Al-Malik al-Ashraf

Mil al-malāa fī ma‘rifat al-filāa

Al-Malik al-Ashraf ‘Umar ibn Yūsuf, born sometime after 1242, was the third Rasulid sultan of Yemen, ruling for a brief 21 months in 1295-96 after the long 46-year reign of his father, Al-Malik al-Muẓaffar Yūsuf, during which time he was able to devote much of his time to the pursuit of knowledge. As a scholar he excelled in the more secular sciences of astronomy, agriculture, veterinary science and medicine, and at least a dozen books, not all of which have survived, are attributed to him, including two important works on agriculture: the earliest extant Rasulid agricultural almanac, written for AH 670/AD 1271, which is contained within his astronomical treatise entitled Kitāb al-tabira fīilm al-nujūm, and the earliest extant Rasulid agricultural treatise, Mil al-malāa fī marifat al-filāa. Together they provide a detailed and comprehensive account of the science and practise of agriculture in Yemen during the latter half of the 13th century, preserving and transmitting the centuries-old traditional knowledge of Yemeni farmers, but clearly aimed at a learned readership.

The information contained in Al-Malik al-Ashraf’s almanac, which has no specific title, derives both from the general almanac tradition, which extended well beyond Yemen, and from his knowledge of local practices and folklore. Arranged day by day according to the solar Christian Byzantine calendar and corresponding Syriac and Himyaritic months, it includes astronomical data, hours of daylight and darkness, shadow lengths for the daytime prayers, local weather, especially rain and wind periods, sailing seasons, details of the agricultural cycle, planting, harvesting and other agricultural operations, and information on crops, cultivated and ornamental plants, as well as natural vegetation. This wide range of detailed information relating to the environment and farming practices in medieval Yemen is extremely valuable in itself and as a supplement to the later Rasulid agricultural treatises.

Concerning Al-Malik al-Ashraf’s Mil al-malāa fī marifat al-filāa there is some uncertainty about the interpretation of its title. Like those of many Arabic works it employs a play on words, here based around mil, usually ‘salt’, and the related malāa, ‘beauty, grace, elegance’, which both derive from the root m-l-ḥ which encompasses also the meanings of ‘wit, esprit’, ‘baraka or blessing’, ‘anecdote, bon mot’, ‘science’, and even ‘navigation’. We can hazard a guess at ‘Beautiful Words on the Knowledge of Husbandry’, inadequate though it is. A variant title of Al-Malik al-Ashraf’s text is given in Ibn Al-Dayba‘ (1977, 2, p. 51) as Al-tufāa fī marifat al-filāa. Title aside, Varisco, the editor and translator of the work, argues that the Mil al-malāa is the Ur-text of a rich genre that “gives the most detailed account of an agricultural system for a pre-modern Arab society anywhere”. He believes it was written sometime in the last few decades of the 13th century, after Al-Ashraf had compiled his almanac, perhaps while he was governor at Al-Mahjam, where, no doubt, he was responsible for the royal estates.

Much of the information in Al-Ashraf’s treatise is specific to Yemen, recorded, in the words of its author, “from the wise practice of knowledgeable Yemenis”. There are no references to other texts or citations from earlier authors, suggesting that Al-Ashraf did indeed gather information from local informants, though there are clues that he had access to some written texts from outside Yemen. The Milincludes information on all parts of Yemen, both the coastal wadis and the mountains, and since the chronicles record that Al-Ashraf travelled widely about the country he certainly had the opportunity to survey these regions. Al-Malik al-Ashraf does not include anything of animal husbandry or veterinary science in his work, although he did write a separate veterinary treatise, Al-mughnī fī al-bayara, ‘The Enricher in veterinary science’, which provides much information on fodder crops, especially sorghum.

(Source: all information on Al-Malik al-Ashraf from Varisco 1989, 1994 and 2009b)


Only two copies of the Mil al-malāa are known to exist, the best of which is missing the first chapter, but with the aid of the second copy and the other major extant Rasulid agricultural treatise - the Bughyat al-fallāḥīn written by Al-Malik al-Afdal a century later, which quotes extensively from the Milḥ - it has been possible to reconstruct the missing chapter.

The treatise covers all aspects of crop production in Yemen, including types of land, water sources and manures.

There are seven chapters, as follows:

  1. What is required in agriculture based on the knowledge of times for planting, transplanting, working the land and improving it.
  2. Cereals (zar‘) and matters connected to this.
  3. Pulses (qatānī), which are seed crops (hubūb).
  4. Fruit trees (al-ashjār al-muthmira).
  5. Flowering and aromatic plants (rayāhīn).
  6. Vegetables (khadrāwāt and buqūlāt).
  7. That which controls pests (āfāt) on cereals, grapevines, and seedlings and what protects grain and flour from pests, if God the Sublime and Most High so wills.
(From Varisco, 2009b)

Manuscripts, Published Editions & Translations

A.  Al-Malik al-Ashraf’s Almanac, in Kitāb al-tabira fīilm al-nujūm

Only one manuscript of this text is known to exist, though it is claimed that there are copies still in Yemen.

