Chapter 9

“The Seas of Milk and Butter”

The Indian Ocean Rim

January 19: Nur ad-Din Abd ar-Rahman Jami dies
at Herat.

Conventional historiography suffers from too much hot air and not enough wind. For the whole of the age of sail—that is, almost the whole of the recorded past—winds and currents set the limits of what was possible in long-range communications and cultural exchange. Most would-be explorers have preferred to sail into the wind, presumably because, whether or not they made any discoveries, they wanted to get home. Phoenicians and Greeks, for instance—dwellers at the eastern end of the Mediterranean—explored the length of that sea, working against the prevailing wind. In the Pacific, Polynesians colonized the archipelagoes of the South Seas, from Fiji to Easter Island, by the same method.

Generally, however, fixed wind systems inhibit exploration. Where winds are constant, there is no incentive to try to exploit them as causeways to new worlds. Either they blow into one’s face, in which case seafarers will never get far under sail, or they sing at one’s back—in which case they will prevent venturers from ever returning home. Monsoon systems, by contrast, where prevailing winds are seasonal, encourage long-range seafaring and speculative voyages, because navigators know that the wind, wherever it bears them, will eventually turn and take them home.


The world map of the Nuremberg Chronicle illustrates the suspicion, derived from Ptolemy, that the Indian Ocean was landlocked.
Nuremberg Chronicle.

It depresses me to think of my own ancestors, in my family’s homeland in northwestern Spain, staring out unenterprisingly at the Atlantic for hundreds, perhaps thousands of years, and never troubling to go far out to sea—dabbling, at most, in fishery and coastal cabotage. But the winds pinioned them, like butterflies in a collector’s case. They could scarcely have imagined what it feels like, sensing the wind, year in, year out, alternately in one’s face and at one’s back. That is what happens on the shores of maritime Asia, where the monsoon dominates the environment. Above the equator, northeasterlies prevail in winter. When winter ends, the direction of the winds is reversed. For most of the rest of the year they blow steadily from the south and west, sucked in toward the Asian landmass as air warms and rises over the continent.

By timing voyages to take advantage of the predictable changes in the direction of the wind, navigators could set sail, confident of a fair wind out and a fair wind home. In the Indian Ocean, moreover, compared with other navigable seas, the reliability of the monsoon season offered the advantage of a speedy passage in both directions. To judge from such ancient and medieval records as survive, a trans-Mediterranean journey from east to west, against the wind, would take fifty to seventy days. With the monsoon, a ship could cross the entire Indian Ocean, between Palembang in Sumatra and the Persian Gulf, in less time. Three to four weeks in either direction sufficed to get between India and a Persian Gulf port.

In 1417 a Persian ambassador heading for India did it in even less time. Abd er-Razzaq was bound for the southern Indian realm of Vijayanagar. There were too many hostile states in the way for him to go by land. His ship sailed late, in the terrifying, tempestuous spell of weather toward the end of summer, when the caustic heat of the Asian interior drags the ocean air inward with ferocious urgency. The merchants who were to have accompanied the ambassador abandoned the voyage, crying “with one voice that the time for navigation was past, and that everyone who put to sea at this season was alone responsible for his death.” Fright and seasickness incapacitated Abd er-Razzaq for three days. “My heart was crushed like glass,” he complained, “and my soul became weary of life.” But his sufferings were rewarded. His ship reached Calicut, the famed pepper emporium on the Malabar coast, after only eighteen days’ sailing from Ormuz.1

The Indian Ocean has many hazards. Storms rend it, especially in the Arabian Sea, the Bay of Bengal, and the deadly belt of habitually bad weather that stretches across the ocean below about ten degrees south. The ancient tales of Sinbad are full of shipwrecks. But the predictability of a homebound wind made this the world’s most benign environment for long-range voyaging for centuries—perhaps millennia—before the continuous history of Atlantic or Pacific crossings began. The monsoon liberated navigators in the Indian Ocean and made maritime Asia the home of the world’s richest economies and most spectacular states. That is what attracted Europeans—Asia’s poor neighbors—eastward, and why Columbus and so many of his predecessors, contemporaries, and successors sought a navigable route to what they called the Indies.

In the fifteenth century, the biggest single source of influence for change in the region was the growing global demand for, and therefore supply of, spices and aromatics—especially pepper. No one has ever satisfactorily explained the reasons for this increase. China dominated the market and accounted for well over half the global consumption, but Europe, Persia, and the Ottoman world were all absorbing ever greater amounts. Population growth contributed—but the increase in demand for spices seems greatly to have exceeded it. As we saw in chapter 1, the idea that cooks used spices to mask the flavor of bad meat is nonsense. Produce was far fresher in the medieval world, on average, than in modern urbanized and industrialized societies, and reliable preserving methods were available for what was not consumed fresh. Changing taste has been alleged, but there is no evidence of that: it was the abiding taste for powerful flavors—a taste now being revived as Mexican, Indian, and Szechuan cuisines go global—that made spices desirable. The spice boom was part of an ill-understood upturn in economic conditions across Eurasia. In China, especially, increased prosperity made expensive condiments more widely accessible as the turbulence that brought the Ming to power subsided and the empire settled down to a long period of relative peace and internal stability.

In partial consequence, spice production expanded into new areas. Pepper, traditionally produced on India’s Malabar coast, and cinnamon, once largely confined to Sri Lanka, spread around Southeast Asia. Pepper became a major product of Malaya and Sumatra in the fifteenth century. Camphor, sappanwood and sandalwood, benzoin and cloves all overspilled their traditional places of supply. Nonetheless, enough local specialization remained within the region to ensure huge profits for traders and shippers; and the main markets outside Southeast Asia continued to grow.

