A cross-cultural understanding
Prof. Abdullah Alaskar
King Saud University
King Abdulaziz Foundation for Research and Archives
17-27 July 2008
In June 2005 the University of Berlin held a symposium on German travelers to Arabia and I talked about the Dutch traveler, Johann Wild ( 1604 -1611 AD). Some attendees in this scholarly audience were astonished by my selection of Wild and by my argument that Wild is not only a good representative of his time for us to study as a successful example in cross-cultural dialogue but more importantly, a role model for contemporary practitioners also. This surprise was due to the fact that he is not widely written about in German literature. Also Johann Wild’s book about Arabia, is not widely known in German academia. So because he is little known, he is not considered a good example for a cultural dialogue between Arabs and Germans. I continue to disagree with this dismissive argument against Wild and would urge scholars and students not to overlook him and his work, to dust his work and place it on shelves with the well-known as he rightly deserves.
Today, in keeping with the trend of discovering the unknown but great discoverers that I started for myself at the University of Berlin, I will plunge ahead and argue, once again for an intelligent, highly inquisitive, educated theologian, a scientist and adventurer, a seer and revealer who is little known outside a select academic few but who should be and rightly brought to the fore. Alios Musil, “the Czech Lawrence of Arabia”, was an explorer, an Arabist who was fluent in 32 dialects of Arabic, a university professor, whose works were published by the National Geographic Society and whose geographic studies were used 80 years later to officially draw the Egyptian Taba - Israeli border.
His discoveries caused a tidal change for contemporary art historians and Western Islamic scholars who believed, until his photographs proved otherwise, that Islam totally prohibited the visual depiction of humans and animals outside geometric abstraction. These are only a few of his great substantive accomplishments but of equal importance, if not greater illumination for contemporary international leaders, is his interpersonal relationship-building expertise, his people-to-people skills, his come-in-friendship procedures, his ability to listen without judgment in order to learn and truly help where and when needed, his ability to blend in seamlessly with the people but be a leader through their choosing, that is so lacking in today’s bellicose global relations and failed nation-building exercises.
Alois Musil should be given greater prominence by scholars and actively used as a good example for an Arabian and Czech cultural dialogue, indeed as a role model for positive dialogue between nations. Let me stop here and let Alois for himself as to the lesson he would impart to us all for this is what he wrote to be placed, and is carved, on his gravestone:
He searched for truth in the vast desert of Arabia
He looked for it in the libraries and museums
He explained it in numerous books
He instilled it into the hearts of listeners
And he is at peace here
Trusting in the Mercy of the Only Truth
This, I submit, is missing today from our international diplomatic and theological relations; indeed if we employed Alois Musil’s standards and principles we would not have a Global War on Terrorism, we would have solved the Middle East crises long ago, we would not have an international religious black and white view of Good versus Evil imposed on Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Alois Musil was a devout, daily practicing Roman Catholic priest yet he was welcomed, sheltered, made a member of and became a leader of two devoutly religious Muslim Bedouin tribes. Why? Because he sought truth in his interpersonal relationships and discoveries and not conversion. Those around him did not have to be replicas of himself and society before he could see, recognize, talk and be at ease with them. He wanted what was good for them – self-determination and modernization – first and foremost, if not exclusively. What was good for him would flow from that. Consider this poem by Al Rawaily Prince Nuri ibn Hazza ibn Sha’lan honoring Sheikh Musa as Alois Musil was known to the tribes:
O thou who ridest a bay she-camel not yet five years old!
A thoroughbred, fleet of foot, of the Shararat female riding camels,
Mounting her is a hero who fears not vast deserts
Who is to carry word to countries far distant.
For these and many other reasons that time and space do not permit to be discussed here, Alois Musil should be a permanent, prominent figure as one role model for positive dialogue between nations. We should seek to understand and employ his heritage, his strengths and weaknesses that shaped his views, behavior and achievements, to enhance the current, mutual, intellectual cross-cultural dialogue between Saudi Arabia and Republic of Czech, among nations and in the religious discourse of the three Abrahamic religions for global peace and prosperity to benefit all but most especially the poor, illiterate and most vulnerable in the world. Alois Musil started his career poor and thirsty for knowledge and left his career having built a dam of and for a large body of knowledge for future students thirsty for knowledge: in 1929 he and others founded the Oriental Institute at the Academy of Sciences in Prague with the mission to foster commercial and cultural links between the Middle East and Czechoslovakia.
