28 Mar 2020

Noachian Musings

The opening chapter of Ibn Mājid’s Fawā’id starts right at the beginning of navigation, explaining that “the first one to ride the sea, and the first one to deal systematically with its concerns (rattaba asbābahu) and the first one to craft a ship” was Noah. This is perfectly in tune with the Abrahamic view of history, finding echoes in the textual traditions of Judaism and Christianity.

What is not so common and I have kept pondering after our first reading session (and while we contemplate moving our meetings to the cyberspace) is the relation between the stars of Ursa Major and the parts of the ship.

According to this very ancient and fundamental idea, master craftsmen on earth are always imitating a heavenly model. This is what is called mimesis in Greek, a word of subtly metaphysical reach, of ritual liturgical meaning, and quite simply the reason why “imitation is the best way to be original.” From another angle, this correspondence between the ship design and the constellations bespeaks yet another aspect of mimesis: since number comes directly from the observation of the stars (Plato, Epinomis), and given that artistic (meaning here also technical) design is in practice based on number, it will only be normal that the design of the prototype of all ships is patterned after the order of Heaven.
Noah has particular rights to our attention these days, since he must rank somewhere there first among the patron saints and precursors of quarantine: he spent forty days and forty nights on a floating zoo, with bleak prospects, without internet, but, we can surmise, with a trusting heart. Let us keep Noah afloat in our minds!

14 Mar 2020

Rendezvous with the Sources

This week we could not read together, but work continues behind the scenes, and we have been gathering the missing manuscripts with a view to our collation of the existing sources. We are grateful to the Bodleian Libraries, Oxford, for the opportunity to spend some time with dear MS. Selden Superius 46, which appears to be the earliest manuscript of Ibn Mājid’s Fawā’id, and also with its cousins Selden S. 24 and 57, which contain a number of other works by Ibn Mājid.


On this note, we thought our readers would like to know about a related exhibition which took place a couple of years ago in Moscow: “The Lords of the Ocean” (Vladika Okeana), on the role of the Portuguese expansion in world history, showing among other treasures one of Ibn Mājid’s manuscripts, from the collection of the Institute of Oriental Studies at St Petersburg.

Keep washing those hands, and until next week!

4 Mar 2020

Reading the Author’s Preface

أهلاً وسهلاً

Hello and welcome to our new blog, where we hope to be sharing news from the frontlines, as we dive into Arabic manuscripts for pearls of knowledge (scientia) of all sorts.

We will be reading texts on Arab navigation for some time, and we are right now getting to know the basics, reading Ahmad ibn Mājid, the most famous writer in this field. For a start, we are working on his emblematic work, Al-Fawā’id fī uṣūl ‘ilm al-baḥr wa-al-qawā‘id, “Addenda on the Principles and Foundations of Maritime Science” (our translation of fā’idah is still fluid!). Over the past few weeks we had been reading the preface (fols. 1v-2v), straight from the Paris Ms. 2292, comparing it with the Damascus Ms. held at the LOC, and warming up to start reading the first Fā’idah today.

[The Damascus Ms., with the red stamp of the South Manchurian Railway Company.]

These initial pages are interesting in their own right, though certainly not dealing yet with technical matters. Among the topics mentioned by Ibn Mājid, two issues of interest have remained with me:

The meaning of ‘ilm: it starts becoming evident how this key term here does not simply mean “science” or “knowledge”. He refers quite clearly to a “skill”, if we use the word etymologically, meaning it is very practical and at the same time involving an advanced degree of sophistication. It is a “practical knowledge” of a higher level if you want. This feels like an invitation to revisit those ancient Platonic discussions about episteme and techne, or to read with new awareness the Kitāb al-‘ilm, the Book of Knowledge by Ghazālī, the first book of the Iḥyā, where he goes deeply into the facets of this “knowledge”. In our nautical context, the term is particularly decisive because one of the common designations of the pilot is mu‘allim, from the same root, “the teacher”, “master”...

The value of the craftsman: More broadly, and related to the “praise of skill” found in these pages, there is a list of requirements for pilots, and insightful observations. You are not expected to sleep much in this trade: you have to be up by night and in the early hours to look at the stars! The cherry on top of his argument is Imam ‘Ali’s saying: «قيمة كل امرئ ما يحسنه», “The value of every man is that at which he excels,” his iḥsān, or as the Chinese would say, his gong-fu.

Until next week!