Rabat - One is flabbergasted and shocked beyond belief on reading a piece, of what may be termed “trash journalism”, published by the electronic journal Qantara, on the world traveler Ibn Battuta. This article, entitled "The Great Arab Traveller Ibn Battuta Contemporary Witness or Impostor?" 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.
Rabat – One is flabbergasted and shocked beyond belief on reading a piece, of what may be termed “trash journalism”, published by the electronic journal Qantara, on the world traveler Ibn Battuta. This article, entitled “The Great Arab Traveller Ibn Battuta Contemporary Witness or Impostor?” 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.
From the start, one realizes what kind of cultural dialogue Gropp embraces, one of condescending opinion, reminiscent of the colonial past, which was not so long ago anyway. From reading this article, one gathers that he and the Qantara, stand for a dialogue that is one way, one direction and one truth: my way/opinion or the highway mentality.
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. Gropp 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.
According to Gropp, Ibn Battuta is not the kind of person to trust one’s life with. He is a crook in every possible sense of the word, and an impostor revered by the Arabs. Ironically, Gropp thinks that they are impostors too and are still attached to their so-called glorious past:
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.
An alarming occurrence that proves that much has changed for the worse in the Arab world since the 14th century.
So, Gropp, sitting comfortably in his office in Germany, has made an incredible blanket judgment of all Arabs, stating that they have not improved since the 14th century and because of that they are going to the dogs.
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.
Gropp fails miserably to understand the Islamic world, although he considers it to be impostor in its culture and way of life. Also, he continually claims that it has not progressed since the 14th century, even worse, he claims it went backwards. At the same time he is taxing the Muslims and their culture of chauvinism.
Gropp 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.
These unfounded allegations and cheap attacks on Ibn Battuta, seem nothing more than personal attacks lightly veiled in journalistic clothing. Throughout the world, Ibn Battuta is a person known for his great skills of communication and inter-cultural exchanges. Through the years, he has had thousands of contacts with people of different languages and cultures, and not even modern travelers, with all the technology at their disposal, can match his depth and impact.
The bridge of cultural shame
In my opinion, it is very surprising that this journalist works for an electronic publication, Qantara, that calls itself a bridge to the Muslim world and whose main goal is to engage in cultural dialogue.
Gropp has succeeded, beyond belief, in fabricating and printing inter-cultural bias and inter-cultural insults. Being the editor of such a medium, one is left to wonder about the true intentions of such a publication. Are they to insult the Muslim World by publishing unfounded, derogatory pieces or to help understand and respect the Islamic culture? Unfortunately, it would seem that Gropp’s article tends to prove the former rather than the latter.
Gropp, basing his article on the works 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 work 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 light of these baseless allegations and attacks on a respected Muslim traveler, perhaps the name of this online journal ought to be changed to Hawwa (gap), instead of Qantara (bridge). It would seem, by articles such as Gropp’s that this “bridge” is only for insulting a culture and is being used as an instrument to widen the gap between Islam and the West.
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:
His judgment of the Russians whom he claims to have met is an apodictic statement that they are “Christians with red hair and blue eyes who are ugly and brimming with faithlessness.
Of China, Batutta writes:
Although there is much good to be found there, I did not like the Chinese nation, it actually repelled me because it was ruled by unbelievers.
And condemns strongly his generalizations:
Ibn Battuta evaluates strange people and customs casually and flippantly with ill-considered generalizations.
However, Gropp 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 writes held accountable, let alone condemned.
Gropp 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.” When a messenger announces that he is to receive a gift from the ruler, Battuta assumes that it must be either clothing, horses or money. He is soon to be disappointed…
It was nothing more than three flat breads, a piece of roast beef and a hollow pumpkin full of soured milk. I laughed at the stupidity of these people and amused myself at the thought of how highly they valued such small things.” The arrogant judgment of an indulged world traveler.
