George R. Sole: Ubar

An Introduction to Medieval Travelogues: A comparison of Ibn Fadlan, Ibn Jubayr and Ibn Fudayl

Jean-Léon Gérôme, Arnaut and his dog, 19th century. Source: Wikipedia

The act of travelling is as compelling now as it was in the past. It is one of the most powerful catalysts for change in all spheres of human society and possibly more so with Islamic civilisation, which has travel as one of its central themes. The Quran commands the faithful to perform the Hajj, here the pilgrim endures the hardships of travel in order to connect with God. But it also encourages travel in order for man to see what has become of previous nations; to take heed as it were. Whilst this author is no Mohammedan, I do believe in the latter proposition and Medieval travellers are of particular interest to me.

Many years ago I set out to learn what became of the ancient city of Ubar. Unfortunately, Sir Ranulph Twistleton-Wykeham-Fiennes having got wind of my idea decided to launch his own expedition as if to confound me. This paper, then, seeks to explore what if anything we can learn from Muslim travellers in the Medieval period. Equally, however, it is a riposte against unsavoury rogues who pen books fit only for airport lounges. Here Sir Ranulph Fiennes’ Atlantis of the Sands springs to mind. The latter, if one may say so, is a book obsessed with name dropping, it is full of sultans and VIPs rather than the fabled city itself. It is worth noting that only thirty seven pages are dedicated to the search for the lost city itself which is not underway until page one hundred and forty five. I would also posit that the picture of Sir Ranulph lying down on the sand looking exquisitely dashing, blond, bare chested and athletic in front of a jeep is ludicrous and devoid of dignity. Such behaviour it seems to me is akin to those cards one sees Arab emirs collecting from London’s telephone boxes on the Edgware Road when they are at a loose end.

What is worse, Fiennes’ book ignores much of the world’s religious traditions, and fails to see that the inner journey of the soul is susceptible to worldly temptations. Let us demonstrate using one’s own experience. At first whilst yearning to go in search of the lost city, at every step I was rebuffed by the gods, only Sir Hamilton Gibb was kind enough to introduce me to Sir Vincent Baxter, the British Embassy’s military attache in Oman, and it was through him that I was able to find some sort of convivencia between the ephemeral and the eternal.

I met Sir Vincent at the British ambassador’s soirée where drink was plentiful and Hanzala could carry on without any rebuke from the Sultan’s men who glared at him as he downed his fire water with impunity. It was Vincy who broached the subject. He asked me what the prospect of finding oil would be in the Empty Quarter. He informed me that he had approached Sir Ranulph Fiennes on the issue but the latter had found the idea repulsive. On the other hand, Vincy was not particularly keen on leaving such important matters in the hands of Arabists and Orientalists who preferred the refined air of libraries.

I replied that worldly affairs of the state and learning can sometimes be excellent bedfellows and introduced him the wonderful example of Christiaan Snouck Hurgronje, the pioneering Dutch Orientalist who satisfied his passion for the Orient by embracing its mores and ways whilst advising the Dutch government in the East Indies. He wrote over one thousand papers on the state of Islam, teaching Malay and Arabic at Leiden University. His expertise was crucial to winning the war against the natives in Aceh. He limited the casualties to one hundred thousand killed and a million wounded. I ended my reply forcefully: “Thus were it not for Hurgronje,” I even managed to use the word “thus”, “how many countless American GIs fighting in the Pacific would be lost, compared to Hiroshima and Nagasaki? No, the likes of Hurgronje have a place in our world, Sir.”

I then suggested that he should look in the Shizr Valley where Ubar was thought to be, for Hanzala had told me that black liquid literally oozed from the earth the last time he was there. The natives take it to be rancid water and do not go near it.  This of course pricked Vincy’s attention and he asked me about the character of the natives. I replied that the place was full of savage tribes belonging to the various tribal confederations of the Banu Kilāb but fortunately Hanzala my faithful man-servant belonged to that confederation. He took me aside to a quiet room to interrogate me further. I informed him that any sort of prospecting would require much cultural finesse and diplomacy and might even necessitate pretending to be a Mohammedan the way Hurgronje had done. “What man,” asked Vincy, “can do that?”

