This paper explores the poetics and practices of space in the Islamic tradition by way of a close reading of the writings of the great muʿallim of the seas, Shihāb al-Dīn Aḥmad Ibn Mājid al-Saʿdī al-Najdī, and especially his magnum opus Kitāb al-fawāʾid fī uṣūl al-baḥr wa’l-qawāʿid.
A general introduction to the navigator’s craft organized into twelve chapters devoted to various essentials of sea-going (covering domains that would be identified today as history, geography, astronomy, topography, climatology, but also ethics and politics, among others), the Kitāb al-fawāʾid fī uṣūl al-baḥr wa’l-qawāʿid seeks to enshrine a science of the sea in a web of scholarly practices implicating people, words and things (and this, from the very title, which mobilizes terms that gesture towards linguistic and legal fields).
Rather than emphasizing the technical and empirical aspects of the text, as the existing scholarship has tended to do – with questions aimed at the actual referent stably located outside the texts themseles (what the words and names refer to exactly, how the information was obtained, what was imaginary rather than real, etc.) – the aim is to remain within the writing itself, so to speak, evoking as much as possible the world as the author narrated it: the disciplinary and methodological scaffolding of the composition; the epistemological and ontological anchors that it assumes and asserts; the referential and citationary cosmos that justify it. In other words, the objective is to reconstruct how the text paints the world, both physical and scholarly, as opposed to reconstructing the world that the text recorded.
The argument is that Aḥmad Ibn Mājid was seeking to give the “science of the sea” the status of a proper discipline and a dignified profession; but that this could only be done, considering the wider discursive formation within which it operated, by blurring disciplinary boundaries too, nestling it between ethics, epistemology, and practical wisdom.
Indian Ocean Region