Academic journal article Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics

Europe through Eighteenth-Century Moroccan Eyes

Academic journal article Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics

Europe through Eighteenth-Century Moroccan Eyes

Article excerpt

This article compares two travel accounts by the eighteenth-century Moroccan ambassador Muhammad bin 'Uthman al-Miknasi. The accounts demonstrate that Arab-Muslim perceptions of the European Other were not exclusively predicated on religious premises, but on political and diplomatic relationships. A1Miknasi's negative description of Spain--unlike that of Italy, Sicily, and even Malta that had not shared in the re-conquista of 1492 and after--emanated from Spain's anti-Muslim history. History and diplomacy played a decisive role in the formation of the Arab-Muslim percpetion of the Europeans.

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In the early modern period, scores of Arab ambassadors and envoys from the Maghrib led delegations to European Christendom. Often consisting of fifteen to twenty men (no women), the delegations frequently visited Spain and France, and less frequently, England, Holland, and Italy. About those travels, only five authors left written accounts: Ahmad bin Qasim on France and Holland (1612-13); (1) Muhammad bin Abd al-Wahab al-Ghassani on Spain (1690-91); (2) Ahmad bin Mahdi al-Ghazal on Spain (1767); (3) and Muhammad bin 'Uthman al-Miknasi on Spain (1779), (4) Malta, Naples, and Sicily (1781-3). (5) These writings included some of the first non-European accounts of Europe in the early modern period. Before Ottoman or Indian writers started recording their travelogues, the Arabic ambassadors of the Maghrib had already produced their own accounts of Western Christendom.

Only Muhammad bin 'Uthman al-Miknasi (d. 1799) visited more than one region in Europe and can therefore be considered the "last" traveler before the beginning of the Arab Renaissance/nahda and of the new generation of Egyptian, Lebanese, and Magharibi writers and travelers to Europe. Alone, among his early modern compatriots to have experienced so much of the world, al-Miknasi left al-Iksir fi iftikak al-asir, an account of his journey to Spain, and al-Badr al-safir li-hidayat al-musafir ila fikak al-asara min yad al-'aduww al-kafir, his account of Malta, Naples and Sicily. After being appointed ambassador to the High Porte, al-Miknasi wrote an account of the Ottoman Levant and the Muslim holy cities that he visited between August 23, 1786 and April 1788: Ihraz al-ma 'ali wal-raqib fi hajj bayt Allah al-haram wa ziyarat al-Quds al-Sharif wa'l-Khalil. No other Arab writer at the time had seen-and written about-the two worlds of Christendom and Islam. About America ("Marka", as he called it), (6) he wrote from hearsay: In Spain, he learned about the conquest of the continent, and the revolt of the colonies against Britain (along with the Boston Tea Party episode)--the only information he seemed to have had about the world beyond the Mediterranean basin.

The two accounts by al-Miknasi are particularly important in the history of early modern travel because they reveal the way in which Arab Muslims viewed Euro-Christians at a crucial period of historical change. The eighteenth century witnessed the gigantic leap of most of Western Europe into modernity, a modernity that Arab travelers could not but admire, despite their apprehension that it was a modernity completely absent in their own regions, from Morocco to Arabia to Anatolia. As the travelers observed the inventions and institutions of the modern European state, they became confused about the Euro-Christians who were mastering the dunya (world), despite the fallacy of their din (religion). Subsequently, the question arose: How was this European Other to be treated? As an infidel adversary to be encountered in battle and disputation, or as a partner in Mediterranean trade, alliance, and mahabba (affection)? Al-Miknasi's accounts show that attitudes toward the Europeans were variable and flexible: They were not dictated by structural polarity stemming from doctrinal difference between Islam and Christianity, nor from the division of the world between the two absolutes of Dar al-Harb and the Dar al-Islam. …

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