Home Sociology Orientalism Revisited: Art, Land and Voyage
The Orient’s medieval ‘Orient(alism)’. The Rihla of Sulayman al-Tajir
Nizar F. Hermes
And whoever sees himself really free.
Let him experience the meaning of the word!
Away from home, I spent most of my life, Witnessing wonders of ancient times.
My adventurous soul finds peace in alien things. Not in the comfort of the known world.
For indeed we are people of lands and seas, Amassing poll taxes from Egyptians and Chinese. In Tangiers, indeed in all corners, our horses race. If bored in a space, we leave it for another place. Muslim and non-Muslim lands are at our hands,
In summers we resort to snow.
In winters the oasis we enjoy!1
Abu Dulaf (d. 1012)
Nabil Matar is not totally wrong when he deplores the fact that Anthony Pagden’s voluminous collection of articles published under the title Facing Each Other: The World’s Perception of Europe and Europe’s Perception of the World fails to include “a single entry about the perception of or by any of the civilizations of Islam”.2 He has, however, overlooked a “single” exception: it is Jacques Le Goff’s reference to the medieval Arabs’ perception of the Indian Ocean in his seminal article “The Medieval West and the Indian Ocean: An Oneiric Horizon”.3 For the erudite Le Goff, medieval Westerners’ ignorance of the Indian Ocean and India in particular was in part the result of a negative Arabic influence. To the medieval Arabs, Le Goff states, “it is possible that the Indian Ocean was a forbidden and unknown world”.4 This lack of information about the Indian Ocean on the part of medieval Arabs, Le Goff goes on to observe, did nothing but reinforce the “illusions” of medieval Western writers and merchants who “sometimes turned to them for information.”5 Fortunately, Le Goff’s statement does not represent the scholarly attitude of the vast majority of Western Arabists, many of whom have made efforts that have been instrumental in both introducing and safeguarding the rich heritage of medieval Arab-Islamic geo-cosmographical, historiographical, and travel literature.6
It would hardly be an overstatement to say that during their own age of discovery and expansion, poetically captured by the aforementioned lines of the poet/traveler Abu Dulaf, medieval Muslims showed an enormous interest in their own ‘Orient’ especially after the conquest of the region of al-sind (modern Pakistan) in 711 by Muhammad ibn Qasim.7 “By the 8th Century,” Peter Boxhall notes, “Arabian seafarers were traveling frequently, in the wake of the great Islamic incursion by land into the Sind Province, and by sea along the Malabar Coast, to far-distant ‘As-Sin’ [China].”8 In a general sense, outside the borders of dar al-islam, it was mainly al-hind (India) and al-sin (China) that drew the closest attention of Muslim politicians, geographers, merchants, and travelers alike.9 Although this “Orient” was predominantly conceived as “an actual space”, to use Iain Macleod Higgins’s phrase, some elements of “the imaginary and the conceptual” were unquestionably present, without, however, attaining the imaginary and the conceptual Orient “envisioned, elaborated, and encountered in the corpus of western writing about the East.”10 Indeed, in addition to the economic, political, and religious motives behind the interest in al-sharq (East), the Indo-Chinese inspiration of al-’ajib/al-gharib (the marve- lous/the unfamiliar) made the Indian Ocean rather a desirable destination and not a “taboo”, as Le Goff has assumed.11
The interest of Muslims in the East dates back to the early days of Islam wherein “the caliphs, were probably for political reasons, interested in acquiring information about different countries, their inhabitants and special features of their lands.”12 It was with the Abbasids, however, that this interest reached its historical climax through the expedition sent to India by Yahya ibn Khalid al-Barmaki (d. 805), the competent wazir of Harun al-Rashid. According to Muhammad Zaki Hassan, the expedition was the direct result of the “intellectual awakening and frequent religious debates encouraged by the Abbasid caliphs”, which, in his own words, “stimulated an urge in the hearts of the Arabs to make enquiries and researches into the religion of the Hindus.”13 Seen in this light, this expedition to study the East’s own East, in spite of the almost ten centuries that separate them, conjures up to some extent the French expedition to Egypt in 1789. The outcome of this older nonmilitary expedition was an intriguing report “that covered various arts, skills and scientific achievements of the Indians and a detailed account of the castes and religious practices.”14
In this same period, an independent traveler by the name of ‘Abd Allah Muhammad ibn Ishaq made his way as far as Khmer (Cambodia), where he lived for two years. Although Ishaq’s report is mostly lost, he is credited with leaving a number of valuable comments not only on the ancient kings of India but also on Ceylon and Khmer that were used by later historians and geographers.15 Years later, the Abbasid polyglot/translator Sallam al-Turjuman is reported to have reached the Great Wall of China.16
