Al-Idrisi was one of the great geographers and cartographers of the world.

He designed an atlas with seventy sectional maps to depict the world, wrote a major book on world geography, and constructed a large silver disc showing the world in detail.

Idrisi attempted to combine descriptive and astronomical geography and discovered and mapped the source of the Nile about six hundred years before the Europeans.

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Life

Abu Abd Allah Muhammad ibn Muhammed al-Sharifa al-Idrisi was born in 493 AH/1100 CE in Sabtah (Ceuta) in Morocco. His family claimed descent from the Prophet Mohammad (s) himself.

One of his ancestors, Idris, traced his lineage to Imam al-Hasan (r), grandson of the Prophet. His immediate ancestors ruled over the city of Malaqa (Malaga) in Spain for some time. When they lost their authority, they migrated to Ceuta.

In 1138 CE, The Christian King of Sicily Roger II invited al-Idrisi to Palermo, his capital. Roger was not satisfied with the existing Greek and Islamic geography and asked al-Idrisi to write an original work.

Roger, whose father had wrested Sicily from the Muslim rulers after a long war of 30 years in 1091, treated al-Idrisi with great respect. He granted him a high rank and a king’s pension. In return, al-Idrisi dedicated his great geographical work Nuzhat al-mushtaq to Roger.

Al-Idrisi stayed in Sicily for forty years. He travelled to Asia Minor, Africa and Europe including Spain, Portugal, France and England. In his last years, he returned to his birthplace Sabtah, where he died in 561 AH/1166 CE at the age of sixty-eight years.

Contribution

After fifteen years of hard work, al-Idrisi completed his book on the world titled Nuzhat al-mushtaq fi ikhtiraq al-afqaa (Amusement for one desirous of travelling around the world) which is acclaimed as one of the great books of geography.

The book, which was planned as a key to the magnificent set of maps, gives a description of the earth as a globe, the hemisphere, climate and seas. He stated that the earth ‘remains stable in space like the yolk of an egg’.

He divided the earth’s surface into seven climatic zones attitudinally, each subdivided into ten longitudinal sections. For each section, he provided a map drawn with the corresponding latitude and longitude.

The book is a treasure trove of information on a large number of countries and regions in Europe, Africa and Asia, from China and Malay Island to England and Iceland. It includes topographical facts, physical features, ocean, rivers, mountain, flora and fauna, crops, economic conditions, trade and commerce, commodities, arts, people, customs etc.

He was the first writer to give an accurate description of Scandinavian Peninsula.

He discovered and mapped the source of Nile centuries before the Europeans, and gave an exact account of the Niger and Sudan.

He corrected various erroneous notions of Ptolemy (on the enclosed Indian ocean for instance), courses of several rivers (Niger, Danube), and the position of major mountain ranges.

He designed a huge silver disc measuring 12 feet by 5 feet and inscribed on it the map of the world with all its features. The sectional map that he drew for his book was based on this disc map. His book was printed in Rome in 1591 CE and soon translated into Latin and Italian.

As a geographer and cartographer, al-Idrisi influenced Europe for centuries.