Ibn Battuta Criticism

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H. A. R. Gibb (essay date 1929)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: Gibb, H. A. R. Introduction to Ibn Battuta: Travels in Asia and Africa, 1325-1354, translated and selected by Robert M. McBride, pp. 1-42. New York: Robert M. McBride and Company, 1929.

[In the following excerpt, Gibb describes Ibn Battuta's travels and discusses the value of his work.]


To the world of today the men of medieval Christendom already seem remote and unfamiliar. Their names and deeds are recorded in our history-books, their monuments still adorn our cities, but our kinship with them is a thing unreal, which costs an effort of the imagination. How much more must this apply to the great Islamic civilization, that stood over against medieval Europe, menacing its existence and yet linked to it by a hundred ties that even war and fear could not sever. Its monuments too abide, for those who may have the fortune to visit them, but its men and manners are to most of us utterly unknown, or dimly conceived in the romantic image of the Arabian Nights. Even for the specialist it is difficult to reconstruct their lives and see them as they were. Histories and biographies there are in quantity, but the historians, for all their picturesque details, seldom show the ability to select the essential and to give their figures that touch of the intimate which makes them live again for the reader. It is in this faculty that Ibn Battúta excels. Of the multitudes that crowd upon the stage in the pageant of medieval Islam there is no figure more instinct with life than his. In his book he not only lays before us a faithful portrait of himself, with all his virtues and his failings, but evokes a whole age as it were from the dead. These travels have been ransacked by historians and geographers, but no estimate of his work is even faintly satisfactory which does not bear in mind that it is first and foremost a human diary, in which the tale of facts is subordinated to the interests and preoccupations of the diarist and his audience. It is impossible not to feel a liking for the character it reveals to us, generous to excess, humane in an age when life was at its cheapest, bold (did ever medieval traveller fear the sea less?), fond of pleasure and uxorious to a degree, but controlled withal by a deep vein of piety and devotion, a man with all the makings of a sinner, and something of a saint.

Of the external events of Ibn Battúta's life we know little beyond what he himself tells us. The editor of the travels, Ibn Juzayy, notes that he was born at Tangier on 24th February, 1304, and from a brief reference in a later book of biographies we know that after his return to Morocco he was appointed qádí or judge in one of the Moroccan towns, and died there in 1368 or 1369. His own name was Muhammad son of Abdalláh, Ibn Battúta being the family name, still to be found in Morocco. His family had apparently been settled in Tangier for some generations and belonged to the Berber tribe of the Luwáta, which first appears in history as a nomadic tribe in Cyrenaica and on the borders of Egypt. For the rest he divulges incidentally in a passage relating to his appointment as qádí in Delhi, that he came of a house which had produced a succession of qádís, and later on he mentions a cousin who was qádí of Rondah in Spain. He belonged, in consequence, to the religious upper-class, if the term may be used, of the Muhammadan community, and must have received the usual literary and scholastic education of the theologians. On one occasion he quotes a poem of his own composition, but the other verses quoted here and there obviously bear a more popular character than the elaborate productions of the best Arabic poetic schools. His professional interest in men and matters religious may be seen on nearly every page of his work. It is evident from the list of qádís and other theologians whom he saw in every town on his travels (sometimes to the exclusion of all other details), but above all from his eagerness to visit...

(The entire section is 65,021 words.)