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A sixteenth-century Muslim between worlds

By Irfan Yusuf - posted Tuesday, 15 May 2007

In a world of clichés, history is always written by (or at least for) the victorious. But how does one write the history of a time when no clear victor exists, when each side finds multiple internal enemies equally as dangerous as (if not more than) their direct opponent?

The Mediterranean world of the 16th century was one such era. The Catholic Church, still smarting from the loss of Jerusalem four centuries earlier, was in a triumphant mood after removing the last vestige of Muslim rule (and, with it, a glorious civilisation jointly built by Jews and Muslims) from the Iberian peninsula in 1492.

Yet the Catholic conquest of the Muslim kingdom of Granada represented little more than modest Christian compensation for perhaps the bigger disaster, the fall of Constantinople, perhaps Christendom's greatest city, to the Ottoman Turks 39 years earlier.


For each side, one step forward against the other also involved numerous steps back, usually caused more by infighting. In the case of Rome, a rebellious German monk named Martin Luther was poised to lead a theological revolt that would usher in the reformation and centuries of sectarian bloodshed.

Meanwhile, the Sunni Ottoman empire had locked horns with the Shia Persian empire. The Ottomans also had trouble controlling their frontier lands or seizing other Muslim territory in the African continent.

In her latest book, Princeton University history professor Natalie Zemon Davis takes us on a journey into this confused and confusing era, exploring the life of one man who experienced the Catholic and Muslim worlds of his time. The subject of her study is an elusive figure known as al-Hassan bin Muhammad al-Wazzan to Muslims and various names (John Leo, Leo Africanus, Giovanni Leone and Yuhanna Asad) in Italy.

Wazzan was born in Granada during the last days of this Spanish Muslim state. Like many aristocratic Granadan Muslims (and Jews) his family was forced to seek asylum in Fez. Wazzan studied fiqh (classical Islamic sacred law and jurisprudence), then a prerequisite for the ambitious seeking a senior role in the public service of a Muslim ruler. He was fluent in Arabic and Berber and knew a smattering of Spanish and Hebrew.

Wazzan was appointed as roaming ambassador to the sultan of Fez in Morocco, travelling widely across North Africa, the Middle East and Anatolia. He claimed to have travelled to sub-Saharan Africa, including the famous African centre of Islamic scholarship Timbuktu. After extensive comparison of Wazzan's account to other contemporary and later accounts of these regions, Davis concludes Wazzan may have embellished his travel account somewhat.

Much of Davis's book consists of speculations on Wazzan's life, the people he met and those he influenced and was influenced by, all gleaned from a careful reading of his writings and commentary as well as external sources. Lay readers will find it almost impossible to reject Davis's conclusions, such is the breadth of her research (more than 100 pages of notes and 30 pages of works references).


By 1518, Wazzan was in his early 30s and had travelled across much of the Muslim world when his life took a change of direction. He was aboard a ship travelling from Cairo to Morocco when it was seized by pirates led by the brother of a Spanish bishop serving in Rome. The pirates' leader recognised Wazzan's worth and decided to present the diplomat and scholar to the Pope in return for forgiveness of accumulated sins.

Davis introduces her work by noting that Wazzan's arrival in Rome was regarded by chroniclers of the time as less significant than the arrival four years earlier of a white elephant from India, a gift to the Pope from King Manuel I of Portugal. Wazzan soon realised his importance could be recognised if he agreed to go through a baptism ceremony. Davis believes (I think rightly) that Wazzan's conversion, which took place 15 months after his arrival in Rome, was an act of taqiyya, a sacred pretence of leaving Islam to avoid persecution.

That single act of religious deception enabled Wazzan the freedom to continue his scholarly pursuits and work with other (usually non-Catholic) scholars.

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First published in The Australian on May 5, 2007. Trickster Travels: In Search of Leo Africanus, a Sixteenth-Century Muslim Between Worlds By Natalie Zemon Davis, Faber & Faber, $59.95.

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About the Author

Irfan Yusuf is a New South Wales-based lawyer with a practice focusing on workplace relations and commercial dispute resolution. Irfan is also a regular media commentator on a variety of social, political, human rights, media and cultural issues. Irfan Yusuf's book, Once Were Radicals: My Years As A Teenage Islamo-Fascist, was published in May 2009 by Allen & Unwin.

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