Islam and claims that its people descended from Noah. In contrast, al-Mas’udi supplies richer and more detailed description than Ibn khurradadhbih does, providing detailed geographical facts and a genealogy of the imperial family (which is unreliable, however, because it provides names that are difficult to trace in contemporary Chinese sources). Ahmad Shboul notes that al-Mas’udi rewrote Muruj al-dhahab. The extant version is only an earlier draft from 947, not the revised 956 edition. Lunde and Stone note that al-Mas’udi in his Tanbih states that the revised edition of Muruj al-dhahab contained 365 chapters.

Al-Mas’udi supplies a lot of theoretical information about world geography in Meadows of Gold and Mines of Gems, which derives from earlier Greek works that he studied in Baghdad and Damascus. It begins with traditional Greek theories about the shape of the earth and the division of the lands and seas. A general account of the seas based on Greek tradition ends with the Abyssinian Sea, that is, the Indian Ocean. Al-Mas’udi portrays the Indian Ocean as one mass of water comprising seven connected seas. Each of these seas has its own name and features; the seventh of these lying at the easternmost end is the Sea of China. This complete description of the Indian Ocean’s seven seas supplements the missing part of the extant manuscript for the original volume of Accounts of China and India in 851.

The seven seas described by al-Mas’udi in his Meadows of Gold and Mines of Gems ca. 947

This concept of sea division is similar to the Chinese division of five great seas in Zhou Qufei’s Land beyond the Passes examined in Hyunhee Park’s Mapping the Chinese and Islamic Worlds, although the actual divisions and standards differ from each other. Whatever form it took, systemized information about sea divisions was crucial to geographers who sought to understand the shape of the world, and they were able to receive information about the seas from those who actually sailed in the vast ocean to reach their destinations. Muslim geographers always began their accounts with the descriptions of seas and islands, and they often updated these discussions based on new information from contemporary sailors of the Indian Ocean. Al-Mas’udi also provided new geographical information about the coastline of the known world in his time, which can also be found in Abu Zayd’s account:

In the Sea of Rum [the Mediterranean] near the island of Iqritish [Crete], planks of ships of Indian teak, which were perforated and stitched together with fibers of the coconut tree, were found. They were of ships that had been wrecked and tossed about by the waves from the waters of the seas. This [type of ship] exists only in the Abyssinian sea [the Indian Ocean] because all of the ships of the Sea of Rum and the west [emending Arab to gharb] are nailed, while the ships of the Abyssinian sea are not fastened with iron nails, because the sea water dissolves the iron, so the nails become thin and weak in the sea. So people [of the Abyssinian sea] used stitching with fibers instead of the nails, and [the ships are] coated with grease and lime. This proves, and God knows better, the connection of the seas, and that the sea near China and the country of Slid [Korea] goes all round the country of the Turks, and reaches the sea of the west [the Mediterranean?] through some straits of the encircling ocean.

This discovery near Crete of the planks of a boat from the Indian Ocean surprised geographers of the 10th century, who correctly knew that the Indian Ocean was not linked to the Mediterranean. This could only explain how the individual planks flowed into the Mediterranean, al-Mas’udi concludes. The seas did not connect to each other until the Suez Canal was constructed in the late 19th century. Yet, as we now know, Abu Zayd and al-Mas’udi’s suggested route is unimaginable because small dhow planks could never have floated all the way from the Sea of China to the Pacific Ocean, through the straight of the Bering Sea and into the Arctic Ocean, down Norwegian Sea near Scandinavia, and then through the Strait of Gibraltar at Spain in order to finally enter the Mediterranean Sea. Could the dhow ships have been carried overland to Egypt? Did shipbuilders in the Mediterranean Sea build ships without using nails, consciously or unconsciously imitating dhows? We may never know the story, but we can understand from the passage how Aba Zayd and al-Mas’udi understood the geography of the world during their time.

Ahmad Shboul notes that al-Mas’udi is distinguished above his contemporaries for the extent of his interest in and coverage of the non-Islamic lands and peoples of his day. Other authors, even Christians writing in Arabic in the Caliphate, had less to say about the Byzantine Empire than al-Mas’udi. He also described the geography of many lands beyond the Caliphate, as well as the customs and religious beliefs of many peoples.

His normal inquiries of travelers and extensive reading of previous writers were supplemented in the case of India with his personal experiences in the western part of the subcontinent. He demonstrates a deep understanding of historical change, tracing current conditions to the unfolding of events over generations and centuries. He perceived the significance of interstate relations and of the interaction of Muslims and Hindus in the various states of the subcontinent.

He described previous rulers in China, underlined the importance of the revolt by Huang Chao in the late Tang dynasty, and mentioned, though less detailed than for India, Chinese beliefs. His brief portrayal of Southeast Asia stands out for its degree of accuracy and clarity. He surveyed the vast areas inhabited by Turkic peoples, commenting on the extensive authority of the Khaqan previously, though no longer in al-Mas’udi’s time. He conveyed the great diversity of Turkic peoples, including the distinction between sedentary and nomadic Turks. He spoke of the significance of the Khazars and provided much fresh material on them.

