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READ: The Lion of the Sea — Ahmad Ibn Mājid

Being a great sailor requires a lot of knowledge, and the greatest among them relied heavily on the collective learning that made crossing the vast Indian Ocean possible.

The Lion of the Sea: Ahmad Ibn Majid

By Bridgette Byrd O’Connor
Being a great sailor requires a lot of knowledge, and the greatest among them relied heavily on the collective learning that made crossing the vast Indian Ocean possible.

Oceans of knowledge

You’ve read the histories of famous thirteenth- and fourteenth-century explorers like Ibn Battuta and Zheng He. The tales of their journeys are incredible. But have you ever wondered how—hundreds of years ago—they managed to travel across thousands of miles and trade with the people they had just met? For example, why was Ibn Battuta welcomed in places like East Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, India, and China, even though he was a stranger from far away? How did Zheng He manage to safely get his massive ships across the perilous Indian Ocean multiple times? What skills, knowledge, and experience must they have had? The two answers I’m going to share are very different, yet equally accurate: First, the spread of a common belief system; and second, collective learning. A great way to understand both of these explanations is to take a close look at the life of one fifteenth-century Omani navigator. His name was Ahmad Ibn Mājid.
Map of the Indian Ocean showing the route of the fifteenth-century Chinese explorer Zheng He. We don’t know specific routes taken by Ahmad Ibn Mājid but we do know that he carefully described tides, monsoon winds, and currents near various port cities such as Muscat, Riyadh, and Hormuz in the Indian Ocean and others on the coast of East Africa and Indonesia. By BHP, CC BY-NC 4.0.

Background: A sailor’s education

Ahmad Ibn Mājid was born in Julfar, a port city of the Omani Empire, c. 1432 CE. For context, this was about the time Zheng He’s ships were sailing around the Indian Ocean. Ibn Mājid’s father and grandfather were skilled sailors who owned several merchant ships. But before Ibn Mājid could journey out to sea, he had to complete his religious studies. This included memorizing the Qur’an, the holy book of Islam—a requirement for all educated Muslims. His studies also included geography, mathematics, astronomy, languages—and of course, sailing. It might be obvious why an aspiring sailor had to study sailing, but what do all those other subjects have to do with it?
Fifteenth-century sailors had a limited number of navigational instruments. Sailors and traders in the Indian Ocean probably used a compass if they had access to one. That important Chinese invention goes back at least as far as the tenth century, when it was first mentioned in a text. By Ibn Mājid’s time, the compass had made its way along trade routes from China to India and the Arab world. But it could be difficult to use at sea. Therefore, geography was an essential subject for anyone wishing to sail across the Indian Ocean to cities thousands of miles away.
Sidereal or compass rose shows the directions of north, south, east, and west including points in between, which was used to help sailors navigate to different locations. By BHP and Peter Quatch, CC BY-NC 4.
Astronomy was also important for sailors, because the stars and planets were useful markers for finding your way. Arab sailors relied on a tool called an astrolabe, first used by Ancient Greeks, that could determine the altitudes of stars and planets. Arab sailors made improvements to the astrolabe so it could be used to figure out a ship’s latitude (latitude is a way of describing location in terms of north and south). They did this by calculating the angle of the Sun’s altitude at a given time of day. Latitude at sea could also be found using a kamal—a piece of wood fastened to a cord or string with a series of knots in it. Sailors used this instrument to measure latitude using the polestar, or the brightest star nearest to Earth at a given time. Understanding how to determine latitude required knowledge of both mathematics and astronomy.
But to be a successful merchant and sailor in the Indian Ocean, you really needed knowledge of languages and cultures. If you wanted to trade with the many peoples around the region, knowing their beliefs and speaking their languages were key skills. Fortunately, lots of people in the region shared a language, Arabic, and a faith—Islam. This was how Ibn Battuta felt welcome in ports across the Indian Ocean. In fact, he even worked as a judge in a variety of places. Having a common language and religious beliefs united communities from Africa across the Arabian Peninsula to India and Indonesia.
The development of a group of skilled sailors was important for faith as well as trade. Indian Ocean sailors transported more than goods across the seas; they also moved people. At least once in their lifetimes, Muslims were required to perform the hajj, or pilgrimage, to Mecca (in what is now Saudi Arabia). As Islam spread throughout the region, pilgrims from Africa to Indonesia traveled across the Indian Ocean making their hajj to Mecca. The sailors’ knowledge of mathematics and geography helped the pilgrims on the journey as well. Muslims were required to pray in the direction of Mecca five times a day. A good navigator was necessary to point the pilgrims in the correct direction of the holy city at prayer time.
An astrolabe that was used to determine one’s position at sea. By BHP and Peter Quatch, CC BY-NC 4.0
An Arab sailor using a kamal, another instrument used to determine latitude at sea. By BHP and Peter Quatch, CC BY-
This image depicts a dhow, the dominant type of ship used in the Indian Ocean during Ibn Mājid’s time. By BHP and Peter Quatch, CC BY-NC 4.0

