Ahmad ibn Mājid
Ahmad ibn Mājid (Arabic: أحمد بن ماجد), was an Arab navigator and cartographer born in 1421 in Julphar, which is now known as Ras Al Khaimah. This city makes up one of the seven emirates of the United Arab Emirates, but at that time it was classified as the coast of Oman. He was raised with a family famous for seafaring; at the age of 17 he was able to navigate ships. He was so famous that he was known as the first Arab seaman. The exact date is not known, but ibn Majid probably died in 1500. He became famous in the West as the navigator who helped Vasco da Gama find his way from Africa to India, however, the leading scholar on the subject, G.R. Tibbetts, disputes this claim. Ibn Majid was the author of nearly forty works of poetry and prose. He was also known as the lion of the sea.
Bin Majid wrote several books on marine science and the movements of ships, which helped people of the Persian Gulf to reach the coasts of India, East Africa and other destinations. Among his many books on oceanography, the Fawa'dh fi-Usl Ilm al-Bahrwa-al-Qawaidah (The Book of the Benefits of the Principles of Seamanship) is considered as one of his best. He also wrote Kitab al-Fawa'id [Book of Lessons on the Foundation of the Sea and Navigation] (in Arabic).
It is an encyclopedia, describing the history and basic principles of navigation, Lunar mansions, rhumb lines, the difference between coastal and open-sea sailing, the locations of ports from East Africa to Indonesia, star positions, accounts of the monsoon and other seasonal winds, typhoons and other topics for professional navigators. He drew from his own experience and that of his father, also a famous navigator, and the lore of generations of Indian Ocean sailors.
He grew very famous and was fondly called Shihab Ad-Dein (The Shooting Star) for his fearlessness, strength and experience as a sailor who excelled in the art of navigation.
Ahmed bin Majid's efforts in the mid-15th century allegedly helped the Portuguese navigator Vasco da Gama complete the first all water trade route between Europe and India by using an Arab map then unknown to European sailors. While this story is the reason for much of ibn Majid's fame in the West, this account is disputed by the leading scholar on the subject: G.R. Tibbets. The account of ibn Majid assisting Vasco da Gama is first described by the Ottoman historian Qutb al Din, roughly 50 years after ibn Majid's death. Tibbets asserts that the account of ibn Majid leading Vasco da Gama to India is slanderous, asserting as it does that ibn Majid (a devout Muslim) was drunk when he traded his knowledge of the route for passage back to Ras al Khaima. While there is some debate as to who Vasco da Gama's navigator was – the result of a lack of clarity in his captain's log and several competing accounts written by contemporary Portuguese scholars – according to Tibbets, the tale of ibn Majid leading Vasco da Gama is popularized largely as a result of the ascendancy of the Western narrative of world history, and is not historically accurate.
Remembered as 'The Lion of the Sea', ibn Majid's true legacy was the substantial body of literature on sailing that he left behind. Arab sailing was at a pinnacle during ibn Majid's lifetime, when both Europeans and Ottomans had only a limited understanding of geography in the Indian Ocean. His Kitab al-Fawa’id fi Usul ‘Ilm al-Bahr wa ’l-Qawa’id, was widely utilized by Arab sailors and addressed celestial navigation, weather patterns and charts of dangerous areas in which to sail. This tome, in addition to his poetic works, were the true legacy of the sailor. Two of ibn Majid's famous hand-written books are now prominent exhibits in the National Library in Paris.
- Tibbetts, G.R. 1971. Arab Navigation in the Indian Ocean Before the Coming of the Portuguese. Being a translation of Kitab al-Fawa'id fi usul al-bahr wa'l-qawa'id of Ahmad b. Majid al-Najid. London: The Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland.
- Khal Torabully, The Maritime Memory of the Arabs, documentary film (52') showing Arab navigation in the Indian Ocean, with a special attention to Ahmad bin Majid, Chamarel Film/Productions La Lanterne, 2000.
- Ahmad, S. Maqbul (2008) [1970-80]. "Ibn Mājid, Shihāb Al-Dīn Aḥmad Ibn Mājid". Complete Dictionary of Scientific Biography. Encyclopedia.com.