His account of the Rus is an important early source for the study of Russian history. Again, while he may have read such earlier Arabic authors as Ibn Khurradad, Ibn al-Faqih, Ibn Rusta and Ibn Fadlan, al-Mas’udi presented most of his material based on his personal observations and contacts made while travelling. He informed the Arabic reader that the Rus are more than some traders. They are a diverse and varied collection of peoples. He noted their independent attitude, the absence of a strong central authority among them, and their paganism. He was very well informed on Rus trade with the Byzantines and on the competence of the Rus in sailing merchant vessels and warships. He was aware that the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea are two separate bodies of water.

Al-Mas’udi was also very well informed about Byzantine affairs, even internal political events and the unfolding of palace coups. He recorded the effect of westward migration upon the Byzantines, especially the invading Bulgars. He spoke of Byzantine relations with western Europe. And, of course, he was attentively interested in Byzantine-Islamic relations.

One example of Al-Mas’udi’s influence on Muslim knowledge of the Byzantine world is that we can trace the use of the name Istanbul (in place of Constantinople) to his writings of the year 947, centuries before the eventual Ottoman use of this term. He writes that the Greeks (i.e. the Byzantines of the tenth century) call it “the City” (bulin in the Arabic script, which lacks the letter p: so Greek polin); “and when they wish to express that it is the capital of the Empire because of its greatness they say Istan Bulin. They do not call it Constantinople. It is only Arabs who so designate it”. A present day analogy would be the use of the phrases “I am going Downtown” or “I am going into the City” by those who live near say New York City, Chicago or London respectively.

Al-Mas‘udi also made great efforts to find out as much as possible about remote areas of the world. This was clearly not easy, but he managed to glean a certain amount about the Slavs, for example, small numbers of whom traded regularly in Baghdad, as well as the other peoples of Central and Eastern Europe. He has some knowledge of other peoples of eastern and western Europe, even far away Britain. He names it, though he is sketchy about it. He knows Paris as the Frankish capital. He obtained a copy of a list of Frankish rulers from Clovis to his own time.

There is a certain amount about Africa, but there he is more concerned with the geography and natural history, such as exports of panther skins, the habits of the rhinoceros and the course of the Nile, than he is with the customs of the people. This is slightly surprising, since the large number of African slaves in Baghdad would have made gathering information relatively simple. (It may have seemed too easy, too well-known to be worth setting down.) He was well aware of peoples in the eastern portion of the African continent (mentioning interesting details of the Zanj, for example). He knows less of West Africa, though he names such contemporary states as Zagawa, Kawkaw and Ghana. He described the relations of African states with each other and with Islam. He provided material on the cultures and beliefs of non Islamic Africans.

More surprising is the lack of information on North Africa and Spain, which at that time was Muslim. He does say a little about Galicia, but clearly al-Andalus did not interest Baghdad as much as Baghdad interested al-Andalus.

In general his surviving works reveal an intensely curious mind, a universalist eagerly acquiring as extensive a background of the entire world as possible. The geographical range of his material and the reach of his ever inquiring spirit is truly impressive. Al-Mas‘udi’s aims are made clear to the reader in his address near the end of The Meadows of Gold:

“In this book, I have in very few words set down numerous happenings and have made brief mention of events of considerable importance. In any case, each of my works contains information omitted in the book that preceded it, information which could not be ignored and knowledge of which is of the greatest importance and a genuine need. Thus I have reviewed every century, together with the events and deeds which have marked it, up until the present. Furthermore, there is to be found at the beginning of this book a description of the seas and continents, of lands inhabited and uninhabited, of the lives of foreign kings, their histories and those of all the different peoples. If God gives me life, if He extends my days and grants me the favor of continuing in this world, I will follow this book with another, which will contain information and facts on all kinds of interesting subjects. Without limiting myself to any particular order or method of setting them down, I will include all sorts of useful information and curious tales, just as they spring to mind. This work will be called The Reunion of the Assemblies, a collection of facts and stories mixed together, to provide a sequel to my earlier writings and to complement my other works.

Theories of pre-Columbus Arab arrival to the Americas state that medieval Arab explorers (from Spain and Africa) may have reached the Americas (and possibly made contact with the indigenous peoples of the Americas) at some point before Christopher Columbus’ first voyage to the Americas in 1492. Proponents of these theories use as evidence, reports of expeditions and voyages conducted by Arab navigators and adventurers who allegedly reached the Americas from the late ninth century onwards. However, these theories are generally not credited by mainstream historians.

Numerous evidence suggests that Arabs from Spain and West Africa arrived to the Americas at least five centuries before Columbus. Arab sailors in the 10th century sailed westward from the Spanish port of Delba [Palos] into the Ocean of Darkness and Fog. They returned after a long absence with fabulous treasures from a strange and curious land or unknown territory.

