Journeys to the Other Shore: Muslim and Western Travelers in Search of Knowledge

Journeys to the Other Shore: Muslim and Western Travelers in Search of Knowledge

by Roxanne L. Euben


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691127217
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 10/22/2006
Series: Princeton Studies in Muslim Politics , #18
Pages: 344
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.25(h) x (d)

About the Author

Roxanne L. Euben is the Ralph Emerson and Alice Freeman Palmer Professor of Political Science at Wellesley College. She is the author of Enemy in the Mirror: Islamic Fundamentalism and the Limits of Modern Rationalism (Princeton).

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Journeys to the Other Shore

Muslim and Western Travelers in Search of Knowledge
By Roxanne L. Euben

Princeton University Press

Copyright © 2006 Princeton University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-691-12721-7

Chapter One


Some Reflections on Travel Narratives

Because many people of diverse nations and countries delight and take pleasure, as I have done in times past, in seeing the world and the various things therein, and also because many want to know without traveling there, and others want to see, go, and travel, I have begun this little book. -Gilles Le Bouvier, Le Livre de la Description des Pays (1908)

IN A GLOBALIZED world grown smaller by progressively dizzying flows of people, knowledge, and information, "travel" seems to have become the image of the age. Porous borders, portable allegiances, virtual networks, and elastic identities now more than ever evoke the language of mobility, contingency, fluidity, provisionality, and process rather than that of stability, permanence, and fixity. Scholars who trafficin the lingo of deterritorialization and nomadism increasingly traverse disciplines and regions, mining disparate experiences of displacement such as tourism, diaspora, exile, cyberculture, and migration as "contact zones," sites that articulate the preconditions and implications of cross-cultural encounters.

In a geopolitical landscape scarred by colonialism and the workings of global capital, however, such encounters often proceed under conditions of radical inequality between and within regions, cultures, nations, and transnational and subnational communities. The corrosive consequences of such real and perceived disparities of power are evident in daily newspaper headlines around the world, demanding and receiving attention if not redress. The events of September 11, 2001, the U.S.-led war on terrorism, and growing opposition to it have galvanized interest in the haunting of contemporary politics by grievances rooted in poorly understood historical narratives of marginalization and persecution. Long a feature of political discourse within postcolonial societies, such grievances and narratives now press on European and American political consciousness in unprecedented ways. What Foucault aptly called research into "the history of the present" is no longer of interest only to scholarly specialists, for the imperatives of geopolitics have lent a new sense of urgency to attempts to bring these pasts into an often "presentist" social science.

The recent emphasis on mobility and displacement as both features of and metaphors for an increasingly globalized world has thus been accompanied by detailed investigations of the historical relationship between travel and imperialism, mobility and domination. Within the last twenty years, there has been a virtual explosion of scholarship on "Western" travels to the "non-West" (I will turn to these terms in a moment): travel writing by Europeans in particular has come to be regarded as a window onto the production of knowledge and, more specifically, onto the mutually constitutive images of colonizer and colonized. These efforts are vital interventions into the operations of power, particularly in a postcolonial world in which such operations establish distinctions between center and periphery and constitute their relationship hierarchically. Yet paradoxically, attempts to deconstruct these mechanisms of domination have tended to reproduce this structure and organization. From hermeneutically informed ethnography that aims at the "comprehension of the self by the detour of the comprehension of the other" to investigations into the way colonial European travel writing "produced 'the rest of the world' for European readerships at particular points in Europe's expansionist trajectory," the West is continually reconstituted as epicenter. Seeking to displace a hubristic self-image of the West as the beacon that "shows to the less developed the image of its own future," these analyses inadvertently reestablish Western primacy, now refigured from model to hegemon whose global reach has called forth new powers of the nether world it can no longer control let alone understand.

