Traveling to Acquire Knowledge – By Daniel Majchrowicz

Daniel Majchrowicz on Houari Touati’s Islam and Travel in the Middle Ages

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Houari Touati, translated by Lydia G. Cochrane, Islam and Travel in the Middle Ages, University of Chicago Press, 2010, 304pp., $60.00

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.

Touati argues that travel was integral to the formation of both the Islamic sciences and the Islamic world itself. According to this narrative, travel initially emerged as the solution to a logistical problem. The Islamic empire was rapidly expanding, and its (human) sources of knowledge diffused across its length and breadth. Traditionalists (those who studied and recorded the sayings of the Prophet), linguists, and geographers began to mobilize to acquire and codify this knowledge. Sufis, for their part, also took up travel as “one of the principle instruments for deepening their mysterious knowledge of reality.” In either case, the practical need for travel gradually transformed into a methodological requirement, as scholars began to rely on it as a pedagogical and even authorizing device. Travel was now instrumental in both the acquisition of knowledge and the creation of the scientific disciplines. More than that, Touati argues that traveler-scholars crucially formulated a coherent and integrated Islamic world, the Dar al-Islam.

Touati’s work coheres with the dramatic increase in academic writing on travel of the last several decades in many academic fields in the arts, from anthropology to gender studies. As the idea that knowledge is socially constructed gained currency, scholars increasingly viewed travel, and particularly travel writing, as a unique window into the process through which the self and the world interacted. In the context of Islamic studies, historians writing the earliest work on travel writing focused on how ritual travel shaped the religious imagination and molded the experience of being Muslim. Research on the ontological import of pilgrimage was especially productive.

Islam and Travel appeared in this milieu. Combining a number of distinct points of emphasis in Islamic Studies, Touati constructed a broader argument about the meaning of travel during the productive first centuries of Islam’s existence. Scholars had long noted that travel lay close to the heart of Sufism, and that the traditionalists traveled incessantly. Work on the expansion of empire, linguistics, and geography, too, pointed to the centrality of travel to their objects of study. From these disparate observations, Touati’s contribution has been to reveal the epistemological, and even ontological, implications of so many people traveling at once.

Camel Riders in the Western Thar
Camel Riders in the Western Thar – Image via Wikimedia Commons

Until around the tenth century, Muslim scholars celebrated travel as a method for acquiring knowledge, not because it allowed one to see the world but because it allowed one to hear it. That hearing was initially privileged over sight is one of the three major conclusions Touati cites as crucial to travel’s intellectual significance: “[hearing] became one of the principal internal institutions of medieval learned culture … We can measure the importance of the voyage within this paradigm by recalling that it functioned by genealogical transmission from master to disciple.” In the Islamic Middle Ages, to learn directly from a master was considered superior to textual study. One can find a glimpse of this preference in that the Qur’an itself was not initially written down, and perhaps also in the fact that it is still memorized in its entirety today. As Touati makes clear, learning directly from scholars meant traversing vast distances. This required unprecedented rigor on the part of seekers, who eventually came to formulate rules for the transmission of acquired traditions with long chains of authority called isnads. Each link in a chain represented an oral transmission. Following these links, one would eventually arrive at the ultimate source of the saying, the Prophet himself. This system was entirely predicated on travel. It is for this reason Touati argues that “Islamic tradition is a product of the voyage.”

Given this focus on hearing information firsthand from fellow Muslims, it is unsurprising that traveler-scholars rarely left the Dar al-Islam. This is Touati’s second major observation. While ambassadors and those on official political business certainly went abroad, Touati convincingly shows that scholars were generally only interested in collecting knowledge “at home.” Unlike in European, and especially Greek, traditions, early Muslim voyagers did not consider travel a means to encounter an Other. Instead, their task was to explore knowledge as it resided inside the (supposedly) homogeneous space of Islam. There were undoubtedly exceptions to this rule, but Touati’s argument remains convincing. It helps to explain why, for instance, Europe attracted almost no interest from Muslim traveler-scholars. Because they restricted themselves to Muslim lands, they became a powerful force for engendering a coherent and interconnected Islamic world.

Touati’s third major observation relates to a gradual transition away from the two points just discussed. In the first place, there was a shift from a focus on hearing to seeing. While hearing was clearly preferred in the eighth century, sight gradually rose to prominence, especially in the field of geography. Where early geographers based their research largely on oral accounts, their successors became interested in creating positive knowledge through observation. Al-Jahiz (776-868) was a pioneer in this shift, and he spoke highly of travel as perfecting the human mind, though he was ironically himself critiqued by later generations of scholars for not having travelled sufficiently. By the tenth century, travel for observation had become central to the discipline. Just as oral chains of transmission provided legitimacy to the traditionalists, geographers relied on the phrase “I have seen” to authorize their accounts.

