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Last updated: June 7, 2014
Setting the record straight: A German journalist derides Ibn Battuta

"It is a journalistic work that is derogatory, demeaning and insulting"

Banner Icon Ibn Battuta is one of the most revered figures in Arab and Muslim history. In an earlier op-ed on Your Middle East, Lewis Gropp questioned Battuta's legitimacy. Today, we run this critique against that article, written by Moroccan scholar Dr. Mohamed Chtatou.

One is shocked beyond belief on reading a piece published here at Your Middle East on the world traveler Ibn Battuta. This article, entitled The Great Arab Traveler Ibn Battuta: a cultural chauvinist and impostor? was written by Lewis Gropp, who is the editor of “Qantara.de - Dialogue with the Islamic world,” a literary theorist, and a journalist focusing on religious issues and cultural dialogue.

Condescending opinion

Beginning with the title, Gropp wears his ulterior motives on his sleeves. From the onset, he tries to prove that Ibn Battuta is not a traveler to be celebrated by the whole world, but a despicable person, in every possible way, and a racist. He claims that Ibn Battuta always looked down on the people he visited, asserting that he disliked the Chinese, could not put up with the Russians and hated the black Africans, whom he found miserly.

Gropp argues that Ibn Battuta was not only an armchair traveler who imagined all his trips but something far worse. He claimed that Ibn Battuta was someone who plagiarized other writers, namely Ahmad Ibn Jubayr.

« But there is no interest in a revision of Ibn Battuta's work in the Arab world today – proof that Ibn Battuta continues to serve many Arabs and Muslims as a symbol of their former cultural greatness. Among other things, this is why early indications of plagiarism in the text were not only brushed aside by large sections of the Arab public, but also by those carrying out academic study of the texts. »

"He claimed that Ibn Battuta was someone who plagiarized other writers"

The simple fact is that Gropp’s article sets interfaith and cultural dialogue many centuries back and the motives behind writing such a piece seem to be multiple and inflammatory. It is a journalistic work that is derogatory, demeaning and insulting in many ways. It also shows a huge failure in his understanding of intercultural communication and cross-cultural practices and understanding.

He has shown clearly from the very start that he has an axe to grind with the Muslim world. His twisted agenda uses Ibn Battuta as an easy target and tries to create of him his bête noire. He calls him “an impostor and a chauvinist,” without substantiating his visceral attacks with either scientific proof or written sources, and he continually uses opinion as fact in an effort to lead readers to draw false conclusions.

The bridge of cultural shame

Gropp, basing his article on the work of an unknown German Orientalist, Ralf Elger, whose book, Die Wunder des Morgenlandes (The Wonders of the Orient, C.H. Beck, Munich 2010), goes about systematically destroying the achievements of Ibn Battuta, to whom he refers to at times as an Arab and at others as a Moroccan. It is rather ironic that he never refers to him as a Muslim or a Muslim traveler impostor.  Perhaps he refrains from such labels in the fear of creating a social backlash.

In an attempt to create and then prove inconsistencies in Ibn Battuta’s travel account, the journalist resorts to the modern concepts of political correctness. Thus, he denounces the so-called racism of Ibn Battuta towards the Russians and the Chinese and condemns strongly his generalizations:

« Ibn Battuta evaluates strange people and customs casually and flippantly with ill-considered generalizations. »

However, he seems to forget that many of the Western academic and non-academic researchers, as well as many popular writers of today, commonly use non-politically correct writing to describe other nations and people from different cultures.  Unfortunately, these writings that describe cultures in insulting language, using derogatory descriptions and are unjustly racist are in fact rarely reported nor are the writers held accountable.

The journalist seems to believe that putting a label on someone means that you have a deep seeded dislike for that person. However, nothing could be farther from the truth. When Ibn Battuta used the term “miser,” he wasn’t saying that he disliked anyone, he was simply stating a fact as he saw it. Just to set the record straight, there are many people and organizations in the world today that behave in a miserly fashion but that does not make them bad or diminish their social status in anyway. Unfortunately, Gropp sees any such labels, be they factually based or not, as derogatory and judgmental:

« His remarks on the gifts presented to him by a West African ruler, however, are particularly derogatory. He derides the Sultan of Mali as an absolute miser." 

For him, these opinions and reactions about other people and their cultures is proof enough to denounce Ibn Battuta and defame his work. He conveniently overlooks the fact that thousands of ethnographers, anthropologists, journalists, and other travelers often write the most incredible absurdities about foreign cultures and are rarely judged as severely as he has judged Ibn Battuta.

