An Arab Ambassador in the Mediterranean World: The Travels of Muhammad ibn ‘Uthman al-Miknasi, 1779-1788

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  • Book Title:
 An Arab Ambassador In The Mediterranean World
  • Book Author:
Nabil Matarv
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11567
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About the Book – AN ARAB AMBASSADOR IN THE MEDITERRANEAN WORLD

Thebook provides translated selections from the writings of Muhammad Ibn Othman al-Miknasi (d. 1799). The only writings by an Arab-Muslim in the pre-modern period that present a comparative perspective, his travelogues provide unique insight with in to Christendom and Islam.

Translating excerpts from his three travelogues, this book tells the story of al-Miknasi’s travels from 1779-1788. As an ambassador, al-Miknasi was privy to court life, government offices and religious buildings, and he provides detailed accounts of cities, people, customs, ransom negotiations, historical events and political institutions.

 Including descriptions of Europeans, Arabs, Turks, Christians (both European and Eastern), Muslims, Jews, and (American) Indians in the last quarter of the eighteenth century, An Arab Ambassador in the Mediterranean World explores how the most travelled Muslim writer of the pre-modern period saw the world: from Spain to Arabia and from Morocco to Turkey, with second-hand information about the New World.

Supplemented with extensive notes detailing the historic and political relevance of the translations, this book is of interest to researchers and scholars of Mediterranean History, Ottoman Studies and Muslim-Christian relations.

Introduction

Before the Napoleonic invasion (1798) and the 1805 assumption to power of Muhammad ‘Ali in Egypt, Arabic writers in North Africa and the Middle East did not have a view of their place in an expanding world of commerce and navigation. Although travelers crossed regions extending from Morocco to Bosnia and Tndia, their vis-à-vis remained divided between the Ottoman Turks, who dominated the whole Arabic-speaking world with the exception of Morocco, and Western Europeans, whose military and technological advances were both admired and feared.

 From the sixteenth century on, Spanish and French, British and Dutch polities adopted an exclusionary religious and nationalist ideology, and with limited exceptions in the Netherlands and in Britain (the admission of a small number of Jews in the 1650s), they kept out the non-Christian from their borders. At the same time, they needed the markets, resources, strategic harbors and the cooperation of the Muslim peoples of the Mediterranean basin.

 Such need led to the curious situation where a wide array of Euro-Christian immigrants, mercenaries, hired laborers, pirates, priests, converts, consuls and traders settled in regions extending from Salé to (Libya’s) Tripoli, and from Tunis to Tzmir and Aleppo. Because of Tslam’s protection of the Christians and the Jews as dhimmis or musta’minīn, more native (Arabic- speaking) and European Christians resided among Muslims than Muslims among Euro-Christians.

Catholic and Orthodox Christian Arabic writers had easier access to Western and Central Europe than did Muslim Arabs. As a result, the latter traveled exclusively within the Tslamic world, as is shown in the biographies of the thousands of men (and one woman) that were compiled by Muhammad Amīn ibn Fadlallah al-Muhibbī at the end of the seventeenth century (d. 1699) and Muhammad Khalīl al-Murādī at the end of the eighteenth century (d. 1791).

Only a few Muslim Arabs traveled to Western Europe, or bilād  al-Nasārā/ the lands of the Christians, all of whom, excepting the Lebanese prince Fakhr al-Dīn TT, were from the Tslamic West:

Libyan, Tunisian, Algerian and Moroccan.1 Sometimes few in number, at other times consisting of fifteen to twenty men (no women, except for slaves),2 from the beginning of the seventeenth century, North African delegations visited and wrote about Spain, France, Holland, Ttaly and Malta. They went to negotiate commercial and peace treaties, ransom captives, and/or demand compensation for losses incurred at sea.3

Of all the early modern North African ambassadors and envoys who went on missions to Western Europe, only five left written accounts that have survived: Ahmad ibn Qāsim about France and Holland (1612–1613);4 Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Wahāb al-Ghassānī about Spain (1690–1691);5 Ahmad ibn Mahdī al-Ghazāl about Spain (1767);6 and Muhammad ibn

