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Prodigies of Cosmology: A Muslim Perspective

(The following is a post by Muhannad Salhi, Arab World Specialist, African and Middle Eastern Division.)

Page of 115 of “‘Ajaʼib al-makhluqat.” Qazwini, Zakariya ibn Muḥammad, approximately 1203-1283, author. Created 1565 or 1566. Library of Congress African and Middle Eastern Division.

One of the best-known and most influential works of Muslim cosmology, Qazwini’s famous “‘Aja’ib al-Makhluqat wa-Ghara’ib al-Mawjudat” (Marvels of Creation and Rarities of Existence) has been widely celebrated as well as harshly criticized by later scholars. While not too much is known about the author himself, Abu Yahya Zakariya ibn Muhammad al-Qazwini was born in Qazwin (modern day Iran), ca. 1208. Qazwini was born into a purely Arab family which claimed descent from the famous sahabi (companion of the Prophet) Anas ibn Malik. At some point in his life, Qazwini left his hometown of Qazwin and travelled to Baghdad and Damascus. During that time, he met many famous personalities including the mystic and philosopher Ibn al-‘Arabi and the historian and biographer, Ibn al-Athir. According to the historian Ibn al-Taghribirdi, Qazwini also spent a long period of time in the towns of Hillah and Wasit in modern day Iraq, where under the Abbasid Caliph al-Mu’tasim, he served as qadi (magistrate). Qazwini authored two main works, both quite independent of one another: his cosmology, “‘Aja’ib al-Makhluqat wa-Ghara’ib al-Mawjudat,” and a geographical treatise, “Athar al-Bilad.” “‘Aja’ib al-Makhluqat” is often deemed the first methodical exposition of cosmology in the Islamic world.

Image of the Angels from Qazwini’s ʻAjaʼib al-makhluqat, Ottoman Turkish Manuscript, 1553 Library of Congress African and Middle Eastern Division, Near East Section Rare Materials.

Deemed one of the best Arabic/Muslim cosmologists, Qazwini was also an astronomer, geographer, geologist, mineralogist, botanist, zoologist, and ethnographer, all of which is reflected in his work. More than simply a catalog of the fantastical and bizarre, “‘Aja’ib al-Makhluqat wa-Ghara’ib al-Mawjudat” is intended as a detailed and comprehensive cosmological account of all creation. From the heavens and celestial bodies, to the minutiae of stones, gems, and minerals, Qazwini offers his readers an encyclopedic account of the “history” of the cosmos and the creations within.

The work itself is divided into two parts: the first part deals with the supraterrestrial and the second with the terrestrial. In the first part, Qazwini focuses on the celestial by examining the seven heavens and the (Ptolemaic-based) nine heavenly spheres: Sun, Moon, Earth, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Mercury, and the “Sphere of Spheres.” In this, Qazwini employs his knowledge of astronomy and the works of various astronomers to describe the stars’ individual orbits, and their effects and influences on the world and humanity. He then moves on to the inhabitants of the heavens, namely the angels, who were created as pure and perfect, harboring no negative emotions and feelings, and completely obedient to their Creator. The angels are generally divided into two groups: those nearest to God (for example al-muqarrabun—Qur’an 83:21) and the guardians of Hell (for example zabaniyah—Qur’an 96:18). Overall, each of the angels plays a role in maintaining the order of Creation; including the eight that carry God’s throne on the Day of Judgement (Qur’an: 69:17).

image of Centaur from ʻAjaʼib al-makhluqat, Persian manuscript, 1565 or 1566. Library of Congress African and Middle Eastern Division, Near East Section Rare Materials.

Much of Qazwini’s angelology is rooted in the Qur’an (the Muslim holy book), the Hadith (traditions of the Prophet), as well as Muslim lore. Consequently, all of the familiar angels are mentioned, (Gabriel–Jibril, Michael–Mikha’il, Azrael–‘Uzra’il) in addition to some that are not mentioned in the Qur’an but are known through the Hadith and traditions such as Israfil). Qazwini ends the first part of his cosmology with a discussion of time, problems of chronology, and various calendars (Islamic, Roman, Persian, etc) extrapolating on topics, such as the origin of holy days in the various traditions.

Island of Dog-Headed men from Qazwini’s ‘Ajaib al-Makhluqat, Ottoman Turkish Manuscript, 1553. Library of Congress African and Middle Eastern Division, Near East Section Rare Materials.

In the second part, Qazwini examines the terrestrial. He begins by discussing the four elements and earthly phenomena like wind, meteors, etc. He then goes on to describe the division of earth into seven climes—including all the known seas and rivers, earthquakes and their causes, the formation of mountains, and so forth. He then moves onto the three “kingdoms” of nature, namely the mineral, vegetable, and animal. The animal kingdom itself is divided into seven categories–man, jinn, animals utilized for mounting and riding, grazing animals, beasts, birds and insects, and of course, the fantastical and strange. Predictably, at the top of the animal kingdom is man himself, his anatomy, spiritual potential, immortality of his soul, and the dilemmas of choice and action resulting in his ascent or descent from the various stations in life. The jinn are also discussed, including their creation from fire or smoke, their various forms, and the sinister role they can play in the affairs of humankind.

