To acquire wisdom, one must observe

Pirates, mystics, scholars and more

When focusing on a time period in history, scholars usually focus on the big names and events. While those things are obviously important, it is also important to document and understand the lives of people scholars do not typically focus on. This was the reason that the assistant professor of classical Islam at Brandeis, Professor Suleyman Dost (NEJS), created his new class, “Pirates, Mystics and Scholars: Travel Literature from the Islamic World” (NEJS 193A); to show “the true diversity of the medieval Islamic world,” according to Dost.

Dost’s class was born out of his “fascination with travel accounts from the medieval period and their candid, vivid descriptions of pre-modern human condition” and what he said was the “need I felt for a class that addresses the history of the Near East from the viewpoint of everyday people, simple believers, non-elite or the silent majority (however you might want to call them), the voices of whom you hardly hear in religious texts or official court histories.” 

But he also joked that his motivation for creating the class was that “Any excuse to talk about Mediterranean pirates is a good one for me!”

Besides teaching students about the history of the Near East through the eyes of less-published people, this class will teach students a lot about the mixing of religions, which historians usually do not focus on. 

Regarding this, Dost explained that looking at travelogues from the medieval Islamic world “reveals moments of eclecticism and subversion that would understandably annoy the religious scholars and the guardians of orthodoxy for all religious communities.” For example, some of the readings for this class consist of “Muslims bringing their children to the church for baptism” and “Christians visiting the tomb of a Muslim saint for healing or mosques with pictures of Jesus in them.” 

The blending of religions outside of typical religious norms is not the only thing that these  travelogues reveal. 

“At the same time, these texts show the incredible linguistic unity of the Islamic world and the commonality of medieval practices of mobility and hospitality in distant geographies. For example, a 14th century Muslim traveler took off from modern-day Morocco and visited a large part of the known world at the time, including the Muslim Near East, parts of eastern Europe, India, China and Africa, for 25 years. He was able to survive with no jobs and just speaking Arabic!”

Although Dost seems excited about the entire syllabus, the part which he is most looking forward to teaching is “the second half of the class, when we will talk about European prisoners of war and slaves taken captive by Muslim pirates and privateers in North Africa. Miguel de Cervantes, the author of Don Quixote, was one of them. He lived as a slave in Algiers for five years until his parents ransomed him. We will read two of his plays that are set in Algiers and reflect his experiences in this Muslim city.”

The only thing Dost said he had to be “constantly mindful” of while creating “Pirates, Mystics and Scholars: Travel Literature from the Islamic World” was the fact that the class will be covering such a vast geographical area over a long span of time without “properly learning about its history at every turn.” He added that “students will hear the names of so many people and will have to acquaint themselves with the geography of the Muslim Mediterranean. I think we are going to need a historical map of the Near East hung in the classroom at all times to follow the dizzying itineraries of our pirates and travelers!”

For those wanting to look at the history of the Near East during the medieval period from a different perspective, this class could be for you. The class will take place during the Fall 2019 semester on Mondays and Wednesdays from 3:30 p.m. to 4:50 p.m. in room 302 of the Lown Center for Judaic Studies.

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