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Impearls: The Arab Admiralty - and an Arab naval view of the Crusades

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Earthdate 2005-07-29

The Arab Admiralty – and an Arab naval view of the Crusades   by Ibn Khaldûn  (a.d. 1332−1406) 1

The Admiralty

Medieval Arabic world map. Presented to the Norman king of Sicily by Arabic geometer al-Idrisi in AD 1154 (note: south is at top). (The admiralty) is one of the ranks and functions of the dynasty in the realm of the Maghrib and Ifrîqiyah.  It is subordinate to the person in charge of “the sword” and comes under his authority in many respects.  In customary usage, the person in charge of the admiralty is called Almiland, with an emphatic l.  (The word) is derived from the language of the European Christians.  It is the technical term for the office in their language.

The rank (of admiral) is restricted to the realm of Ifrîqiyah and the Maghrib, because both Ifrîqiyah and the Maghrib are on the southern shore of the Mediterranean.  Along its southern shore the lands of the Berbers extend from Ceuta to Alexandria and on to Syria.  Along its northern shore are the countries of Spain and of the European Christians (Franks), the Slavs, and the Byzantines, also extending to Syria.  It is called the Byzantine Sea or the Syrian Sea, according to the people who inhabit its shores.  Those who live along the coast and on the shores of both sides of the Mediterranean are the more concerned with (maritime) conditions than any other maritime nation.

The Byzantines, the European Christians, and the Goths lived on the northern shore of the Mediterranean.  Most of their wars and most of their commerce was by sea.  They were skilled in navigating (the Mediterranean) and in naval war.  When these people coveted the possession of the southern shore, as the Byzantines (coveted) Ifrîqiyah and as the Goths the Maghrib, they crossed over in their fleets and took possession of it.  Thus, they achieved superiority over the Berbers and deprived them of their power.  They had populous cities there, such as Carthage, Sbeitla, Jalûlâ, Murnâq, Cherchel, and Tangier.  The ancient master of Carthage used to fight the master of Rome and to send fleets loaded with armies and equipment to wage war against him.  Thus, (seafaring) is a custom of the inhabitants of both shores of the Mediterranean, which was known in ancient as in modern times.

When the Muslims took possession of Egypt, ‘Umar b. al-Khattâb wrote to ‘Amr b. al-‘Âs and asked him to describe the sea to him.  ‘Amr replied:  “The sea is a great creature upon which weak creatures ride — like worms upon a piece of wood.”  Thus, he recommended at that time that the Muslims be kept away from seafaring.  No Arab travelled by sea save those who did so without ‘Umar's knowledge and were punished by him for it.  Thus it remained until Mu‘âwiyah's reign.  He permitted the Muslims to go by sea and to wage the holy war in ships.  The reason for this was that on account of their Bedouin attitude, the Arabs were at first not skilled in navigation and seafaring, whereas the Byzantines and the European Christians, on account of their experience of the sea and the fact that they had grown up travelling in ships, were used to the sea and well trained in navigation.

The royal and governmental authority of the Arabs became firmly established and powerful at that time.  The non-Arab nations became servants of the Arabs and were under their control.  Every craftsman offered them his best services.  They employed seagoing nations for their maritime needs.  Their own experience of the sea and of navigation grew, and they turned out to be very expert.  They wished to wage the holy war by sea.  They constructed ships and galleys and loaded the fleet with men and weapons.  They embarked the army and warriors to fight against the unbelievers across the sea.  This was the special concern of the provinces and border regions closest to the shores of the Mediterranean, such as Syria, Ifrîqiyah, the Maghrib, and Spain.  The caliph ‘Abd-al-Malik recommended to Hassân b. an-Nu‘mân, the governor of Ifrîqiyah, that a shipyard be set up in Tunis for the production of maritime implements, as he was desirous of waging the holy war.  From there, the conquest of Sicily was achieved.