In his geographical encyclopedia Kitab al-Masalik wa’l-Mamalik, Ibn Khordadbeh reported, on the authority of al-Turjuman himself, that the latter left for China at the request of the caliph al-Wathiq (d. 847), who was terrified by a nightmare in which he saw a hole in al-sudd (the dam) that the Quranic character dhu al-qarnayn is said to have built to prevent the apocalyptic nations of
ya’juj wa ma’juj (the biblical Gog and Magog) from invading and ravaging the adjacent territories.17 Although one cannot totally exclude the story of the nightmare, Malallah has argued convincingly that this nightmare was rather used by al-Wathiq as a pretext to expose his political and military power by showing that he could reach any corner he wished to reach.18
In defense of the historical accuracy of the trip against the doubt leveled by some Western Arabists—such as Sprenver, Grigorev, and mainly Minorski, who described al-Turjuman’s trip as “a wondertale interspersed with three or four geographical names”—Zaki Muhammad Hassan has argued that what people should doubt is rather some of the mythical descriptions found in certain reports on the trip and whether Sallam reached the Great Wall of China or just stopped in modern Dagestan. As pointed out by Hassan, this is the position espoused by the French Arabist Carde Vaux, who, although he defended ardently the authenticity of the trip, used to argue that al-Turjuman did not see the Great Wall of China, his prime objective.19 Referring to Arabists such as De Goje, Tomashek, and Vasmev, who confirmed the authenticity of the trip, Malallah has asserted that the very fact that Ibn Khordadbeh (who was one of the closest advisers of al-Wathiq) mentioned that he heard directly much of the report from his friend al-Turjuman appears to prove that the latter had indeed embarked on such a trip.20
This fascination with India and China manifested itself in the publication in 916 of Silsilat al-Tawarikh (Chain of Histories), the first ‘anthology’ of Arabic accounts of India and China, by Abu Zayd al-Hasan al-Sirafi (d. 950), who most likely traveled to both countries.21 Because he was also “an ardent collector of information from travelers visiting in India and China and other parts of the East”,22 al-Sirafi (after exhaustive editing and correcting) incorporated in Silsilat al-Tawarikh a number of accounts and reports of Muslim travelers, sailors, and merchants who had visited India and China.23 The most interesting of these accounts is Akhbar al-Sin wa’l-Hind (Account of China and India), still attributed by the majority of Middle Eastern scholars to Sulayman al-Tajir. Al-Tajir’s account of China and India, according to Hassan, is not only one of the world’s most interesting and authentic texts concerning medieval India and China but also “the earliest known travel diary of an Arab that has come to us.”24- 25
Little is known about Sulayman al-Tajir other than his own text and the fact that he was, as the second part of his name confirms, a tajir, that is to say a merchant. Indeed, what strikes the reader most on reading the opening pages of Akhbar al-Sin wa- ’l-Hind is the remarkable reticence of the author on the subject of his own life and career during his journey in the East. Most probably, however, like his editor Abu Zayd al-Sirafi, he was from the coastal city of Siraf. From there, as mentioned by some reports, he sailed across the Indian Ocean before reaching India and journeying into China. Al-Tajir’s account is a mine of sociocultural, religious, political, and economic information about India and China in the ninth century. In fact, from the beginning of his journey the merchant seems to abandon his initial trade and become a keen observer and a preoccupied explorer who finds himself captivated not only by the spectacle of the Oriental Other he will soon meet but also by the authentic ‘aja’ib/ghara’ib (marvels/wonders) of the Indian Ocean.
The opening pages of the account are full of rich maritime information about “this sea”, as he calls it. It is the detailed and fascinating description of the sperm whale that proved the most valuable in his entire account of the Indian Ocean. “In this sea is found a fish that appears occasionally,” he tells us in his opening paragraph. “It has herbs and shells growing on its back. The captains of boats, sometimes, lay anchor against it thinking it to be an island, but when they realize their mistake they set sail from it.”26 Without the necessity of calling (him) Ishmael, for certainly he was, Moby Dick must have loomed large in the oceans of our memory, conjuring up the harpoons of Queequeq, the destructive revenge of Captain Ahab, and more importantly le plaisir of navigating through foreign texts.
