The Travels of Ibn Fudayl, George R Sole

Review by Penelope Maclachlan

A filing clerk discovered a manuscript in Arabic at the Assad Library in Damascus in 2006. It comprises  Ibn Fudayl’s thoughts, observations and experiences when he travelled through Andalusia (now Spain) in the twelfth century.  George R Sole, a distinguished scholar, has translated the work to English, and Darf Publishers published the result in 2017.

The text looks at first like a treatise on the findings of a learned traveller, with an introduction, annotated glossary, copious footnotes, and a lengthy bibliography divided into oriental sources, occidental sources, and articles and journals. Footnotes adorn almost every page and some of them are twenty lines or more in length, trying  the patience of the reader.

Those  expecting a travelogue, however, are going to be surprised. You could call the work educational, in that Ibn Fudayl’s observations on the people he meets in Andalusia, and their beliefs and customs, are enlightening. We soon suspect, though, that the author’s intention is less to instruct readers than to stimulate their scepticism and sense of irony.

The introduction includes four lines of a poem which Ibn Fudayl may or may or may not have written:

I am the existent and yet the non-existent,

I am the ocean that fits into a drinker’s cup.

Questions that you hold to be self-evident,

With my being I knock and open up.

I do not know if the poet is imparting profound wisdom or making fun of me.  

The annotated glossary includes an explanation of the word “diwan”. It can mean an oriental sofa, an administrative government department, or a poetry anthology. The author writes how he “came across a moustachioed walrus, administrating sitting on a diwan, reading his own panegyric diwan in his diwan. When he asked me whether I liked his diwan, I was forced to  ask him if he meant his sofa, collection of poetry or whether he meant his administrative department.” The dignitary scorns to reply, so the narrator guesses and gets it wrong. He is deported. We are likelier to laugh at the “moustachioed walrus’s” fussiness, than feel sad at so severe a punishment for an innocent mistake. It is reminiscent of Alice in Wonderland, where the protagonist asks questions and the response is accusations of ignorance and disrespect.

Part I includes a chapter A Note on the Province of Valencia and its Peoples. Ibn Fudayl discovers here Valencian manure, renowned for its effectiveness in encouraging herbs and spices to grow and flourish, and for its scent. He also discovers “the famous Andalusian mule that wreaks havoc amongst the ranks of the Christian forces that occasionally threatened it.” It is unclear what havoc the animals wreaks, or what comprises the Christians’ threats.

The next chapter, A Note of the Politics of Valencia, cites the arrival of the Almoravids, who built an empire in Muslim Spain in the eleventh and twelfth centuries.   They routed the Christians; (the mention of the Andalusian mule may refer to the Muslim victory).

Part II introduces us to the crucial matter of beards and, in particular, their length. Sheikh Nur ed-Deen says, “ ‘ The very length of the faith, its  [the beard’s ] length was as long as one’s faith.’ ” Believers preoccupied themselves with  the beards of goats. The Sheikh sees a goat “with an exceptionally long beard. He, a man of principle, immediately set off in pursuit and displayed amazing athleticism for such a rotund old scholar, leaping and bounding after the goat until he caught up with the four-legged beast and wrestled it down, he brought out his scissors … and ritually trimmed the beard to its desired length.”

This is reminiscent of Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift. In Lilliput, the land of miniature people which  Gulliver visits, the Emperor decrees that boiled eggs must be broken at the smaller end. Lilliput’s enemies, the Blefuscudians, insist that boiled eggs must be broken at the larger end. Swift is  poking fun at the Whigs and Tories, nicknamed Low-Heels and High-Heels; their differing policies are reduced to trivial details of fashion.**

The climax of Ibn Fudayl’s narrative is his account of his travels with the philosopher Al-Homsi, “the world’s most ignorant man” (see back cover of Darf edition).    Together, Al-Homsi and Ibn Fudayl explore  Andalusia in a dedicated pursuit of worthless knowledge. In the narrator’s estimation, al-Homsi is the equal of  “ … Socrates, one who disdained cleanliness due to his deep penetrative thought and otherworldliness.” The author slyly takes the reader into his confidence; it is unlikely that he really endorses neglect  of personal hygiene.

Al-Homsi, and Ibn Fudayl who quickly becomes his devoted disciple, travel far and wide through Andalusia. They are received by Benedictian friars and King Alfonso II of Aragon.  The Christians are a nuisance in a Muslim country, and “Al-Homsi devised a marvellous contraption that dispatched these poor creatures to the afterlife …  ” Ibn Fudayl’s defence of this mass murder is tortuously argued: “He [al-Homsi] reasoned that their lives had already been decreed by the Namer of the Named One of Destiny … logically one is forced … to follow a sort of paradoxical free will of the Namer: …  ”  An apt rejoinder would be: “I trust I make myself obscure.”

During their travels the high-minded al-Homsi had absent-mindedly devoured  “several whole wild chickens … drunk several bottles of fermented grapes [and] felt the pangs of fecal extraction.” There follows a detailed description of the philosopher relieving himself: “On the scond day,  I awoke frightened for myself, as his fruit came out of him which such a great thunderous and glorious roar. I thought, at first, that it may have been a bear, but I was soon calmed by the pungent odour of Valencian manure; … I … was overjoyed that all he has suffered for his intellectual endeavours was just mild frostbite around his cahoones.”

Although the al-Homsi is often a figure of fun, students are horrified when an assassin kills him at one of his own lectures. They join Ibn Fudayl in mourning this eccentric philosopher.

George R Sole has surely captured the spirit of this lively narrative.


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