Thereafter, under the ‘Ubaydid(-Fâtimids) and the (Spanish) Umayyads, the fleets of Ifrîqiyah and Spain constantly attacked each other's countries in civil war operations, and they thoroughly devastated the coastal regions.  In the days of ‘Abd-ar-Rahmân an-Nâsir, the Spanish fleet had grown to about two hundred vessels, and the African fleet to the same number, or close to it.  The fleet admiral in Spain was Ibn Rumâhis.  The ports used by (the Spanish fleet) for docking and hoisting sail were Pechina and Almería.  The fleet was assembled from all the provinces.  Each region where ships were used contributed one unit under the supervision of a commander in charge of everything connected with fighting, weapons and combatants alike.  There also was a captain who directed the movement of the fleet, using either the wind or oars.  He also directed its anchoring in port.  When the whole fleet was assembled for a large-scale raid or for important government business, it was manned in its home port.  The ruler loaded it with men from his best troops and clients, and placed them under the supervision of one commander, who belonged to the highest class of the people of his realm and to whom all were responsible.  He then sent them off, and awaited their victorious return with booty.

During the time of the Muslim dynasty, the Muslims gained control over the whole Mediterranean.  Their power and domination over it was vast.  The Christian nations could do nothing against the Muslim fleets, anywhere in the Mediterranean.  All the time, the Muslims rode its wave for conquest.  There occurred then many well-known episodes of conquest and plunder.  The Muslims took possession of all the islands that lie off its shores, such as Mallorca, Minorca, Ibiza, Sardinia, Sicily, Pantelleria, Malta, Crete, Cyprus, and of all the other (Mediterranean) provinces of the Byzantines and the European Christians.  Abû l-Qâsim ash-Shî‘î [Al-Qâ’im, the second Fâtimid, who ruled from 934 to 946] and his descendants sent their fleets on raids against the island of Genoa from al-Mahdîyah.  They returned victorious with booty.  Mujâhid al-‘Âmirî, the master of Denia, one of the reyes de taïfas, conquered the island of Sardinia with his fleet in the year 405 [1014/15].  The Christians reconquered it in due course.

During all that time, the Muslims were gaining control over the largest part of the high sea.  Their fleets kept coming and going, and the Muslim armies crossed the sea in ships from Sicily to the great mainland opposite Sicily, on the northern shore.  They fell upon the European Christian rulers and made massacres in their realms.  This happened in the days of the Banû Abî l-Husayn, the rulers of Sicily [the Kalbite governors of Sicily in the latter part of the tenth and the beginning of the eleventh century], who supported the ‘Ubaydid(-Fâtimid) propaganda there.  The Christian nations withdrew with their fleets to the north-eastern side of the Mediterranean, to the coastal regions inhabited by the European Christians and the Slavs, and to the Aegean islands, and did not go beyond them.  The Muslim fleet had pounced upon them as eagerly as lions upon their prey.  They covered most of the surface of the Mediterranean with their equipment and numbers and travelled its lanes (on missions both) peaceful and warlike.  Not a single Christian board floated on it.

Eventually, however, the ‘Ubaydid(-Fâtimid) and Umayyad dynasties weakened and softened and were affected by infirmity.  Then, the Christians reached out for the eastern islands of the Mediterranean, such as Sicily, Crete, and Malta, and took possession of them.  They pressed on against the shores of Syria during this interval, and took possession of Tripoli, Ascalon, Tyre, and Acco.  They gained control over all the seaports of Syria.  They conquered Jerusalem and built there a church as an outward manifestation of their religion and worship.  They deprived the Banû Khazrûn of Tripolitania and (conquered) Gabés and Sfax, and imposed a poll tax upon their inhabitants.  Then they took possession of al-Mahdîyah, the (original) seat of the ‘Ubaydid(-Fâtimids), and took it away from the descendants of Buluggin b. Zîrî.  In the fifth [eleventh] century, they had the lead in the Mediterranean.  In Egypt and Syria, interest in the fleet weakened and eventually ceased to exist.  Since then, they have shown no concern for the naval matters with which they had been so exceedingly concerned under the ‘Ubaydid(-Fâtimid) dynasty.  In consequence, the identity of the office of the admiralty was lost in those countries.  It remained in Ifrîqiyah and the Maghrib, but only there.  At the present time, the western Mediterranean has large fleets and is very powerful.  No enemy has trespassed on it or been able to do anything there.

In (Almoravid) times, the admirals of the fleet in (the West) were the Banû Maymûn, chieftains from the peninsula of Cadiz, which they (later on) handed over to (the Almohad) ‘Abd-al-Mu’min, to whom they paid obedience.  Their fleets, from the countries on both shores, reached the number of one hundred.

