Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
In the Islamic tradition, the Quran is believed to be a recitation that the Prophet Mohammed made under divine inspiration. The angel Gabriel or Jibreel (he of the Annunciation in Christian tradition) is believed to have given him the text. Therefore Mohammed is not considered the author of the Quran but only a conduit for the divine.
But the words and deeds of Mohammed when not divinely inspired are also important to Islam. A report describing such words and deeds is called a hadith (Arabic: حديث). And in fact, hadiths are the source of many important Islamic teachings, including rules relating to prayer.
One hadith has always intrigued me. Mohammed is reported to have said on one occasion, “Seek knowledge even in [as far as] China.” Did the ex-merchant from Arabia really mention China? What did he know about that distant country in the early seventh century?
But because hadiths are secondhand reports of Mohammed’s conversations and conduct, not all are equally credible. This particular hadith has led to a great deal of debate over authenticity, and different Muslim scholars have rated it anywhere from “fair” to “weak” to simply fabricated. Scholars generally agree, though, that at least the spirit of the saying comports with other hadiths enjoining Muslims to value knowledge and education. In the Quran itself, the famous Surah [Chapter] 96, “Al-Alaq,” commands Muslims to:
Read! In the Name of your Lord, Who has created [all]
This surah has always been interpreted as an injunction to learn. So if Mohammed really recommended going as far as China for the sake of education, he might have simply meant it as a figure of speech, meaning to go as far as the end of the earth. (Even though one Kyrgyz friend of mine took it literally and went to study in Shanghai.)
Nonetheless, this non-Muslim non-scholar finds the hadith too interesting to let go. Because of its rhetorical ring, and because it helped to inspire the great Sufi poem, “The Conference of the Birds,” by the Persian poet Farid ud-din Attar. The poem tells the story of thirty birds embarking on a quest to find the Simorgh, a magical bird of Persian mythology, which name also happens to mean “thirty birds” in Persian. Early on, the poem reads:
It was in China, late one moonless night,
Attar probably didn’t mean “China” literally either but rather as a symbol for some mystical realm of understanding befitting the mysterious philosophy of Sufism.
But one final reason for my interest is this: Literal or not, the China that Mohammed might have referred to (and therefore Attar was referring to) was the China of the early 7th century, when the country was at the zenith of its sophistication and glory. Never before and never after would the Middle Kingdom reach the same height.
Though the forces of Islam spread rapidly during and immediately after Mohammed’s lifetime, they never crossed the Oxus River, which today marks the border between Uzbekistan and Afghanistan, until a full century later. East of the Oxus, the khans and tanjous of the various tribes answered to the Celestial Court. According to Edward Gibbon, when Arabs conquered Persia, the last Shah, Yazdegard III, beseeched the Chinese Emperor to supply him with a new army to return him to the throne. (This story will have to form the subject of a later post.)
So how might Mohammed and his followers have imagined the distant empire? What image might Mohammed have conjured up for his disciples when he said, if he said, “Seek knowledge even as far as China”?
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."