For that brief spell early in the fifteenth century, in the reign of the Yongle emperor, when Chinese navies patrolled the Indian ocean, it looked as if China might try to control trade and even production in spices by force. The emperor exhibited an impressive appetite for conquest. Perhaps because he was a usurper with a lot to prove, he was willing to pay almost any price for glory. From the time he seized the throne in 1402 until his death twenty-two years later, he waged almost incessant war on China’s borders, especially on the Mongol and Annamese fronts. He scattered at least seventy-two missions to every accessible land beyond China’s borders. He sent silver to the shogun in Japan (who already had plenty of silver), and statues of Buddha and gifts of gems and silks to Tibet and Nepal. He exchanged ill-tempered embassies with Muslim potentates in central Asia. He invested kings in Korea, Melaka, Borneo, Sulu, Sumatra, and Ceylon. These far-flung contacts probably cost more in gifts than they raised in what the Chinese called “tribute”: live okapis from Bengal, white elephants from Cambodia, horses and concubines from Korea, turtles and white monkeys from Siam, paintings from Afghanistan, sulfur and spears and samurai armor from Japan. But they were magnificent occasions of display, which gave Yongle prestige in his own court and perhaps some sense of security.2

The grandest and most expensive of the missions went by sea. Between 1405 and 1433 seven formidable flag-waving expeditions ranged the Indian Ocean under Admiral Zheng He. As we have seen, the scale of his efforts was massive, but their cultural consequences were, in many ways, more pervasive than their political impact. The voyages lasted, on average, two years each. They visited at least thirty-two countries around the rim of the ocean. The first three voyages, between 1405 and 1411, went only as far as the Malabar coast, the principal source of the world’s pepper supply, with excursions along the coasts of Siam, Malaya, Java, Sumatra, and Sri Lanka. On the fourth voyage, from 1413 to 1415, ships visited the Maldives, Ormuz, and Jiddah, and collected envoys from nineteen countries.

Even more than the arrival of the ambassadors, the inclusion of a giraffe among the tribute Zheng He gathered caused a sensation when the fleet returned home. No one in China had ever seen such a creature. Zheng He acquired his in Bengal, where it had arrived as a curiosity for a princely collection as a result of trading links across the Indian Ocean. Chinese courtiers instantly identified the creature as divine in origin. According to an eyewitness, it had “the body of a deer and the tail of an ox and a fleshy boneless horn, with luminous spots like a red or purple mist. It walks in stately fashion and in its every motion it observes a rhythm.” Carried away by confusion with the mythical qilin or unicorn, the same observer declared, “Its harmonious voice sounds like a bell or musical tube.”

The giraffe brought assurances of divine benevolence. Shen Du, an artist who made a living drawing from life, wrote verses to describe the giraffe’s reception at court:

The ministers and the people all gathered to gaze at it and their joy knows no end. I, your servant, have heard that when a sage possesses the virtue of the utmost benevolence, so that he illuminates the darkest places, then a qilin appears. This shows that your Majesty’s virtue equals that of heaven. Its merciful blessings have spread far and wide, so that its harmonious vapours have emanated a ch’ilin, as an endless blessing to the state for myriad years.3

Accompanying the visiting envoys home on a fifth voyage, which lasted from 1416 to 1419, Zheng He collected a prodigious array of exotic beasts for the imperial menagerie: lions, leopards, camels, ostriches, zebras, rhinoceroses, antelopes, and giraffes, as well as a mysterious beast, the Touou-yu. Drawings made this last creature resemble a white tiger with black spots, while written accounts describe a “righteous beast” who would not tread on growing grass, was strictly vegetarian, and appeared “only under a prince of perfect benevolence and sincerity.” There were also many “strange birds.” An inscription recorded: “All of them craned their necks and looked on with pleasure, stamping their feet, scared and startled.” That was a description not of the birds but of the enraptured courtiers. Truly, it seemed to Shen Du, “all the creatures that spell good fortune arrive.” 4 In 1421, a sixth voyage departed with the reconnaissance of the east coast of Africa as its main objective, visiting, among other destinations, Mogadishu, Mombasa, Malindi, Zanzibar, and Kilwa. After an interval, probably caused by changes in the balance of court factions after the death of the Yongle emperor in 1424, the seventh voyage, from 1431 to 1433, renewed contacts with the Arabian and African states Zheng He had already visited.5

Mutual astonishment was the result of contacts on a previously unimagined scale. In the preface to his own book about the voyages, Ma Huan, an interpreter aboard Zheng He’s fleet, recalled that as a young man, when he had contemplated the seasons, climates, landscapes, and people of distant lands, he had asked himself in great surprise, “How can such dissimilarities exist in the world?” 6 His own travels with the eunuch-admiral convinced him that the reality was even stranger. The arrival of Chinese junks at Middle Eastern ports with cargoes of precious exotica caused a sensation. A chronicler at the Egyptian court described the excitement provoked by news of the arrival of the junks off Aden and of the Chinese fleet’s intention to reach the nearest permitted anchorage to Mecca.

After that, there were no more such voyages. Part, at least, of the context of the decision to abort Zheng He’s missions is clear. The examination system and the gradual discontinuation of other forms of recruitment for public service had serious implications. Scholars and gentlemen reestablished their monopoly of government, with their indifference toward expansion and their contempt for trade. In the 1420s and 1430s the balance of power at court shifted in the bureaucrats’ favor, away from the Buddhists, eunuchs, Muslims, and merchants who had supported Zheng He. When the Hongxi emperor ascended the throne in 1424, one of his first acts was to cancel Zheng He’s next voyage. He restored Confucian officeholders, whom his predecessor had dismissed, and curtailed the power of other factions. In 1429 the shipbuilding budget was cut almost to extinction. China’s land frontiers were becoming insecure as Mongol power revived. China needed to turn away from the sea and toward the new threat.7

The consequences for the history of the world were profound. Chinese overseas expansion was confined to unofficial migration and, in large part, to clandestine trade, with little or no imperial encouragement or protection. This did not stifle Chinese colonization or commerce. On the contrary, China remained the world’s most dynamic trading economy and the world’s most prolific source of overseas settlers. Officially, “not a plank floated” overseas from China. In practice, prohibitions had only a modest effect. From the fifteenth century onward, Chinese colonists in Southeast Asia made vital contributions to the economies of every place they settled; their remittances home played a big part in the enrichment of China. The tonnage of shipping frequenting Chinese ports in the same period probably equaled or exceeded that of the rest of the world put together. But, except in respect of islands close to China, the state’s hostility to maritime expansion never abated for as long as the empire lasted. China never built up the sort of wide-ranging global empire that Atlantic seaboard nations acquired. An observer of the world in the fifteenth century would surely have forecast that the Chinese would precede all other peoples in the discovery of world-girdling, transoceanic routes and the inauguration of far-flung seaborne imperialism. Yet nothing of the sort materialized, and the field remained open for the far less promising explorers of Europe to open up the ways around the world.