Perhaps it is not going too far to state that the remainder of the description of al-Tajir’s factual Moby Dick, however, appears too classical to fit into the novelistic structure, if not the colonialist discourse, of Herman Melville, for it is Longinian in essence. Capturing the Muslim sailors’ feelings of the “sublime” whenever they encounter the sublime sperm whale, al-Tajir writes:
Sometimes, when this fish spreads out one of its two wings on its back, it appears like the sail of a ship. When it raises its head above water, you can see it as an enormous object. Sometimes it blows out water from its “mouth,” which resembles a lofty tower. Whenever the sea is calm and the fish gather together, it collects them round with the help of its tail. Then it opens its mouth and the fish dive into its belly as if diving into a well. The boats sailing on this sea are scared of it, so during the nightfall they blow the trumpets resembling those of the Christians, for they are afraid that it might lean heavily against their boat and cause it to be drowned.27
The “un-Ahabian” al-Tajir was fully aware of the tragic doom of chasing the sperm whale. Hence, he opted for a comic Sindbadian adventure that uses the sea as a means and never an end per se. Apart from the rhapsodic reference to the cannibalistic Andaman, to which we will return later, the awkward opening of Akhbar al-Sin wa-’l-Hind resembles closely the medieval and Renaissance Western isolari (catalog of islands), especially when al-Tajir consumes many pages to list clumsily the numerous islands of the Indian Ocean. Fortunately, however, with the approach to the nearest Indian shore, al-Tajir embarks on a rather pleasant Oriental journey wherein he gratifies the curious reader with a mine of information about ninth-century India and China.
Throughout the remaining pages, al-Tajir engages in a comparative description of the religious, social, political, economic, and cultural conditions of the Indians and the Chinese. He has proved particularly keen in exploring and mapping the topos of difference and sameness between these two non-Muslim peoples most of the time, as his comments are without polemical addition or omission. Yet, at other times, he is quick in reporting with implied disapproval, but without much moralizing, what he deems to be religious aberrations and social vices that utterly contradict his own religion and his cultural traditions.
It goes almost without saying that al-Tajir, as is the habit of the “religious minded” Arabs to use Zaki’s phrase, seems to be particularly interested in Indian religions and sects.28 Relatively aware of the differences among the major Hindu castes and main sects such as the Brahmans, Samanis, and Buddhists, al-Tajir (unlike more scholarly medieval Muslim writers on Indian religions) does not explain in detail many of the Hindu tenets and beliefs. Nevertheless, he has filled his account with valuable information on common Hindu religious and social practices, rituals of death, marriage, asceticism, women, justice, and politics. In several important respects, the most salient aspect of his commentary is the comparative mode that dominates the entire account. This can be seen in the traveler’s thorough analysis of a number of similarities and differences between the Indians and the Chinese. These latter—in spite of their “superiority” in matters of education, culture, and civilization—in general are, religiously speaking, depicted by al-Tajir as “blind” followers of the Indians. This apparently led to the existence of several sociocultural similarities between the two otherwise different peoples.
In Hindu Serendib (Sri Lanka), which he describes as “the last of the islands and one of the lands of India”, al-Tajir informs us that when a Hindu king dies and before his cremation, a woman engages in a number of sacramental rituals wherein she pronounces a moving tadhkira, a type of a short but very meaningful admonition on the ineluctability of death. After the cremation, she repeats the same admonition for three consecutive days.29 Significant too is al-Tajir’s accurate exposition of the Hindu practice of sati, or the burning of wives with the bodies of their dead husbands. Shunning hasty conclusions and easy generalizations, he proves himself objective in emphasizing the fact that Hindu wives have the final decision when it comes to this highly valued Hindu practice. Evidently, he could have easily made us believe that all Hindu wives must be burnt along with their dead husbands.
Centuries later, this same detail is highlighted almost verbatim by Marco Polo (d. 1324) and Ibn Battuta (d. 1369), the world’s best-known globe-trotters: “When a man is dead and his body is being cremated,” Marco Polo tells us, “his wife flings herself into the same fire and lets herself be burnt with her husband. The ladies who do this are highly praised by all. And I assure you that there are many who do as I have told you.”30 Similarly, Ibn Battuta notes, “The burning of the wife after her husband’s death is regarded by them [Indians] as a commendable act, but is not compulsory, for when a widow burns herself her family acquires a certain prestige by it and gains a reputation for fidelity.” Soon, however, he emphasizes the enormous social pressure on all women to practice the sati, for, as he concludes, “a widow who does not burn herself dresses in coarse garments and lives with her own people in misery, despised for her lack of fidelity.”31 It should be mentioned that, at least in this religious cult of burial and self-immolation, the Hindus have not changed much between the time al-Tajir visited India in the ninth century and the time Marco Polo and Ibn Battuta were there. Even more interesting is this rare medieval moment of agreement among two Mashriqi and Maghribi Muslims and a Euro-Christian on the crucial issue of religious Otherness.