I replied that whilst Sir Ranulph wouldn’t do it, Burton, Hurgronje and now I were all most willing. I felt compelled to put myself forward for queen and country, for I did not know anyone who could do such things except men like us who believed in outdated notions. I informed him that perhaps the best thing would be to settle the tribes beyond the Empty Quarter following the example of General Custer. Perhaps time would forget them and their lives would not be forfeit since no one in their right mind would want to live there. After all these people were doomed; the discovery of black gold would ensure that for certain. The ensuing rush and the arrival of contractors, disease, soldiers and Indians would diminish any warlike resistance the tribes might posses. Moreover, resistance could be overcome if the military attache persuaded the emirs of the Trucial states to import Christian military personnel from South America who would not hesitate to put down any trouble in the interest of their co-religionists on the Arabian peninsula. Vincy was so impressed by my advice that the very next day, I received a cheque from his office and boxes of the finest Scottish firewater to distribute to the tribes, no questions asked.

Thus, if one can be forgiven for offering one’s own life as an Arabist as a metaphor for Islam, the religion may have begun as a spiritual venture but by the early Middle Ages, it had taken on a civilisational character and with it the idea of travelling took on a different aspect. What had begun as a dream to find the city of Ubar had taken on commercial undertones. Travel then was done not only for sacred reasons like Hajj and Hijra, but also for trade, knowledge, power, patronage, prestige and to satisfy basic wanderlust. Travel mirrored the direction that a confident and robust Islamic polity was heading towards. As a consequence the Medieval period saw a great deal of writing on geography, cartography, and travel. Whilst these geographical works are useful for showing us the extent and sophistication of Islamic civilisation, they are also valuable for highlighting the problems that Muslims faced when endeavouring to understand their world. And this is why Ibn Fadlan’s Journey to Russia (al-Risāla) and The Travels of Ibn Jubayr (Rihlat ibn Jubayr) and The Travels of Ibn Fudayl (Rihlat ibn Fudayl) are so useful. One should note, however, how uncannily similar the motivation to travel in Islamic civilisation is to our own. For our civilisation too has often utilised travel to give the impression that one’s soul has grown when in fact it has not. Thus men in those days wrote as they do now, for no purpose other than vanity or to record one’s supposed exploits, such as those found in Atlantis of the Sands.

In researching this paper, I was surprised to learn that relatively little work has been done on Medieval Muslim travel narratives. Western historiography has as of yet not produced a corpus of work that really wrestles with this topic. The secondary literature that we have, like Bernard Lewis’ The Muslim Discovery of Europe, focuses much more on the Ottoman period than the early Medieval. A lot of Western historiography quite understandably deals with that which pertains to itself. Generally scholarship revolves around Muslim attitudes towards the other, and more specifically on Muslim attitudes towards the Franks. Recent scholarship has focused its attention on continuity and long-term trends of Muslim attitudes from the Medieval period to the present. Much funding can be gained for any prospective postgraduate work on the famed marauding gangs of Pakistani men that afflict the green English countryside. Relatively little is known about the establishment of the League of English Patriots who defend the country by dutifully standing guard on the white cliffs of Dover to state quite forcefully that Pakistanis born in Yorkshire shall not pass. Of course the relationship between Muslims and Englishmen has been fraught since time immemorial and some scholars suggest that there is a scientific origin for this.