Ibn Battuta makes no bones about it – for the man from Morocco, there is no pleasure to be gained from sub-Saharan Africa. As he writes: “Then (…) it occurred to me that I should improve my knowledge of these countries. In doing so I realized that there is nothing good about them.
For Gropp, 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.
In the first part of the 20th century, Western anthropologists traveled the Muslim world studying the tribal systems. They viewed these systems through a framework they invented and used, called “the segmentary system.” The “indigenous” people, as they referred to the tribesmen they studied, rejected outright such an approach. Many decades later, evidence proved that the system was flawed from the start, but nobody made any apologies to the cultures that were studied and labeled. Even worse, the system in question was considered to be part of the development of the human thought. What an insult!
Gropp 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, then.
The Islamic world, under the helm of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and through its specialized agency, the Islamic Educational, Scienific and Cultural Organization (ISESCO) has been active, in good faith, in inter-faith and inter-cultural dialogues with the Western world. However, when it comes to Ralf Elger and Gropp, it would seem that these efforts are in vain because they have versed, unashamedly, in a primary form of Orientalism, that which was so masterly uncovered in the opus of Edward Said.
In this particular aspect, this publication is no different from the French satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo, which defiled the image of the prophet in the name of the so-called sacrosanct concept of freedom of expression, behind which some Westerners hide to bash Islam, at will.
In 1992, Dr. Abdulaziz Othman Altwaijri was elected Secretary General of ISESCO. From then until now, he has spared no effort to make out of inter-cultural communication with the West his leitmotiv in the fields of inter-faith and inter-cultural dialogue.
In its charter, ISESCO has inscribed, in gold, dialogue with the world and especially the West. This idea is clearly spelled out in the following objectives:
• To consolidate understanding among peoples inside and outside the Member States and contribute to the achievement of world peace and security through various means, particularly through education, science, culture and communication.
• To publicize the correct image of Islam and Islamic culture, promote dialogue among civilizations, cultures and religions, and work towards spreading the values of justice and peace along with the principles of freedom and human rights, in accordance with the Islamic civilizational perspective.
• To encourage cultural interaction and to support the aspects of cultural diversity in the Member States, while preserving the cultural identity and protecting the independence of thought.
In this respect, ISESCO has organized several international conferences, workshops and trainings in the field of education in an effort to ensure that children understand and respect differences in others. These differences include color, creed and culture. These efforts are in conjunction with UNESCO and various other UN agencies, such as the Alliance of Civilizations. In the recent past, ISESCO has organized trips for journalists to the Muslim world to introduce them to its people, its culture and its beliefs. Such an activity could certainly do Gropp some good and he might actually be able to discover the true nature of Islam in the process.
ISESCO, in cooperation with UNESCO, ALECSO, the Council of Europe and a myriad of regional European organizations have, for the last 25 years, endeavored tirelessly to cleanse textbooks of all offensive terms referring to Islamic or Western cultures and religions. This campaign has been successful in the sense that today’s educational material encourages cultural diversity and the recognition of the diversity of people.
However, sadly, in spite of these efforts and overtures to the West, many individuals, such as Elger and Gropp, and publications like the Qantara, perpetuate a message of hate and distrust.
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.
For these two people, one cannot expect a kind reception from the Muslim world, and especially after their treatment of Ibn Battuta, one of its revered symbols. Ibn Battuta was a simple man, who not only traveled around the world but also carried a message of peace and cultural understanding to the people of Africa, the Middle East, the Maldives, India, and China.
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 blindly defends the arguments of his master researcher, Elger, without even the courtesy of trying to check the sources from which stem these awful allegations. He simply draws his own conclusions, without any material proof:
The descriptions of his work as qadi can also be interpreted in this light: If I have served as a judge throughout the entire Islamic world, reads the message to the Sultan of Fez, then all the more at your behest in my homeland Morocco.
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?
Such a position of reverence seems to baffle Gropp beyond acceptable reason and as such, he seems to declare his “Islamophobia” in a veiled manner, albeit still visible for the world to see. So much for Qantara’s inter-cultural communication objectives and aims.