Of course, the destiny of the world was not determined by a single decision made in China. China’s renunciation of maritime imperialism belongs in a vast context of influences that help to explain the long-term advantages of Atlantic-side European peoples in the global “space race.” These influences can be classified as partly environmental and partly economic. The limits of Zheng He’s navigations are a clue to the environmental influences beyond the reach of the monsoons. The Indian Ocean is hard to get out of. Even ships that safely make it through the belt of storms, bound toward the Atlantic around southern Africa, must negotiate lee shores in the region of what is now KwaZulu-Natal, which, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, became a notorious graveyard for ships that ventured there. This was probably the location of the place called Ha-pu-erh on the maps generated by the Zheng He voyages, beyond which, according to the annotations, the ships did not proceed, owing to the ferocity of the storms. On its eastern flank, maritime Asia is hemmed by the typhoon-racked seas of Japan and the vastness of the Pacific.

To undertake voyages into such hostile seas, Indian Ocean navigators would need a big incentive. The Indian Ocean was an arena of such intense commercial activity, and so much wealth, that it would have been pointless for indigenous peoples to look for markets or suppliers elsewhere. When merchants from northern or central Asia or Europe or the African interior reached the ocean, they came as supplicants, generally despised for their poverty, and found it hard to sell the products of their homelands.

Chinese disengagement from the wider world was not the result of any deficiency of technology or curiosity. It would have been perfectly possible for Chinese ships to visit Europe or the Americas, had they so wished. Indeed, Chinese explorers probably did get around the Cape of Good Hope, sailing from east to west, at intervals during the Middle Ages. A Chinese map of the thirteenth century depicts Africa in roughly its true shape. A Venetian mapmaker of the mid–fifteenth century reported a sighting of a Chinese or, perhaps, Javanese junk off the Southwest African coast.8 But there was no point in pursuing such initiatives: they led to regions that produced nothing the Chinese wanted. Although the evidence that Chinese vessels ever crossed the Pacific to America is, at best, equivocal, it is perfectly possible that they did so. Again, however, it would have been folly to pursue such voyages or attempt systematic contacts across the ocean. No people lived there with whom the Chinese could possibly wish to do business.

To a lesser—but still sufficient—extent, the same considerations applied to other maritime peoples of the Indian Ocean and East and Southeast Asia. The Arabs, the Swahili merchant communities, Persians, Indians, Javanese and other island peoples of the region, and the Japanese all had the technology required to explore the world, but plenty of commercial opportunities in their home ocean kept them fully occupied. Indeed, their problem was, if anything, shortage of shipping in relation to the scale of demand for interregional trade. That was why, in the long run, they generally welcomed interlopers from Europe in the sixteenth century, who were truculent, demanding, barbaric, and often violent, but who added to the shipping stock of the ocean and, therefore, contributed to the general increase of wealth. Paradoxically, therefore, poverty favored Europeans, compelled to look elsewhere because of the dearth of economic opportunities at home.

The Indian Ocean was by no means unknown to Europeans. The widespread assumption that Vasco da Gama was the first to penetrate deep inside it when he rounded the Cape of Good Hope in 1498 is a vulgar error. Italian merchants often plied their trade there during the late Middle Ages. Typically, they traveled across the Ottoman and Persian empires, in the rare interstices of war and religious hostility. Or else, even more commonly, they undertook a long and arduous journey upriver along the Nile from Alexandria, and overland by camel caravan from the first or second cataract to the Red Sea coast, where they awaited the turn of the monsoon before shipping for Aden or Socotra. It was inadvisable to attempt to join the Red Sea farther north because of the formidable hazards to navigation.

Most of the Western venturers who worked in the Indian Ocean are known only from stray references in the archives. Merchants rarely wrote up their experiences. But two circumstantial accounts survive from the fifteenth century: the first by Niccolò Conti, who had been as far east as Java, and had returned to Italy by 1444; the second by his fellow Florentine Girolamo di Santo Stefano, who made an equally long trading voyage in the 1490s. Conti knew something of the Near East as a result of working as a merchant in Damascus, and therefore chose to travel overland via Persia to the Gulf, where he took ship for Cambay in the Bay of Bengal. Santo Stefano used the other main route. In company with a business partner, Girolamo Adorno, he traveled up the Nile and joined a caravan bound for the Red Sea. He crossed the ocean from Massawah—a port generally under Ethiopian control at the time.

On his return, Conti sought papal absolution for having abjured Christianity in Cairo in order to save the lives of his wife and children, who traveled with him. In Rome, he was able to enhance geographers’ knowledge of the East, adding glosses, derived from experience, to the available traditions, which derived in part from the sometimes obscure texts transmitted from classical antiquity, and sometimes from the dubious claims of travelers and pseudo-travelers, like Marco Polo, whom the learned were disinclined to believe. Exchanges of geographical lore had constituted leisure-time conversation for delegates at the Council of Florence in 1439 and had excited much interest in new discoveries: it was an ideal moment to share revelations. Conti told his story to a Florentine humanist, who made a record of it as a morally edifying tale of changing fortunes.

The convention Conti’s work established was of “the inconstancy of fortune.” When Santo Stefano wrote up his experiences of the Indian Ocean in 1499, he, too, focused on lamentations against ill luck and sententious reflections on the “disastrous journey” he endured “for my sins.” Had he eluded his sufferings, he might have retired on the riches that slipped through his hands during his career as a merchant in the Indies and would have avoided the need to throw himself on the mercy of patrons—the obvious subtext of his work. “But who can contend with fortune?” he asked, rhetorically, concluding with “infinite thanks to our Lord God, for that he has preserved me, and shown me great mercy.” 9 He and Adorno got as far east as an emporium in northern Sumatra, where they took ship for Pegu, in Burma, apparently with the idea of engaging in trade in gems. It was painfully slow doing business there. In Sumatra on the way back a local ruler confiscated their cargo, including the valuable rubies they brought from Burma. Adorno died in 1496, “after fifty-five days’ suffering” in Pegu, where “his body was buried in a certain ruined church, frequented by none.” 10


The Indian Ocean with the route of Niccolò Conti.

In the Maldives, in an attempt to head homeward with what little fortune he had salvaged from his adventures, Santo Stefano waited six months for the monsoon to turn. When it did, it unleashed so much rain that his deckless ship sank with the weight of it, “and those who could swim were saved and the rest drowned.” 11 After floating on wreckage from morning to evening, the merchant was rescued by a passing ship. No tale of the ocean would be complete without a shipwreck and a dramatic escape, but if Santo Stefano embellished the truth, he also, like Conti, managed to convey a great deal of representative information about how Westerners perceived the ocean and the lands that lined its rim.

