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!

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