  • Oxford University, Bodleian Library. Huntington 233 (Uri 905), Chapter 32, pp. 97r-108v.
  • This text has been edited, annotated and translated into English by Daniel Martin Varisco as Medieval Agriculture and Islamic Science: The Almanac of a Yemeni Sultan (Washington: University of Washington Press, 1994). Of added value is a discussion of many of the almanac terms in a separate chapter and further notes on planting times and rain periods.
B.  Mil al-malāa fī marifat al-filāa

There are only two known manuscript copies of this text:

  • Vienna, Glaser Collection. No. 247. 243 pp.
    The text is incomplete and breaks off shortly after discussion of the kādhī plant (Pandanus odoratissimus). Each page has nine lines in clear hand. The arakāt are often provided for plant names. There is no colophon and the date of the text is uncertain. It was probably copied after the Rasulid period.
  • Yemen. Private Library.
    Copied after 1172/1758. The text is incomplete after discussion of the coconut (nārajīl).
  • An edition of this ms. was published by Muḥammad ‘Abd al-Raḥīm Jāzm in the journal Al-Iklīl (Ṣan‘ā’), 3 (1985): 1, pp. 165-207. This edition has a number of printing errors and editorial mistakes. Another edition was published by ‘Abd Allāh Muḥammad al-Mujāhid (Damascus:  Dār al-Fikr, 1987, 176 pp.), but this is severely flawed and should not be used.  Al-Mujāhid did not examine the original ms. but only used a handwritten copy by Jāzm deposited at the Yemen Centre for Research and Studies. To further complicate matters this latter edition is full of irrelevant statistical data on current production figures in the Yemen Arab Republic.  Since Al-Mujāhid did not consult Jāzm before publishing his version, a lively debate ensued in the Yemeni newspaper Al-Thawra (12/31/87, Thursday, No. 272) in which Jāzm noted the errors in Al-Mujāhid’s version and complained that his work had been plagiarized.  The version of Al-Mujāhid is without any scholarly merit.


Al-Mujāhid, ‘Abd Allāh Muḥammad (1987). Mil al-malāa fī marifat al-filāa. Damascus, Dār al-Fikr.
Ibn al-Dayba‘, ‘Abd al Raḥmān ibn ‘Alī (1977). Qurrat al-uyūn bi-akhbār al-Yaman al-maymūn. Cairo: Maṭba‘at al-Sa‘āda.
Jāzm, Muḥammad ‘Abd al-Raḥīm (1985). ‘Mulaḥ al-malāḥa fī ma‘rifat al-filāḥa’. Al-Iklīl 3, pp. 165-207.
Serjeant, R.B. (1974). ‘The cultivation of cereals in Mediaeval Yemen (a translation of Bughyat al Fallahin of the Rasulid Sultan Malik al-Afdal al-'Abbas b.'Ali, composed circa 1370 A.D)’. Arabian Studies 1, pp. 25‑74.       
Varisco, D.M. (1982). The Adaptive Dynamics of Water Allocation in al-Ahjur, Yemen Arab Republic. Ph.D. Dissertation, Anthropology, University of Pennsylvania.
Varisco, D.M. (1989). ‘Medieval agricultural texts from Rasulid Yemen’. Manuscripts of the Middle East 4, pp. 150-154. Reprinted in Varisco 1997.
Varisco, D.M. (1991a). ‘A royal crop register from Rasulid Yemen’. Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 34, pp. 1-22
Varisco, D.M. (1994). Medieval Agriculture and Islamic Science: The Almanac of a Yemeni Sultan. Seattle‑London: University of Washington Press.
Varisco, D.M. (1997). Medieval Folk Astronomy and Agriculture in Arabia and the Yemen. Aldershot: Ashgate Variorum.
Varisco, D.M. (2006). ‘The State of agriculture in late 13th century Rasulid Yemen’. In: Convegno Storia e Cultura dello Yemen in Età Islamica, con Particolare Riferimento al Periodo Rasulide (Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei, Fondazione Leone Caetani, Rome, 30-31 October, 2003), pp. 161-174. Roma: Bardi.
Varisco, D.M. (2009a). ‘Agriculture in al-Hamdānī's Yemen: A survey from early Islamic geographical texts’. Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 52 (3), pp. 382‑412.
Varisco, D.M. (2009b). ‘The Milh al-Malâha of al-Malik al-Ashraf ‘Umar (d. 696/1296): Situating the Ur-Text of the Rasulid Agricultural Corpus’. Chroniques du manuscrit au Yémen [Online] 9. Available from