Naturally enough, as they were merchants, both Conti and Santo Stefano inventoried trade goods of all kinds wherever they went, and took special interest in spices and aromatics. Santo Stefano described the drying of green peppercorns at Calicut, the profusion of cinnamon in Sri Lanka, the availability of pepper in Sumatra, the location of sandalwood in Coromandel. Conti’s description of aromatic-oil production from cinnamon berries in Sri Lanka reflects personal observation (whereas some of his purported observations seem rather to have been culled from his reading). He reported camphor and durians (“the taste varies, like that of cheese” 12) in Sumatra. As specialists in gems, both travelers were always interested in where rubies, garnets, jacinths, and crystals “grew.” Both showed some interest in military intelligence. Santo Stefano was interested in elephant breeding for war and confirmed Conti’s claim that ten thousand war elephants were maintained in the stables of the ruler of Pegu.

These were hardheaded observations. But the writers seemed to go soft in the head when they succumbed to the lure of exotica. They crowded their narratives with descriptions of improbable marvels—the travelers’ tidbits that readers at the time called “mirabilia.” No one was expected to believe them, but readers demanded them. Around the Indian Ocean, Conti and Santo Stefano described a topsy-turvy world in which murder is moral, serpents fly, monsters trap fish by lighting irresistible magnetic fires on shore, and miners use vultures and eagles to gather diamonds.13 Some of the tales echo stories in the Sinbad corpus, and should be seen as evidence that the authors really did know the East at first hand.

The taste for sensationalism was most apparent in the travelers’ obsessions with sex. Santo Stefano devoted much space to polygyny and polyandry. He described how Indian men “never marry a virgin” and hand prospective spouses over to strangers for deflowering “for fifteen or twenty days” before the nuptials. Conti was scrupulous in enumerating the harems of great rulers and commending the sangfroid of wives who committed suti, flinging themselves on their dead husbands’ funeral pyres. In India he found brothels so numerous, and so alluring with “sweet perfumes, ointments, blandishments, beauty and youth,” that Indians “are much addicted to licentiousness,” whereas male homosexuality, “being superfluous, is unknown.” 14 In Ava, in Burma, the women mocked Conti for having a small penis and recommended a local custom: inserting up to a dozen gold, silver, or brass pellets, of about the size of small hazelnuts, under the skin, “and with these insertions, and the swelling of the member, the women are affected with the most exquisite pleasure.” Conti refused the service, because “he did not want his pain to be a source of others’ pleasure.” 15

On the whole, the merchants’ reports were of a world of abundance and civility. Beyond the Ganges, according to Conti, in a translation made in the reign of Elizabeth I, people “are equal to us in customs, life, and policie; for they have sumptuous and neat houses, and all their vessels and householde stuffe very cleane: they esteeme to live as noble people, avoided of all villainie and crueltie, being courteous people & riche Merchauntes.” 16 But if there was one thing the civilizations of the East lacked, it was shipping adequate to meet the huge demands of their highly productive economies and active trades. Santo Stefano marveled at the cord-bound ships that carried him along the Red Sea and across the Indian Ocean. He noted the bulkhead construction that divided ships’ hulls into watertight compartments. But while ships were well designed, well built, and ingeniously navigated, there were never enough of them to carry all the available freight.

As a result, in the 1490s the Indian Ocean was trembling on the brink of a new future in which European interlopers would cash in on their advantages. For that future to happen, Europeans needed to penetrate the ocean with ships. Because they lacked salable commodities, they had to find other ways of doing business; shipping and freighting were their best resources. Without ships of their own, visitors such as Conti and Santo Stefano were reduced to little better than peddlers. But the Indian Ocean region was so rich and productive, so taut with demand, and so abundant in supply that it could absorb hugely more shipping than was available at the time. Any European who could get ships into the zone stood to make a fortune.

There was only one way to do it: sail the ships in around the southern tip of Africa. But was such a long and hazardous journey possible? Were the ships of the time equal to its strains? Could they carry enough food and water? In any case, it was not even certain that an approach to the ocean lay along that route. The geographer the age most revered was the second-century Alexandrian Claudius Ptolemy. His Geography, which became the favorite book on the subject in the West when the text became widely available in the early fifteenth century, was generally read to mean that the Indian Ocean was landlocked, inaccessible by sea. Maps of the world made to illustrate his ideas—and there were many of them at the time—showed the ocean as a vast lake, cut off to the south by a long tongue of land protruding from southeastern Africa and curling round to lick at the edges of East Asia. The fabled wealth of India and the spice islands lay enclosed within it, like jewels in a strong room.

Although this was an erroneous view, it was understandable. Indian Ocean merchants kept to the reliable routes, served by predictable monsoons, that guaranteed them two-way passage between most of the trading destinations of maritime Asia and East Africa. There was little reason to venture below about ten degrees south, where the belt of tempests girds the sea, or to risk the coasts south of Mozambique, where the storms tear into lee shores. There were no potential trading partners in the region, no opportunities worth braving those dangers for. From within the monsoonal system, the way in and out of it did seem effectively unnavigable.

For anyone who tried to approach from the Atlantic, by contrast, no such inhibitions applied. In 1487 the Portuguese explorer Bartolomeu Dias managed to struggle around the Cape of Storms. The king of Portugal is supposed to have renamed it the Cape of Good Hope in a promotional exercise of brazen chutzpah. But the hope was weak, the storms strong. Beyond the cape, Dias found an adverse current and dangerous lee shores. The way to the Indian Ocean still seemed to be barred. Nor had Dias really gone far enough to prove that the ocean was not landlocked. All he had achieved was to demonstrate how laborious was the journey to the southernmost tip of Africa: to avoid the adverse current along the West African shore, his successors would have to strike far into the South Atlantic—farther from home, longer at sea, than any voyagers had ever been—to find the westerly winds that would carry them around the cape.

So, while Dias explored the way by sea, the Portuguese crown sent agents overland to the Indian Ocean by traditional routes to gather intelligence and, in particular, to settle the question of whether the ocean was open to the south. Pero da Covilhão led the effort. He was one of the many indigent but talented noblemen to cross and recross the permeable border between Portugal and Castile. He spent years in Seville, where he served in the household of the Castilian nobleman the Count (later Duke) of Medina Sidonia. This was probably a useful apprenticeship. The count was an investor in the conquest of the Canary Islands and a major figure in the Atlantic tuna fishery and sugar industry. But when war broke out between the two kingdoms in 1474, Covilhão returned to his native Portugal to serve his king. Missions of an unknown nature—perhaps espionage, perhaps diplomacy—took him to Maghrebi courts, where he learned Arabic.


The Portuguese embassy to Ethiopia in 1520 found Covilhão at the court of the Negus. The official Ethiopian account stresses “Prester John’s” magnificence.
C. F. Beckingham and G. W. Huntingford, The Prester John of the Indies (Cambridge: The Hakluyt Society, 1961). Courtesy of The Hakluyt Society.

