Academic journal article The Journal of the American Oriental Society

The Rihla and Self-Reinvention of Abu Bakr Ibn Al-'Arabi

Academic journal article The Journal of the American Oriental Society

The Rihla and Self-Reinvention of Abu Bakr Ibn Al-'Arabi

Article excerpt


In one of the most celebrated passages (1) in his account of his famous rihla to the East, the great Andalusi religious scholar Abu Bakr Ibn al-'Arabi (d. 543/1148) describes his ship-wreck off the coast of Tripolitania. (2) He and his father, 'Abd Allah, washed up on shore, naked, battered, and penniless. The two men improvised garments from ruptured oil skins and made their way, famished and exhausted, to the nearest town. Because of his youth, and despite his strange appearance, the seventeen-year-old Abu Bakr was allowed by bodyguards to approach the local prince, who was playing chess in public. He describes how he won his favor by displays of knowledge, first by coaching him to victory in his chess game and then by interpreting some lines of poetry for him. When the prince took an interest in Abu Bakr, the young man summoned his equally bizarrely clothed father from his nearby hiding place, and both were taken under the wing of the local potentate, who provided them with food and clothing, treated them as honored guests, and even invited them to settle there. At the end of this account, Abu Bakr sums up the moral of the story: "Look at this knowledge ('ilm) which is closer to ignorance; how this scrap of salvaged belles-lettres (tilka l-subaba l-yasira min al-adab) rescued us from perdition. This recollection will guide you to your goal, if you understand it." (3)

Abu Bakr's admonition is not merely a passing commentary on an entertaining vignette in the broader story of his rihla. It is the moral of his rihla as a whole, a journey he undertook after the shipwreck of his family's loss of fortune. When the Almoravids overthrew the kingdom of Seville that Abu Bakr's father served as a wazir, the family's property was confiscated. Father and son set out for the East, each with a strategy to regain the status they had lost, the father through his political skills, the son by acquiring the knowledge that would allow him to become one of the most prominent Maliki jurists of his age.

Having floundered once, Abu Bakr brandished the precious credential of his 'ilm for the rest of his life, never letting his life raft out of sight, and creating a new genre in hopes of keeping his accomplishments in the eyes of his contemporaries as well. (4) While many prominent religious scholars of the Maghrib went in their youth to the East to study, (5) none refers to his rihla as frequently as Abu Bakr throughout his major writings, and none wrote a stand-alone account of his journey. Houari Touati has asserted that Abu Bakr's Tartib al-rihla (Arrangement of the Journey) was unprecedented in its time and inaugurated the Arabic genre of the travel narrative, the rihla. (6)

This article will analyze Abu Bakr Ibn al-'Arabi's rihla from two related perspectives. First, drawing from his surviving accounts, it will look at strategies he and his father pursued during their travels to restore their fortunes in al-Andalus. Second, regarding Abu Bakr's descriptions of his journey in Qanun al-ta'wil and other works as literary artifacts, it will consider Abu Bakr's strategies in presenting his journey in later years for the sake of bolstering his prestige as a Maghribi scholar who had visited and studied in the pilgrimage sites and great centers of learning of the East. Naturally, insights about the literary representation will affect our understanding of the events described.


Abu Bakr was born in 468/1076 to a prominent family of the ta'ifa kingdom of Seville. His father 'Abd Allah (435-493/1043-1099) was a wazir of Muhammad Ibn 'Abbad al-Mu'tamid. 'Abd Allah's contemporary, al-Fath Ibn Khaqan, wrote of him, "He was a full moon among the heavenly bodies of Seville. His was the seat of honor in the council of its king. He was chosen by Ibn 'Abbad--a trustworthy selection at the advice of Ibn Du'ad--who appointed him to noble offices and raised him to exalted ranks. …

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