Friday, 11 June 2010

Travel and Broad Minds

Travel broadens the mind—or a part of one's anatomy—it has been said. And as the poem by Joyce Grenfell puts it, I also enjoy travelling in my head, which is to say, by reading travel literature. The wonderful books by Patrick Leigh Fermor, for instance.
More recently, I have been reading something quite different in that category. This is The Travels of Ibn Jubayr, in the translation by Roland Broadhurst.
Abu 'Husayn Muhammed ibn Ahmad Ibn Jubayr was secretary to the Moorish Governor of Granada in the year 1182. His employer forced him to drink, against his Moslem conscience, seven cups of wine, and then, in remorse, compensated him generously. Ibn Jubayr determined to spend the money on the Hajj, a pilgrimage to Mecca. Fortunately, he wrote an account of his travels that has come down to us.
He set out 4th February 1183, and returned 3rd May 1185, having visited Alexandria, Egypt, Arabia, Persia, Syria, Crusader territories (mostly Acre), Sicily, and finally back home.

It is part of our common wisdom that all Moslem territories in this period were governed in an enlightened and tolerant way; the sciences and arts all flourished, while the Christian territories were backwaters of brutal intolerance, ignorance and superstition.

It would be good if such people read Ibn Jubayr: again and again he laments on his journey how his fellow Moslems treated him with contempt, and how several times he nearly was killed, and often was robbed. By comparison, he comments on the happy condition of those Moslems who lived in the lands of the Franks. This does not soften, however, his delight at the fate of any Christians who fell into Moslem hands, nor his prayers for the destruction of Christendom and the enslavement of its people to the glory of Islam.

We came to one of the biggest fortresses of the Franks, called Tibnin. At this place customs dues are levied on the caravans. It belongs to the sow known as Queen, who is the mother of the pig who is the Lord of Acre - may God destroy it We camped at the foot of this fortress. The fullest tax was not exacted from us, the payment being a Tyrian dinar and a qirat [one-twentieth part] of a dinar [about eleven shillings] for each head. No toll was laid upon the merchants, since they were bound for the place of the accursed King [Acre], where the tithe is gathered. The tax there is a qirat in every dinar (worth of merchandise), the dinar having twenty-four qirat.136 The greater part of those taxed were Maghribis, those from all other Muslim lands being unmolested. This was because some earlier Maghribis had annoyed the Franks. A gallant company of them had attacked one of their strongholds with Nur al-Din - may God have mercy upon him - and by its taking they had become manifestly rich and famous. The Franks punished them by this tax, and their chiefs enforced it. Every Maghribi therefore paid this dinar for his hostility to their country. The Franks declared: 'These Maghribis came and went in our country and we treated them well and took nothing from them. But when they interfered in the war, joining with their brother Muslims against us, we were compelled to place this tax upon them.' In the payment of this tax, the Maghribis are pleasingly reminded of their vexing of the enemy, and thus the payment of it is lightened and its harshness made tolerable.
We moved from Tibnin - may God destroy it - at daybreak on Monday. Our way lay through continuous farms and ordered settlements, whose inhabitants were all Muslims, living comfortably with the Franks. God protect us from such temptation. They surrender half their crops to the Franks at harvest time, and pay as well a poll-tax of one dinar and five qirat for each person. Other than that, they are not interfered with, save for a light tax on the fruits of trees. Their houses and all their effects are left to their full possession. All the coastal cities occupied by the Franks arc managed in this fashion, their rural districts, the villages and farms, belonging to the Muslims. But their hearts have been seduced, for they observe how unlike them in ease and comfort are their brethren in the Muslim regions under their (Muslim) governors. This is one of the misfortunes afflicting the Muslims. The Muslim community bewails the injustice of a landlord of its own faith, and applauds the conduct of its opponent and enemy, the Frankish landlord, and is accustomed to justice from him. He who laments this state must turn to God. There is comfort and consolation enough for us in the exalted Book: 'It is nothing but a trial; Thou makest to err with it whom Thou pleasest, and guidest whom Thou pleasest' [Koran VII, 155]

And there is much else; the Norman Kingdom of Sicily is extolled for its beauty and learning (even the King is able to converse fluently in Arabic), its hospitality and its charity to the sick and to travellers. But these are seen as traps for the unwary Moslems, to seduce them from Islam. Ibn Jubayr can only comment sourly 'May God destroy it and enslave all the pigs [Christians]!'

I am, of course, well aware that things can be said for and against the Christian kingdoms at this time, but we would do well not to too readily succumb to the prevailing opinion that civilization was all on the side of the Moslems and brutality on the side of the Christians.


gemoftheocean said...

Let me guess: You perhaps think PRince Charles was being a total moron when he went on about how the Muslims respected the gaia mother earth more than anyone?

Dominic Mary said...

Amen to the wonder of Paddy L-F's writings; he brings to life everything of which he writes !