At about the time Bartolomeu Dias left to explore the approach to the Indian Ocean from the Atlantic, Covilhão, with a companion, Afonso de Paiva, set off up the Nile and across the Ethiopian desert to Zeila on the Red Sea. His inquiries took him east to Calicut and south, perhaps as far as Sofala on the coast of Mozambique—the emporium from which East African gold was traded across the Indian Ocean. By the end of 1490 he was back in Cairo, from where he sent a report of his findings home. It has not survived. But it surely summarized knowledge gleaned on the spot: the Indian Ocean was indeed open to the south. Covilhão then turned to a further aspect of mission: establishing diplomatic contact with the court of the ruler of Ethiopia, who retained the Portuguese visitor in his service. Covilhão was still there when the next Portuguese mission got through in 1520.

Policy makers in Portugal thought the Ethiopian ruler was important to their plans to send ships to the Indian Ocean, because they knew that his realm was Christian, and they identified him as “Prester John”—a legendary potentate of supposedly fabulous wealth whom Westerners had sought at intervals for three and a half centuries in the hope of securing an ally against Islam. For between the withdrawal of the Chinese in the 1430s and the arrival of the Europeans in the 1490s, the Indian Ocean was a Muslim lake. Most of the states that lined it were under Muslim rule or dominance and had substantial, usually majoritarian, Muslim populations. Muslim merchants—Arabs, Gujaratis, Persians—carried much of the commerce that crossed the ocean, though Hindu, Jain, and Buddhist merchants were also of great importance. The latest sailing directions, on which pilots relied, were the work of the great Muslim oceanographer Ahmad ibn Majid, who compiled his account of the East African coast from personal surveying expeditions. His reputation grew to the point where sailors from Aden regarded him as a saint and offered him prayers for their safety when they launched their boats.

There were, of course, regions intractable to Islam. In some circles, Islam met a skeptical reception. Kabir of Benares was a poet of secularist inclinations.

Feeling your power, you circumcise—

I can’t go along with that, brother. If your God favoured circumcision

why didn’t you come out cut?

Hindus fared little better in the face of Kabir’s skepticism:

If putting on the thread makes you a brahmin,

What does the wife put on?…Hindu, Muslim, where did they

come from? 17

Fanaticism was more effective than skepticism in setting limits to the spread of Islam. Hindus generally resisted Muslim proselytization with tenacity. In southern India, the warlike state of Vijayanagar proclaimed its defiance in its name, which means “city of victories.” In 1443 it impressed a Muslim visitor as “such that the eye has seen nothing like it,” inside its sixty-mile ring of sevenfold walls. Vijayanagar’s rajahs called themselves “Lords of the Eastern and Western Oceans.” According to the maxims of an early sixteenth-century ruler,

[a] king should improve the harbours of his country and so encourage its commerce that horses, elephants, precious gems, sandalwood, pearls and other articles are freely imported…. Make the merchants of distant foreign countries who import elephants and good horses attached to yourself by providing them with villages and decent dwellings in the city, by affording them daily audience, presents, and allowing decent profits. Then those articles will never go to your enemies.18

In practice, however, the capital was as far from the sea as you could get, and outlying provinces were hard to control. By 1485, the power of Vijayanagar’s neighbors seemed not only to have arrested the expansion of the state but to threaten its very existence. Taxation from coastal emporia dried up as the frontiers withdrew inland. Muslim warlords usurped frontier areas. So a frustrated general, Saluva Narasimha, mounted a putsch and organized the state for war. The relief was temporary. After his death in 1491 renewed struggle for the throne almost extinguished the kingdom, until in 1492 another ambitious general, Narasa Nayaka, took effective power without proclaiming himself king. Thanks to these strong men, the state survived precariously to resume expansion a generation later.

Jihad was one means of spreading and consolidating Islamic appeal, or, at least, Muslim power. Aggressive sultanates justified their wars by invoking religion. In 1470, the Russian merchant Afanasyi Nikitin reported on them, describing their military might in awestruck terms and recounting some of their raids against Hindu lands. His account of what he called his “sinful wanderings” is skewed by his renunciation of his merchant’s vocation—he insists that the pepper and textiles of India are valueless—and by terrible guilt that overcame him at the compromises and evasions of faith he was forced to make in order to trade and even to survive in the realms of rulers who prided themselves on Muslim fanaticism. He frequently protests—too much—that he remained faithful to Christianity, but his own evidence makes it plain that he had to renounce his religion, at least outwardly. The main purpose of his book seems to be solemnly to warn fellow Christians not to trade in India, in peril of their souls. After many months in the Bahmanid kingdom in the Deccan, India, he was unable to compute the date of Easter.

I have nothing with me; no books whatever; those that I had taken from Russia were lost when I was robbed. And I forgot the Christian faith and the Christian festivals and knew not Easter nor Christmas…for I am between the two faiths.19

Nikitin reported that the Bahmanids commanded an army a million strong, armed with firearms, including heavy cannon. The sultan’s armor was of gold inlaid with sapphires and diamonds. His counselors were borne through the streets on couches of gold. Hundreds of armor-clad elephants accompanied him, each bearing an armored howdah bristling with gunmen. The state was indeed near the height of its power. Under the enterprising favorite Mahmud Gawan, in the 1460s and 1470s the sultan’s authority grew at the expense of the nobles, and the frontiers at the expense of neighbors. But the campaigns both inside and outside the kingdom provoked resentment and overtaxed the strength of the state. In 1482 the sultan had the minister murdered, allegedly because he “dared to come in our way and he tried to join forces with our enemies.” 20 His master soon followed him to the grave, leaving the throne to a twelve-year-old, Shihabu’d-din Mahmud. The power struggles that followed among the ministers and generals unleashed massacres, provoked a popular rebellion, and made it easy for provincial power brokers to usurp authority and, in effect, secede from the realm. By 1492 the Bahmanid kingdom was in a state of fission. Over the next couple of years, Shihabu’d-din reasserted his authority in a series of victories against recalcitrant subordinates—but only temporarily arrested the dissolution.

