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Islam and Travel in the Middle Ages

In the Middle Ages, Muslim travelers embarked on a rihla, or world tour, as surveyors, emissaries, and educators. On these journeys, voyagers not only interacted with foreign cultures—touring Greek civilization, exploring the Middle East and North Africa, and seeing parts of Europe—they also established both philosophical and geographic boundaries between the faithful and the heathen. These voyages thus gave the Islamic world, which at the time extended from the Maghreb to the Indus Valley, a coherent identity.

Islam and Travel in the Middle Ages assesses both the religious and philosophical aspects of travel, as well as the economic and cultural conditions that made the rihla possible. Houari Touati tracks the compilers of the hadith who culled oral traditions linked to the prophet, the linguists and lexicologists who journeyed to the desert to learn Bedouin Arabic, the geographers who mapped the Muslim world, and the students who ventured to study with holy men and scholars. Travel, with its costs, discomforts, and dangers, emerges in this study as both a means of spiritual growth and a metaphor for progress. Touati’s book will interest a broad range of scholars in history, literature, and anthropology.

304 pages | 1 map | 6 x 9 | © 2010

Geography: Cultural and Historical Geography

History: Middle Eastern History

Literature and Literary Criticism: Classical Languages

Medieval Studies

Middle Eastern Studies

Religion: Islam


“Much learning supports Touati’s book, which gives us a richer sense of the driving forces behind travel in the Islamic Middle Ages than we have had before.”

Francis Robinson | Times Literary Supplement

“This is an elegant work of exploration and synthesis, linking Greek analysis of the sensorium to Muslim debates concerning the priority of seeing over hearing. The range of original sources from Islamic civilization is stunning, including medieval litterateurs from al-Jāhiz to al-Bīrūnī to Ibn Khallikān. Travel as both experience and metaphor, practice and trope, is illumined here by Touati in cogent vignettes that engage—and advance—current debates about knowledge, its acquisition, its soundness, and its permeable boundaries. No other book like it exists in the library of scholarship on Islam and the Muslim world.”

Bruce B. Lawrence, Duke University

“Many of us appreciate the unique importance of travel and exile for Islamic literature and thought. In English, however, we have had nothing to rival Touati’s Islam and Travel in the Middle Ages, with its subtle, original argument, its elegant style, and its wide and profound coverage of original sources. Touati brings together a rich variety of topics and themes, with an underlying epistemological distinction—between ‘audition’ and ‘eyewitnessing’—that informed the experience of Muslim travelers and their literary output. We are fortunate to have this fluent, precise English translation.”

Michael Bonner, University of Michigan

Islam and Travel in the Middle Ages considers travel from an unorthodox and engaging perspective—not as a question of commerce, transportation, or engineering, but as conceptual category, intellectual quest, and epistemological value. By thoughtful engagement with Arabic texts of various genres, including but by no means limited to travelogues, Touati shows how knowledge was acquired, valued, packaged, and disseminated, as well as the categories by which it was conceived and defined. The publication of this work in French revealed a noticeable gap in our synthetic understanding of the voyage as both a mode of knowledge and a means for the production of knowledge in medieval Islamicate societies; it has now been enhanced in this painstaking English translation.”

Franklin D. Lewis, University of Chicago

“Elegantly written, superbly documented, and imaginative in scope and analysis, this erudite and interesting book is the definitive account of how travel in Islam was knowledge, practice, combat, image, and absence.”

Brannon Wheeler, United States Naval Academy

Table of Contents

Preface to the English-Language Edition (2010)

Acknowledgments (2000)


Chapter 1: Invitation to the Voyage

            The ‘ilm, an Onomastic Emblem

            A Catastrophic Theory of Knowledge

            The Genealogical Structure of Knowledge

Chapter 2: The School of the Desert

            Linguists and Bedouins

            The Stay in the Desert

            A Geography of Pure Language

            A Theory of the Stay in the Desert

Chapter 3: The Price of Travel

            Financing a Voyage

            Paying a Personal Price


Chapter 4: Autopsy of a Gaze

            The Eye of the Popeyed Man

            A Geographer in His Study

            The Experience of the Voyage

            A Clinical Look at Muslim Verismo

            Muqaddasi, Strabo, and Greek Science

Chapter 5: Attaining God

            The Theory of the Errant Life

            Topographical Writing

            Sufism as a Crossing of the Desert

            The Voyage to Syria

            Entering into the Desert

            Society and Its Obverse

Chapter 6: Going to the Borderlands

            The Ulemas and Jihad

            An Ideology of Combat

            Jihad and Hagiography

Chapter 7: Writing the Voyage

            Narrating an Absence

            The Extraordinary in the Voyage

            The Travel Letter

            An Art of Travel

            A Return to the Travel Narrative

Conclusion: The Journey to the End of the Same

Chronological List of Principal Travel Accounts




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