Research in African Literatures 34.2 (2003) 199-205
[Access article in PDF]
Questions of Context:
Ibn Battuta and E. W. Bovill on Africa
The Ohio State University
Ibn Battuta in Black Africa, by Said Hamdun and Noël King, with a new foreword by Ross E. Dunn. Princeton, NJ: Marcus Wiener, 1998.
The Golden Trade of the Moors: West African Kingdoms in the Fourteenth Century, by Edward William Bovill, with a new introduction by Robert O. Collins. Princeton, NJ: Marcus Wiener, 1995.
Marcus Wiener Publishers has distinguished itself by reprinting primary and secondary texts that have not lost their appeal over decades. Usually the original work is given a new introduction and an updated bibliography that address the historicity of the text and add new scholarly perspectives and additional background information. Under review are two such publications, one of which is a historical source, namely, Ibn Battuta's fourteenth-century account of his journeys to East and West Africa, and the other a scholarly study from 1958 focusing on the economic and political relations between North Africa and sub-Saharan regions. While the former is a welcome edition highly useful in a variety of classroom settings and appealing to a wide range of scholars interested in travel, Islam, and Africa, the rationale for the publication of the second title is not immediately evident, and even questionable, for reasons that I explain below.
Ibn Battuta (1304-68/69) hailed from Morocco and traveled most of the known world in the course of twenty-nine years, holding a range of government posts in different territories. Later in life, his memories were written down by the scribe Ibn Juzayy. The resulting text offers detailed information about societies located in North Africa, Arabia, Asia Minor, Central Asia, India, Southeast Asia, China, East and West Africa, and Muslim Spain. One of the foremost features of this account is that it allows the contemporary reader to gain an understanding of the cultural diversity of peoples living within the expanse of dar al-Islam, the lands of Islam. Let me review some of the principles that inform Ibn Battuta's view of the world and that make his portrayal of Africa especially worthwhile.
One premise underlying Ibn Battuta's account and that generally defined medieval geographical handbooks and travel writings is the focus on the world of Islam, under avoidance of dar al-kufr, the non-Muslim lands. This focus reflected the centrality of religion as the dominant organizing principle, but the Islamic perspective was also intermingled with notions about climate as a condition determining the level of civilization. The Islamic heartland was seen to be located in the moderate climate zone, [End Page 199] which was most advantageous to civilization. Many geographical handbooks, such as the late-tenth-century Kitab al-Masalik wa 'l-mamalik by Ibn Hauqal (also known as Kitab Surad al-Ard), simply end their description at the northern or southern boundaries of the Islamic territory, with little or no commentary regarding the nature of areas located beyond the border.
Another premise that would guide a Muslim traveler in those days is the focus on the concept of ahl al-kitab, "People of the Book," that is, those communities whose religion is monotheistic and based on a revealed text, which includes Muslims, Jews, and Christians, and in some interpretations Zoroastrians. Hindus and polytheistic Africans, on the other hand, were considered uncivilized and not worth studying. Just how great the resistance to examining these latter cultures was is evident in the introduction the great scholar Al-Biruni (973-ca. 1050) wrote for his Book of India (Kitab Ta'rikh al-Hind). This introduction is impressive for the sophistication with which Al-Biruni reflects on the limitations of crosscultural study in general, but also in terms of the elaborate effort he makes to justify the merits of exploring a culture that was not considered ahl al-kitab (3-8, 17-26).
In light of these considerations, Ibn Battuta's account is remarkable, for he talks not only about diversity in Islam but also...