Book review: The Travels of Ibn Fudayl

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Journeys through Arab lands have generated a large body of literature over the centuries, some written by western Orientalists and some by Arabs themselves. A remarkable new addition in the latter category is The Travels of Ibn Fudayl, due to be published for the first time in English next month.

The book, at its most superficial level, is an account of 12th-century life in al-Andalus (modern-day Spain) after the Muslim conquest, seen through the eyes of the eponymous traveller. Conventional in style, it follows in the tradition of numerous Muslim travellers and geographers but in other respects it is unique. Its depictions of Andalusian society have no parallel in the literature of the time and provide unexpected insights into a region which has often been peripheral in the study of Arab/Islamic history.

Though describing people and events long past, some of Ibn Fudayl’s accounts have a distinctly modern feel. One of them concerns a religious dispute (not unfamiliar in Muslim societies today) about the required length of men’s beards — a debate which took ever-more extreme turns and eventually became also applied to the beards of goats. The inevitable result was that the Long Beardists and Short Beardists found themselves at war.

Tales of such abstruse quarrels are not, of course, a specifically Islamic phenomenon. For example, readers may recall Jonathan Swift’s 18th-century account of the confict between two remote islands, Lilliput and Blefuscu, over the correct way to crack open a boiled egg.

Among the descriptions of people met by Ibn Fudayl on his travels, one that stands out is his encounter with the great philosopher, al-Homsi. This provides new — and surprising — insights into al-Homsi’s life and thought but regrettably it does not resolve the question (much contested in academic circles) as to whether he was actually born in Homs, as his name implies. In popular Arab tradition, inhabitants of that city are credited with a rare kind of wisdom — and an alternative view is that the name was an epithet referring to al-Homsi’s intellectual abilities rather than his place of birth.

Ibn Fudayl (or, to give him his full name, Abu Ayyub bin Fudayl) is by no means a well-known figure in medieval Arabic literature and he might have remained unknown except — according to the work’s translator, George R Sole — for the chance discovery of his manuscript in 2006 by a filing clerk at the Assad Library in Damascus.

In a chapter introducing Ibn Fudayl’s text, the translator expresses a hope that the book will interest “both the curious reader as well as the specialist”. While its content may help to enlighten the general public about this extraordinary period in history, full appreciation of its many nuances and allusions requires a basic knowledge of Arabic.

To assist non-Arabists, the English edition includes an annotated glossary which explains some linguistic terms relevant to the book — and the challenges they pose for a translator.

The word diwan, for example, can mean an oriental sofa, a government office or a collection of poetry, and it may not always be clear from the context which of these is meant. The translator recounts an incident from his own travels which illustrates this problem. While in Damascus making repeated but futile attempts to get a visa stamp for his passport, he found a Syrian official sitting on a diwan in his diwan, reading a diwan:

“When he asked me whether I liked his diwan, I was forced to ask him if he meant his sofa, collection of poetry or whether he meant his administrative department. I believe he meant his collection of poetry and I was arrested for violating my visa restrictions and subsequently deported to Iraq.”

Like many translators, George R Sole (he insists on retaining the middle initial) is extremely particular about words. Some might say pernickety. Good translation is not simply a matter of rendering a text from one language into another; it is also in its own way a kind of journey — an attempt to understand the writer’s mind and the intention behind the details he has chosen to record.

The result is that George R Sole translates with a sense of mission and has an overwhelming desire to share his (often obscure) discoveries with the reader. Needless to say, the book is replete with footnotes — some of which have turned into mini-essays competing with Ibn Fudayl’s text for the reader’s attention.

One of the shorter ones, for example, discusses the theory that al-Homsi was an early feminist:

44. See ‘Foucault, Kafka, The Da Vinci Code, Arab Masculinity and Female Bisexuality: A Deconstructionist Reading’, where Dr Volgare asserts that this was a revolutionary move, for al-Homsi completely redrew the gender map in the West. According to her, he should be attributed the title of the first ‘male feminist’ in the West, not Sylvia Pankhurst or George Eliot. According to Dr Volgare, he dared to treat women on an equal footing breaking the taboos of Iberian society, including them as equals in his famous philosophical banquets. She suggests he unknowingly introduced to the West the salon culture of France, where the Enlightenment philosophes and leading ladies met to discuss ideas current in pre-revolutionary France. It was this willingness to break convention in al-Homsi that led to the French Revolution. See Philosophes, Oriental Revolutionary Intellectual Antagonist and the Seeds of the French Revolution, R. Darntan, Vichy, (1992). However, Dr Crowe has critiqued this theory in a lecture entitled ‘Oriental Barbarisms’, delivered by her at SOAS in 2006; she suggests a new paradigm that al-Homsi had bought these maids for a paltry sum at the Murcian slave market. The lecture has not been accepted by the academic community.

The breadth and depth of the translator’s research can be seen from the book’s impressive bibliography drawing on both western and oriental sources — many of which are so rare as not to be catalogued in the library at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, or even the Bodleian in Oxford.

Mr R Sole is plainly an experienced and dedicated translator, though I am not familiar with any of his previous translation work. I did, however, succeed in locating an article published under his name where he elaborates on his own experiences in the Middle East. Much of this is a familiar story of the sort found in the memoirs of retired diplomats, spies and explorers. On the whole, I found it entirely credible and can vouch for what he says about the Banu Kilāb tribal grouping, since I have encountered them myself during visits to the region.

However, one part of the article is troubling, since it appears so far-fetched as to cast doubt on R Sole’s integrity. Much as I admire his work, I suspect that on occasions he may be guilty of fabrication. He talks in the article about his search for the lost city of Ubar and his (alleged) rivalry in that search with a British explorer named Fiennes.

As described by R Sole, the explorer in question is a highly improbable character and clearly a figment of imagination. As any fool can see, nobody in real life would ever have such a comically absurd name as Ranulph Twisleton-Wykeham-Fiennes.

Originally published at

Former Middle East editor of the Guardian. Website: Author of 'Arabs Without God'.

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