Conflicting accounts on the fear of strangers: Muslim and Arab perceptions of Europeans in medieval geographical literature.

AuthorAttar, Samar

IN HIS CLASSICAL JOURNEY THROUGHOUT the ancient world, Ibn Batutah, a fourteenth-century Moroccan traveler, had wished to travel from the middle Volga city of Bulghar to the "Land of Darkness." The distance as he figured was about forty days. But then he changed his mind for several reasons. It was not possible for him to pay for the expensive journey and the benefits he would reap would be minimal. He had heard from other travelers about the inhospitable nature of the inhabitants of those regions. It was reported that once foreign merchants arrived in the Land of Darkness they would leave their merchandise in a specific place and go away to spend the night. On the following day they would come back to check the spot. They may find sable, or squirrel, or ermine fur. If the foreign merchants were satisfied with the deal they would take the fur and leave the country. Otherwise they would not touch anything and would come back at another time to see what was happening. The people from the Land of Darkness would either add more fur to please the foreign merchants, or simply take it away. In short, buying and selling was never done face to face. Ibn Batutah commented briefly that one did not know whether he was dealing with humans or jinn. No one could really see them.

This narrative is based on much earlier conflicting accounts by Medieval Arab and Muslim travelers who had referred to the xenophobia of certain northern people in Europe. Ibn Hawqal, for instance, a tenth-century geographer described a branch of 'Rus' as a group of people, who used to kill every foreigner entering their territory. Yet other travelers, such as Ibn Rustah, a Persian Muslim geographer in the early tenth century spoke of a different 'Rus', who also traded in sable and other hairy animals, as hospitable and kind to foreigners.

This article will explore the treatment of foreigners in old Europe as seen by Arab and Muslim travelers in selected medieval texts. I argue that the notion of either 'the fear', or 'the welcoming' of strangers did not develop into a fixed cliche, or a stereotype. Although the medieval travelers had journeyed from regions usually, but not necessarily, known for their openness to strangers and willingness to befriend them and even integrate them within the multifaceted empire, they had not on the whole created a binary construct of East and West, or South and North. For many of them, Europeans, as well as all other nations, were like the rest of us, i.e., the children of God. Human diversity is, in particular, a manifestation of the greatness of God. There are many reasons that can explain the differences in human nature. The philosophical notion, which asserts that humans have reason and can possibly use it, no matter who they are, is prevalent in most of the Arabic geographical literature that deals with alien cultures.

In Plato's Laws, Book XII, Athenian, the knowledgeable elderly man, talks of Zeus as the stranger's patron and delineates what laws should be followed in the treatment of foreign visitors to his state as well as other countries:

These, I say, are the laws by which our citizens should manage all reception of foreign visitors, male or female, and dispatch of their own countrymen to foreign parts. They should show their reverence for Zeus, the stranger's patron, not make meats and sacrifices a device for repelling the alien, as see the "dusky brood of Nilus" doing today, or banish him by barbarian edicts. (1) Athenian categorizes the foreign visitors into four types and suggests different welcome to be given to them. The welcome is very warm and hospitable in the rare case of "a counterpart of our own observers from some other country ... [whose] avowed object must be either to see for himself some excellent features superior to the beauties to be found in other societies, or to reveal something of the sort to another state" (Plato 1498). But the foreign visitor who is described as "a bird of passage" (Plato 1498) on a profitable business errand should not be given the same treatment. Although he must be wellreceived by officials, nevertheless, he should not be admitted to places inside the city walls. In the case of observers who come to see and hear certain spectacles, Athenian suggests lodging "at the temples with a generous hospitality" (Plato 1498). The visit, however, must be of "reasonable length, but when they have seen and heard what they purposed, they must depart without harm done or received" (Plato 1498). The fourth type "are those who come from other countries on business of state" (Plato 1498). Athenian recommends that they be welcomed by the generals and lodged in the house of a specific commander. Although the welcome to be given to a foreign visitor varies in its restrictions, the tone of hospitality is evidently highlighted. After all, Zeus, the god, is the stranger's patron, Athenian concludes his remarks.

In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle did not deal specifically with the alien and his treatment. Book IV deals with virtues concerned with money. Liberality "seems to be the mean with regard to wealth," Aristotle observes, "for the liberal man is praised not in respect of military matter, nor of those in respect of which the temperate man is praised, nor of judicial decisions, but with regard to the giving and taking of wealth, and especially in respect of giving." (2) Aristotle criticizes the obsequious, the flatterer, the churlish and contentious. He recommends the middle state "For the man who corresponds to this middle state is very much what, with affection added, we call a good friend. But the state in question differs from friendship ... For he will behave so alike towards those he knows and those he does not know ... for it is not proper to have the same care for intimates and for strangers ..." (Aristotle 997).

The ancient Arabs had not, to my knowledge, written laws like the Greeks concerning the alien and his treatment. But they certainly left us scores of tales, proverbs and poems which glorify hospitality and generosity. Aliens, in particular regardless of their status and purpose, were highly regarded and very well received even beyond the means of their hosts. The ideal generous man for pagan Arabia whose name still reverberates throughout the Arab world to this day is Hatim al-Ta'i who died around 605. (3)

For the ancient Arabs, hospitality, in its general and wider sense, also meant that it was possible for a stranger to become part of the tribe. If one shared a meal with his host, or tasted a few drops of his host's blood he would become part of the family and the group. In the case of a slave who was freed, it was possible for the newly freed man to attach himself to the family of his former master. A total stranger might also become a protege of a certain tribe, or a weaker tribe might prefer to become part of a stronger one. (4) Doors were usually never slammed in the face of an alien even when he was not an Arab.

Islam has also advocated the importance of hospitality and generosity. The virtuous man and woman in the Quran are the ones who spend in the way of God whether in prosperity or in adversity. On several occasions, the Quran refers in particular to the alien and the necessity of helping him and being generous with him. (5)

In the political sphere, Muslim Arabs have made it possible for aliens, provided they are Muslims, to become their leaders throughout history. There are a few cases where non-Muslims have also become powerful in the Islamic Empire. Although restrictions have been imposed on the aliens' full citizenship within Islamic Arab societies, nevertheless aliens have historically managed on the whole to be accepted on all levels: socially, economically and politically.

Xenophobia is defined as "an unreasonable fear or hatred of foreigners or strangers or of that which is foreign or strange." (6) The xenophobe is "a person unduly fearful or contemptuous of that which is foreign, especially of strangers or foreign peoples." (7) Historically speaking, the Arabs cannot be described as xenophobic, in the sense that they were mainly ethnocentric, exclusive and intolerant throughout their...

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