Collective learning on the seas

Ibn Mājid earned a reputation as a master navigator, or mu’allim in Arabic. His seafaring skills were known throughout the Indian Ocean, earning him the nickname “Lion of the Sea.” He gained much of his knowledge from the lessons his father and grandfather taught him at sea. But he also learned from centuries of oral and written tradition. Navigational information was collected and passed down across generations in the form of long poems that were memorized, just as the Qur’an was committed to memory.
However, Ibn Mājid’s contribution to collective learning1 extended beyond teaching his children these lessons. He wrote several books on navigation. Some were in the form of poems that helped document the oral tradition. Others were more like an encyclopedia of navigation skills. His most famous was the encyclopedia Kitāb al-fawā’id fī ușūl wa-l-qawā’id (Arabic for Book of Benefits in the Principles of Navigation). This work provided information about all aspects of sailing in the Indian Ocean and Red Sea. Topics included tides, monsoon winds, currents, and distances between ports. It also covered how to determine latitude using the polestar; reefs and other obstacles the sailor might encounter; the movement of the Sun and Moon; and much more.
In compiling knowledge from those who came before him along with his own expert advice, Ibn Mājid made a significant contribution to collective learning. Yet we shouldn’t forget that Ibn Mājid’s writings were the product of centuries of collective learning that took place in this region. Think about what you’ve learned so far about the spread of goods and ideas. A lot of what we’ve talked about—the compass, astrolabe, shipbuilding techniques, as well as Islam and the Arabic language—traveled along the same trade routes as spices and other goods. These ideas made the Indian Ocean a large community of knowledge.
Toward the end of Ibn Mājid’s life, that community changed dramatically. In 1498, the Portuguese sailor Vasco da Gama entered the Indian Ocean after sailing around the southern tip of Africa. But the Portuguese sailors at the time were not as skilled as the people who lived around the Indian Ocean. While Ibn Mājid doesn’t write about meeting the Portuguese, he does document their lack of knowledge on the seas.
“We have ... the measurement of stellar altitudes, but they have not. They cannot understand the way we navigate, but we can understand the way they do; we can use their system and sail in their ships. For the Indian Ocean is connected to the All-Encompassing Ocean, and we possess scientific books ... they have ... only the compass and dead reckoning ... We can easily sail in their ships and upon their sea, so they have great respect for us and look up to us. They admit we have a better knowledge of the sea and navigation and the wisdom of the stars.”
In fact, Vasco da Gama had to enlist the help of an Indian Ocean sailor to make the journey from Malindi (Kenya) to India. Some historians argue that it was Ibn Mājid who helped da Gama reach India, while other historians disagree. Ibn Mājid was probably not the one piloting da Gama’s ship. But da Gama certainly wouldn’t have reached his destination without the collective learning that took place in the Indian Ocean and the contributions of Ibn Mājid and countless others.
Page from Ahmad Ibn Mājid’s encyclopedic work, Kitāb al-fawā’id fī ușūl wa-l-qawā’id (Arabic for Book of Benefits in the Principles of Navigation). By Library of Congress, public domain.
Author bio
Bridgette Byrd O’Connor holds a DPhil in history from the University of Oxford and has taught the Big History Project and World History Project courses and AP US government and politics for the past 10 years at the high school level. She currently writes articles and activities for WHP and BHP. In addition, she has been a freelance writer and editor for the Crash Course World History and US History curricula.

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