Al Idrisi wereldkaart

A detail of the world map from the ‘Kitāb Roedjar’ | Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Wikimedia Commons

c. 1154
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Towns on the Map of Al-Idrisi

Contacts with the Muslim World

‘Kent’ (Ghent), ‘Abrugs’ (Bruges), ‘Sant Mir’ (Saint-Omer)… Under those corrupt names various Flemish towns appeared on a map of the 12th century. Muhammad Al-Idrisi achieved a considerable feat. In an age of limited information he managed to map the world he knew.

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Al-Idrisi was a scholar from a distinguished Maghreb family. In around 1154, having been commissioned by the (Christian) king of Sicily Roger II, he completed the Kitāb Roedjar or ‘Book of Roger’, a description of the world as he knew it. For Al-Idrisi Sicily was the ideal spot to learn more about regions where he had never been. Much knowledge was gathered on that island, which was a crucible of Christians, Muslims and Jews and where numerous traders and travellers visited in passing. Probably Al-Idrisi sought information from them about towns in the Low Countries that he thought important enough to mention on his map. His description was not always accurate, because he was basing himself on incorrect statements. That was not exceptional: Western scholars also used dubious sources when they wrote about distant lands.

Tabula Rogeriana.

Wikimedia Commons

A complete, modern version of Al-Idrisi’s world map. He positioned the south at the top and saw the Middle East as the centre of the world. The Low Countries are at bottom right.

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Contacts with the Muslim World

At the beginning of the Middle Ages Western Europe was not a very fruitful area for science and culture. After the fall of the Western Roman Empire (in 476) the region found itself in crisis. Much of the knowledge that had been built up in antiquity was forgotten. Only the great abbeys kept a number of Greek and Latin works in their libraries. Under Charlemagne (about 800) intellectual life again flourished. But Western Europe lagged behind the Muslim world, which extended from Southern Europe deep into Central Asia. Certainly, in the Al-Andalus region, the south of present-day Spain, scientists and philosophers went to work with knowledge from antiquity. Islamic and Jewish scholars initiated new developments in medicine and philosophy.

From the 12th century on, partly thanks to the Islamic world, culture and science gained a second wind in Western Europe. Christian scholars were influenced by writings from Al-Andalus. Mathematical terms such as ‘algebra’ and ‘algorithm’ come from Arabic. In addition, the Europeans rediscovered part of the legacy of Classical antiquity via scholars from the Islamic world. In this way knowledge was passed from one civilisation to another, each time with additions and new insights.

Focal points

School van Athene.

Rome, Vatican Museums, Wikimedia Commons

Ibn Rushd (Averroes) knew the teachings of Aristotle and had a profound influence on thought in the West. The painter Raphael depicted him at the beginning of the 16th century in his fresco The School of Athens (bottom left, with a yellow-and-green robe and yellow turban)

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Islamic Inspiration for Christian Thinkers

The Muslim scholar Ibn Rushd lived in Al-Andalus in the 12th century. He was a doctor, a judge and a philosopher. For him the Koran had a symbolic meaning. He considered philosophy and science as the principal sources of knowledge. Ibn Rushd wrote various books on the Greek philosopher Aristotle, who was his source of inspiration. He had a great influence on Western Europe, where his name was corrupted to Averroes. Latin translations of his work meant that ideas of Aristotle found their way to Christian thinkers.

One of those thinkers was Siger of Brabant. In the 1260s he taught philosophy at the university of Paris. He lectured on the ‘pagan’ Aristotle and often used the work of Ibn Rushd. Whether he himself agreed with the ideas he taught, we do not know. What is certain is that Siger of Brabant spread views that the church considered dangerous for faith. This led to a condemnation. The ideas of Ibn Rushd also drew criticism at the end of his life because they were purportedly in conflict with Islam.

Van Rubroeck

Cambridge, Parker Library, Corpus Christi College, MS 66 A, fol. 67r

A decorated initial letter from a 14th-century version of Van Rubroeck’s travelogue.



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A Flemish Monk in Mongolia

By travelling the medieval West got to know the world better. Many already had an image of the Middle East through the crusadesthe crusades were attempts by European Christians to conquer Jerusalem and the rest of the Holy Land from the Muslims. . When the crusades came to an end in the 13th century, Western travellers moved on to Asia. That was possible because the Mongol leader Genghis Khan had conquered an area that extended from Eastern Europe to China. In that unified Mongol realm travelling around was much safer than before.

The Flemish monk Willem van Rubroeck was such a traveller. In 1253 he left Palestine on the orders of the French king on a long journey to Karakorum, the capital of the Mongol empire. His mission: to convert Möngke Khan, the grandson of Genghis, to Christianity, so that France would acquire a powerful ally in the battle with the Turks. It did not turn out as hoped: Möngke did not want to become a Christian.

Willem’s journey across the steppe did, however, form a source of information for the West. In 1255 he wrote an account of his experiences. The curious Van Rubroeck regularly had dialogues with the local population and showed interest in the religion and culture of Muslims, Eastern Christians and Buddhists. But his prejudices remained great, as did those of his interlocutors. They all found their own faith superior.

Ibn Sina.
London, Wellcome Collection

In the 11th century the Persian scientist Ibn Sina, known in Europe as Avicenna, wrote a canon or encyclopaedia of medicine, which had a great influence in the West. The doctor Andreas Vesalius studied the work of Avicenna critically in the 16th century.

Een 13e-eeuws manuscript van Aristoteles’ Metaphysica met commentaren van Ibn Rushd (Averroes).
London, The British Library, Royal MS 12 D XIV, fol. 3r

A 13th-century manuscript of Aristotle’s Metaphysics with commentaries by Ibn Rushd (Averroes).

Siger van Brabant.
Copenhagen, Det Kongelige Bibliotek, Thott 411 folio, Wikimedia Commons

At the beginning of the 14th century the Italian poet Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) included the figure of Siger of Brabant (with a red robe) in his Divine Comedy as one of the twelve ‘wise men’.

Dietsche Doctrinael.
The Hague, Koninklijke Bibliotheek, 76 E 5, fol. 1r

The Dietsche doctrinael is a work on ethics written in Antwerp in 1345. It is based on a Latin book by the Italian jurist Albertanus of Brescia (1195-1251). The opening miniature shows four scholars who inspired Albertanus: at bottom left Avicenna is depicted.

Joos van Ghistele.
Brussels, Royal Library of Belgium, II 25.994 A; Google Books

Title page of Tvoyage van Mher Joos van Ghistele (1563). The Ghent nobleman journeyed through the Islamic world between 1481 and 1485. His account is more exact than the average kind of stories in the European literature of the late Middle Ages.

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De wereld van Sofie – 13 mei 2023

Emeritus hoogleraar Philippe De Maeyer (UGent) over Muhammad al-Idrisi.