In the sixth [twelfth] century, the Almohad dynasty flourished and had possession of both shores.  The Almohads organized their fleet in the most perfect manner ever known and on the largest scale ever observed.  Their admiral was Ahmad as-Siqillî.  The Christians had captured him, and he had grown up among them.  The ruler of Sicily (Roger II) selected him for his service and employed him in it, but he died and was succeeded by his son, whose anger (Ahmad) somehow aroused.  He feared for his life and went to Tunis, where he stayed with the chief of Tunis.  He went on to Marrakech, and was received there by the caliph Yûsuf al-‘Ashrî b. ‘Abd-al-Mu’min with great kindness and honour.  (The caliph) gave him many presents and entrusted him with command of his fleet.  (As commander of the fleet) he went to wage the holy war against the Christian nations.  He did noteworthy and memorable deeds during the Almohad dynasty.

In his time, the Muslim fleet was of a size and quality never, to our knowledge, attained before or since.  When Salâh-ad-dîn Yûsuf b. Ayyûb {Saladin to the West –Imp.}, the ruler of Egypt and Syria at this time, set out to recover the ports of Syria from the Christian nations and to cleanse Jerusalem of the abomination of unbelief and to rebuild it, one fleet of unbelievers after another came to the relief of the ports, from all the regions near Jerusalem which they controlled.  They supported them with equipment and food.  The fleet of Alexandria could not stand up against them.  (The Christians) had had the upper hand in the eastern Mediterranean for so long, and they had numerous fleets there.  The Muslims, on the other hand, had for a long time been too weak to offer them any resistance there, as we have mentioned.  In this situation, Salâh-ad-dîn sent ‘Abd-al-Karîm b. Munqidh, a member of the family of the Banû Munqidh, the rulers of Shayzar, as his ambassador to Ya‘qûb al-Mansûr, the Almohad ruler of the Maghrib at that time, asking for the support of his fleets, to prevent the fleets of the unbelievers from achieving their desire of bringing relief to the Christians in the Syrian ports.  Al-Mansûr sent him back to Salâh-ad-dîn, and did not comply with his request.

This is evidence that the ruler of the Maghrib alone possessed a fleet, that the Christians controlled the eastern Mediterranean, and that the dynasties in Egypt and Syria at that time and later were not interested in naval matters or in building up government fleets.

Ya‘qûb al-Mansûr then died, and the Almohad dynasty became infirm.  The Galician nations seized control of most of Spain.  The Muslims sought refuge in the coastal region and took possession of the islands of the western Mediterranean.  They regained their former strength, and their power on the surface of the Mediterranean grew.  Their fleets increased, and the strength of the Muslims became again equal to that of (the Christians).  This happened in the time of (the Merinid) Sultan, Abû l-Hasan [ruled from 1331 to 1351], the Zanâtah ruler in the Maghrib.  When he desired to wage the holy war, his fleet was as well equipped and numerous as that of the Christians.

Then, the naval strength of the Muslims declined once more, because of the weakness of the ruling dynasty.  Maritime habits were forgotten under the impact of the strong Bedouin attitude prevailing in the Maghrib, and as the result of the discontinuance of Spanish habits.  The Christians resumed their former, famous maritime training, and (renewed) their constant activity in the Mediterranean and their experience with conditions there.  (They again showed) their former superiority over others on the high seas and in (Mediterranean) shipping.  The Muslims came to be strangers to the Mediterranean.  The only exceptions are a few inhabitants of the coastal regions.  They ought to have many assistants and supporters, or they ought to have support from the dynasties to enable them to recruit help and to work toward the goal of (increased seafaring activities).

The rank (of admiral) has been preserved to this day in the dynasties of the Maghrib.  There, the identity (of the admiralty is still preserved), and how to take care of a fleet, how to build ships and navigate them, is known.  Perhaps some political opportunity will arise in the coastal countries, and the Muslims will ask the wind to blow against unbelief and unbelievers.  The inhabitants of the Maghrib have it on the authority of the books of predictions that the Muslims will yet have to make a successful attack against the Christians and conquer the lands of the European Christians beyond the sea.  This, it is said, will take place by sea.


1 Ibn Khaldûn, The Muqaddimah: An Introduction to History, Chapter 3: “On dynasties, royal authority, the caliphate, government ranks, and all that goes with these things,” Section 32: “The ranks of royal and governmental authority and the titles that go with those ranks,” Sub-section: “The admiralty,” translated from the Arabic by Franz Rosenthal, abridged and edited by N. J. Dawood, 1967, Bolligen Series, Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey; ISBN 0-691-09946-4, 0-691-01754-9 (paperback); pp. 208-213.

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