Mythical bird Anqa’ (Simurgh in Persian) from Qazwini’s ‘Ajaib al-Makhluqat, Persian Lithograph 1892. Library of Congress African and Middle Eastern Division, Near East Section Rare Materials.

In this cosmology, Qazwini combines proto-science with tales of the wondrous and bizarre. Qazwini entertains his readers by peppering the work with anecdotes, myths, parables, and rhythmic prose. Often proclaimed as the Islamic Herodotus, Qazwini seeks to entertain, edify, and excite his readers’ imagination. His work contains descriptions and tales of wondrous creatures; mostly based in legends, works of other authors, travelogues, and accounts of travelers and sailors. These creatures and phenomena include, but are not limited to: the races of Yajuj and Ma’juj (Gog and Magog) living at the ends of the world; tales of the mythical bird Anqa’ (Simurgh to the Persians); the Waq-Waq islands where people grow on trees; the two-headed man from Yemen; the island of the dog-headed men; and the illustration of a disk-like earth with the surrounding range of the mysterious Qaf Mountains resting on the back of a giant bull (al-Rayyan) that is standing on a vast fish (Bahamut) held up by an angel, an image created to show the stabilization of the world without oscillating.

Cosmology An illustration from Qazwini’s ‘Ajaib al-Makhluqat, showing “a disk-like earth with the surrounding range of Qaf Mountains resting on the back of a giant bull (al-Rayyan), which in turn stands on a vast fish (Behemoth) held up by an angel. Ottoman Turkish Manuscript, 1553 (African and Middle Eastern Division, Near East Section Rare Materials)

It would certainly be a mistake to consider Qazwini’s work a mere collection of myths and legends intended to entertain his audience. Instead, it is as an encyclopedic account of creation from its inception. A compilation of facts and narratives, whose goal is to enlighten his audience by exposing them to the vastness of God’s creative wonders. Even when dealing with the clearly fantastical, it seems that Qazwini’s objective is to demonstrate that God created, and is capable of creating, marvels beyond the limits of man’s imagination. If the reader is not convinced of the existence of the strange and fantastical, then the onus is on him. Qazwini’s mission, as he appears to understand it, was to provide all the information available, believing that nothing should be omitted or ignored for fear of not providing all the facts or presenting the whole picture. After all, nothing is beyond the power of the Creator. The stars, animals, plants, and minerals that Qazwini describes are no less marvelous than the oddities. It is through observing and contemplating the universe, that one beholds the amazing, limitless power of the Divine.

Of the many criticisms levied against Qazwini, the most obvious one is that his work does not adhere to the modern standards of the rigorous scientific method. Listing some fifty sources upon which his work is based, Qazwini has also been accused of successfully synthesizing the works of others, rather than producing thoughts or conclusions of his own–a trait, one might add, that was quite common during this period. Despite the criticism, Qazwini’s cosmology found a very receptive audience and remained quite influential. As such, the work has been translated into most of the Islamic languages, not to mention all the studies and commentaries, both past and present, in a number of languages. Moreover, the work proved to be a source of untold inspiration to illustrators throughout the Muslim world. The Library of Congress alone has manuscripts, lithographs, and early printings in at least five languages including the original Arabic, Persian, Ottoman Turkish, and Chagatai.


Qazwini, Zakariya ibn Muḥammad, approximately 1203-1283, “ʻAjaʼib al-makhluqat wa-gharaʼib al-mawjudat.” [1973]

Ibn Taghribirdi, Abu al-Maḥasin Yusuf, 1411-1470, “Manhal al-safi wa-al-mustawfa baʻda al-wafi,” [Cairo] : al-Hayʼah al-Misriyah al-ʻAmmah lil-Kitab, 1984-2009.

Lane, Edward Williams, Lane Poole Stanley (ed), “Arabian Society in the Middle Ages: Studies of the Thousand and One Nights,” New York, Barnes & Noble [1971]

Hayashi, Norihito, “Scientific or Narrative? The Tradition of Illustration of the al-Qazwini’s Ajaib al-Makhluqat in the Late 15th Century Persian Manuscripts” Advanced Science Letters, May 2017, Vol.23(5), pp. 4701-4704.

Zadeh, Travis, “The Wiles of Creation: Philosophy, Fiction, and the ‘Aja’ib Tradition,” Middle Eastern literatures [1475-262X], year: 2010 vol: 13 issue: 1 page: 21-48.

Lewicki, T., Qazwini, “al-Kazwini”, Encyclopedia of Islam, Second Edition (online). Streck, M., “al-Kazwini”, Encyclopedia of Islam, First Edition, 841-844.

Roy Mottahedeh, ‘‘‘Aja’ib in The Thousand and One Nights,” in “The Thousand and one nights in Arabic literature and society,” edited by Richard C. Hovannisian and Georges Sabagh, Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997, pp.29–39.