Ali ibn al-Husayn al-Masudi

Ali ibn al-Husayn al-Masudi (died 956) was an Arab historian and one of the most versatile and original authors in the age of efflorescence of Moslem civilization.

Al-Masudi was born in Baghdad, a descendant of Abd Allah ibn Masud, a prominent companion of Mohammed. Numerous notices in al-Masudi's extant works indicate that he traveled extensively, but they do not suffice to establish his itineraries. In 915/916 he visited Basra and Istakhr (Persepolis) and then traveled in India, where he saw the area of Bombay, the Gulf of Cambay, and the Moslem towns of Multan and Mansura in Sind. That he also saw Ceylon and the China Sea, as he claims, has been doubted.

Still, in 916/917 al-Masudi reached Zanzibar and sailed from there to Oman. In 921/922 he visited Aleppo. Probably after this trip he visited the area south of the Caspian Sea. He mentions visiting other provinces of Persia without specifying dates. Also unknown are the dates of his journeys on the Red Sea, in Yemen, and in Hadhramaut. In 925 he mentions his presence in Baghdad and Tikrit; in 926 he was in Tiberias in Palestine; and at the beginning of 928 he was back in Hit in Iraq on the way to Baghdad.

During the last period of his life al-Masudi lived mostly in al-Fustât (Old Cairo), Egypt, where his first recorded visit was in 942. He visited Antioch in 943 and Damascus in 946. He traveled to Upper Egypt as far as Nubia.

Nothing is known about the purpose of his voyages and his means of financing them. It has been suggested that he was active as a missionary for the Ismailite movement, but this appears unlikely. Though his works reflect definite Shiite leanings, they lack the purposeful engagement to be expected in an active propagandist. His religious sentiments are, moreover, closer to the Imamite than the Ismailite branch of Shiism.

Whatever the immediate motive for his travels, al-Masudi satisfied his immense curiosity and supplemented and corrected the information he had gained from his wide reading through personal observation, conversations with people of all walks of life, and reports of other travelers. He was equally competent in the religious and the rational fields of learning, though his restless life and manifold interests prevented him from pursuing any science in depth. His keen interest and open-mindedness in respect to foreign peoples and religions reflect the cosmopolitan spirit of the age.

His Writings

Although the titles of over 30 works of al-Masudi are known, only two of certain authenticity are extant. Al-Masudi wrote a universal history in 30 volumes. This work and an abridged version of it are lost. His most famous book, the Meadows of Gold, is a further abridgment with later additions. The first volume, on pre-Islamic history, deals with the story of creation, biblical history, description of the world, history and ethnography of the non-Arab nations and the pagan Arabs, archeological remains, and calendars.

The second volume, on Islamic history, is also replete with observations outside the scope of conventional works of history. His Book of Notification and Review was written shortly before his death as a summary of his literary activity. Though shorter than the Meadows of Gold and similar in subject matter, it contains much independent information. The authenticity of a book about the imams from the time of Adam to the 12 imams of Imamite Shiism ascribed to him is uncertain.

Al-Masudi died at al-Fustât in September/October 956.

Further Reading on Ali ibn al-Husayn al-Masudi

The first part of al-Masudi's Meadows of Gold was translated into English by Aloys Sprenger, El-Masudi's Historical Encyclopaedia Entitled "Meadows of Gold and Mines of Gems" (1841). For background see Reynold A. Nicholson, A Literary History of the Arabs (1914; 2d ed. 1930).

Additional Biography Sources

Shboul, Ahmad M. H., Al-Masudi & his world: a Muslim humanist and his interest in non-Muslims, London: Ithaca Press, 1979.

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