In this regard I have written a chapter about Musil in the book published by King Abdulaziz Public Library in 1996. The title of the book is “ The Rare Books on Saudi Arabian and Arabian Peninsula” I concentrated on him and his activities as a spy starting in Damascus late 1914 A.D. for the government of Austro-Hungarian monarchy. Although Musil was in the region working for the interests of the Turks and Germans, he in truth had an independent, ulterior agenda to unite the big tribes for self-rule that favored Austria. His much more famous, contemporary, opponent was, of course, T.E. Lawrence, who was working for the British government and promising self-determination.
Unfortunately the two never met to collaborate; but the interesting thing to discover for a “lesson learnt” is why T.E. Lawrence is a household name as “Lawrence of Arabia” – forever to be remembered in Hollywood films, if nothing else, while Sheikh Musa, the “Czech Lawrence of Arabia”, is virtually unknown despite being a great scholar, one of the most knowledgeable anthropologists of the twentieth century, widely published, and an exceptional cartographer whose map demarking the boundary between Egypt and Palestine would be the reference for Egypt and Israel regarding Taba. His books on Arabia in this regard are considered as primary sources on Arabian studies in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
A Foot in Two Worlds but Bridging the Divide:
Alois Musil was born on June 20, 1868, in Rychtářov and was buried there upon his death on March 12, 1944. He first arrived in the Middle East in 1885 and his last arrival was in 1914. In the West his name was Alois Musil but in the Arab Middle East he was named Mosa ibn Namsa, Mosa Alrawaily or Sheikh Musa. The first Arab name refers to his country, the second refers to the tribe with whom he stayed in Northern Arabia and who in Western terms “adopted” him as their own brother and co-leader, and the third shows his honorific standing within the tribe. It is interesting to note that “Mosa” is Arabic for Moses and indeed much analogy could be found in the travels of Musil and the deliverance of his people in knowledge of Islam and Arab culture. Yet Alois Musil was not only unique in becoming a co-leader and integrated member of the Al-Rawala tribe but also was accepted into the Beni Sakhr tribe and joined its leader Prince Talal. The unique, amazing thing about Musil being accepted by both these tribes is that they were at war with each other so this accomplishment is a testimony to Musil’s ability and diplomacy in winning tribal trust to sate his ever growing curiosity.
In the West he was born into a poor, indebted farming family facing beggary for income but in the Arab Middle East he gained the trust and rose to leadership in Bedouin tribes and was served commensurately not only by the tribes but the larger society, including the international community, there also. His first trip to the Middle East began 15 years before the end of the Nineteen Century as a student-priest to study the roots of the great monotheistic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, and his last trip to the Middle East began 14 years after the beginning of the Twentieth Century during the First World War as a spy. In 1906 the British Foreign Minister requested him to draw the border between Egypt and Palestine, which he did, but a few years later as Imperial Counselor he was ordered to unite the Bedouin tribes against the British. At the time he was born there was no sovereign Czechoslovakia to which his village belonged although his mother tongue was Czech but after World War 1 the Czech Lands became a sovereign nation and he died a Czech in Czechoslovakia. While he was and remained loyal to the Habsburgs who had been his patrons and facilitators of much to his career and legacy, he became a naturalized Czech. Musil never seems to have lost or confused his identity or purpose throughout all these inherent opposites.
While presented with seemingly either-or choices his developed natural talents and acquired skills allowed him to bridge all these seemingly polar opposites, span the limitations, to have the best of both to get what he wanted and then share those fruits not only with his contemporaries but with future generations also. Despite his very poor health, he suffered from kidney and lung disease, he was very active, endured enormous physical hardships, produced copious work and lived until the ripe old age of 76. There are many more dichotomies in Alois Musil’s richly experienced life that unfortunately time and space preclude discussion here and now but all of which, I would argue, helped and shaped him to be the great, prolific intellectual scholar whose work and prophetic visions are of immediate relevance today and into our futures.
As mentioned above Musil was born into a poor family, the eldest of five children, at a time when education was costly and a personal expense. The way to an education lay through the Catholic Church and so he entered the Theological Faculty at near-by Olomouc. His natural abilities, unflagging perseverance and keen interest in the concept and roots of the Abrahamic religions brought him attention. By the time he finished the seminary, he was a master of the Old Testament and Hebrew. He was ordained a priest in 1895.