In al-Mas’udi’s map of the world, there is a large area in the ocean, southwest of Africa, which he referred to as Ard Majhoola [Arabic for “the unknown territory”]. Some have alleged that Ard Majhoola may be a reference to the Americas.

There are some scholars such as Professor Ivan Van Sertima and Shaykh Abdallah Hakim Quick, and articles in various Muslim publications beginning in 1996, who assert the pre-Columbian presence of Muslim Africans in the Americas. The oral traditions, scholarly writings, and academic research of experts ranging from centuries ago in the ancient world, to the present are offered as an argument. The truth is that there is such a constantly growing, extensive body of cultural, archaeological, anthropological, and linguistic evidence of Western and Northern African Muslim pre-Columbian American (and Caribbean) presence, that those who study the evidence and continue to deny the obvious, may reveal themselves to be rooted in old, racist, European renditions of American history.

It is one thing to read about towering figures in the ancient Muslim world like Al-Idrisi (#219), Al-Biruni (#214.3), Al-Mas’udi and many, many others whose contributions laid the foundations of the modern sciences of history, geography, cartography, and sea navigation. It is another to actually study their work. Both Idrisi and Mas’udi wrote of Muslim African trans-Atlantic excursions to the Western world. Al-Idrisi did so around 956 C.E. Al-Mas’udi wrote in the 12th century. These accounts were written centuries before Columbus’ voyages!

To read about the existence of West Africa Muslim scholars and monarchs like Mansa Musa and Abubakari II, is titillating. To study translations of manuscripts from their era is illuminating. Mansa Musa gave clear testimony in 1324 C.E. of such voyages financed by his predecessor.

These references and more all point to what the non-expert activist dismissed as “wish-fulfillment”. On the contrary, ancient Arabic language maps, Native American tribes with African names and words clearly embedded in their languages, statues, diaries, artifacts, etc. destroy European imperialistic notions of history rooted in White Supremacy. One such notion is that African peoples’ history in America begins with slavery.

Modern scholars and experts reveal the meaning of this material. They include not only Muslim African Americans like Clyde Ahmad Winters (who wrote a series of brilliant articles in the magazine Al-Ittihad in the late 1970s, including “Islam in Early North and South America”, and “The Influence of Mande Languages on America”,) and Shaykh Abdallah Hakim Quick (who is a widely respected and accomplished historian with a doctorate in West African studies, and author of Deeper Roots), but also scholars from the African continent - Dr. Sulayman Nyang, the Gambian-born Howard University Professor of African Studies , as well as Kofi Wangara, and others . 

Map of the world by Al-Mas’udi, “Ard Majhoola”refers to the Americas

(oriented with South at the top)

The list of distinguished Non-Muslim African American scholars who have written on the subject is long, stemming from as far back as the 1920s. They include the writings of Professor Leo Weiner, John G. Jackson (Introduction to African Civilization, 1937), J.A. Rogers (Africa’s Gift to America, 1961), Carter G. Woodson (The African Background Outlined), Harold G. Lawrence (African Explorers of the New World, 1962), and too many others to list here.

Professor Ivan Van Sertima is an internationally acclaimed historian, linguist, and anthropologist. His book They Came Before Columbus (1976), won the Clarence L. Holt Prize in 1981. It is a literary prize awarded every two years “for a work of excellence in literature and the humanities relating to the cultural heritage of Africa and the African diaspora.” Van Sertima’s later compilation, African Presence in Early America, is considered a definitive work on the subject. On July 7, 1987 Dr. Van Sertima appeared before a Congressional Committee to challenge the “Columbus myth”. In November 1991 he defended his thesis in an address to the Smithsonian Institute.

These scholarly, ground-breaking works, focusing upon African Muslim (as opposed to European Viking) pre-Columbia exploration of North America, include those written by what is believed to be the first Western author to write on the subject, Harvard Professor Leo Weiner (Africa and the Discovery of America, 1920-22). Weiner heads a list of historians and social scientists who were neither African nor African Americans (including Basil Davidson, Robert Silverburg, Cyrus Gordon (Before Columbus, 1971), Legrand H. Clegg, Lewis Spence, Barry Fell , Jose V. Pimienta-Bey , and many others).

These works compliment references in the writings of Christopher Columbus, Balboa, and other European explorers, to those very same Muslim African explorers (specifically The Mandinka –the people of Kunta Kinte, ancestor of Alex Haley, author of Roots, and The Autobiography of Malcolm X) who were already present in the Caribbean and North America, before the bearers of the Cross arrived (e.g. Narrative of the Third Voyage, The Voyages of Christopher Columbus, Lionel Cecil Jane).


Lunde, Paul, Caroline Stone, Kegan Paul, Mas’udi, The Meadows of Gold, The Abbasids, translation, London and New York, 1989.

Lunde, Paul, “Pillars of Hercules, Sea of Darkness”, Saudi Aramco World, 1992, pp. 6-17.
Park, H., Mapping the Chinese and Islamic Worlds, pp. 70-73.

Shboul, A., Al-Mas’udi and his world: A Muslim Humanist and His Interest in Non-muslims.