Among the several factual wonders that drew the keen eyes of al-Tajir is the life of a number of Hindu gurus (enlightened masters). These mystics, al-Tajir tells us, dedicate their lives to wandering in uninhabited places such as forests and mountains without having any connections or communication with other human beings. They starve themselves as much as they can, and it is understood that they are strict vegetarians, for they survive by feeding occasionally on herbs and fruits. They also abstain from sexual congress with women by covering their penises with iron rings.32 Al-Tajir’s testimony can perhaps be seen as evidence for a Hindu influence on the rise of Sufism in medieval Islam. Among other things, this is especially significant when it comes to the cults of siyaha (wandering) and khalwa (isolation) that bear close similarities to the aforementioned Hindu cults as reported by al-Tajir.
Indeed, in addition to a number of monistic and pantheistic tendencies among some Sufi shuyukh (masters) such as al-Hallaj (d. 922), Ibn ‘Arabi (d. 1240), Ibn Sab‘in (d. 1269), and Ibn al-Faridh (d. 1353), Sufi shuyukh and murids (disciples) chose to wander for years, in some cases for life, in the sahra ’ (desert) and khala ’ (uninhabited places), without taking provisions, in search of kashf (enlightenment), haqiqa (inner truth), and other mystical karamat (miracles); this practice continues today in some Muslim countries. This is in addition to the spread of ‘uzubiyya (celibacy) and tabattul (sexual abstinence) among some of these masters and disciples.33
In al-Tajir’s view, the religious influence of the Indians over their eastern neighbors the Chinese is uncontested. Acknowledging some small differences in minor practices, he calls themfuru ‘ (Arabic for “minor issues”) and observes that the sciences of religion never developed in China, for “their religion originated in India”;34 this is an apparent reference to the fact that the predominant religion of the medieval Chinese was Buddhism, which is Sanskrit for “enlightenment”, again a concept of fundamental importance in Sufism. Owing to the religious dependence of the Chinese on the Indians, several social customs related to marriage, hygiene, and food are similar in both countries. Marriage, for instance, is enacted in the same way: “When the Indians and the Chinese wish to perform a marriage,” al-Tajir remarks, “they felicitate each other, then exchange presents, and then they make the marriage public by playing on cymbals and drums. Their present consists of money, according to their means.”35 In a similar fashion, he informs us that neither of them practices circumcision, nor do they take a bath after janaba (sexual intercourse). This is in addition to the fact that the Chinese and the Indians do not slaughter their animals as Muslims do. Instead, they kill them by a blow to the skull. The Indians and Chinese, however, have different views in other issues of hygiene.
All in all, al-Tajir does not hesitate to imply that the Indians are not only clean, but are unquestionably “cleaner” than the Chinese for a number of reasons that are intrinsically inspired by his own culture, such as the Indians’ daily bathing and teeth cleaning. Others are quite obvious, despite slight differences from Islamic practice. This recalls his statement that, contrary to the Chinese, who have sexual intercourse with menstruating women, the Indians—more similar to the Jews than to Muslims—not only do not cohabit with them, but “they make them leave their homes and keep away from them”.36- 37
We may say, then, that when it comes to the matters of conjugal and sexual life of the Indians and the Chinese, al-Tajir never seems indifferent. Of significance is his accurate statement that the Hindus, contrary to the Muslims, consider marriage a religious sacrament that joins the Hindu couple not only for life but, as we saw earlier, in the afterlife. Divorce is therefore not allowed, and at the death of husbands, wives who do not practice the sati are not allowed to remarry.38 This is because, in stark contrast to Marco Polo’s affirmation that the Indians “do not regard any form of sexual indulgence a sin”,39 zina’ (adultery/fornication) is considered an extremely serious crime that can end with death. Throughout India, as observed by al-Tajir, consensual adultery among married couples is punished by death for both men and women.