The strength of the Muslim sultanate of Gujarat peaked at roughly the same time. Mahmud Shah Begarha (1469–1511) conquered Champaner from its Hindu masters in 1484 and began rebuilding the city on the grand scale still visible in the sumptuous ruins of palaces, bazaars, squares, gardens, mosques, irrigation tanks, and ornamental ponds. There were workshops producing fine silk, textiles, and arms, and Hindu temples were allowed outside the walls. The sultan’s mightiest subject, Malik Ayaz, came to Gujarat in the 1480s as a Russian slave famous for valor and archery in the entourage of a master who presented him to the sultan. Freed for gallantry in battle—or, in another version of the story, for killing a hawk that had besmirched the sultan’s head with its droppings—he received the captaincy of an area that included the ancient site of a harborside settlement, just reemerging, thanks to Malik’s immediate predecessors, from centuries of accumulated jungle. He turned Diu into an impressively fortified emporium and induced shippers from the Red Sea, the Persian Gulf, Melaka, China, and Arabia to use it as their gateway to northern India. His style of life reflected the value of the trade. When he visited the sultan, he had nine hundred horses in his train. He employed a thousand water carriers and served Indian, Persian, and Turkish cuisine to his guests off china plates.

No state in India at the time could compare with the sultanate of Delhi, which began in the tradition of the many hegemonies that invading dynasts had founded in India; it was more of a racket than a state, a supremacy shared among predatory clan members and ethnic cronies. When Bahlul, the founding father, arrived from Afghanistan, he wrote home advertising the wealth of India and enticing his kinsmen to abjure their native poverty and follow him. They swarmed in—it seemed to locals—“like ants or locusts.” But the size and diversity of his domains and opportunities soon had Bahlul recruiting help more widely. He had twenty thousand Mongols in his service. As the frontiers widened, it became increasingly prudent and increasingly necessary to employ natives—as long as they were or would be Muslims.

Bahlul’s successor, Sikandar Lodi, who was on the throne in 1492, adopted indigenous court rituals and “favoured nobles and shaikhs from Arabia, Persia, and various parts of Hind.” 21 Sikandar Lodi’s maternal grandfather was a commoner—a goldsmith—a taint that almost cost him the throne. In matters of manners and morals he had high standards and tough practices. Like all Muslim rulers of the time, he commissioned annalists who celebrated him so lavishly as to undermine all credibility—excusing, for instance, as “for the sake of his health” the toping of this supposedly uncompromising enforcer of the sharia. He certainly exempted himself from his own rules, including the prohibition of shaving. He performed miracles, commanded jinns, and had a magic lamp that illuminated for him news of far-off events.22 He flogged nobles who besmirched a polo match by brawling. He deflected the erotic attentions of an overadmiring sheikh by singeing his beard.

His fanaticism disgusted even his own chroniclers. He destroyed Hindu temples, smashed images, proscribed rites. When a sheikh disputed the justice of prohibiting Hindus’ sacred baths, the sultan raised his sword against the man in anger. His vocation was as a conqueror: that is why he called himself Sikandar—the local form of the name of Alexander the Great. He got as far as annexing Bihar and Dholpur. But he left the state overextended and impoverished. He chopped up Hindu idols and gave the pieces to Muslim butchers to use for weighing meat. He turned temples into mosques and madrassas. He burned a Hindu holy man alive for saying, “Islam and Hindu Dharma are both equally acceptable to God if followed with a sincere heart.” He frequently razed temples and erected mosques in their place, as evidenced by his behavior at Mandrail, Utgir, and Narwar. He issued orders, backed by threats of punishment by death, against the Hindu custom of bathing and shaving to mark the midsummer festival.23

Aggression, however, probably contributed less to the spread of Islam than peaceful proselytization: acculturation by trade, and the slow, sometimes unrewarding work of missionaries. In what would become Malaysia and Indonesia, as in Africa, the other great arena of Islamic expansion at the time, the means of propagation was the “jihad of words.” 24

Trade shunted living examples of Muslim devotion between cities and installed Muslims as port supervisors, customs officials, and agents to despotic monopolists. Trading states speckled the Swahili coast, but the conventional notion that they housed oceangoing peoples is false. For generations, the Swahili responded to the racism of Western masters by cultivating a non-African image, emphasizing their links of culture and commerce with Arabia and India. After independence, some of their hinterland neighbors took revenge, treating them as colonists, rather as the inland communities of Liberia and Sierra Leone treated the descendants of resettled slaves in Monrovia and Freetown as an alien and justly resented elite. In Kenya, political demagogues threatened to expel the Swahili, as if they were foreign intruders. Yet the Swahili language, though peppered with Arabic loanwords, is closely akin to other Bantu languages. The Swahili came to the coast from the interior, perhaps thousands of years ago, and retained links with the hinterland that their trade with visitors from the Indian Ocean never displaced.

The coastal location of Swahili cities conveys a misleading impression of why the sea was important to them: they were sited for proximity to fresh water, landward routes, and sources of widely traded coral as much as for ocean access. The elite usually married their daughters to business partners inland rather than to foreign sojourners. Few cities had good anchorages. More than half had poor harbors, or none at all. The town of Gedi, which covered eighteen acres inside ten-foot-high walls and had a palace over a hundred feet wide, was four miles from the sea. Swahili traders plied their own coasts and frequented their own hinterlands, acquiring gold, timber, honey, civet, rhinoceros horn, and ivory to sell to the Arabs, Indians, and Gujaratis who carried them over the ocean. They were classic middlemen who seem to have calculated that the risks of transoceanic trading were not worthwhile as long as customers came to their coasts.

Visiting Portuguese in the early sixteenth century noticed the love-hate relationship that bound the Swahili to the hinterland. On the one hand, the two zones needed each other for trade; on the other, religious enmity between the Muslims and their pagan neighbors committed them to war. This, thought Duarte Barbosa, was why the coastal dwellers had “cities well walled with stone and mortar, inasmuch as they are often at war with the Heathen of the mainland.” 25 There were material causes of conflict, too. The Swahili needed plantations, acquired at hinterland communities’ expense, to grow food, and slaves to serve them. Coastal and interior peoples exchanged raids and demands for tribute as well as regular trade. When Portuguese observers arrived in the early sixteenth century, they got the impression that Mombasa, the greatest of the Swahili port cities, lived in awe of its neighbors, the “savage,” poison-arrow-toting Mozungullos, who had “neither law nor king nor any other interest in life except theft, robbery, and murder.” 26 But Islam provided the standard excuse for hostilities, if not their real cause. The religion was well established among the urban Swahili, after nearly half a millennium of proselytization by visiting merchants and the Sufis and sheikhs they sometimes carried in their ships. By the early fourteenth century, visiting Muslims commonly praised their orthodoxy. It was probably not until the sixteenth century, when Portuguese piracy disrupted the Indian Ocean trade of the Swahili coast, that local Islam began to diverge from the mainstream.

