ABŪ ZAYD AḤMAD B. SAHL BALḴĪ, in his day a noted scholar in both Islamic and philosophical disciplines, but now known chiefly as a geographer. He was born in the village of Šāmestīān, near Balḵ in Khorasan, ca. 235/849 and died there in Ḏu’l-qaʿda, 322/October, 934. His father was a schoolmaster from Seǰestān. As a young man he left home and traveled on foot as far as Iraq with a company of pilgrims bound for Mecca. He spent eight years in Iraq, assiduously studying many different subjects. Of his teachers the only one mentioned is the well-known philosopher Abū Yūsof al-Kendī (d. 255/868-69 or a year or two later). Along with philosophy Abū Zayd studied other Greek sciences such as medicine and physics; he is said to have been especially interested in astronomy/astrology. At this period, it was unusual for students of the philosophical or “foreign” disciplines to pay any attention to the Islamic disciplines, but Abū Zayd combined the two sets of studies and gained a high degree of mastery in both. Of the Islamic disciplines he seems to have been most interested in Koranic studies and kalām. It is possible that after his eight years of study in Iraq, he traveled in other neighboring lands. He eventually returned to Balḵ by way of Herat and became a teacher of the subjects he had mastered. Nothing is recorded of his life in Balḵ, however, until after the accession of Naṣr b. Aḥmad Sāmānī in 301/914, when first the general Ḥosayn b. ʿAlī Marvarrūḏī and then the vizier Jayhānī broke oft friendly relations with him because of some of his books. The first was a Qarmaṭī and the second a dualist. The books in question were written from a Sunnite point of view, although Abū Zayd had originally been an Imamite. When the amir Aḥmad b. Sahl b. Hāšem arrived in Balḵ in 306/918, Abū Zayd was offered the post of vizier, but he declined this and instead became a secretary for about a year. There is a story of how the man who became vizier, Abu’l-Qāsem Kaʿbī, voluntarily gave up 100 dirhams of his monthly salary of 1,000, so that Abū Zayd might have 600 instead of 500. Through the generosity of the amir and his vizier, Abū Zayd was able to buy a small estate in his native Šāmestīān; and this estate passed to his descendants. He refused an invitation from the Samanid amir to go to Bokhara and seems to have spent the last part of his life on his estate.
Ebn al-Nadīm (Fehrest, p. 138) lists forty-three of his books, and Yāqūt (Odabāʾ I, pp. 125, 142-52) fifty-six; but of these only one relatively unimportant work still exists as such. The titles of the books cover most of the fields he had studied. The books on religious subjects were much appreciated, especially one called Naẓm al-Qorʾān, which is often cited. Strangely enough, the book which eventually became the most influential of all is not clearly mentioned in either list. This was apparently called Ṣowar al-aqālīm or Taqwīm al-boldān; although it is not extant as a separate book, it is in a sense contained in the geographical works of Eṣṭaḵrī and Ebn Ḥawqal. Indeed Eṣṭaḵrī’s book was described by M. J. De Goeje (see bibliog.), who studied the matter in detail, as a second, greatly enlarged edition of Balḵī’s work. It has been suggested, since the title Tafsīr ṣowar occurs in the lists of books, that the geographical work was essentially a commentary on maps of the various “climes” (probably in Eṣṭaḵrī’s sense of “provinces”). Even if this is the case, however, it would seem that Balḵī went far beyond previous writings on geography, which did little more than supply information about the post-routes of the empire. Geography was now conceived as including descriptions, not merely of the physical features of countries, but also of their climate and natural products and the influence of these on the structure and activities of the population. On such grounds Balḵī has been hailed as the founder of the classical school of Arabic geography.
A biography of Balḵī was composed by one of his pupils Abū Moḥammad Ḥasan b. Moḥammad Wazīrī, and this was utilized in a later book about him by Abū Sahl Aḥmad b. ʿObaydallāh b. Aḥmad. From this, information passed to biographical dictionaries, such as that of Yāqūt.
Bayhaqī, Tatemma ṣewān al-ḥekma, ed. M. Šafīʿ, Lahore, 1350/1931-32, pp. 26f.
M. J. De Goeje, “Die Istaḫrī-Baḷḫī Frage,” ZDMG 25, 1871, pp. 42-58.
J. H. Kramers, “La question Baḷḫī-Iṣṭaḫrī—Ibn Ḥawkal et l’atlas de l’Islam,” Acta Orientalia 10, 1932, pp. 9-30.
V. V. Barthold, preface to Ḥodūd al-ʿālam, tr. Minorsky, pp. 15-23.
Brockelmann, GAL I, p. 408. EI2 I, p. 1003.
(W. M. Watt)
Originally Published: December 15, 1983
Last Updated: July 21, 2011
This article is available in print.
Vol. I, Fasc. 4, pp. 399-400
W. M. Watt, “ABŪ ZAYD BALḴĪ,” Encyclopædia Iranica, I/4, pp. 399-400; an updated version is available online at http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/abu-zayd-balki (accessed on 31 January 2014).