Overview of Ibn Battuta’s West African Work

Looking at Battuta’s work, even a small excerpt like the one found in the Corpus of Early Arabic Sources for West African History, it is understandable why he is seen as such an important source for medieval Africa.  He goes into fairly extensive detail on several different cultures and towns and covers a wide range of topics, like slaves, weapons, currency, trade, etc.  If I had not ever thought that he might have plagiarized or otherwise falsified his records, his works would have been a veritable gold mine of information.  However, that is not the case.


Looking at his work with a critical eye does tend to show the cracks in his work’s facade.  Battuta tends to repeat himself or neglect pertinent information that he mentioned a few paragraphs earlier.  On page 301 of the Corpus, he mentions that there is little wheat in the town of Takadda; there is only enough for merchants and travelers.  However, he mentions a few pages later how the inhabitants of that area are completely unaware of the existence of wheat.  One could rationalize it as that the people who knew about wheat were the ones who usually dealt with merchants.  Yet Battuta never makes an attempt at showing the nuance of this society; he simply contradicts himself.


To build off of this, his descriptions are wildly disparate in size and detail.  His description of Mali is in-depth and quite engaging.  He describes his interaction with its sultan, Mansa Sulayman, and the various ceremonies that he witnessed during his time there, including a massive presentation of slaves by Sulayman’s chief interpreter Dugha.  Its industries, trade, peoples, food, etc. are explored by Battuta and once one finishes this portion, one feels that they have had a fairly complete snapshot of Mali during Battuta’s time.  However, his subsequent description of the land of Burnu is much more scant.  He gives a general overview that anyone could give had they heard it from another source.  Compared to Mali, where he describes who he lived with, their generosity, and what they did during Battuta’s visit, Battuta’s description of Burnu feels empty.  He lists off three figures, gives their occupations, and says nothing more.  These men – the qadi Abu Ibrahim, the khatib Muhammad,  the teacher Abu Hafs, and the shaykh Sa’id b. Ali – are ghosts compared to his descriptions of Mali’s Dugha and Ibn al-Faqih, among others.


Ultimately, by looking at this particular translation and edition of Battuta’s travels, it seems plausible that he visited a few of these places, Mali in particular, but his weak descriptions of smaller towns undermines the veracity of his chronicle.  By cross-referencing his works against those of Ibn Juzzay or his own contemporaries and by looking at earlier translations or the original texts, one could probably make a more definitive argument for or against the use of Battuta’s works as a source for medieval West Africa.


  1. zkharazian says:

    I remember discussing Ibn Battuta’s accounts in an intro to early African history class last semester. Why do you think they have gone criticized, or at least examined with a more critical eye, for so long?