In this work, Touati brilliantly animates the history of early Islamic travel through the examination of a variety of primary source documents, many of them obscure. Anyone who desires to know what it meant to be a scholar in the Middle East at the turn of the second millennium will find a wealth of fascinating detail to explore here. This is especially the case in the chapter that discusses the “price of travel,” where the obstacles to be surmounted are quoted in riveting detail. Scholars endured both pecuniary and bodily sacrifice to pursue their work. Some reportedly evaded starvation only by selling the clothes off their backs, while others went blind through their tireless copying of Prophetic traditions.

But confronting these challenges was considered a necessary evil: only through striving could knowledge be furthered. By the ninth century, for a scholar not to have traveled was a mark of intellectual immaturity. 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. Knowledge was fleeting, and its pursuers meant to be fleeter.

At the beginning of this essay, a disconsolate Hali hinted that travel was no longer central to intellectual and religious thought in the Muslim world. In fact, travel as a central pillar of Islamic scholarship began to enter a slow decline sometime around the eleventh century, in part because it was no longer a disciplinary necessity. This demise provides the dénouement for Islam and Travel. The traditionalists, originally spurred to action by the frightening thought that knowledge of the Prophet’s sayings were disappearing, had already tracked down every possible chain of transmission and graded and organized them all. The linguists had likewise finished codifying the Arabic language and, besides, the Bedouins no longer spoke the language of the Qur’an. In mystical circles, Sufism became increasingly established and codified, with Sufis turning away from itinerancy and congregating in monastic settings called ribat. And finally, the suspicion of books had worn off. After centuries of contentious debate on the subject, it was now acceptable for one to acquire knowledge from a text or letter instead of visiting a master oneself.

Perhaps because of this latter development, during this period the travelogue finally appeared around the year 1100 with Abu Bakr Ibn al-Arabi’s (1076 – 1148) account. Touati recounts this genre’s development as it germinated from bibliographies and epistolary reports to become a literary form in its own right. Genealogically speaking, however, the most credit may have to be given to the travel-lists that scholars compiled to create a sort of medieval CV. These documents listed where they had been and with whom they had studied. From this base, it became possible to include personal details about those voyages. The lifespan of the medieval Arabic travelogue was surprisingly brief, lasting only a few centuries after its emergence and climaxing with the Rihla of Ibn Battuta (1304-1377). But, according to Toauti, this genre marks the beginning of the end for travel as an intellectual sine qua non.

For Touati, and perhaps for Hali too, travel’s wane was coeval with the calcification of intellectual inquiry. He notes: “The construction of Islam became definitely fixed in structures and representations that it retained up to the period of colonial conquest.” The image here is of an ossified Islamic world that, having passed its best years between the eighth and twelfth centuries, remained stagnant until the arrival of colonialism. This problematic narrative of decline conflates Islamic thought with mainly Arabic-speaking Muslims. Shortly thereafter, in the fifteenth century, the Ottoman, Mughal, and Safavid empires emerged as dynamic intellectual centers. In the Ottoman Empire, for instance, Evliya Çelebi’s (1611-1688) gargantuan Siyahatname (Book of Travels) shows that the spirit of Ibn Battuta was alive and well into early modernity. Simultaneously, bibliographical dictionaries from Islamic West Africa make clear that travel for scholarship was a common practice at the other end of the Islamic world.

But when Islam and Travel was published in 2000, it rightly critiqued Orientalist scholarship for claiming that travel was somehow inherently Islamic. Since then, Touati himself has been criticized, with some arguing that Muslim writers idealized travel without necessarily practicing it. A 2004 study published by Monique Bernards showed that, of all known medieval linguists and traditionalists, only a fifth traveled for knowledge. This does not invalidate Touati’s work, but it does suggest that the value of traveling may have been more symbolic than actual.

Islam and Travel leaves no doubt travel was greatly esteemed. But to truly understand how it had a tangible impact on the development of the Dar al-Islam, we still know too little about travel as practice. A richer understanding of Islam and travel in the Middle Ages would depend not just on an intellectual history of travel but on a deeper understanding of the politics of mobility, borders, economic policy, social factors, the history of transport, housing arrangements, and more.

As it stands, we know little about these matters until the colonial moment, when travel was re-energized as a means toward the acquisition of knowledge. From al-Tahtawi (1801 – 1873) in Egypt to Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan (1817 – 1898) in India, Muslim reformers of the nineteenth century believed travel could bring prosperity, intellectual vigor, and empowerment. Not only would it give Muslims access to a knowledge of technological achievements in Europe and America, it would also, they believed, rejuvenate the community and restore severed links between disparate intellectual and religious centers. Other reformers thought that “wayward” Muslims at the fringes could, through contact with the holy land, return to a more pure faith. In other words, Muslim travelers of the nineteenth century self-consciously returned to the fundamentals of the faith, as they saw it. In this, they were heeding Hali’s crie de coeur. A thousand years after it first flourished as the preeminent methodological requirement of Islamic scholarship, travel was once again the preferred method for Muslims to satiate their desire for knowledge.

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