What would it mean to invert the questions that reproduce the West as the epicenter of the world? Instead of only investigating how Western travel writing produces the "colonized other," what features of travel, politics, and knowledge past and present might be brought into view by shifting the theoretical perspective? How, for example, have travel and exploration by Muslims produced and transformed their own sense of self and other, of membership and to which communities? How do journeys by Muslims within and beyond the Dar al-Islam (Abode of Islam) as well as travels by Westerners serve to articulate and transfigure the parameters of home and a scale of the strange and estranging? If the Syrian poet Adonis is right that frontiers can be either walls or windows, where and when do such borders emerge for Muslim and Western travelers and who are the assorted Others that mark them? What is the shared knowledge presupposed and reworked by way of practices of translation between familiar and unfamiliar, home and abroad? And what might such itineraries, exposures, and mediations suggest about the scope and scale of moral and political obligations among human beings enmeshed in a dialectic of localism and cosmopolitanism characteristic of membership in communities with fluid and fluctuating boundaries?

To even ask these questions in this way is to beg a series of others, perhaps most obviously what it could possibly mean in these shape-shifting times to invoke "the West," "non-West," and "Islam" as if they correspond to stable, fixed, and clear entities. Indeed, to conjure these categories without explanation would reinforce the very essentialism the present inquiry aims to destabilize. The worry about essentialism here is not mere academic cant. Words have power, and whether the opposition is between "the West and the Rest" or the "West and Islam," the presupposition of two uniform and identifiable entities whose boundaries are clearly demarcated from one another carves up the world in ways that erase fissures within each category and the mutual historical indebtedness between them, not to mention the extensive cross-pollination of the present. Such Manicheanism presumes and reinforces a view of the world in which messy, multiple, and interpenetrating histories and identities are pressed into the service of binaries that distort rather than illuminate the political landscape. As this way of seeing the world gains steam, it becomes increasingly difficult to hear and see, for example, all the people and evidence that challenge, complicate, or contradict it. Under these circumstances, such manicheanism becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, and the attention continually paid to this worldview, even if it is to detail the ways in which it both creates and deforms political life, becomes yet another expression of its scope and power.

In this context, it becomes politically and intellectually crucial to (again) recall that the West is not a civilization with homogeneous roots and clearly delineated historical and contemporary boundaries. As a geographical marker, it is virtually impossible to pinpoint exactly where the West begins and ends, and this is especially so now that peoples, information, and material goods traverse cultural and national borders at will, creating all kinds of transnational and subnational identities that shift and reconstitute themselves in unpredictable ways. Many suspect that what are defined as Western interests are really only the interests of the most powerful of the developed nations; thus while the West may once have been shorthand for Europe, it is now shorthand for the United States and its global reach. The West is also an amalgamation of multiple traditions-the Greek, Roman, Judiac, and Christian to name a few-and has been perpetually influenced by and shaped in terms of other cultures and civilizations. Indeed, crucial components of Western intellectual history may not be Western in any meaningful sense at all; as one scholar argues, "the real heirs of Roman civilization were not the chain-mailed knights of the rural West, but the sophisticated Byzantines of Constantinople and the cultivated Arab caliphate of Damascus, both of whom have preserved the Hellenized urban civilization of the antique Mediterranean long after it was destroyed in Europe."

Moreover, the West is today made up of citizens who embrace radically diverse ethnic, religious, and racial identities. There are those who are American by birth who, by virtue of race or ethnicity or some other marker of difference, feel themselves at once in but not of the West, and scholars have come to designate certain situations within the West as colonial-for example, mining communities in central Appalachia. Furthermore, while it is now obvious that colonialism has shaped the "Third World," more recently many scholars have pointed out the ways in which the West has been profoundly transformed by its colonial encounters as well. Those who take the West as shorthand for a series of "values"-for example, democracy, liberalism, constitutionalism, freedom, the separation of church and state-rarely recognize the extent to which such values are defined in contradictory ways and are belied by the very diversity of practices within the West. Finally, such invocations capture as uniquely Western ideas and norms that appear elsewhere in other guises, or whose most powerful articulations emerge in confrontation with, not as an expression of, Euro-American power. Indeed, "many of the standards exported by the West and its cultural industries themselves turn out to be of culturally mixed character if we examine their cultural lineages."