Interestingly, al-Tajir mentions that if a married woman is forced to engage in adultery, she is saved and only the man is killed. The severe punishment of adulterous married couples does not mean that other forms of sexual relations are nonexistent in India. Indeed, prostitution among both the Indians and the Chinese is tolerated. As he tells us, in China prostitution as well as liwat (sodomy) with young boys is widely practiced in places built for the purpose. In India, legal prostitution is common in Hindu temples through the devadasis (temple girls).40 According to zaki and others, these women were not only “attached with the temple”, but they also “traded in flesh and offered their income to the custodians of the temples.”41 Interestingly enough, al-Tajir does not describe thefitna (sexual temptation) of the temple devadasis as does Marco Polo, who in his account mentions that the Hindu temple girls were “completely naked except for their private parts.”42 “Marco was quite taken with the temple girls,” Jonathan Clements humorously tells us, “and noted with great interest their pert, firm bosoms and their taut, tight flesh—for a penny they will allow a man to pinch them as hard as he can, he [Polo] adds, without daring to suggest that he had the right change.”43
In general, if the Indians encountered by al-Tajir were, in his eyes, far superior to their Chinese neighbors in matters related to spirituality, wisdom, hygiene, and to some extent morality, the Chinese excelled over their spiritual masters in matters related to culture. This impression was the outcome of al-Tajir’s fascination with ninth-century China’s “Universal literacy”, political justice, social equality, agricultural and economic abundance, and the people’s unequalled artistic skills in craftsmanship and painting. For obvious reasons, al-Tajir notes with fascination what he saw of widespread literacy among Chinese men and women. Whether poor or rich, young or old, he tells us, the Chinese learn calligraphy and the art of writing.44 This was the outcome of an effective political policy of decentralized promulgation of education on the part of the Chinese politicians. “In every town,” al-Tajir writes, “there are scribes and teachers who impart education to the poor and their children; they receive their maintenance from the treasury.”45
Since everybody knows how to read and to write, all the disputes and complaints must reach the king not only in documents written by a katib (scribe) licensed by the hikam (laws) but—to our surprise and amazement—in perfect spelling. “[And] before the plaintiff [sahib al-qiss] is presented in the audience of the king,” al-Tajir says, “a person who is stationed at the gate of the house looks into the written [complaint] of the person. If he finds that there are some mistakes in it he rejects it” (51). Universal literacy does not seem to be the invention of our modern times, and “the Literall advantage”, to the detriment of the seventeenth- century English traveler Samuel Purchas (d. 1626), is God’s gift to all.
In Marvelous Possessions: The Wonder of the New World, critic Stephen Greenblatt has persuasively argued that, according to Purchas, author of Hakluytus Posthumus, or Purchas His Pilgrims, it is writing that sets the boundaries between civilization and barbarism. “God hath added herein a further grace, that as Men by the former exceed Beasts,” Purchas declares, “so hereby one man may excell another; and amongst Men, some are accounted Civill, and more Sociable and religious, by the Use of letters and of Writing, which others wanting are esteemed Brutish, Savage, Barbarous.” In addition to “the Christians’ conviction that they possessed an absolute and exclusive religious truth”, and the possession of “navigational instruments, ships, warhorses, attack dogs, effective armour, and highly lethal weapons, including gunpowder”, Greenblatt observes that it is this very “Literall advantage” that provided Europeans, “with a very few exceptions”, with a most powerful feeling of superiority toward “virtually all the people they encountered, even those like the Aztecs who had technological and organizational skills.” For Purchas and other Europeans, Greenblatt goes on to say, the possession of writing was equated with the possession of “a past, a history, that those without access to letters necessarily lack.”46 Through the support of some scholars such as Tzvetan Todorov, Greenblatt reveals that “Purchas’s notion of the Literall advantage” has survived with considerable vigor in certain academic circles. In his masterful study The Conquest of America: The Question of the Other— hailed by Greenblatt as not only “thoughtful” and “disturbing” but also as the inspiration behind his Marvelous Possessions—Todorov, in the view of Greenblatt, has argued that “the crucial cultural difference between European and American peoples was the presence or absence of writing and that this difference virtually determined the outcome of their encounter.”47 During the older cultural encounter between medieval Arabs and Chinese, “the presence or absence of writing” was not a crucial cultural difference between Muslims and Chinese. Nor was it, as attested by al-Tajir and other medieval Muslim travelers, an “important” let alone “the most important element” in the medieval situation of the two “lettered” cultures, as it was the case with the European-American “situation”, at least as delineated by Todorov.48
In the same connection, despite its brevity, al-Tajir’s account of Chinese justice is particularly remarkable. Not only does the Muslim traveler notice with admiration the absence of bureaucracy, but he also speaks with awe of the Chinese al-dara: “Every town has a thing called al-dara. This is a bell placed near [lit. ‘at the head of’] the ruler of the town and is tied to a cord stretching as far as the road for the [benefit] of the common people.” If a person is wronged by another person, he/she shakes the cord that is linked to al-dara. When doing so, al-Tajir observes, “the bell near the ruler starts ringing. So he [the wronged] is allowed to enter [the palace] to relate personally what the matter is and to explain the wrong done to him.”49 The result of this medieval Chinese “wonder” was the amazing accessibility of the public to the political and judicial hierarchy. In medieval China, it seems, injustice was panoptically controlled and justice was impressively disseminated. This conjures up the modern theory of panop- ticism. Whereas modern states, as understood by Louis Althusser and Michel Foucault, function through this panoptical controlling of their citizens, the medieval Chinese state, to the surprise of all, used panopticism to repress injustice. Not found even in the most democratic of modern societies, the Chinese al-dara, it appears, is a more utopian wor(l)d.
