The Search for Knowledge: Andalusi Scholars and Their Travels to the Islamic East
By María Luisa Ávila
Medieval Prosopography: History and Collective Biography, Vol.23 (2002)
Introduction: In Andalusi biographical dictionaries, the portrait of the individual scholar follows a pre-established outline, centered upon his place of birth, the names of his masters and disciples, the places he visited during his “period of formation” and his career and, eventually, his positions in the administration. Information about his personal attitudes or family ties is nearly always absent in these sources, mainly interested as they were, in the position of scholars as transmitters of knowledge.
For Andalusi scholars, traveling to the Islamic East was an essential step in their period of formation, at least during the first centuries of the history of al-Andalus. Biographers, then, dutifully recorded the names of Eastern masters and places visited by scholars during these journeys to the East, coupled also with the pilgrimage to Mecca. This kind of biographical information offers a prosopographical material of outstanding interest, the analysis of which sheds a welcome light on the formative years and study patterns of Andalusi scholars.
On this occasion I will restrict the analysis to the oldest of Andalusi biographical dictionaries, that of Ibn Harith al-Khushani, known as Akhbar al-fuqaha, wa-l-muhaddithin, a basic source for the study of intellectual life in al-Andalus during the ninth and tenth centuries. Through the study of the prosopographical material in this dictionary I intend to establish, first, the age at which scholars began their period of formation; second, when the travel to the East (the rihla) was usually undertaken, and, finally, how long these scholars stayed in the East. This will help us to arrive at a better understanding of how academic careers in al-Andalus were constructed.