Rihla and the Islamic Sciences

Dear Readers,

I know it's been more than a long time since I've posted on here, but I assure you I have been keeping myself busy during this absences. My Arabic study program has been very good and I've learned a lot in Qatar this year.

Recently, I traveled back to America to interview at Princeton University for their PhD in Near Eastern Studies. It was a true privilege to be among Princeton's short-listed PhD candidates and I thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to return home and visit Princeton, while also having the chance to spend some time with my family.

During the interviews, each of us had to present a 10 minute presentation on a particular topic. I presented on rihla and it's role in Classical Islamic scholarship. I'm sharing this with you guys because I think it's an interesting topic that deserves more attention.

I hope you enjoy!


الرحلة : Rihla and the Islamic Sciences

Al-Rihla is the Arabic word for 'voyage' and as a term it describes journeys undertaken for specific religious, scholarly, economic or political motivations, of which direct or indirect evidence exists in the Classical Arabic literary heritage.

Scholarly rihla's prominence and prevalence throughout Islamic history reflects the Islamic principle of talab al-'ilm, seeking knowledge, which is best described by the Arabic proverb: العلم يؤتى و لا يأتي “knowledge is approached, it does not come to you”. 

In Islam, knowledge predicates belief, and Muslims must seek it. In the Classical period, this quest for knowledge drove many to travel great distances to learn and teach, subsequently developing Islamic scholarship and establishing a cohesive, coherent cultural identity throughout the classical Islamic world.

Today, I want to talk about these voyages and their role in defining, developing and supporting the Islamic sciences. To begin, we will identify the epistemological factors that premised rihla's development as a scholarly procedure. From there, we will talk about rihla's role in various fields of Classical Islamic scholarship. And lastly, we will discuss Western scholars' approach to rihla and how viewing rihla as a scholarly tool can help improve our understanding of the Classical Islamic sciences.

The importance of knowledge within Islam cannot be overstated. As Franz Rosenthal states in Knowledge Triumphant, “Beginning with the earliest stages of Muslim theological speculation, 'faith' was viewed and defined as something that somehow depended on knowledge.” The knowledge Muslims depended on to construct and perform their faith was knowledge they must learn. And if they could not learn such knowledge in their homelands, then they had to travel to seek it.

Both the Quran and Sunna support travel for the sake of knowledge, and among the hadith are these traditions: “Seek knowledge even if it's in China” and “God makes the path to Heaven easier for him who treads a path to seek knowledge”. 

Additionally, Islamic scholars almost universally recognized travel's epistemological benefits. For example, 14th Century historian Ibn Khaldun praised travel in the Introduction to his world history: “Rihla to seek knowledge is necessary for one to acquire the benefits and perfection they gain through meeting scholars and interacting with people.” 

For Imam al-Ghazali in The Revival of the Religious Sciences, there was no more important mechanism for the acquisition and dissemination of knowledge than travel: “All worthwhile knowledge that has been acquired from the time of the Prophet's Companions until our current age was only acquired through travel and by the traveler who sought it."

Al-Ghazali identifies the epistemological processes of السماع al-sama' – listening – and المشاهدة al-mushahada – empirical observation – as the means by which travel expands and affirms one's knowledge. As Tunisian scholar Houari Touati notes, this is how rihla became, “a necessary mechanism for [Muslim scholars'] scientific institution." 

If knowledge is acquired through either hearing or sight, then the scholar must be present at the source of said knowledge to learn it. Therefore, rihla became the necessary means by which Medieval scholars performed research and studied from recognized authorities. Subsequently, rihla was also a means of disseminating knowledge. The Classical Islamic commitment to the 'direct', face-to-face transmission of knowledge necessitated the movement of people. It is within this context that we can understand the importance of rihla to the Islamic sciences.

Hadith scholars were the first to develop an “epistemology of the voyage." The reliance on oral transmission for the acquisition, collection and verification of hadith in the early Islamic period necessitated rihla's use as a scholarly tool. 

11th Century hadith scholar, al-Khatib al-Baghdadi relates a story of a man who traveled from Al-Medina to Damascus solely to visit the Companion Abu Darda and to confirm a hadith he had heard. Rihla was also vital for the evaluation of hadith transmitters, as made famous by Al-Bukhari in the 9th century. Beyond field research, rihla was also necessary for developing theoretical knowledge within the hadith sciences. Al-Baghdadi credits hadith criticism with spurning muhaddithin to journey “to meet and hear – study – from scholars." Clearly, rihla was not only part of hadith scholars' research process but a key feature of their scholarly community.

Though Hadith scholars were the first to develop rihla as a scholarly tool it did not take long to spread to other fields of Islamic knowledge. Travel was indispensable to early Arab philologists, as well as geographers and historians. Scholars in these fields exerted great effort to study the Islamic world's vast territorial expanse directly, by way of al-sama' and al-mushahada.

Recognizing rihla's role in the development of early Islamic scholarship has been important in reevaluating earlier understandings of the Islamic sciences. 

In hadith studies, we see this in the work of Harold Motzki. In his critique of Juynboll's dating of hadith traditions, Motzki cites the nature of oral transmission as a cause for the inconsistent appearance of traditions in early hadith collections, which Juynboll asserts signals their forgery. Motzki also cites hadith scholars' desire to learn from authoritative transmitters – a key component of talab al-'ilm – as explaining the apparent 'shortening' of isnads – also considered a sign of isnad forgery. Motzki's assertions essentially recognize the realities of a scholarly environment defined by oral transmission and rihla.

With regard to the Arabic language, Wolfdietrich Fischer echoes a common sentiment when he labels Classical Arabic orthography as “inadequate” and “equivocal.” Conclusions like these do not acknowledge how Arabic was standardized in the Classical period. The early Arab philologists, like Abu Zaid al-Ansari, who traveled to collect and catalogue Bedouin language primarily sought to preserve this 'pure', 'uncorrupted' Arabic that was also the language of the Qu'ran, not to simplify and refine it. 

The later theorists of Arabic grammar continued in the tradition of preserving Bedouin Arabic and all of its inconsistencies. This was not due to a lack of effort or discipline, as Fischer's comments may suggest. On the contrary, Arabic's grammarians exerted tremendous effort to created rules respecting the data collected by their scholarly predecessors. Preserving this knowledge, which had been acquired directly through al-sama', took precedence over efficiency and simplicity.

For the most part, however, Western scholars have not viewed rihla as an indispensable element of Medieval Islamic scholarship, but rather as the same kind of travel as exists in the West, namely a journey out of one's cultural homeland. Subsequently these scholars have focused on the few Muslim travelers who ventured outside of Muslim territories or interacted with non-Muslim peoples, especially Europeans. But as today's discussion suggests, the “hermeneutics of the other” that so interests Western scholars mattered little to most Medieval Muslim travelers who were more concerned with acquiring traditional Islamic knowledge. 

We must recognize the possibility that what travel means to us, in our day in age, is not the same as what it meant to Muslims in the Classical period. Rihla was important in Medieval Islam because it brought Muslims closer to knowledge: the heart of their faith, culture and civilization. Viewing rihla in this light gives us a different understanding of these scholar's procedure and perspective. They aspired not to cross into new worlds, but rather to learn and contribute to established knowledge traditions. And while it may be easy for us to view the stability and cohesion of Classical Islamic scholarship as stagnation, it was this intellectual and cultural “sameness”, achieved through the transmission of knowledge – knowledge carried in the hearts and on the tongues of traveling scholars – which gave the Classical Islamic world a unified, global identity.