Critical assessments of nearly every aspect and claim associated with the West have, of course, become commonplace. By contrast, such endless parsing is not commonly brought to bear on Islam, detailed knowledge of which largely remains the purview of specialists. Yet Islam is inescapably diverse, multiethnic, and defined as much by disagreement as consensus. The very term Islam in the singular obscures the fact that this is a religion embraced by more than a billion people in countries ranging from the United States to China. If Islam is defined as the religious practices of actual Muslims, one can only conclude, along with Aziz al-Azmeh, that there is no such thing as a single Islam, but rather many different Islams practiced by millions of different people in a stunning variety of places. Positing multiple Islams may finesse but cannot solve the problem of essentialism, however. As Peter Mandaville points out, to "speak of 'Islams' is to be haunted by a sense of boundaries; it gives the impression that there is some point where one Islam leaves off and another picks up," while simultaneously flying "in the face of the fact that the vast majority of Muslims, despite a clear cognisance of their religion's diversity, see themselves as adhering very firmly to a single Islam."

Yet to speak of a singular Islam is almost invariably to speak of the sacred texts (the Qur'an and hadith, the reports of the words and deeds of the Prophet), an emphasis that has tended to privilege juridical Islam and its gatekeepers at the expense of more heterodox, popular, and mystical practices. Moreover, despite the historical ebb and flow of claims about an "authentic Islam" constituted by fixed and self-evident truths residing in the "original texts," scriptural Islam is multiply indeterminate. As Khaled Abou El Fadl has argued, for example, while the Shari'a (Islamic law) is presumed to be Divine and necessarily perfect, Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh) is by contrast a human and imperfect endeavor, a fluid and fallible process that "ultimately justified the practice of juristic diversity and culture of juristic disputations." Far from conveying one single message clearly, Qur'anic verses have long confronted scholars with a wealth of indeterminacies that have, in turn, generated a dizzying variety of interpretive strategies designed to finesse if not resolve instances of apparent Qur'anic contradiction. There are entire disciplines and literatures devoted to distinguishing fabricated from authoritative reports of the Prophet's life, with much riding on the outcome: hadith judged sahih (sound) may further illuminate the meaning of revelation itself, particularly when unclear or contradictory. And there are four schools of Islamic Law just in Sunni Islam, not to mention those of Shi'i Islam and even less well known branches. To make matters more complicated, Shari'a is not really fixed even within any single school (madhhab), in part because "law is a mirror of society ... [such that] the evolution of Islamic law reflected a degree of pluralism and religious heterogeneity which was possibly more ingrained than in any other contemporary society."

As the current political climate attests, however, there is much more at stake here than whether or not categories such as Islam and the West are accurate, in the sense of corresponding, more or less precisely, to actual geographic, political, historical, and/or normative borders in the world. "Islam versus the West" is an entire system of representation embraced with equal intensity by many contemporary Islamists and American neoconservatives, both of whom apparently have the will to remake the world in this image. Moreover, the political purchase of such categories extend well beyond these narrow circles; there are, after all, many people for whom "Islam versus the West" is not only a powerful system of representation but for whom "Islamic" and "Western" designate zero-sum identities to which they feel an intense loyalty despite persistent disagreements about the precise object of such allegiance. Given what Muhammad Bamyeh characterizes as the heteroglossic properties of Islam enacted in a "unity imagined" rather than "disunity proclaimed," a singular Islam thus captures and organizes the subjectivities of millions who self-identify as Muslim (among other things), even or especially if such identities enact a reworking of Islamic norms and practices. As Talal Asad points out:

While narrative history does not have to be teleological, it does presuppose an identity ("India," say) that is the subject of that narrative. Even when that identity is analyzed into its heterogeneous parts (class, gender, regional divisions, etc.), what is done, surely, is to reveal its constitution, not to dissolve its unity. The unity is maintained by those who speak in its name, and more generally by all who adjust their existence to its (sometimes shifting) requirements.

