The Man Who Knew (Almost) Everything: Mas‘ūdī

By Rob Packer

The Meadows of Gold by Mas‘ūdī

When I came across The Meadows of Gold by Masudi in a discount bookshop, any recollections of him had long vanished. I must have first come across him in Albert Hourani’s A History of the Arab Peoples, where a passing comment early on links his 10th-century historiography with isnad, a part of Islamic scholarship to authenticate hadith (a body of tradition about the Prophet Muhammad and his followers) by verifying sources and the chain of narration.

Broadly speaking, historians use this method today and despite the book’s rather fantastical title, the history and geography included in this selection are encyclopaedic, wide-ranging and—it seems, although it’s hard to judge with a 100-page selection of a five-volume work—surprisingly accurate.

Masudi was born in Baghdad and lived during the so-called Abbasid Renaissance, dying in 956 in Fustat, the precursor to present-day Cairo. These cities may seem close (around 800 miles), but he is undoubtedly one of the world’s great travellers. He travelled widely in the Middle East and visited India and Zanzibar, but his work aims for something even wider: a history and geography of the known world.

His range is mind-boggling. He includes reports of pirates close to today’s Somalia; stories of excavations and booby traps at a pharaoh’s tomb; the fierceness of the Galicians and Franks; information about the Serbs, Moravians and Croats with Slavic-sounding names for their kings; a dispute between the Sumatran and Khmer kings; the clear air and clean water of Korea. The list goes on and on. I doubt that any contemporary Europeans or Chinese would even have the vaguest of ideas of lands on other continents (please correct me in the comments).

Elsewhere, it’s easy to draw comparisons between Masudi’s stories of Viking (Rus, if you prefer) raids on the Caspian coast of today’s Azerbaijan and Iran, and raids on Anglo-Saxon Chroniclers in England. And he goes further to conjecture that the raiders on the Caspian and al-Andalus are the same people.

In places, Masudi is concerned by the idea of knowledge lost with time, worrying “that all traces of science have vanished” and “learning has become too general and lost its depth”. He sounds particularly disappointed at early Christianity, writing, “everything the ancient Greeks brought to light vanished”. It seems a sad irony of history that only two of his thirty-six books survive.

Masudi rejects “professional storytellers” and the Thousand and One Nights: probably as a result of the isnad tradition, he goes back to his sources and discounts people he doesn’t consider up-to-scratch. At one point he makes inquiries in India about a particularly tall story about the rhinoceros and dismisses another Arab polymath with a rather sniffy “I do not know where Jahiz got his story, whether he copied it from a book or heard it from some informant.”

Meticulousness does have limits, though, and there are some suspect stories, anachronisms like the Persian emperor Cyrus sending the Magi to Jesus’ birth and probably countless others, but overall much aligns with the history we know from elsewhere. One example is Masudi’s account of a rebellion in China that sounded strangely familiar: my Tang history is pretty rusty and I think I was actually confusing it with the earlier An Lushan Rebellion, but a quick look at Wikipedia told me that rebel was Huang Chao, the first of China’s Long Marchers.

Quite simply, it’s beyond me how he knew so much.

Mas‘ūdī, From The Meadows of Gold [Translated by Paul Lunde and Caroline Stone], Penguin (2007)

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