The rihla and self-reinvention of Abu Bakr Ibn al-'Arabi.

AuthorGarden, Kenneth
PositionCritical essay


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." (7)

Religious knowledge was not the only kind prized in the courts of the ta'ifa rulers of al-Andalus. It was only one facet of the sophisticated and highly aestheticized court culture of the era. This culture is described by Cynthia Robinson as comprised of both court ceremonies of spectacular display and small gatherings of the ruler and his intimates (nudama'), who were expected to possess a highly refined aesthetic sensibility. The king and his court took pleasure in the exercise of their refinement through the creation and enjoyment of music and poetry, but also through learned and eloquent discussion of matters both sacred and profane, including astronomy and philosophy, fiqh and kalam. All of this transpired in what was called a majlis al-uns, an "intimate salon," enjoyed in sumptuous surroundings in the company of elegant, well-spoken, well-dressed, and, ideally, physically beautiful men. (8)

As a wazir of al-Mu'tamid--who had a palace called al-Turaya built especially for the majlis al-uns (9)--we can assume that 'Abd Allah was an adept participant in this courtly culture. He arranged for his son the best possible education in order to instill in him the ratified palate of a courtier, capable of making the highly nuanced aesthetic distinctions that were the marker of that class. (10) After memorizing the Quran by the age of nine, Abu Bakr began his studies under three personal tutors, one for the Quran, one for Arabic, and one for mathematics. His lessons lasted from after the dawn prayer until the evening call to prayer. In the course of his studies he learned the variant readings of the Quran, studied numerous grammars and diwans of poetry, and learned to use astronomical tables and an astrolabe. (11) Apart from his study with his personal tutors, he "heard a body (jumla) of hadith from the masters." (12) Along the way he gained mastery of Arabic and an eloquence that is evident in his later writings, (13) and also became quite proficient at chess as our opening anecdote shows. His student, the renowned Qadi 'Iyad (d. 544/1149), describes Abu Bakr's early education in al-Ghunya, writing that he received a refined cultural education (ta'addaba) and studied the readings of the Quran. (14)

In Qanun al-ta'wil, a work written in 533/1139 that contains an extensive account of his early life and travels to the East, Abu Bakr writes that one day while his father was observing his studies, a bookseller (simsar) stopped by to show his father some books. They included works by the Iraqi Abu Ja'far al-Simnani (d. 444/1052) on theological debating (al-'aqa'id wa-l-maqalat), an art that was apparently underdeveloped in al-Andalus. Al-Simnani had been the teacher of the Andalusi scholar Abu l-Walid al-Baji (d. 474/1081), who was responsible for introducing his works and teaching to al-Andalus. Those present--father, bookseller, and teacher--agreed that these were "great books and lofty sciences that al-Baji brought from the East." Abu Bakr writes,

This word [i.e., al-mashriq] pierced my liver and struck my heart. They began to recount [Ibn Baji's] memory, and to say that the fuqaha' of our land do not comprehend him. How remarkable that this small quantity [of knowledge] is brought to a community (umma) and there is not a single one among them who can add to it except weakly and incompetently. (15) Thus, his desire of traveling to the East to acquire true knowledge was awakened. This suggests an early intention to become the great religious scholar he became. But it should be noted that he relates the story, at least in part, because it provides an opportunity to take up one of his favorite themes: the inferiority of the West compared to the East and thus the superiority of the knowledge he gained while there.

Other passages on his study of religious sciences in the East suggest that this retrospective clarity of intent may be a later invention; when describing his early education Abu Bakr makes clear that he acquired a good deal of knowledge that lacked a religious dimension:

These teachers took turns in instructing me (ta'aqaba 'alayya) [...] and I, in the heedlessness (gharara) of my youth, gathered from all of this that which was proper and that which was improper (ma yajmulu wa-ma la yajmulu), and providence (qadar) concealed this within me for use in refuting heretics (mulhidun) and as a preparation for the study of theology (usul al-din). (16) This seems a sort of apology for having studied intensively until the age of sixteen without having acquired more than rudimentary knowledge of religious sciences: these early studies of the types of knowledge valued in courtly culture can be justified because they were later put to religiously justifiable ends. In the courtly milieu, sacred and profane knowledge were inextricably linked in a single worldview that Abu Bakr rejected in later life. (17) His embarrassment at his youthful education in this milieu is apparent in this passage.

An episode that reveals the milieu for which Abu Bakr's education had prepared him is his account of an evening spent in Bijaya in the company of one al-Qasim b. 'Abd al-Rahman, whom he describes as "handsome and reflective (rawa'an rawiyyatan), thoroughly versed (itqanan) in adab, a force in calligraphy, the beauty of his region, or you might say, the glory of his age." He writes further, "There was no defect to be seen in him like those betrayed by men who possess mere crumbs of knowledge." (18) They spent the evening in learned conversation that Abu Bakr describes with the attention and detail of a connoisseur. Their conversation indulged in neither levity nor excessive seriousness. It drifted effortlessly from topic to topic, and without their noticing, day turned to night. At one point Abu Bakr mentioned that one al-Tanuji (d. 514/1120-1), a Sevillian scholar of Arabic and literature, had said that the only noun in the Arabic language in which the first consonant and the second consonant are the same was the name Babus...

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