Oral Traditions & Early Travel Books: Islam & The Middle Ages

Today you go to College but throughout the Middle Ages you travelled to far away places to become a disciple, a student under a teacher who commanded mastery over a text.  Manuscripts throughout the Middle Ages were very large tracts, most were never bound like a text but remained extremely expensive parchment, similar to ancient scrolls.  The key here was memory.  You studied both the text itself and the marginalia, the commentary that was written on the margins to explain the text.

How else to say it, Muslim men of letters throughout the Middle Ages were mad for travel.  If you were from Western China and Muslim you studied under the Mizjaji family in Yemen.  From Sumatra?  Then you resided with the Kurani family in Medina.  If you were a West African Muslim you studied with the Murtaza al-Zabdi clan in Cairo.

Houari Touati is the Director of Studies at the Ecole des hautes etudes en sciences sociales in Paris, his ‘Islam & Travel In The Middle Ages’ has just been released, it is an extraordinary book at pains to explain the social rubric of becoming a scholar if one was a Muslim.

Because the Quran and its Traditions were taught orally, men were haunted by the prospect of permanent loss given the eventual death of one’s teacher.  Needless to say students travelled to great length to study under an authority.  Books were read out loud with slight bodily rhythm to discipline the both body and mind as witnessed throughout South Asian madrassas.  After a student demonstrated acquired proficiency in mastery of both texts and relevant commentaries he was given a license to teach.  He had authority over the text so to speak.

We should not forget that acquired learning stimulated travel as well.  The early Islamic Middle Ages gave birth to ‘the travel book’.  Although the vast majority of Islamic translation was given over to confiscating and re-writing Greek libraries, the travel book itself was born through the travel of Arabic geographers in the 10th century.  Al-Jahic (d.868) wrote ‘Book of Cities’ after examining over 50 cities throughout that Muslim Lake (the Mediterranean).  There was al-Muqaddsai (d. 1000), he travelled until he was forty and wrote his masterpiece.  We cannot forget the theologians like Abu Bakr Ibn Arabi of Seville (d. 1148) or Ibn Jubayr (d. 1217).  Yet the greatest Arabic geographer to render the most remembered travel book was Ibn Battutah of Tangier (1304-68/69) who travelled for over a 24 year period from West Asia to South Asia and East Africa’s Swahili cost onward to China, West Africa ending in Spain.  All recounted by Tim Mackintosh Smith ‘Travels with a Tangerine’ (2002), ‘The Hall of a Thousand Columns’ (2006) and his latest in this trilogy ‘Landfalls:  On the Edge Of Islam with Ibn Battutah’ (2011.)  There is no other authority on the great Islamic ocean trade between the Pacific Island, East Africa, China, India, ending in Spain than Ibn Battutah.

If your taste is something a bit more modern, try the Ottoman traveller Evliya Celebi (b.1610).  His ten volumes titled ‘The Book of Travels’ or ‘Seyahatname’ covers Habsburg Vienna to Istanbul.  First translated by Joseph von Hammer, Richard Kreutel, Piere Mackay, we know have contemporary editions thanks to Bobert Kankoff and Kim Soyong.

Today’s contemporary Islamic/Muslim scholarship entails some bright spots as witnessed throughout the resurgence of travel books written by faithful pious Muslims.


About William Holland

Systematic Theologian/International Relations
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