Al-Tajir was also very much interested in Chinese political institutions, for he seems to have been convinced that such a successful government, dealing with its subjects with impressive justice and providing them with numerous economic and social services, must have behind it a very effective political system. This can be inferred from the numerous passages he devotes to the political hierarchy, especially that of the emperor and the regional muluk (kings). Among the reasons that lay behind the success of the Chinese political system was the age of the regional governors. “Among them,” he says, “no one becomes a ruler unless he is forty years of age, for they say that [at this age] a person becomes mature due to his experiences.” Even more interesting are discipline, judicial accountability, discretion, financial transparency, and healthy diets. “The king does not sit [in session] to mete out justice,” al-Tajir notes, “unless he eats and drinks beforehand, so that he may not commit an error.”50 These excellent governing qualities of the Chinese, in addition to other natural qualities, made the China visited by al-Tajir, especially when compared to India, not only a thriving but also a pleasant and healthy place to be. “China is more pleasant and beautiful than India. In most parts of India there are no towns, while the Chinese have large fortified cities everywhere. China is healthier, has few diseases and is most pleasant climatically.” It is no accident, therefore, that in this (at least in worldly terms) ideal medieval country “one cannot find a blind or one-eyed person there nor anyone suffering from a disease, but these are found in large numbers in India.”51 Perhaps knowing that al-Tajir was describing the China of the Tang dynasty (618-906), hailed by Herbert Gowen in An Outline History of China as “the most powerful, and the most economically and culturally developed empire in the world”,52 justifies al-Tajir’s fascination.53
In this medieval “Chinatopia”, socialism was a royal matter. “Wherever there is a rise in prices,” al-Tajir observes, “the king releases food [food grains] from his stores and sells it at a rate cheaper than the current prices in the market.”54 Likewise, al-Tajir was impressed by the free health services that the Chinese authorities provided to the poor. “If a person is poor,” al-Tajir informs us, “he is given the price of the medicine from the treasury.” Even more “modern” is the financial assistance enjoyed by aged persons who receive pensions from the treasury. These pensions are provided from the taxes that aged people used to pay when they were active in the workforce. Indeed, al-Tajir notes with accuracy that although the government does not impose any taxes on lands and other private properties, from the age of 18 to 80 all working men provide the treasury with a percentage proportional to what they earn. When they reach the age of 80, in turn, the government is obliged to pay them back and provide for their living. Behind this modern social pension lies the government’s firm belief in justice and equity; as al-Tajir puts it, “They say: we took from him when he was a youth, and we pay him a salary when he is old.”55
In addition to these taxes, the rich and equitably managed treasury of the Chinese government relies heavily on the revenues of a wondrous herb that the Chinese produce abundantly and transform into China’s most popular and most expensive drink. This herb, according al-Tajir, is “leafier than green trefoil and slightly more perfumed, and has a soury taste”. In order to transform it into drink, the Chinese “boil water and then sprinkle the leaves over it”. This hot drink, which the Chinese take as a cure for many diseases, “is called al-sakh”.56 Such is al-Tajir’s description of China’s universally valued tea. This passage about tea not only makes him the first Muslim traveler to mention tea in his account, but also proves the authenticity of his account of China. This is in stark contrast to Marco Polo, whose omission of tea, among other things, has led many people to question the veracity of the latter’s visit to China.
