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History in Focus

the guide to historical resources • Issue 9: The Sea •

The Sea

Book cover of 'Travel and Ethnology in the Renaissance: South India through European Eyes, 1250–1625'

Author's response


Travel and Ethnology in the Renaissance: South India through European Eyes, 1250–1625

Joan-Pau Rubiés
Cambridge University Press
ISBN: 0521770556; 400 pp., 2000

Daud Ali

I am grateful to Dr Daud Ali for his carefully considered and largely complimentary review, and in particular for having engaged with this long and complex book at its various levels. His willingness to address the deeper issues behind the specific scholarship and to see the different kinds of arguments involved is rarer than one would wish and highly commendable. I have little to reply to Dr Ali's insightful summary of the book's arguments. However, in a more critical spirit, he also raises a couple of important issues - well chosen, in my opinion - which I shall seek to reply to, or at least clarify.

The first concerns my approach to non-European sources in order to reach a comparative perspective and to assess European attitudes from a 'native point of view', to the extent that this is possible with existing sources, many of which have been translated into European languages. I would have liked to do more in this respect, and in particular to have included a more extended analysis of 'Abd al-Razzaq's account of his journey to Vijayanagara, but this could not be done due to the book's considerable length (it will now be published separately). Although appreciative of my use of these non-European sources, Dr Ali considers my comparisons unfortunate, since they recall stereotypes about 'western superiority' and do little to illuminate indigenous knowledge systems. It was not my concern here to engage in an extended reconstruction of the indigenous cultural system, something which is, in reality, beyond my field of competence, but rather to contextualize European descriptions critically and to assess, at those points where comparisons are relevant and possible, how different sources might be seen to be analogous in some ways, and different in others. For me to conclude that the European cultural system generated accounts of other societies which gave a more systematic attention to the historically particular, over a wider range of ethnographic topics, is only to be fair to the evidence at hand. Similarly, it would have been impossible to ignore that the ideological bias against other powers (Hindu and Christian) expressed in a number of Muslim chronicles often led to stereotypes even cruder than those ordinarily present in equivalent European sources. However, it is quite clear (and Dr Ali recognises this in his own discussion of my other arguments) that this in no way seeks to exonerate western accounts from their own biases and limitations, nor to reach a generalised negative judgement of Hindu and Muslim cultural systems. What, from one perspective, can be defined as a limitation, can also, from another, be seen as a strength, and in order to reach a full understanding of the indigenous knowledge systems one would need to address the issue of oral culture. This is something important, which I do not claim to have attempted, and which obviously raises serious methodological problems, given the lack of direct sources. The scope of my conclusions, I do agree, is therefore limited to the study of literary sources of a certain kind, although contextualized with reference to social and political realities and wider cultural traditions. I am confident that within this limited scope, the conclusions are reasonably well supported, although I am also sure that there is room for much more to be done by those specialised in the study of the primary sources of Deccani Muslim and Southern Hindu cultures.

The second point which Dr Daud Ali raises is logically related to this one. At the same time that my interpretations seem too sweeping in emphasising the 'orientalism of the Orient', I fail to take a sufficiently critical attitude towards the assumptions behind the rising European discourses of empiricism, historicism, humanism and 'enlightenment'. If I have treated European travel writing and historiography of colonial encounters, and oriental travel writing and historical sources, as language-games, why not distance myself from the 'boundaries, coercions and rules of play' behind the emerging European discourses too? Dr Ali is right in saying that I could have taken a more 'Foucaultian' line towards European culture, or engaged more openly against it, but it would be incorrect to conclude that I treat empiricism and historicism as lacking the hidden rules and assumptions, and thus the cultural relativity, of other language-games. What I do believe, however, is that the fact of human cultural diversity is more than a mere a priori assumption coherent with a particular language-game: it is also one which lies behind the practice of modern critical historiography. In other words, we are the inheritors of the empirical and historical assumptions of these emerging early modern European language-games, the ones which have established the 'fact' of human cultural diversity as a central concern. Furthermore, I believe that, on the whole, this is a good thing. What better alternative do we have? Not certainly a language-game which sought to ignore or obliterate all cultural differences, instead of seeking to analyse them! And, what else should I be doing when writing this book, and Dr Daud Ali when reviewing it, other than relying on empirical methods, historical perspectives and critical enquiry? In any case, I also make it clear in my study that the fundamental principles behind the European discourses of empirical observation are not exclusive to the West, but also exist, at the basic level of the common use of descriptive language, for example, within virtually all other non-European cultural traditions that I have considered. I also insist that the possibility of cultural translation is, as far as I can see, a universal human quality, and that no cultural tradition functions as a totally closed, even less static, system.

Although I have here sought to defend my assumptions and conclusions, I do not wish to end without recognising that Dr Daud Ali's criticisms are pertinent to the issues addressed by the book and that the questions he has raised so perceptively could certainly generate further debate and reflection. They do touch, after all, on the point of whether western values and traditions are necessarily the best basis for a universal system of knowledge, to the extent that this is possible, or desirable. A critical engagement with the sources of western attitudes to other societies, and a better understanding of their contribution to the Enlightenment, all assessed by comparison to those other cultural traditions Europeans engaged with, and sometimes against, will, I trust, remain central to the continuing debate.

Daud Ali's Review

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