A Sixteenth-Century Muslim Between Worlds
by Natalie Davis
Reviewed by Menya Hinga
Historians know him as Leo Africanus. Italians know him as Gionvanni Leone. Others know him as Yuhanna the Lion. Born into a Muslim family in Granada at the end of the 15th century, al-Hasan al-Wazzan was all of the abovementioned names, and more. Today, he is remembered as a prolific writer, author of the first geography of Africa, and celebrated traveler of the premodern Middle East.
In her newest work, Trickster Travels: A Sixteenth-Century Muslim Between Worlds, Natalie Zemon Davis—Professor of History Emeritus at Princeton University—draws from all al-Wazzan’s previously known and recently discovered manuscripts to explore the world in which he lived. As a social and cultural historian, Davis’s 270 page book is a comprehensive interpretation of al-Wazzan’s divided life between two cultural worlds: Muslim Africa and Christian Europe.
The 15th and 16th centuries saw remarkable transformation. During Europe’s Dark Ages, Islamic conquests were more rapid and successful than ever. The premodern Middle East spanned from Southern Spain, across North Africa, and as far east as Pakistan. This vast territory was ruled by different Muslim leaders, who struggled to maintain control over so much arid terrain. At this point, Muslim rule stretched its farthest and touched more people than any other time in history.
Muslims engaged in active intellectual inquiry never seen before. The world’s leading astronomers, mathematicians, and scientists were all Muslim. They revived, studied, and expanded the works of ancient Greeks and Romans, and they experienced a kind of Islamic Enlightenment. To this day, we owe a great deal of our knowledge of algebra to these early thinkers. They were even responsible for the original scientific method, which is still used today in labs around the world.
In the middle of the 15th century, Islam’s expansion west stopped in Southern Spain. The Christian Kingdoms had united in an effort to take back lands that were once theirs, and, within a very short period of time, both the Muslims and the Jews were expelled from Spain and forced to leave immediately.
So begins the life of al-Hasan. He was born between 1486-88 and forced to move to Morocco when Granada fell to the Spanish Reconquista. When he was young, he traveled extensively with his father and continued to explore the entire Middle East as the emissary, servant, soldier, informant, and ambassador of the sultan of Fez. His diplomatic responsibilities required him to speak, listen, and write effectively, as well as know the proper gestures for courteous deference. He was eventually captured and imprisoned by Christian pirates until he converted to Christianity, and, after converting, he lived in Italy as the Christian scholar Giovanni Leone.
What remains most impressive is how easily he moved between the cultural worlds of the Islamic and Arabic traditions as well as the Christian and Jewish ones. He studied law and theology in Fez, recited poetry, helped create an Arabic-Hebrew-Latin dictionary, and may have even served time as adviser to the Vatican library. He was the perfect intermediary between Muslims and Christians, and wrote in ways that appealed to both Arab and European readers.
Davis’s text brings life to an individual who passed away hundreds of years ago seemingly unnoticed by his peers. She illuminates his impressive contributions to both Arab and European culture in clear and concise detail. The text is essentially chronological and rarely deviates from al-Wazzan’s life, yet, in such a short text, she manages to cover a broad spectrum by slipping between the Euro-Christian and African-Muslim worlds.
Different chapters discuss the land of Islam, writing in Italy, the connection between Africa and Europe, the laxities of wine-drinking in a religion that forbids drinking, the definition of holy war, and more. The vast majority of the text centers on the relationship between Islam and Christianity; a subject often discussed by modern scholars.
Davis covers so much ground with so much detail that you’re often reminded of the author’s vocation as a historian. Who else could pack so much, so carefully, into one short book? That being said, Trickster Travels is an exquisite introduction to a world far removed from our own, a world that is often misrepresented but which has much to offer the sensible observer.
Trickster Travels: A Sixteenth-Century Muslim Between Worlds
(New York: Hill and Wang, 2006).
ISBN: 0-8090-9434-7 $21.99 p.270