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Books and Documents ( 21 Sept 2008, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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What if ‘safarnama’ undermines wisdom?


By Khaled Ahmed 


Journeys to the other Shore: Muslim and Western Travellers in Search of Knowledge;

By Roxanne L Euben;

Princeton University Press 2006;

Pp313; Price $29.95;

Available at bookstores in Pakistan


Sunday, September 21, 2008        


Travel leads to knowledge, but if you suppress it, the product is poison secreted to preserve the stasis of ‘orthodox judgement’. There are ‘renegades’ like Sir Syed whose rihla of England produced a frank admission of low Muslim civilisation in India, spurring him on to a reformist modernism we today condemn as heresy.


If you want to judge the statement that travel bestows knowledge and wisdom, don’t examine the contemporary Urdu safarnama because here the journey is towards inner darkness, not outer enlightenment. The perverse model is Ibn Battuta (1304-1368) who travelled in the world of Islam for 30 years and rejected anything falling outside its pale, including cities inhabited by Shias. The most comic incident is that when he reached China on an ambassadorial mission, he refused to leave his tent because he didn’t want to see a civilisation he disliked! Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406) later complained that Ibn Battuta told lies in his travelogue. The book says so did Herodotus (484 BC–425 BC) but the difference was that, unlike Ibn Battuta, he wished to observe the Greek and the non-Greek alike.


Plato actually thought that it was dangerous to travel. He prescribed a routine for ‘purging’ the contaminated traveller on his return and to ascertain whether his contact with alien societies had not bred in him the desire to overthrow his own. He actually prescribed death if the traveller didn’t pass muster with a citizens’ inquiry (p.22). But Athens’ great lawgiver Solon (638 BC–558 BC) travelled to be able to theorise — theo in Greek also means to observe — and understand humanity under varied conditions. One suspects that he may have travelled to teach rather than learn, but here is where wisdom and knowledge was possibly the outcome. The writing down of the results of the travel is of course another thing altogether. It can land you in trouble; therefore, why not lie?


Writing about ‘wonders’ like Marco Polo (1254-1324) is one thing but passing value judgements on what the traveller sees is quite another. And if the reading public you are counting on will make you a bestseller only if you write a certain way then travelogue is reduced to the most forgettable genre called safarnama in Pakistan. And one hopes that the Age of Pakistani Safarnama is over and gone. Today it is Javid Iqbal’s and Fakir Aijazuddin’s books of theoria or rihla that are our new sources of ‘undesirable wisdom’. The fly-away reflections about ‘home’ their books provide may elicit threatening emails from jihadi militias planting bombs in our girls’ schools these days. What a genuine dislocation normally produces is tolerance of what is alien and a re-assessment of ‘home’ through what Edward Said calls ‘contrapuntal juxtaposition’.


Author Euben’s extraordinary book of theorisings tells us how the great travellers dealt with the wisdom they accumulated abroad. If you are not put off by inventive prose and rich academic terminology, this is the book to read. Wisdom, it tells us, descends when you are in exile. Machiavelli (1469-1527) wrote his famous The Prince while in exile from Florence; Herodotus and Thucydides (460 BC–395 BC) wrote their histories also away from home. Dislocation or hijrat is itself wisdom (kashf), but the condition is real dislocation, not a postured one, as recorded in our fake safarnama literature where morality of an alien society is judged through observation of its liberated women á la Ibn Battuta.


The book gives other examples too, like that of Al Farabi (870-950) and Al Ghazali (1058-1111) whose great wisdom coincided with their exile and wanderings. Above the whole lot, presides Ibn Khaldun the exile par excellence whose journeys were actually triggered by his desperate effort to escape troubles incidental to overthrows of rulers he lived under. His Muqaddimah remains the biggest collection of free-wheeling theorisings on societies he had observed.


Edwards Said, an exile who produced wisdom that hurt both the West and the followers of Islam, also gave us the phrase to sum up the tolerant foundation of the itinerant experience: ‘contrapuntal juxtapositions that diminish orthodox judgement and elevate appreciative sympathy’. Naguib Mahfouz’s Rihlat Ibn Fattuma is a take-off on Ibn Battuta’s rihla written to elevate him in the Maghreb because those who wrote rihla got to the big jobs in the past, the only condition being that testimony of the ‘world outside’ should make the home society shine by comparison. Ibn Battuta’s account of the Maldives, where he ruled and ‘reformed’ through mating with its scores of unclothed women under Islamic law, can be compared with the Pakistani safarnama of the 1990s.


France was intolerant of rational ideas. When it exiled Voltaire to England and he wrote his Letters from England showing England in a better light, the parliament in Paris confiscated the book. Magistrate Tocqueville got himself sent to America to study its prisons but produced his insights of the political experiment there after a nine-month stay. The same year, in 1826, Egypt’s ruler Muhammad Ali sent a brilliant scholar Tahtawi to Paris to study technology and government there.


This was Islam trying to reach out to modernity in its own style. After three years, Tahtawi wrote up his long rihla praising most of what he saw in France but judging its morality on the basis of his observation of women. He did that to placate his readers, just as Al Beruni, not at all averse to intimacy with the culture of India, made efforts in writing to denigrate everything un-Islamic in order to avoid the fate of the Nobel Laureate Naguib Mahfouz in our times. Surprisingly, Pakistan’s General Ayub Khan in his recently published diaries notes this fear of Al Beruni.


Travel leads to knowledge, but if you suppress it, the product is poison secreted to preserve the stasis of ‘orthodox judgement’. There are ‘renegades’ like Sir Syed whose rihla of England produced a frank admission of low Muslim civilisation in India, spurring him on to a reformist modernism we today condemn as heresy. Recently reissued, the Urdu travelogue of Princess Maimuna Sultan of Bhopal through Europe — Siyahat-e-Sultani Safarnama Farma Rawa-e-Bhopal Nawab Sultan Jahan Begum (OUP) — is in the category of Sir Syed. Her account of the press in England is accompanied by a comparison with what in 1911 passed for newspapers in India.


It is the ‘comparison’ that is dangerous. Exile or travel can be double-edged, its ‘wisdom’ acting like a fuse capable of igniting a century’s clash of civilisations. Syed Qutb didn’t react to America the way Tocqueville reacted to it or Tahtawi to France; he proposed resistance to it and prepared the war that is raging now through Al Qaeda. Plato was perhaps right when he suggested that travellers be quarantined on arrival and grilled on what kind of wisdom they had gathered during their exile. Most Pakistani writers of the safarnama would of course be put to death, as suggested by Plato, for posturing and needless invention of sexual adventure. Preventive laws could be enacted to see that writer of the safarnama doesn’t get a free hand. *

Source: The Daily Times, Pakistan