[P6559] Expanding the Horizons of Arabic Navigational Historiography
Created by Eric M. Staples
Wednesday, 12/01/21 11:30 am
SUMMARY:Navigational texts are an important lens for understanding the cultural exchange of knowledge in a maritime context. Arabic navigational literature is particularly useful for examining the ways in which the medieval and early modern maritime societies of the Middle East region were intimately connected to the larger oceanic spheres of influence. This is due to the fact that our understanding of Indian Ocean navigation prior to the twentieth century has largely relied on a corpus of Arabic texts written in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. For the last fifty years, the modern historiographical discussion of this topic has increasingly relied on the writings of one author, Ahmad b. Majid, largely due to the publication of G.R. Tibbetts’ English translation and commentary of Ibn Majid’s work, entitled Arab Navigation in the Indian Ocean Before the Coming of the Portuguese, in 1971. This reliance has created at times a somewhat monolithic representation of what on deeper examination appears to be a rather porous, diverse and dynamic body of nautical knowledge.
This panel seeks to broaden the discussion regarding Arabic navigational literature, and to contextualize the important work of Ibn Majid within a larger textual framework. In order to achieve this, it focuses on primary sources other than those of Ibn Majid, highlighting the diversity found within textual sources relating to Arabic navigational knowledge and practices in the process. It discusses the lesser-known sixteenth-century author Sulayman al-Mahri and compares his works with Ibn Majid’s texts to highlight the differences in their approaches to important navigational concepts. It reviews contemporary Portuguese navigational literature in order to explore Arabic navigation’s impact on European practices from alternative external perspectives. It examines a recently discovered Arabic navigational manuscript, most likely dated to the early nineteenth century, in order to emphasize the ways in which this literature was not static and changed over time. Collectively, it intends to expand the research horizons of the field of Arabic navigation by constructing a more multi-faceted discussion of this diverse body of knowledge.