Finally, al-Tajir’s description of the Andaman Islands may be the most inviting passage in the entire Akhbar al-Sin wa- ’l-Hind. This is especially true in relation to this essay’s aspiration to revisit some of the essentialist views of a number of postcolonial theorists and their dismissal of traditions and discourses of Otherness in medieval Arabic literature and culture. As we shall see, al-Tajir’s description of the island and its inhabitants conjures up Robinson Crusoe (1719) and other Western narratives of encounters with non-Europeans, especially during the height of colonialism. The specific passage runs as follows:
On the other side of these [islands] there are two islands, and between them there is the sea. They are called Andaman. Their inhabitants are cannibals. They are black with curly hair, and have ugly faces and eyes and long legs. Each one had pudenda, that is to say, his penis, nearly a cubit long; and they are naked. They have no canoes, and if they had them, they would have eaten up anyone passing by them. Sometimes it so happens that the boats slow down, and their speed is retarded due to the [strong] wind. The drinking water in the boats gets used up; and so they [sailors] approach these [islands] and refill the water. Hence, sometimes they [the cannibals] capture some of them [the sailors], but most of them escape.57
One is stunned not only by al-Tajir’s, or probably his editor al-Sirafi’s, ‘scientific’ confirmation of the cannibalistic activities of these hamaj (uncivilized/barbarian) islanders, but also by his implicit equation between their barbarism/cannibalism, their presumed qubh (ugliness), and their manifest sawad (blackness).58
Indeed, the islands are there, the ‘cannibals/Calibans’ are there, the gaze of power and the power of gaze are there, but it is obvious that al-Tajir’s report of this human mirabilia is rather from his ‘innocent’ interest in and fascination with the marvelous and the unfamiliar. Evidently, many postcolonial readers may legitimately see in this excerpt a textual proof that betrays not only al-Tajir’s Orientalist/colonialist discourse but also a medieval Muslim Orientalism/colo- nialism. Although none can impose a single interpretation upon literary texts, it seems that al-Tajir, in the quoted passage, is too ‘innocent’ to be an Orientalist/ colonialist. Perhaps one should direct some of this textual ‘innocence’ toward the assessment of a number of Westerners who have described the East.
The obvious example is Marco Polo himself. Like al-Tajir and his editor/ co-author al-Sirafi, in his description of the Andamans “as cruel cannibals who liked their strangers raw and highly spiced”, Polo—or perhaps Rustichello of Pisa, his editor/coauthor,—was keenly interested in the “grandsimes mervoilles et les grant diversites” of the East in “innocently” embracing his own culture’s “topography of wonder”. In contrast to al-Tajir and al-Sirafi’s description of the cannibalism of some Eastern/African races, Polo and Rustichello “were more taken by the monstrosity of the mythical dog-headed Cynocephali that were among the most widely discussed and variously described of the exotic human races.”59
It seems evident, therefore, thatAkhbar al-Sin wa-’l-Hindillustrates a cultural relativism that foreshadows, for instance, Montaigne’s Essais. Apart from his repulsion at what he deemed un-Islamic rituals, lack or rather imperfection in matters of cleanliness, un-halal meat, and widespread and legalized heterosexual and homosexual prostitution, al-Tajir finds no reason not to extol many of the cultural, political, economic, and social achievements of those “infidels” whom he met. In general, al-Tajir does not make any use of suffixed formulae such as la‘anahum allah (may God curse them) or dammarahum allah (may God destroy them), a common practice in Muslim writings about al-rum (Byzantines) and al-ifranj (Franks) during the hostile times of the Crusades. This makes more ideological sense when one remembers the Quranic injunction to Muslims to favor ahl al-kitab (the People of the Book) over the mushrikin (polytheists) of China and India. “On est surpris, du reste,” Andre Miquel writes, “que rien dans ces voyages n’atteste le sentiment d’une degradation des choses et des etres a mesure qu’on s’eloigne du centre vivant du monde et de la foi vers les terres mysterieuses de l’infidelite.”60 In many other instances, the ‘Orient of the Orient’ served as a space of sociopolitical self-criticism and cultural experimentalism.
