For them, every valley and desert was home.
June 8, 2014 2:16 PM Subscribe
Travel was always desirable to them / And they visited every continent …
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They considered travel and homeland synonymous / For them, every valley and desert was home.
This is how the Indian poet Altaf Husain Hali described the first generations of Muslims in an Urdu poem from the 1870s. Nostalgic for the “Golden Age” of learning and scholarship in the Muslim world, Hali valorized a willingness to court the dangers of the open road for the sake of knowledge as a cardinal Islamic virtue. This adventurous spirit stood in direct contrast with what he perceived as contemporary timidity. Confronted with a burgeoning colonial enterprise, Hali believed that Islamic civilization could only return to greatness if it re-embodied early Islam’s insatiable itinerancy.
Hali is not alone in associating Islam with the voyage. Western scholars have long assumed uncritically a connection between the two. But a closer look at the intellectual world of the Islamic Middle Ages shows this assumption is not entirely accurate. Beyond the ritual pilgrimage to Mecca, the journey did not hold any great significance in the first years of Islam. It was only around the eighth century that travel emerged as central to Muslim intellectual and spiritual endeavors.
How travel came to occupy this role is the subject of Houari Touati’s Travel and Islam in the Middle Ages, which Lydia G. Cochrane has masterfully translated into English. The original French version appeared in 2000 under the name Islam et voyage au Moyen Âge, but it has until now had a muted presence in the Anglophone world. Although the book is nearly fifteen years old, its findings remain fresh and relevant, a fact that reflects the success of Touati’s work and reminds us that its appearance was long overdue. The book sets itself the task of tracing the development of travel as a conceptual category between the eighth century, when it first emerges, and the twelfth, when, according to Touati, it declines as a meaningful intellectual institution.