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 … 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.
posted by whyareyouatriangle (7 comments total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
Papa was a rolling stone

and the twelfth, when, according to Touati, it declines as a meaningful intellectual institution.

So much for Ibn Battuta.

Time to read the article.
posted by IndigoJones at 2:40 PM on June 8, 2014 [2 favorites]

What timing! Just picked this up yesterday while in Chicago.
posted by mykescipark at 3:09 PM on June 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

Wow. Thank you for this.
posted by jammy at 4:02 PM on June 8, 2014

This looks terrific! And given that it's summer, I might even be able to read it!

Also, I think Ibn Battuta is sort of the exception that proves the rule... wasn't he sort of an outlier in his own time?
posted by allthinky at 6:43 PM on June 8, 2014

I wonder how the saying attributed to Muhammad of "seek knowledge even if it means heading all the way to China" fits into this.
posted by divabat at 8:48 PM on June 8, 2014

"Amongst linguists, for example, there was no better way to undercut the authority of scholarly rivals than to suggest that they had not spent enough time living amongst the Bedouins, considered the bearers of pure Arabic. We find similarly vivid accounts in Touati’s chapters on geographers, Sufis, and traditionalists. The latter group had an even more gripping fever for travel: they would zealously write by night all that they had heard in the day and rapidly make plans to move to the next town as soon as they had reached the first."

That could be from an ethnography handbook. How interesting - thanks for the post, I shall have to get hold of the book.
posted by YouRebelScum at 2:18 AM on June 9, 2014

and the twelfth, when, according to Touati, it declines as a meaningful intellectual institution.

So much for Ibn Battuta.

To be fair, the time between Hali and Battuta was one of the most tumultuous times in Muslim history. Between the Reconquista and the Crusades, the 12th century was dangerous, if not impossible, for Muslims wanting to visit the many cultural centers in the Levant or Andalusia. And then just as that was winding down, the Mongols tore through Muslim Asia and the Arabian peninsula and destroyed both enormous amounts of cultural artifacts, as well as an infrastructure (entire cities in some cases) that has barely recovered 800 years later. Add to that not just the internecine conflicts between Sunni and Shi'a, but the rise and fall of various offshoots and minor schools of Islam, as well as the fragmentation and re-consolidation of various dynasties (including the Ottomans). The sacking of Baghdad just by itself pretty made travel as an intellectual endeavor for Muslims many times more difficult.
posted by zombieflanders at 4:02 AM on June 9, 2014 [4 favorites]

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