Here Nadia El-Cheikh and Aziz Al-Azmeh’s work on Arab attitudes to race is so valuable, because it shows the complex nature of relations between Muslim and non-Muslim and even of intra-Muslim relations. El-Cheikh points out how Arab prejudices about Byzantines were later transferred onto the Franks, and contributed to defining Muslim identity. Al-Azmeh has also demonstrated how Hellenic theories on medicine and Ptolemaic conceptions of the world influenced Muslims in the Near East who went on to construct a scientific view of race quite separate from religion. The Ptolemaic conceptions of race depend much on how the sun cooked the foetus inside the womb, thus Hellenes would consider the pale faced ginger from Scotland to be intemperate and unbalanced. Whilst the Black African due to the sun overcooking him would also be considered imbalanced, the most balanced people being naturally the Hellenes themselves; they were, if one can use a modern witticism, cooked according to Gordon Ramsey’s standard: perfection. The Medieval Arabs who inherited the Hellenic tradition, applied this Hellenic understanding to themselves, Indians and the Chinese during the Medieval period. But  these conceptions of race reverberate in the Arab mindset to this day. Many Arabs see themselves as having been cooked to perfection Omar Sharif of Dr Zhivago fame is seen as the perfect embodiment of that; for he displays charm and good looks and in him the humours seem to be in perfect equilibrium. This is why many Saudi princes protest loudly when they encounter anti-Arab feeling in countries such as the USA. Their minds cannot comprehend that the rest of the world does not see them as the embodiment of perfection. It then produces in them black bile which unsettles them and so they return to their penthouse and beat their Filipino servants to a pulp. To this day Saudi princes refer to a black as ‘abd – slave, and treat Filipinos, Pakistanis, Indians, Bengalis, Sudanese, Somalis, Lebanese, Tunisians, Nigerians – in fact anyone who does not possess the following passports: US, British, Canadian, Swedish, German, French or Norwegian – as being under- or overcooked. They do, however, make some exceptions for Indian doctors or marauding Pakistanis who by crook or hook have obtained one of the aforementioned passports by impregnating some vulnerable lassie.

For our purposes, I want to introduce the reader to Ibn Fadlan’s al-Risāla, Ibn Jubayr’s Rihla and the Ibn Fudayl’s Rihla as an preface to Medieval travelogues. I have chosen these because they have so much in common, but also because I caught Hanzala dipping into the texts when he claimed to be a master tracker and claimed that he only needed some ancient camel dung and the tracks of a few dung beetles to calculate the longitude and the latitude of our precise location. Of course, I should have realised he was lying, for we wandered the desert for days. I should have abandoned him when he protested his innocence of releasing a greased piglet at the British ambassador’s reception, and blamed Sir Runolph for the prank. Alas, I have so kind a heart I took him back.

With the exception of Ibn Fudayl the first two travellers come from the same class; both were government officials educated in the tradition of Islamic curricula. Both were overtly religious and were dealing with very alien cultures. But there are some differences in attitude towards these cultures. Ibn Fadlan wrote during a period when the Abbasid Empire was politically disintegrating though, in spite of this, the Islamic heartlands could still boast of unsurpassable cultural sophistication. Consequently, Ibn Fadlan’s attitude seems to manifest this cultural self-assurance. With Ibn Jubayr the political environment is far different, he wrote during a time when the Islamic Near East was experiencing political turmoil both internally and externally and the Crusader states served as a constant reminder of Muslim weakness. As a result Ibn Jubayr reflects a more subdued attitude.

But there are some issues with the two sources that cannot be ignored. As for Ibn Fadlan the author, we have absolutely no biographical data apart from what he tells us about himself. There is also no way of convincingly corroborating his account with other sources despite the fact that some accounts, namely that of Abu Hamid al-Mazini al-Garanati in the 12th century and Antonio Banderas’ 13th Warrior seems to reinforce some of the descriptions given. In consolation, the fact that Yaqut, a stickler for precision, uses him could give him more credibility. Further, his brevity of style, its unpretentiousness and of course the vivid detail which has been confirmed in coinage suggests that there could be some degree of authenticity.