Musil wanted to explore the places and people in the region where Judaism, Christianity and Islam arose. He was able to convince the Archbishop of Olomouc, Theodor Kohn, to partially finance his trip to Jerusalem where he studied from 1985 to 1897 at the French Dominican Ecole Biblique. Then in early 1897 Musil moved to the Jesuit Saint Joseph University in Beirut. During these two years Musil intensively explored Egypt, Sinai and Gaza first for religious sites organized by his schools but then on his own he went much further a field seeking other historically important sites. Increasingly the life of the Bedouin tribes attracted him and his curiosity at this time became so strongly aroused that it shaped his career, his life and transformed him into a renowned expert, a term that used to be honorific and not horrific as today.
Alois Musil was an enlightened man in that he was an expert in the fields of the arts and sciences. His discovery of the depiction of human and animal life in Qasr Amra changed completely Western art historians understanding of Islamic art. His extraordinary powers of observation and understanding of life around him led him to record with accuracy tribal customs, values, traditions and practices. His desire to learn and communicate that both fed and increased his curiosity resulted in his acquiring modern and classical languages as well as 35 dialects of Arabic. His adherence to scientific procedure ensured proof supported his conclusions, thereby to the best of his ability his work, that is his findings and conclusions, was truthful or an accurate gauge for others to rely. Musil’s talents, skills and knowledge made him a reliable cartographer. As mentioned previously, in 1906 he was employed by the British government to map the Egyptian, Sinai and Gaza areas and in 1911, he surveyed the Hijaz Railway for the ruling Ottomans. Musil was employed by the Austrian and Ottoman governments to carry out other geographical, geological and topographical projects.
Musil was a prolific, published writer. The American Geographic Society published 5 volumes on his Arabian journeys. He wrote 11 books, 15 popular accounts, around 1,200 articles on politics, history and agriculture and a survey of Christian Churches in the Middle East.
From 1902 Musil was also a university professor. He started at the theology university in Olomouc, then moved to the Vienna University and finally moved to Charles University, Prague in 1920, where he helped found the Oriental Institute of Academy of Sciences. Musil retired from Charles University in 1938 and died in 1944 before the end of the Second World War.
Of particular interest to bilateral relations between the Saudi Arabia and Czechoslovakia today is that Musil convinced the Austrian government to offer scholarships for Arabs students to study at the Austrian universities arguing it would stimulate economic growth. The truth of his vision is evident today. I am happy to say that Alois Musil is becoming much more known because his works are being translated in Arabic. Yet much still needs to be translated.
Of specific interest to me is Musil’s account of the Kingdom’s modern founder, the late King Abdulaziz. He viewed King Abdulaziz as a leader in his own class, second to none. Based upon his acute understanding of the tribes he accurately predicted that king Abdulaziz would have to battle against some of his Bedouin warriors over his desire to build modernized programs throughout Arabia. The battle of Sbellah is one of several that took place between King Abdulaziz’s army and his opponents.
Instead of the usual conclusion academics write, I would like to leave you with a thought that I hope inspires you to further the application of Alois Musil’s work, his principles and procedures; his values and ethics; his objectivity and subjectivity; but most of all his quest for and application of Truth to today’s international situation. We are in a global war that has many theaters. It is an intentional war that was not and is not necessary.
My premise stated earlier is that Alois Musil, as we know him from what he left us, is as relevant today as he was in his life time. I believe that if we use his intellectual curiosity and his people skills we would be on the diplomatic, commercial, financial and security track for global peace, prosperity, cooperation and understanding.
My conviction rests on one strong foundation that guided Musil and that is seeking truth. Today the media and universities do not necessarily seek, convey or even train others to seek and speak the truth. Instead we are subjected to propaganda based on wrongful stereotyping and intentional misinformation. True analysis has been and is being replaced with persuasive argument; freedom of thought and expression has been and is being replaced with conformity of popular utterances.
Let us learn from Alois Musil and put his advice he wrote to us on his tombstone to work: let us seek truth in real life and in historical facts, let us learn true analysis, let us speak truth and then let us build bilateral and multilateral relationships on that truth. Building upon this conference with more seminars and shared research is one way to do this.