Forget people like Marco Polo, as far as the Arab world goes, Ibn Battuta is THE MAN. But this greatly reverred explorer has had his reputation questioned. The man casting doubt on our Battuta is German oriental scholar Ralf Elger, who claims to have discovered that Ibn Battuta faked most of his travel accounts. As one commentator has said "The professor's theory dulls the polished image of one of the most revered figures in Arab cultural history". So, was the great Arab traveller, Ibn Battuta, a genuine contemporary witness or simply an impostor? Our Cultural Editor, Ibn Warraq, investigates.
The book, Ibn Battuta: Die Wunder des Morgenlandes, by orientalist scholar Ralf Elger, will be seen as either a breakthrough work or an attempt to smear the reputation of one of the Arab world's favourite sons. At a time when many Muslims feel that the golden age has been left behind, Abou Abdallah Mohammed Ibn Abdallah Ibn Mohammed Ibn Ibrahim Ibn Mohammed Ibn Ibrahim Ibn Youssef Alaouati Attangi - thankfully shortened to Ibn Battuta - has always been seen as someone in whom they can feel justifiable pride. For those people, Ralf Elgar will certainly put a dent in that pride.
For Muslims, Ibn Battuta still commands a great deal of respect because he records in his travel journals the legendary greatness of the Islamic empire. His accounts serve as a confirmation of an Islamic self-image that is still intact – like a mantra, Ibn Battuta accentuates the virtuousness of Islamic life and the misguided nature of the unfaithful.
However, Elgar hints at plagiarism. In the epilogue to his book, Ralf Elger writes that there are numerous indications that 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.
Most notable, Elgar points out, are however the striking resemblances to various writings of his era, primarily to a pilgrimage account written by a certain Ahmad Ibn Jubayr. Pages of this work were either slightly reworked or copied word for word: "Many of Ibn Battuta's accounts do not provide us with his immediate travel impressions at all, but rather confront us with his skill as a plagiariser," says Elger.
Throughout his travels Ibn Battuta records the extraordinary generosity of his hosts. Elgar also comes up with an explanation for all of this. Put simply it is greed. "If you appreciate Ibn Battuta's account as an implicit demand for a sumptuous gift, then it is very easy to explain many of the passages," says Elger. "The reader may well have wondered how it could have been possible for an unknown traveller from Morocco to gain access to the world's leaders and be honoured 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."
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.
German academic, Lewis Gropp, writing a review of Elgar's book in the magazine Qantara, also comments on Elgar's claims, but points out that, in part, they are nothing new. "Although Ibn Battuta is still viewed to this day by many Arabs as a great explorer and traveller of the Arab and Islamic world, doubts were raised as to the authenticity of his reports even during his lifetime. The great Arab historian Ibn Chaldun reports for example that there were several people at the court of Fez who did not believe the accounts were genuine."
Elgar also claims that there is no interest in a revision of Ibn Battuta's work in the Arab world today – proof, he says, that Ibn Battuta continues to serve many Arabs and Muslims as a symbol of their former cultural greatness. This faith is of course thrown into question if he is revealed as an impostor. 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. "A scandalous occurrence," says Elger "that proves that much has changed for the worse in the Arab world since the 14th century."
Well, while that is true, it is certainly nothing new. In the end, it matters little to those who will continue to read and enjoy the travels of Ibn Battuta. Elgar's work is yet to be translated into English, so, in the meantime, I suggest we set him aside and enjoy Battuta's writing. There have been many translations and scholarly works on the travels; perhaps the best being historian Ross E. Dunn's The Adventures of Ibn Battuta. For those who want something more, by far the most entertaining books about Ibn Battuta are Travels with a Tangerine and The Hall of a Thousand Columns by Tim Mackintosh-Smith. This writer, based in San'a in Yemen, set out to follow in Battuta's footsteps - the first book deals with the first stage of his journey from Tangier to Constantinople; the second deals with his voyage through India.
For more on Ibn Battuta - go here.