He, also, ostracizes Ibn Battuta for geographical inaccuracies. However, in this endeavor, he seems only to parrot the words of his master, Ralf Elger, who, as stated above, denies to Ibn Battuta the title of “Traveler”:

« Ibn Battuta's travel account is not based on his own observations – for example in the case of descriptions of rulers who verifiably governed before or after Battuta's lifetime; there are also many inconsistencies in the geographical details. »

Suffice it to say that this statement, which is used to further the accusation that Ibn Battuta was an imposter, is ridiculous. Imagine looking at any map created 100 years ago and you will see that even the most accomplished of cartographers made similar errors. Why? Because, sadly, the very advanced and helpful GPS technology was not yet invented.

The Islamic dimension

Both Elger and Gropp are undoubtedly each entitled to his own opinion on Islam, but they should not be allowed to attack its symbols using their academic positions or titles. This supposition is especially true for the Qantara; a publication that is supposed to advocate for much-needed dialogues of religions and cultures according to its tagline.

"Elger argues, quite forcefully, that Ibn Battuta never travelled anywhere"

Elger argues, quite forcefully, that Ibn Battuta never travelled anywhere, or rather, he only travelled in his own imagination and from the comfort of an armchair. Elger’s only proof is geographical inaccuracies and the similarity of Ibn Battuta’s accounts with those of Ahmad Ibn Jubayr. So, in essence, Elger is labeling Ibn Battuta a “liar” and a “cheat.”  Further, he claimed that Ibn Battuta’s main motive for writing was to persuade the Sultan of Morocco, based in Fes, to nominate him Cadi. Why? According to Elger, because in his “imagined” travels, he was appointed this title/position by the Sultans of the Muslim lands he visited:

« The reader may well have wondered how it could have been possible for an unknown traveler from Morocco to gain access to the world's leaders and be honored as such by them. The correct answer is probably that these contacts were invented for this very purpose, to proffer himself to the Sultan of Fez. »

Gropp even goes a bit further in insulting Ibn Battuta by stating, again with no viable or tangible proof, that the Ibn Battuta is a person full of himself and not worthy of any consideration, whatsoever:

« Large parts of his travel accounts consist of conceited swaggering and ill-considered generalizations. On top of it, new findings indicate that Ibn Battuta may have faked most of his travel accounts out of ulterior motives. »                      

His irritation with this Muslim personality, Ibn Battuta, the traveler, is quite palpable. He rarely uses his proper address and frequently only refers to him as the Arab. Moreover, he cannot begin to understand why the Arabs revere such a “crook” and a “cheat”:

« The Moroccan explorer Ibn Battuta is one of the most revered figures in Arab cultural history. But why? »

What others think of Ibn Battuta?

The work of Ibn Battuta has been translated into all the major languages of the world and much research has been undertaken on his travel literature.  Additionally, many documentaries have been produced regarding his trips and travel adventures.

Douglas Bullis, a researcher and writer, argues in a series of articles, published in Saudi Aramco World magazine, that Ibn Battuta’s rihla (travel) literature remains vivid among people today because it is a wonderful gift to humanity that should not be forgotten:

« Our delight in his gift, as we contemplate the wonders of his travels, lives on. »

He goes on to say that Ibn Battuta’s legacy is undeniably tremendous in terms of the places he visited, the people he met and the head of states who received him. His experiences are unique and boundless.

In December 1991, the world-famous institution, National Geographic, devoted an issue (Vol. 180, No. 6) to Ibn Battuta under the title Ibn Battuta, Prince of Travelers, a thoroughly researched article written by Thomas J. Abercrombie, a journalist specialized on the Muslim world:

« Almost two centuries before Columbus, a young Moroccan named Ibn Battuta set off to Mecca; he returned home three decades later as one of history’s great travelers. Driven by curiosity and sustained by the Koran, he journeyed to the far corners of the Islamic world –from North Africa, where caravans still dare the Sahara, to China and back. »

Many articles, as well as films, books, children’s material, TV documentaries, songs, poems, and video games, undeniably refute the egregious and slanderous allegations of the German Orientalist Elger and the German journalist Gropp about Ibn Battuta, whom the prestigious American magazine, National Geographic, rightly dubbed: Ibn Battuta, Prince of Travelers.

A longer version of this article was published in Morocco World News on June 5.

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