With Ibn Jubayr we are on firmer ground, since we know much more about him. His full name was Ibn Jubayr, Abu’l- Husayn Muhammad b. Ahmad b. Jubayr al-Kināni. He was born in Valencia in 1145. He studied in Jativa where his father was a civil servant. He became a secretary to the governor of Granada, Abu Sa’id Uthmān b. Abdul Mu’min. We know that he had an incredible eye for detail and seemed obsessed with dating. His work is a serious piece of eyewitness history. This, I would argue, is due to contemporary scholarly practice. Makdisi has proposed that since the 9th century or perhaps even earlier, the writing down of dates, deaths and events, was a common practice and indeed indispensable to Muslim scholarship. These were equivalent to the research notes of the modern-day academic. By the 12th century, these types of notes were in common use in research and it is not improbable that Ibn Jubayr was following established convention. Certainly Ibn Jubayr’s meticulousness of dating either indicates an obsessive personality or that he followed an established academic convention. One could safely assume that his account was based on material he wrote down for later composition. In the broader context Ibn Jubayr’s work should be considered in the light of literature and historiography that developed as an ancillary to or grew out of the religious sciences. Although the imprint of the religious sciences in the work is present, it also has flourishes of rhymed prose, poetry and the purported ‘ajā’ib – wonders. That poses a problem for the historian. How far did his narrative submit to a literate public who demanded a polished piece of work which titillated as well as informed? How reliable then is Ibn Jubayr’s Rihla?

And this is what brings me to the Travels of Ibn Fudayl. Here is a scholar who writes about his experiences in Andalusia unfettered by convention in a milieu which was culturally flourishing. I discovered this folio in 2007 whilst rummaging around in the Assad Library in Damascus, I was preparing to have a meeting with the curator of the national library hoping to convince him that stocking even one copy of Atlantis of the Sands would be a great mistake. I had rehearsed all the arguments against his objections, but I thought perhaps if I also showed myself to be aware of the foibles and wants of Hafez al-Assad and his son, he may prove more pliable. I was also thinking of gifting Hanzala to him for the latter I am sure would do anything in return for the refreshing fire water which I had, at the time, rationed. It was in this process of learning about the glorious deeds of the dictator that I came across the book. It slipped out of the pages of one of the biographies. Realising that nothing goes unnoticed in the country I had two options. I could follow the practise I learnt at the SOAS library: when one did not have credit for photocopies then one ripped the relevant pages and transported them home. Or I could pop the book in my jacket. I opted for the latter. Those days in Damascus were terrible days. I worried that the Mukhabarat, the secret service were watching my every move. Any man who struck up a conversation with me would be met with a declaration of love for the dictator’s son. It was only once that I returned to England and sat in the Bodleian Library that I could rest easy. And so having saved it from those philistines the way Lord Elgin had hacked those Hellenic marbles from the Parthenon I sat down to translate the incomplete folio, and the gods of the Parthenon made it such that I found another folio in the Bodleian which had minor variations in orthography. Moreover, I discovered an incomplete history of his, entitled A History of the War of the Two Sicilies.

I realise that few scholars and Orientalists have heard of this Abu Ayyub bin Fudayl (d. 1196). But in my experience of travelogues, Ibn Fudayl’s Rihla is probably the best of the three. Orientalists from Princeton to SOAS will no doubt shake with anger at this assertion, some will no doubt gather in their studies to conspire against me, to launch a thousand papers to discredit me. They might prevent me from making lecture tours, sitting on editorial boards, accessing their students and so forth. But let these Orientalists consider that Ibn Fudayl, unlike the other travellers, is very much like us, he keeps religious metaphor, literary devices, poetry to a minimum, he shows that his scholarship is driven by facts not passions. We can also date him for he turns up in numerous biographical dictionaries. This native of Fustat is like a Muslim Strabo who travelled the world and kept such an open mind that he was accused of being a freethinker or zindiq. He sat with scholars, youthful boys, philosophers, kings, poets, peasants and judges treating them all equally and not allowing himself to be distracted by Andalusian damsels at all. He gives a detailed account of Andalusia, its life, its mores that is useful for all; from the academic who wishes to understand the past to the the Jihadist who wishes to reconquer Andalusia.

We hope that this small introduction of three travellers of the Medieval period will help the reader to delve deeper into Medieval travelogues and avoid Atlantis of the Sands by Ranulph Fiennes.