Glimpse of Arabs’ Identity and Worldview Through their representation of Tibet and China
Arab seafarers mastered the sea route to China, sailing from ports in the Persian Gulf and passing through the Strait of Malacca before reaching Canton (Goldstein, Israel & Conroy, 1991). Studies on historical relations between China and Tibet on one hand, and the Islamic world on the other are innumerable (Akasoy, Burnett & Yoeli-Tlalim, 2011). Adrian Hsia protests “There is not yet a single book examining the image or vision of China in English literature, although monographs on the reception of China in French and German literatures have been in existence ever since the beginning of this century” (Hsia, 1998, p. vi). This is equally true for the Arabs’ image and representation of China and Tibet. This essay is a preliminary attempt on an investigation of one dimension of the Arabic culture interaction as distinctive domain and Tibet and China as an imaginary realm depicted the formation of the Arabs’ worldview and identity. This paper focuses on the nature of the Arabic imagery in the context of the initial image found of Tibet, and the function of such depiction in shaping the beholder’s identities, by providing three samples as an introductory to the subject of study, in view of the close and intricate connection between such images in literary and expository prose.
Contextualizing an Arabic image of Tibet and China
Al-Qazwini (1203-1283 AD), the geographer and historian wrote about the Fareast, “a vast country in the orient, its geographic breadth larger than its length. They say: [it has] about three hundred cities through the distance of a month, and abundant [amount] of water, many trees and plentiful of goods and fruits. It is one of God’s finest and most magnificent lands. Its inhabitants have the most beautiful appearance and they are the most skilled people in complex industries. But their heights are short, and their heads are giant. Their dresses are made of silk, and their jewels are made of rhino and elephant bones. Their religion is based on idol worshiping, and among them Manichaeism and Zoroastrianism exist. They believe in reincarnation, and they have temples for worshiping” (translated by the author of this paper from Arabic, Brauer, 1995, p. 53).
This analysis takes its departure from an awareness of the Arabs historiography and its association with the formation of their imageries, and its close connection to their worldview of the ‘others’, how do they saw and related to what is not them, and identity. There are competing holds on the origin of Tibet and China’s images in the Arab’s imagery. Is it rooted in the pre-Islamic era, or is it a result of the advent of Islam to the eastern borders of Tibet and China during the Abbasid period, are essential questions, not merely related to historicism, but on the ethnic/religious factors that molded such images (Alon, Gruenwald & Singer, 1994). The extrapolation of the Arab’s...