Routes and Realms: The Power of Place in the Early Islamic World

Routes and Realms: The Power of Place in the Early Islamic World

Routes and Realms: The Power of Place in the Early Islamic World

Routes and Realms: The Power of Place in the Early Islamic World


Routes and Realmsexplores the ways in which Muslims expressed attachment to land from the ninth through the eleventh centuries, the earliest period of intensive written production in Arabic. In this groundbreaking first book, Zayde Antrim develops a "discourse of place," a framework for approaching formal texts devoted to the representation of territory across genres. The discourse of place included such varied works as topographical histories, literary anthologies, religious treatises, world geographies, poetry, travel literature, and maps.

By closely reading and analyzing these works, Antrim argues that their authors imagined plots of land primarily as homes, cities, and regions and associated them with a range of claims to religious and political authority. She contends that these are evidence of the powerful ways in which the geographical imagination was tapped to declare loyalty and invoke belonging in the early Islamic world, reinforcing the importance of the earliest regional mapping tradition in the Islamic world.

Routes and Realms challenges a widespread tendency to underestimate the importance of territory and to over-emphasize the importance of religion and family to notions of community and belonging among Muslims and Arabs, both in the past and today.


Two travelers meet in a crowded inn on the outskirts of al-Manṣūra, a city along the lower Indus River, in the 960s. They discover a mutual interest in charting territories, itineraries, and cities. One pulls from his luggage a map he has drawn of the region, known at the time as al-Sind, and the other suggests some corrections. They settle in and exchange maps of southwest Iran, Azerbaijan, upper Mesopotamia, Egypt, and northwest Africa, each complimenting and critiquing the other’s work. Several hours pass, and the older of the two travelers reveals that he has sketched such regional maps, with accompanying commentaries, for the entire “Realm of Islam” (Mamlakat al-Islām), and asks the younger to undertake a revision. When they part ways, the younger traveler determines not simply to revise the other work but to compose his own comprehensive geography of the Mamlakat al-Islām, designing the maps, writing the commentaries, and drawing from his long-standing passion for the topic, knowledge of the relevant literature, and extensive travels. His name was Ibn Ḥawqal, and he tells this story in the resulting work, variously titled ṭūrat al-arḍ (Image of the earth) or al-Masālik wa-l-mamālik (Routes and realms), to justify his status as author. His qualifications for the task derive from encounters with the territories he describes and other experts in the field, both in texts and on the ground. His account of this meeting with a fellow mapmaker points to the complex relationship between land, textuality, and authority in the early Islamic world.

Ibn Ḥawqal’s work participated in a “discourse of place” that flourished from North Africa to South Asia between the ninth and eleventh centuries, the first two centuries of intensive written production by Muslims. the discourse of place is a conceptual framework I use to bring together a wide variety of formal texts committed to the representation of territory in and of itself, rather than as a setting or backdrop for something else. Land mattered in these texts; it stimulated the geographical imagination and acted as a powerful vehicle for articulating desire, claiming authority, and establishing belonging. Representing a plot of land in a text could be a way of earning a living, legitimizing a king, facilitating a homecoming, and meriting a blessing. the shared concern with land did not . . .

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