As briefly mentioned in the introduction, modern postcolonial theories of Orientalism have confined the complex relations between East and West to the latter’s colonialist enterprise in the ‘Orient.’ By doing so, they have somehow forgotten that every Self has its own Other and that every literature has its own alterity. Throughout Islam’s classical age of discovery and expansion, evocative of Europe in early modern times, the Orient had its own Orient but not, it seems to me, its own Orientalism in the essentialist Saidian sense. Nowhere is this better exemplified than in the various accounts of India and China, especially during the golden age of the Abbasids. Although none can deny the fact that this interest was in many ways instigated, perpetuated, consolidated, and driven by religious propaganda, territorial expansion, economic interest, or political endorsement, not every Muslim in the age of expansion who wrote about the Orient’s own Orient was supremacist, colonialist, or racist. The interest is more related, perhaps, to the centrality of the literary and cultural leitmotif of al-‘ajib/ al-gharib in medieval and early modern Arabic travel literature.
Of course, one could challenge this seemingly innocent Arabic tradition of al-‘ajib/al-gharib through applying, for instance, Stephen Greenblatt’s deconstructive critique of the poetics and politics of wonder in Marvelous Possessions.
Greenblatt probes the “cultural poetics” of what has generally been perceived as a mere human emotion (i.e., wonder). This is particularly true of his exploration of the cultural and discursive (in the Foucauldian sense) foundations of wonder, as illustrated by the European encounter with the New World—especially as exemplified by Cortes’s encounter, contact, and military clash with the Aztecs. Wonder, Greenblatt argues, was an indispensable stage in the “othering” of the Other, for it subverts and ultimately contains all possible spaces of “sameness” in that very Other. Indeed, it is the discursive response of the “same” that overwhelms the emotions of wonder.61 By conjuring up his/her “sameness”, the intruder, explorer, or traveler sets a boundary between “self” and “Other”. Such a “cultural” boundary would certainly construct the possible space for what Mary Louise Pratt has aptly termed as “contact zone”.62 In Greenblatt’s view, this “contact zone”, however successful in setting a space of cultural exchange, fails in the end to destroy the “red lines” that protect the “self” from the different “Other”. Greenblatt goes on to assert that wonder was crucial in the ultimate “dispossessing” of the natives by a possessive/ing Other. The latter comes to the shores, intrudes into native territory, meets the native, and wonders at his/her appearance, habits, speech, and so forth. Through an “imperialist” consciousness and unconsciousness of the “self”, the intruder confers his/her “sameness”, intrudes into the difference of the native, differs in a Derridean sense, and infers through “descriptions judgments, and actions” his/her Otherness. Fortunately, Greenblatt has somewhat questioned his own essentialism when he exempts figures such as Herodotus, Jean de Lery, Montaigne, and Mandeville from the artful maneuver of the experience of wonder for colonial appropriation and consolidation. These authors, Greenblatt concludes, found in the experience of wonder a vehicle for cultural relativism and understanding.63
Perhaps it is no exaggeration to suggest that, had Greenblatt been familiar with the Arab Islamic tradition of wonder in cultural encounters, the list of exemptions would have been longer. Otherwise, one would be likely to concur with Nabil Matar’s position, however debatable it may appear to some, on the theoretical ineffectiveness of some Western theorists when applied to the Arabic tradition. “The Arabic travel accounts cannot therefore be approached through the theoretical models,” Matar writes, “with which European accounts have been studied by writers as different as Stephen Greenblatt, Edward Said, and Gayatri Spivak. They belong to a tradition that is different not only in its history but epistemology.”64
In sum, in addition to showing that medieval Muslims were not uninterested in the non-Muslim Other, my main objective in referring to the “Oriental theme” in medieval Arabic adab al-rihla (travel writings) is to question, if not challenge, the postcolonial equation of travel literature and the traveler’s gaze with dominant discourses of power such as Orientalism and colonialism. Cultural Othering is one way, among many, of constructing self-definition and self-identification. Cultural encounters between different humans in different contexts, however, are too complex a phenomenon to be ‘essentialized’ in restrictive Western theoretical models, let alone through a set of binary opposites—Self/Other, civilized/ barbaric, white/black, West/East, and so forth. Islam’s encounter with its own
Orient challenges not only such essentialism but also its own medieval encounter with Europe and the Euro-Christians, a subject that has been neglected in the ongoing and heated debate about relations between Islam and the West. Medieval Muslims were not interested solely in the Far East; through a number of textual and physical journeys, many medieval Muslim writers, geo-cosmographers, travelers, envoys, and captives from the Mashriq and the Maghrib, with their curious pens and inquiring eyes, ventured into different parts of medieval Europe as well and left us with extraordinary accounts of what they saw and experienced.65
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