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Book Review: On the lands and peoples of Indian Ocean from Somalia to China

26th Oct 2017
Book Review: On the lands and peoples of Indian Ocean from Somalia to China

 

Two Arabic Travel Books, Accounts of China and India. By Abu Zayd al-Sirafi and Ibn Fadlan. Edited and Translated by Tim Makintosh-Smith and James E Montgomery. NYU Press. New York. 2015. Pp 320. HB. $35

Two Arabic Travel Books combines two exceptional exemplars of Arabic travel writing, penned in the same era but chronicling wildly divergent experiences. Accounts of China and India is a compilation of reports and anecdotes on the lands and peoples of the Indian Ocean, from the Somali headlands to China and Korea.

The early centuries of the Abbasid era witnessed a substantial network of maritime trade – the real-life background to the Sindbad tales. In this account, we first travel east to discover a vivid human landscape, including descriptions of Chinese society and government, Hindu religious practices, and natural life from flying fish to Tibetan musk-deer and Sri Lankan gems. The juxtaposed accounts create a jigsaw picture of a world not unlike our own, a world on the road to globalization. In its ports, we find a priceless cargo of information; here are the first foreign descriptions of tea and porcelain, a panorama of unusual social practices, cannibal islands, and Indian holy men – a marvellous, mundane world, contained in the compass of a novella.

In Mission to the Volga, we move north on a diplomatic mission from Baghdad to the upper reaches of the Volga River in what is now central Russia. This colorful documentary by Ibn Fadlan relates the trials and tribulations of an embassy of diplomats and missionaries sent by Caliph al-Muqtadir to deliver political and religious instruction to the recently-converted King of the Bulghars. During eleven months of gruelling travel, Ibn Fadlan records the marvels he witnesses on his journey, including an aurora borealis and the white nights of the North. Crucially, he offers a description of the Viking Rus, including their customs, clothing, tattoos, and a striking account of a ship funeral. Mission to the Volga is also the earliest surviving instance of sustained first-person travel narrative in Arabic – a pioneering text of peerless historical and literary value.

Together, the stories in Two Arabic Travel Books illuminate a vibrant world of diversity during the heyday of the Abbasid empire, narrated with as much curiosity and zeal as they were perceived by their observant beholders.

 

The Expeditions. An Early Biography of Muhammad. By Mamar Ibn RashidEdited and Translated by Sean W Anthony. Foreword by M A S Abdel Haleem. NYU Press. New York. 2014. Pp 424. HB. $45

The Expeditions is one of the oldest biographies of the Prophet Muhammad to survive into the modern era. Its primary author, Ma’mar ibn Rashid (714-770 CE/96-153 AH), was a prominent scholar from Basra in southern Iraq who was revered for his learning in prophetic traditions, Islamic law, and the interpretation of the Qur’an. This fascinating foundational seminal work contains stories handed down by Ma’mar to his most prominent pupil, ‘Abd al-Razzaq of Sana’a, relating Muhammad’s early life and prophetic career as well as the adventures and tribulations of his earliest followers during their conquest of the Near East.

Edited from a sole surviving manuscript, the Arabic text offers numerous improved readings over those of previous editions, including detailed notes on the text’s transmission and variants as found in later works. This new translation, which renders the original into readable, modern English for the first time, is accompanied by numerous annotations elucidating the cultural, religious and historical contexts of the events and individuals described within its pages.

The Expeditions represents an important testimony to the earliest Muslims’ memory of the lives of Muhammad and his companions, and is an indispensable text for gaining insight into the historical biography of both the Prophet and the rise of the Islamic empire.

 

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