‘Uthmān al-Miknāsī about Spain (1779–1780),7 and of Malta, Naples and Sicily (1781–1783).8 Al-Miknāsī was unique in also traveling and writing about Ottoman regions: his third and last account describes his journey from Tetuan to Tstanbul, continuing via Anatolia to the pilgrimage sites of

Mecca and Medina, and then back to Damascus, Jerusalem and Acre, from where he sailed to Tunis, and then traveled on land back to his native Morocco (1785–1788).9 His are the only writings about the Tslamic and Christian Sea of the Rūm (the name Arabs used for the “Mediterranean”) by an Arab writer until the Nahda in the nineteenth century.10

Tn al-‘Arab wa-l-Barābira (1991), ‘Azīz al-‘Azmeh maintained that all cultures, including the medieval Arabic culture, constructed the Other in the manner that Edward Said described as the European construction of the Arabs and Muslims in Orientalism (1978).

But as the writings of al-Miknāsī demonstrate, no “construction” of Europeans underpinned his accounts. Rather, he was empirical and precise in his descriptions, and although he denounced the Euro-Christians for their past depredations and what he saw as immoral activities, there was no deliberate misrepresentation and fantasy in his writings similar to that which marked many English, French, Spanish and Ttalian dramas, travelogues and epics about Muslims.

 Admittedly, he made mistakes: sometimes his descriptions of buildings did not match the reality on the ground (Toledo, for instance), but such mistakes were due to memory failure and not to the desire of constructing the Other to justify and prepare for conquest – the crucial corollary in Said’s argument that should not be ignored.11

 Despite the sometimes conflicted relationship with the Euro-Christians, al-Miknāsī and other North African diplomats saw

themselves in a complicated context: First, there was the religious difference and they could not but always denounce what they saw as irreligious and non-Tslamic. But, second, and after spending months as guests of the Nasārā, they entered into numerous dialogues with them, and although the sense of rivalry and hostility remained, in the case of al- Miknāsī, he started using (as indeed his ruler had) the word mahabba/love/amity in his accounts.12

As a result, al-Miknāsī reflected in his descriptions historical interactions that went beyond the fixedness of belief: when the Europeans were seen to be hostile to Muslims, and to have expelled them from their lands or relentlessly attacked them at sea, al- Miknāsī poured on them his vituperation; but when they were helpful and generous, he praised them with sincere gratitude.

Tn the presence of the European “wonders” that he witnessed, he could not but express admiration, although his envy, or his inability to understand the new inventions and social codes made him add the perfunctory denunciation or Qur’ānic condemnation. Still, his views were more often dictated by his own feelings and background rather than determined by theology.

Muhammad ibn ‘Uthmān al-Miknāsī “Jurist, scholar, intelligent, handsome, poet”13

Abū ‘Abdallah Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Wahāb ibn ‘Uthmān al-Miknāsī was born in the first half of the eighteenth century in the royal city of Meknes and grew up in a house of learning, where his father was a jurist.14 He lived not far from the Filālī School, which had been established by the Marinids and where the distinguished jurist al-Wansharīsī had taught (the school was also known as the School of the Judge).15

His house was also within a short walking distance from the vast royal complex that had been built by Mulay Tsmā’īl (reg. 1672–1727), the grandfather of then ruler, Sidi Muhammad ibn ‘Abdallah (reg. 1757–1789). Meknes still bore the marks of

 its glory days under Tsmā’īl who had turned it into his capital and where he had built imposing structures such as the water cistern and the granaries (which have survived till today notwithstanding the 1755 earthquake), expanded the boundaries of the city and fortified it with forty kilometers of walls and numerous gates, including Bāb Mansūr, the biggest in all North Africa.

He brought European converts and captives to labor at building the rows of walls (the water turret was built by Ahmad al-‘ilj al-inglīzī/the English convert), and he built the Tsmā’īliyya qasbah to serve as his seat of government and to house his court, guards and family.

Like every major jurist in the Tslamic West, al-Miknāsī pursued his studies at the Qarawiyyīn Mosque-University in Fez,16 where he studied Hadith, Tafsir and other religious sciences.

On returning to Meknes, he followed his father’s example in becoming a warrāq/scribe and a khatīb/preacher, keeping in touch with his old school and using the library of the Grand Mosque (and perhaps using the Bāb al-Kutub/Gate of the Books, very near to his house). He then joined the court of Sidi…..

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