Journeys to the Other Shore: Muslim and Western Travelers in Search of Knowledge

Review of Journeys to the Other Shore: Muslim and Western Travelers in Search of Knowledge, by Roxanne L. Euben (Princeton University Press, Princeton 2006)

Journeys to the Other Shore: Muslim and Western Travelers in Search of Knowledge is an important book. Its author, Roxanne L. Euben treads easily between historical periods, and languages. Her command of her own discipline, political theory, and other disciplines, including history and literature, is remarkable. Yet Euben's most important and most impressive undertaking is her deft analysis of relationships, both real and imagined, between Islam and the so-called West. Contemporary political discourse, according to Euben, locates the "West" as knowledgeable and cosmopolitan, and Islam as the opposite of cosmopolitan – a discourse whose only travels take place in the form of violent jihads. Journeys to the Other Shore, then, displaces the contemporary political narratives by focusing on the genre of Islamic travel writing and by arguing, persuasively, that travel and cosmopolitanism have informed not only Western, but also Islamic forms of theorizing and knowledge production throughout history.

At the beginning of the text, Euben is careful to point out that a dichotomy between the "West" and "Islam" is quite problematic. To write of a monolithic West as much contemporary political discourse does, erases regional, religious, racial, and ethnic differences within the West. Euben also complicates the idea of a singular Islam and instead explains that Islam emerges in multiple contexts, geographic regions, and is practiced differently in varying historical periods. Because of this Euben argues that to speak of a singular Islam obliterates the diversity of various Muslim communities in varying historical and geographic contexts. Ultimately, within Journeys to the Other Shore Roxanne Euben writes against what she calls the "master signifier" of "Islam versus the West." She instead argues that Islam and the West are not diametrically opposed – cosmopolitan versus jihadist – but instead both terms emerge in multiple contexts and contain much more complexity than is usually articulated within political politics.

Journeys to the Other Shore is a direct response to the growing body of literature on Western travels to the non-West. In recent years, several works have emerged that document how "Western" travels to the "non-West" impacted the creation of a Western identity, propelled the process of Empire building, and aided in the production of knowledge about both Western selves and non-Western others. Euben responds to this growing literature in Journeys to the Other Shore by pointing out that travel to other regions was not limited to Westerners; Muslims frequently engaged in the process of travel and, during that process, also created knowledge about both themselves and others. Yet Euben insists that her recuperation of Muslim travel narratives is not merely an act of pluralization; instead, within Journeys, she argues that her engagement with Islamic travel writings is "part of a wider effort to recuperate a more capacious understanding of political theory than one defined in terms of a parochial mapping of Western answers to fixed questions posed by a pantheon of (almost exclusively) Euro-American philosophy" (10).

In Journeys to the Other Shore Euben not only grapples with relationships between Islam and the West, but she also explains how political theory is, itself, a comparative enterprise. In her previous works, Euben makes the case for the comparative study of political theory. Political theory is, to Euben, an inherently comparative enterprise and she argues that theorizing "involves examining and making explicit the assumptions and commitments that underlie everyday actions, a practice on which no time, culture, or institution has monopoly" (10). Thus because theorizing involves making explicit the conditions that surround what Euben calls "everyday actions," theorizing is not an exclusively Western construct – despite the fact that political theory is considered by many to be an exclusively Western enterprise.

To illustrate the comparative nature of political theorizations, Euben offers an analysis of "traditional" Western political theory with the Islamic travel writing, particularly the rihla, a genre of Islamic travel narratives that document travels in pursuit of knowledge. Euben examines the ways in which both traditional political theory and Islamic travel narratives produce knowledge about selves and others comparatively. She also explains how travel writings, and travel itself, are both acts of theorizing, theorizing that creates representations not only of racial, religious, ethnic, regional, and gendered differences, but also of commonalities between various manifestations of Islam and, also, various manifestations of what Euben calls the West.

Journeys to the Other Shore is organized conceptually and while Euben sometimes explores connections between texts from similar historical periods, she also offers comparisons across epochs. In Chapter Three, for example, she looks at the similarities and differences between Herodotus's Histories and the rihla of the famous fourteenth-century Moroccan traveler Ibn Battuna. Euben also looks at texts from similar periods. Within Chapter Four of Journeys she documents how Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America and the rihla of Rifa a Rafi al-Tahtawi, Takhlis al-Ibriz ila Talkhis Bariz (The Extraction of Gold from a Distillation of Paris, 1834), both exemplify travel in the search of "practical" knowledge. Euben's organizational approach makes sense, but at times leaves one to wonder how a broader attention to historical context – politics, economic, and social life – would impact Euben's arguments and enhance the text as a whole.

Journeys to the Other Shore, while interesting and innovative, is written in a way that will appeal to specialists, and not a general audience. At times her language is convoluted and her arguments are unclear. Yet this one small critique. What makes Journeys so important is its analysis of relationships between Islam and the West, an undertaking that is all too urgent in this contemporary moment.