For some cities, the ocean was all-important. Kilwa was one of the greatest of Swahili emporia because the monsoon made it accessible to transoceanic traders in a single season. Ports farther south, like Sofala, though rich in gold, were accessible only after a laborious wait, usually in Kilwa, for the wind to turn. Merchants from Gujarat seem rarely to have bothered to go farther south than Mombasa or Malindi, where merchants congregated with products from all along the coast as far as Sofala. The Gujaratis paid for their purchases with fine Indian textiles of silk and cotton.

On the opposite shore of the ocean, in Southeast Asia, it was harder for Islam to penetrate agrarian states with only limited interest in long-range trade. In what came to be called Indochina, the Khmer kingdom was a self-contained unit, which produced enough rice to feed its people. The rulers never showed any interest in going into business in their own right, though around the turn of the century they shifted their capital to what is now Phnom Penh in an apparent effort to increase their control over the revenue from maritime trade. Vietnam—which was culturally and physically close to China—adopted policies actively hostile to overseas commerce. Le Thanh Ton, who ruled from 1460 to 1497, forbade the waste of land, broke up great estates, colonized frontier zones with prisoners and demobilized soldiers, and gave fiscal exemptions to diggers of ditches and planters of mulberries. He almost doubled the size of his kingdom by southward conquests that took the frontier beyond Qui Nonh. He issued regulations that seem too perfect ever to have been put into practice, in which all his subjects were arrayed in order of rank under the rule of royally appointed bureaucrats. He scattered temples of literature around the country, where aspiring mandarins could study the works of Confucius and prepare for civil-service examinations on the Chinese pattern. While empowering Confucian bureaucrats and imposing a strict law code inspired by Confucius, Le held on to popular sensibilities by representing himself as the reincarnation of a heroic ancestor.

Native kings in the region had a lot to lose if they committed to Islam: the awe inspired by reincarnation, the role of preceding the Buddhist millennium or incarnating a Hindu deity, the custodianship of relics sacred to Hindus and Buddhists. Ramathibodi II, for instance, who came to the throne of Ayutthaya—the kingdom that became Siam—in 1491, engaged in trials of magic power with neighboring kings. Khmer kingship relied on the notion that kings were Buddhas or incarnations of Shiva. In a region of divine kingship and agrarian states, it was hard for Islam to get a toehold: neither merchants nor missionaries could exert much influence.

The Malay world that flanked Indochina and lay offshore was more permeable, full of trading states and seafaring traditions. As the sultan of Melaka observed in 1468, “to master the blue oceans people must engage in trade, even if their countries are barren.” 27Camõens, who ranged the East and celebrated it in verse in the late sixteenth century, described the Malay world:

Malacca see before, where ye shall pitch

Your great Emporium, and your Magazins:

The Rendezvous of all that Ocean round

For Merchandizes rich that there abound.

From this (’tis said) the Waves impetuous course,

Breaking a passage through from Main to main,

Samatra’s noble Isle of old did force,

Which then a Neck of Land therewith did chain:

That this was Chersonese till that divorce,

And from the wealthy mines, that there remain,

The Epithite of “Golden” had annext:

Some think, it was the Ophyr in the Text.28

Muslim merchants frequented the region for centuries before any natives accepted Islam. Some of them formed communities in port cities. Missionaries followed: scholars in search of patronage, discharging the Muslim’s obligation to proselytize on the way; spiritual athletes in search of exercise, anxious to challenge native shamans in contests of ascetic ostentation and supernatural power. In some areas Sufis made crucial contributions. They could empathize with the sort of popular animism and pantheism that “finds Him closer than the veins of one’s neck.” 29 As missionaries, Sufis were the most effective agents. As always with conversion stories, it is hard to distinguish miracle tales, invented in retrospect to hallow events, from real evidence. The legends of conversions engineered by Sufis are untrustworthy, partly because they are often warped by the writers’ wider agendas, and partly because they tend to be shaped by traditional topoi.

Sacred autobiography is predictably full of stories of childish orchard raiding and youthful peccadilloes, suddenly visited darkness, suddenly glimpsed light. The crucial questions relate to the self-reprofiling of whole societies. This is a process, still little understood, by which the term “Islam” becomes part of the collective self-designation of whole communities, embracing numbers of people who have never had a conversion experience or anything like it. Underlying collective realignments of this sort are further, remoter processes, by which Islam captures elites or becomes part of the landscape of life in a particular society or—if I may be permitted another metaphor—a thread in the fabric of social identity. For most people in the society that plays host to the new religion, it commonly involves passive reception of new doctrines and devotions, without any active commitment.

According to tradition, the first ruler to embrace Islam in Southeast Asia, in Pasai, on Sumatra, in the late thirteenth century, received the message of the faith in a dream. He then invited a holy man over to complete his conversion. In the following century, other Sumatran states followed suit, and there were Muslim-led states on the Malayan mainland. Early in the fifteenth century, Melaka’s ruler adopted Islam. From the end of the century conversions multiplied, spread by dynastic marriages or by a radiationlike process in which Sufis fanned outward from each successive center to which they came. Melaka seems to have provided manpower for the conversion of states in Java, which in turn, around the beginning of the new century, did the same job for Ternate in the Moluccas, from where missionaries continued to neighboring islands. Provincial rulers guaranteed the flow of revenue to the sultans’ courts in exchange for the unmolested exercise of power. “As for us who administer territory,” said a nobleman in a Malay chronicle, “what concern is that of yours?…What we think should be done we do, for the ruler is not concerned with the difficulties we administrators encounter. He only takes account of the good results we achieve.” 30

Shortly before his death in 1478, the Sufi proselytizer Abu-al-Mewahib al-Shadili summarized what he called the “maxims of illumination”—Qawanin Hikam al-Ishraq. Sufis, he thought, were an elite: others were “people of deviation and innovation.”31 Every one of his maxims began with a text from the Quran. Mystical experience was like memory. To be “immersed in the sea of unity” with God, the mystic had to efface all thoughts of his attributes, concentrate on his essence, and “then the distance that is between him and you is effaced.” 32 Abandon intelligence, reason, experiment, and authority, al-Shadili urged.33 Lose consciousness of the universe. Practice permanent penance, for “the repentance of ordinary men is a passing mood.” Sufis could approach enlightenment because they had come to acknowledge the power of evil over them and the need to repent of it. The author quoted the Gospels as well as the Quran.34

Al-Shadili recommended watchfulness as a means to identification with God. “The thought of Truth’s sentinel came to the heart of a servant who was lonely among men.” “There passed through the heart and thought of a longing person a glimpse of the splendour and beauty of the loved one which turned him like unto a person bewitched by the sorcery of the Babylonians: all this took place when his longings and nightingales of joy were loosed.” The author was glib with images from the mystical repertoire common to many cultures and dangerous in Islam—likening experience of God to physical love, pagan magic, even drunkenness. A mystical experience overcame him in a garden, when the trees rustled:

The winds of union with them blew at daybreak,

With gusts of yearning in the heart.

