As armchair travelers go, history Professor Janet Sorrentino is more niche than most. For her, no Lonely Planet guide holds a candle to Ahmad bin Qasim, an ambassador from the Moroccan region who, in the early 17th century, journeyed to the courts of France and Holland trying to recoup properties owned by Moriscos who’d been unceremoniously booted out by Philip III in his effort to unify Catholic Spain. Qasim’s intellect and occasional Letterman-esque amused superiority offer sharp observations of people and customs—candy to a self-proclaimed “history geek” like Sorrentino. But it is his theological depth that makes him such an intriguing travel companion for Sorrentino, who recently earned a prestigious Dumbarton Oaks fellowship to pursue her studies of what men like Qasim had to say about worship and places of ritual in their time.
“Travel writing was something that was very much a part of scholarship and a shared literary culture, and also a spiritual pursuit” of Muslims of the late medieval and early modern period, Sorrentino says. “The Qu’ran bids the believer to seek knowledge ‘even as far as China.’ The idea is that seeking knowledge through travel is a good and pious thing to do.” Often these men, who were usually of high standing—a qadi, cleric, or vizier, for instance—would travel for professional reasons, but the journals they kept also reflect this deeper spiritual purpose, an intention to observe and consider all aspects of the world. “They see that very much as a part of their calling as children of God,” Sorrentino says. “So they’re coming at their job from that point of view, and I just find them endlessly fascinating.”
Sorrentino herself seems capable of boundless themes. Her background includes a nursing degree, and her teaching and lecturing often combine her medical knowledge with her expertise in religion and world history, from the Ancient world through the Reformation. The month-long Dumbarton Oaks fellowship, though, is specific to the work she is doing during her current sabbatical, studying and documenting what Muslim travel writers like Qasim, Ibn Battuta, or Abd al-Wahad al-Ghassani observed in terms of religious ritual and places. Dumbarton’s archive of Byzantine and Mediterranean materials will help provide primary research; so will a subsequent trip to Turkey and Spain. In mid-March Sorrentino will present an early reading of her work at the Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies’ Mediterranean Programme in Mersin, Turkey.
“My original background was working in medieval monastic Latin liturgy. But there’s a way of approaching worship that crosses borders, some basic methods that are transferrable between prophetic religions,” she says. Scholar-travelers like Qasim recorded discussions with believers from diverse faiths and theological backgrounds, a kind of open-minded intellectual and spiritual investigation—all done as part of their belief that knowledge is one of the privileges that God has given to humanity—a belief that Sorrentino feels can inform today’s frequently polarized religious climate.
She plans to spend some of her time in Turkey and Spain visiting religious sites noted in several of her medieval Muslim scholars’ travelogues, walking with them, seeing the places through their eyes and her own. And those that she can’t see for herself, she’ll continue to explore through their timeless words. “I won’t get to do all of what they have done,” she says, “and so I can live vicariously through all the places they go.”