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 this famed traveler, 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:
Ibn Battuta’s wanderings stretched from Fez to Beijing, and although he resolved not to travel the same path more than once, he made four Hajj pilgrimages to Makkah, in addition to crossing what, on a modern map, would be more than 40 countries. He met some 60 heads of state—and served as advisor to two dozen of them. His travel memoir, known as the Rihla, written after his journeys were complete, names more than 2000 people whom he met or whose tombs he visited. His descriptions of life in Turkey, Central Asia, East and West Africa, the Maldives, the Malay Peninsula and parts of India are a leading source of contemporary knowledge about those areas, and in some cases they are the only source. His word-portraits of sovereigns, ministers and other powerful men are often uniquely astute, and are all the more intimate for being colored by his personal experiences and opinions.
As for the cultural institution 1001 Inventions: Muslim Heritage in Our World, Ibn Battuta:
Went to the corners of the Muslim world by walking, riding and sailing over seventy-five thousand miles, through over forty modern countries, and many know him as the Muslim Marco Polo.
His travels afforded him many opportunities for learning in the great Islamic cities he visited, along with understanding the world of 14th century Eurasia.
Thanks to his journeys and recorded descriptions, one may indeed learn much about the medieval world. His writings contain very diverse information, such as the production centers of trade staples in major cities, the prevalent technique used for pearl-diving in the Persian Gulf, creative courier service methods in India along with detailed accounts of contemporary cities and trading routes.
Ibn Battuta’s travels have long fascinated the world; with many books and detailed profiles devoted to him. Most recently, his life has been depicted in an IMAX documentary titled, Journey to Mecca.
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, stated:
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.
All of these articles, as well as films, books, children’s material, TV documentaries, songs, poems, and video games (listed here below), 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.
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Resources to learn more about Muslim World Traveler Ibn Battuta
Thomas J. Abercrombie.”Ibn Battuta, Prince of Travelers,” National Geographic (December 1991), 2-49. Great illustrations.
Ross Dunn. The Adventures of Ibn Battuta: A Muslim Traveler of the 14th Century, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1989. This book gives much information about the societies into which Ibn Battuta traveled. It is outstanding in giving a historical context to Ibn Battuta’s story.
H.A.R. Gibb. The Travels of Ibn Battuta, Vols. I, II, III, Hakluyt Society, Syndics of the Cambridge University Press, London, 1956. A translation and notes from the Arabic “Rihla” of Ibn Battuta. (The fourth and final part is still being translated by Professor C. F. Beckingham.)
ONLINE: A good chunk of the Gibb translation is available at the Internet Medieval Sourcebookhttp://www.fordham.
Rev. Samuel Lee, trans. The Travels of Ibn Battuta in the Near East, Asia & Africa, 1325 – 1354 (Dover Books).
Tim Mackintosh-Smith. Travels with a Tangerine: A Journey in the Footnotes of Ibn Battutah (7 Jun 2002).
– The Travels of Ibn Battutah by Ibn Battutah (6 Jun 2003). Mackintosh-Smith’s translation of the travels.
– Landfalls: On the Edge of Islam with Ibn Battutah by Tim Mackintosh-Smith (19 Aug 2010)
Tim Mackintosh-Smith and Martin Yeoman. The Hall of a Thousand Columns: Hindustan to Malabar with Ibn Battutah by (13 Mar 2006)
Said Hamdun & Noel King, Ibn Battuta in Black Africa (with a foreword by Ross Dunn), Markus Wiener Publishers, Princeton, 1975.
Books for young adults / Classrooms :
Travellers and Explorers, IQRA Trust, London, 1992. A beautifully illustrated children’s book telling of several Muslim travelers of the Middle Ages, including eight pages about Ibn Battuta.
Ibn Battuta: A View of the Fourteenth-Century World (A Unit of Study for Grades 7 – 10), by Joan Arno and Helen Grady, National Center for History in the Schools, University of California, Los Angeles, 1998. One useful lesson deals with the “The Historian’s Dilemma: To What Extent Can Primary Documents Be Trusted?”