Importantly, such categories are secured not only by an individual's subjective identification but also by what Robert Gooding-Williams calls those third-person practices of classification-racial, ethnic, and religious-that establish the range of self-conceptualizations available to describe "our intended actions and prospective lives." In other words, to identify oneself as "Muslim" at this moment in history is not just a matter of where and how one prays but also of, for example, security practices of racial and religious profiling at American and European airports, train stations, and seaports.

What this means is that those engaged directly or indirectly with the dilemmas of contemporary politics cannot simply dispense with such categories by reference to all that they miss, distort, or exclude. Instructive in this connection is Linda Zerilli's discussion of how it is that the category of "woman" persists as part of a "passionate system of reference" despite mounting challenges to its strategic utility and empirical validity-from feminist objections to the exclusions enacted by any attempt to define "woman" to scientific repudiations of sexual dimorphism. Expressed in and reinforced by the daily linguistic practices of ordinary people, "Islam" and "the West" are similarly part of a system of representation that resists argumentation and counterevidence because, to quote Ludwig Wittgenstein, "what stands fast does so, not because it is intrinsically obvious or convincing; it is rather held fast by what lies around it." It is not that those who "hold fast" have failed to think critically or rationally, then, but rather because such categories and identities are embedded in mythologies whose force derives from a deeply human desire to make sense of the world around us:

A mythology cannot be defeated in the sense that one wins over one's opponent through the rigor of logic or the force of the evidence; a mythology cannot be defeated through arguments that would reveal it as groundless belief.... A mythology is utterly groundless, hence stable. What characterizes a mythology is not so much its crude or naive character-mythologies can be extremely complex and sophisticated-but, rather, its capacity to elude our practices of verification and refutation. A mythology, as Jacques Bouveresse observes, is the force of an idea, a form of representations, a manner of speaking that provides a universally valid explanation of my world, convincing me "a priori because of the desire, and not the thought, that it should be able to account for every case."


Excerpted from Journeys to the Other Shore by Roxanne L. Euben Copyright © 2006 by Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments xi

Note on Transliteration and Spelling xiii

CHAPTER 1: Frontiers: Walls and Windows—Some Reflections on Travel Narratives 1

CHAPTER 2: Traveling Theorists and Translating Practices 20

Theory and Theo ria 20

"Seeing the Entire World as a Foreign Land" 24

Exposures and Closures 29

Islam, Travel, and talab al-'ilm 34

The Double-Edged Nature of Travel 38

Travel as Translation 41

CHAPTER 3: Liars, Travelers, Theorists—Herodotus and Ibn Battuta 46

Herodotus 52

Ibn Battuta 63

Conclusion 86

ChAPTER 4: Travel in Search of Practical Wisdom: The Modern The riai of al-Tahtawi and Tocqueville 90

Authorizing Autopsy 98

Travels across Time and Space 108

Multiple Mediations 114

Conclusion 132

CHAPTER 5: Gender, Genre, and Travel: Montesquieu and Sayyida Salme 134

Montesquieu's Persian Letters 144

Sayyida Salme's Memoirs 156

Conclusion 171

CHAPTER 6: Cosmopolitanisms Past and Present, Islamic and Western 174

Notes 199

Glossary 267

Bibliography 271

Index 303

What People are Saying About This


This is a major book. It transcends the imagined great divide between East and West by examining the role of travel in shaping one's imagination of societies-both one's own and those of others. By giving equal weight to the sense of rootedness and difference in European and Muslim travel accounts, Roxanne Euben shows the fluid points of convergence and divergence in European and Muslim concepts of others. To paraphrase Claude Lévi-Strauss, Euben's book is good to think with.
Dale F. Eickelman, Dartmouth College

Anne Norton

In this unusually elegant book, Roxanne Euben engages comparative political theory, an enterprise she has shaped decisively—one might well argue that she has conceived it in its present form. Here, she wears her erudition lightly, but it is very much present. She moves easily between languages and literatures, with a profound sense of historical context. She is at home in the Arabic language as few Western scholars are. There is little to say beyond praise for this work and its author.
Anne Norton, University of Pennsylvania, author of "Leo Strauss and the Politics of American Empire"

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