The branch of love merrily shook in me,

When fruits of love fell here and there.

Suns of union with penetrating rays

Pierced the awnings of the veils.

Clear joy shone over us and thus sparkled

The face of compassion which dispelled all blame.35

While Columbus was beginning preparations for his first transoceanic voyage, one of the greatest mystics of the age died in what is now Afghanistan. Nur ad-Din Abd ar-Rahman Jami was a consummate poet—the last great Persian poet, some say, and the biographer of a long line of Sufis. He was one of the most celebrated intellectuals of the age, whose fame in Asia was wider and deeper than any mere hero of the Renaissance could have achieved, at the time, within the narrow limits of Christendom. The rulers of the Ottoman Empire and the heirs of the Mongol khans competed unsuccessfully for his services as a political adviser: he preferred a life of art and meditation. Some of his works were translated into Chinese and sustained considerable influence over the next two hundred years in Buddhist as well as Muslim mysticism. Besides accounts of his mystical experiences, he wrote an explanation of mystical principles, called Gleams (Lawa’ih). Sense veiled reality. The self was a distraction: “[T]ry to conceal yourself,” he recommended, “from your own gaze.” 36 Learning was a snare—a judgment many Franciscan mystics in Europe would have endorsed. “How can love,” he demanded, “appear from the folds of your books?” 37 He would have agreed with most Western mystics on another point: mystics had to beware of self-indulgence and make love practical. Jami advised, “Don’t count the Real as apart from the world, for the world is in the Real, and in the world the Real is none but the world.” 38 For himself, however, his goals were otherworldly. The world was hardly worth contemplation. He dismissed it with a shrug—almost a smirk—of ennui: “I’ve had my fill of every loveliness not eternal.” 39 Jami was aware that annihilation meant the eclipse of consciousness: “Annihilation of annihilation is included in annihilation…. If you are conscious of the tip of a hair and speak of annihilation’s road, you’ve left the road.” 40 Even religion was irrelevant to the mystic, whose “custom is annihilation and whose rule poverty.” When you achieve union with God, why consort with mullahs? The same sort of thought occurred to Christian mystics.

His acknowledged masterpiece was his immensely long last poem, Yusuf and Zulaikha, a searing love story that encodes a religion of Jami’s devising, which, without any overt tampering with Islam, is utterly personal, and takes stunning liberties with the Quran. He takes the Quranic story of Yusuf—the biblical Joseph—and the seductress he encountered in his flight from his abusive brethren, and turns it into a treatise on love as a sort of ladder of Bethel—a means of ascent to personal union with God. The author begins by addressing readers who seek mystical experience. “Go away and fall in love,” he counsels. “Then come back and ask me.” Loving union is a way of connecting with God, “who quickens the heart and fills the soul with rapture.” Zulaikha first sees her future lover in a vision so powerful that lust impedes her from loving him truly. While the world goggles at his splendor and beauty, his wife tortures herself with reproaches and longs for death. If she had grasped the inward form instead of embracing the body that conceals it, she would have found that conjugal love can be a means of ascent to God.

She begins to glimpse the truths of mysticism—the possibilities of self-realization through self-immersion in love, but carnality obstructs her. Jami says, “As long as love has not attained perfection, lovers’ sole preoccupation is to satisfy desire…. They willingly prick the beloved with a hundred thorns.” Zulaikha has to go through a series of terrible purgations, which are like the classic stages of mystical ascent: despair, renunciation, blindness, oblivion. She endures repeated rejection by Yusuf and loses everything that once mattered to her—her wealth, her beauty, and her sight—before the lovers can be united. Zulaikha perceives the mystic truth:

In solitude, where Being signless dwelt,

And all the universe still dormant lay

Concealed in selflessness, One Being was

Exempt from “I” or “Thou”-ness, and apart

From all duality; Beauty Supreme,

Unmanifest, except unto Itself

By Its own light, yet fraught with power to charm

The souls of all; concealed in the Unseen,

An Essence pure, unstained by aught of ill.41

Carnal love shatters like a graven idol. Yusuf’s real beauty strikes his inamorata afresh, like a light so dazzling that he seems lost in it.

From Everlasting Beauty, which emerged

From realms of purity to shine upon

The worlds, and all the souls which dwell therein.

One gleam fell from It on the universe

And on the angels, and this single ray

Dazzled the angels, till their senses whirled

Like the revolving sky. In diverse forms

Each mirror showed it forth, and everywhere

Its praise was chanted in new harmonies.

The cherubim, enraptured, sought for songs

Of praise. The spirits who explore the depths

Of boundless seas, wherein the heavens swim

Like some small boat, cried with one mighty voice,

“Praise to the Lord of all the universe!”42

Nowadays, most people, I suspect, will find it hard to think of mysticism as modern. It was, at least, a gateway to one of the great mansions of modernity: the enhanced sense of self—the individualism, sometimes edging narcissism or egotism, that elbows community to the edge of our priorities. Without the rise of individualism, it would be hard to imagine a world organized economically for “enlightened self-interest” or politically along lines of “one person, one vote.” Modern novels of self-discovery, modern psychology, feel-good values, existential angst, and the self-obsessions of the “me generation” would all be unthinkable. Liberation from self-abnegation had to begin—or at least have one of its starting points—in religious minds, because godly institutions, in the Middle Ages, were the major obstacles to self-realization. The watchfulness of fellow congregants disciplined desire. The collective pursuit of salvation diminished individuals’ power. The authority of godly establishments overrode individual judgment. Mysticism was a way out of these constraints. For worshippers with a hotline to God, institutional religion is unnecessary. Sufis, Catholic and Orthodox mystics, and Protestant reformers were all, therefore, engaged, in one sense, in the same project: firing the synapses that linked them to divine energy; freeing themselves to make up their own minds; putting clerisy in its place. Whatever modernity is, the high valuation of the individual is part of it. The mystics’ role in making modernity has been overlooked, but by teaching us to be aware of our individual selves, they helped to make us modern.

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