Amazing Adventures of Ibn Battuta and Ibn Battuta in the Valley of Doom and The Travels of Ibn Battuta and others, by Durke, Astrolabe Pictures (call 1-800-39-ASTRO) [Muslim Heroes series]. These books, except for the first, do not follow closely the real travels of Ibn Battuta, but go off into fantasy adventures. They are aimed at young children and don’t contain Ibn Battuta’s own words.
Traveling Man: The Journey of Ibn Battuta 1325 – 1354 by James Rumford (Houghton Mifflin, for ages 8 – 12)
Online resources and films:
Ibn Battuta – The Animated Series Interactive Map
Trailer : http://www.ibnbattuta.tv/
13 Episodes (TV series – very roughly based on IB’s travels, but emphasizes and creates adventures including sword fights, additional fictionalized characters, etc.)
Teacher created video series by Michael Demana hosted by SchoolTube.com
· The Journeys of Ibn Battuta, Part 1 : Introduction [By Michael Demana]
· The Journeys of Ibn Battuta, Part 2 : Mecca to the Land of the Turks (12:29)
· The Journeys of Ibn Battuta, Part 3 : Central Asia (10:05) www.
· The Journeys of Ibn Battuta, Part 4 : India (12:45)
· The Journeys of Ibn Battuta, Part 5 : China (9:40)
· The Journeys of Ibn Battuta, Part 6 : Andalusia – coming soon
· The Journeys of Ibn Battuta, Part 7 : Mali (13:10)
Student created site examples:
· Ibn Battuta Documentary – A middle school (?) student report using video footage – by Katie and Annie : (5:21)
· Ibn Battuta by Mortada Al Rifai , 10th grader (4:53) [English and Arabic subtitles)
The National Newspaper (with Sarah Head) 2010
“Following in the Footsteps of Ibn Battuta”
· Episode 1 : Introduction (6:10) Focus on Andalusia (Spain) with a modern reporter; shows reenactments, sites visited by Ibn Battuta www.youtube.com/
· Episode 2 : A reporter visits Tangier, Ibn Battuta’s birthplace (5:10)
· Episode 3 “Into Andalusia” (5 min.) www.youtube.com/watch?v=
· Episode 4 “In Southern Spain” (4:47) www.youtube.com/watch?v=
· Episode 5 : (5:49) The Legacy of Ibn Battuta; Shows the Ibn Battuta Mall in Dubai, etc.
FILM: Journey to Mecca – Story of a Traveller Ibn Battuta – You Tube (a YouTube version of the IMAX movie) (44 mins.) Shows the Hajj today and in Ibn Battuta’s time
FILM: The Journey of Ibn Battuta (BBC series, 2007): The Man Who Walked Across the World (2 hours, 45 mins.)
three-part BBC documentary travelogue with Tim Mackintosh-Smith.
Video: Ibn Battuta visits Mali, West Africa “Evaluation Copy” (10 min.) Shows salt caravan footage, Niger River, mud mosque of Jenne, etc. This video from Rise of Islam and al-andalus from Millenium series created by Fritz Umbach, City University of New York.
Ibn Battuta in pop culture
GAME: Unearthed : Trail of Ibn Battuta (Sony PlayStation and for PC, MacOS, i-Phone, i-Pad)
When Arab fortune hunter Faris Jawad and his archeologist sister Dania receive a call to visit Morocco they embark on an exotic adventure throughout the Middle East on the trail of the famous Muslim explorer Ibn Battuta (1304-1369 A.D.). The trail won’t be clear however as Faris will have to overcome an unholy alliance of a militia army leader, a weapons dealer and a wealthy antiquities smuggler who are after the same goal. Saudi Arabia’s first game www.unearthedgame.com/ (to be released soon)
There is a Hindi poem which tells about Ibn Battuta and his shoes!