18 Apr 2020

Nautical Silsilah

One, two, three, four… following directly from our latest post, and in an amazing diachronic echo, our latest reading sessions brought us to the passage in the Fawā’id where Ibn Mājid speaks of his genealogy, his chain (silsilah) of succession of nautical masters, and of how he saw it —the resemblance to al-Maqdisī’s passage is uncanny— written on a rutter (rahmānaj) handed from father to son, and dated AH 530 (about AD 1135). Last time we were left with a gap of about 500 years between al-Maqdisī and Ibn Mājid, and now we seem to have a teasing glimpse of intermediary links in the transmission.

Ibn Mājid keeps a fine balance between criticism and praise of earlier pilots, and he has a striking awareness of two things. First, the value of his knowledge, a “technoscience” properly, variously mentioned as ‘ilm, knowledge, fann, art, ikhtirā‘ah, invention, tajribah, experimentation, and qualified as muṣaḥḥaḥah mujarrabah, authenticated by experience. Second, the unbroken continuity (istimrārīyah) in the transmission of his experiential knowledge, encapsulated in his catchy sentence: nihāyat al-mutaqaddim bidāyat al-muta’akhir “the end point of the ancestors is the starting point of the successors.”


This principle is found in earlier books of Islamic jurisprudence, as a crucial guarantee in the dialectics between preservation and innovation, between circumspect veneration and daring creativity. And the very title of our book is at play here: every chapter is just a fā’idah (singular of fawā’id), an accrual, something added to a previous treasure, almost like a dividend, welcome as a benefit, and yet entirely depending on the existence of the previously accumulated riches. This is also, it will be noted, perfecly in tune with Ibn Mājid’s insistence on referring to himself, humbly and proudly, as “the fourth of three.”


Please note that our Wednesday reading sessions are now online, and we welcome new readers (check the details here!). [JA]

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