Posts Tagged ‘Ibn Jubayr’

The Travels of Ibn Jubayr

October 28, 2015

31upp0x-EQL._AA160_In the twelfth century, an Arab traveller from Andalusia sets off on the long journey to perform the hajj.

Ibn Jubayr is clearly a devout Muslim: this comes across through the countless prayer tag-phrases when people are named, and through his virulent verbal abuse of Christians in territories where they rule over Muslims, although he actually paints a picture of peaceful coexistence between the various peoples of the book wherever he goes. In this he is no different from other travellers of that time. It is fascinating to recall that he writes at the time of the Crusades, and before Constantinople has fallen to the Turks: the perspective is completely different.

Ibn Jubayr made me aware of numerous divisions and sects within Islam of which I had not known; sometimes the reasons behind these divisions were clear, sometimes not, but what I noticed was that they were about people rather than aspects of belief, about aspects of practice rather than theology. I was also surprised by the amount of ritual within Islamic practice and prayer which he described; here it seemed to resemble Christianity quite a lot: the past, various places associated with religious worthies and relics all seemed to receive veneration from the faithful. Again, this seems very different from what I read about current practice, where anything that might smack of idolatry is roundly condemned, and the Saudis seem to be eradicating much of the past of Islam.

Ibn Jubayr became homesick for his beloved al-Andalus, and was very glad to return home: again, to a twenty-first century reader, this appears very strange, but emphasises how much those lands were once an integral part of the Arab world.

His description of places generally left a lot to be desired; he is often vague about details, slipping frequently into generalised superlatives in praise of many things, so that eventually the impressions all become much of a muchness, and very little stands out to distinguish one place from another. This is particularly true in the lengthy chapters on Mecca and Medina: he is much better when describing actual travel, particularly the lengthy sea journeys across the length of the Mediterranean.

I was particularly saddened when I read his lengthy descriptions of the beauties of Syria, and particularly Damascus and Aleppo, given the horrific situation in that country at the moment.

As I remarked in my previous post, I think this was probably a book too far, though in the end I’m glad I’ve read it, but it didn’t add very much at all to the accounts of Arab travellers I’ve already read.  The texts is a print-on-demand one from an Indian publisher: beautifully produced, with two tipped-in maps (!) and reasonably priced: let me note this clearly, given my frequent complaints about such things…

Writing from Arab lands

July 14, 2014

Continuing the posts exploring my wider reading, and my opinion that other countries and languages offer sometimes better reading than English…

I’ve become increasingly fascinated by literature and other writing from the Middle East over the years. Partly this is from a wish to understand some of the conflicts going on in various parts of the world, but also from a longer historical perspective, as I’m aware that Arabs lands in the Middle Ages were not only the safeguarding repositories of much of humankind’s knowledge, but also the places where much new research and discovery was happening, while our part of the world languished in the so-called ‘Dark Ages’. I know that this is a bit of an over-simplification, but for me it’s also a counter to the Western-centrism which ignores so much of the rest of the world and what it has achieved.

Travels by Arab writers are fascinating: Ibn Battutah‘s voyages in the fourteenth century dwarf those of Marco Polo; Ibn al-Mujawil wrote in the thirteenth century and al-Masudi even earlier. I have a translation of Ibn Jubayr which is still on the to-read pile. And then there is Leo Africanus, and his Description of Africa, as well as the wonderful re-imagination of his life and travels by Amin Maalouf. Ibn Khaldun as a historian and compiler of knowledge is as interesting as Isidore of Seville.

My reading of fiction is limited by what is available in translation, and much more is accessible in French (currently) than in English. I have really enjoyed the novels and essays of the Lebanese writer Amin Maalouf: his perspective is a very helpful one in that his country is a society where Christians and Muslims have long co-existed (not always peacefully). The length essays Les Identités Meurtrières, and Le Déreglement du Monde are thoughtful and insightful takes on current conflicts in the world. His novel about the celebrated poet and astronomer Omar Khayyam, Samarkand, is available in English, as is Baldassare’s Travels; his novel about Leo Africanus and many others, which I recommend highly, are not, to the best of my knowledge.

I was quite stunned by Naguib MahfouzCairo Trilogy when I first came across it, and have read it twice, now: it’s a panorama of life in Cairo in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries centred around a single extended family; it’s a soap-opera of daily life, a fascinating and detailed insight into a totally different society, its customs, habits and morals, and the background is the increasingly turbulent history of the times; as a Westerner I learned a lot as well as enjoyed the novels; obviously life in Egypt is far more complex than a novel can reveal, but I loved being allowed these glimpses. It is sobering and necessary to see how other people can and do think, feel, react, exist in ways that are so different from our own: we may accept the difference, we may question it, but how can we begin to do anything if we have no knowledge?

This brings me on to the realisations that the Arab lands, via the Silk Route, were the way in which we originally came to know the Far East, the lands of China and India… that the things which connect us to other peoples are, or ought to be, far stronger than those which separate us, and cause conflict. I’m no philosopher and have no wish to be a politician, but I do strongly believe that we should be celebrating this diversity.

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