Thursday, February 6, 2014

Book Review of The Odyssey of Ibn Battuta

Book Review
David Waines, The Odyssey of Ibn Batutta: Uncommon Tales of a Medieval Adventurer
By Zackery M. Heern
Published in Al-Masaq: Islam and the Medieval Mediterranean, Volume 25, Issue 2, August 2013, pages 265-267

David Waines’s The Odyssey of Ibn Battuta is a palatable monograph on the legendary Moroccan Muslim traveler. Ibn Battuta’s travelogue, al-Rihla, has long been used as a source of information on Eurasia and Africa in the Middle Ages. Sex, culinary delights, miracles, and radical others are among the many themes of Waines’s book. Like Ibn Battuta’s travelogue, The Odyssey explores the sacred and the profane in equal measure.

In the opening chapter, Waines seeks to contextualize Ibn Battuta and his famous travelogue, which is the only book attributed to Ibn Battuta. Waines uses the English translation of al-Rihla by Gibb and Beckingham as his primary source of research for The Odyssey. After Waines makes the inevitable comparison between Ibn Battuta and Marco Polo, he attempts to defend the very authenticity of Ibn Battuta’s travelogue. Waines concedes that portions of al-Rihla are plagiarized and that the chronology of Ibn Battuta’s travels laid out in the text is “impossible.” Waines argues that even though Ibn Battuta copied portions of his travelogue (most notably from Ibn Jubayr), he still adds a fourteenth century eyewitness account on top of the accounts of previous authors.

As Waines periodically indicates throughout The Odyssey, Ibn Battuta’s al-Rihla generally conforms to the historical realities of the Middle Ages. Therefore, the question that scholars are grappling with is whether Ibn Battuta actually visited the places he discusses in his book or if his account is the product of his own research. Ultimately, Waines suggests that critics of Ibn Battuta, including Gibb, provide misleading conclusions. Waines argues that plagiarism among medieval writers was widespread, even if frustrating for the modern scholar. Although the plagiarism question consumes most of the first chapter, it is not the main thrust of Waines’s book. Waines is more interested in opening up the world of Ibn Battuta to a contemporary Western audience.

The remainder of The Odyssey is divided into four chapters. Chapter two dives into the travels of Ibn Battuta. The reader makes a pilgrimage with Ibn Battuta to Mecca, sails south to Yemen, travels to Anatolia, and heads east to India and China before returning to Ibn Battuta’s homeland of Morocco. Along the way, Ibn Battuta hears church bells ring for the first time, purchases two Greek slave girls, joins a military expedition, and receives a large cash gift from a Turkish sultan. Throughout this chapter and the remainder of the book, Waines is a good tour guide, providing historical or cultural context when necessary.

The themes of chapter three are food and hospitality. In fact, much of the discussion on hospitality focuses on food as well. Having written extensively on medieval Islamic culture since the 1970s, Waines is in his element when discussing food. In fact, Waines’s contribution to Ibn Battuta studies may well be his elaboration on food culture. Throughout the chapter, he gives detailed descriptions, even recipes of dishes that Ibn Battuta mentions. Further, Waines points out Islamic food laws when applicable to the stories he relates.

In my view, chapters four and five are the highlights of The Odyssey. Chapter four fulfills the promise indicated by the subtitle of the book. The reader is treated to fantastic tales featuring great religious and political figures. Waines does not disappoint in his retelling of Ibn Battuta’s experiences with fire dancing, snake biting, fortune telling, levitation, and other miracles. As Waines points out, Ibn Battuta’s travels can seem like “a medieval globetrotter’s guide to the cemeteries of the Muslim world” (p. 135). Waines argues that Ibn Battuta’s goal in visiting tombs of saints and other holy sites was to receive religious blessings and witness miracles (p. 121).

The theme of the fifth and final chapter is the “other,” for which Waines relies heavily on the work of Remke Kruk and Roxanne Euben. The first half of the chapter discusses Ibn Battuta’s treatment of women. Waines describes Ibn Battuta as “more of a serial monogamist than polygamist, except for his…sojourn to the Maldive Islands” (p. 158). In what follows, Waines describes a pattern in which Ibn Battuta would contract marriages during his stay in a given place and divorce his wives once he decided to travel to his next destination. Waines illustrates how Ibn Battuta reveled in the fact that marriage in the Maldives “is really a sort of temporary marriage,” (p. 163). However, as a judge on there, he tried to force women to wear Islamic dress, but to no avail. Additionally, Ibn Battuta chastised the immoral behavior of buying Greek slave girls for prostitution, but continuously purchased slave girls throughout his travels when he could afford it. Waines also points out that Ibn Battuta was scandalized by the fact that he came across matrilineal societies in sub-Saharan Africa, where women and men had platonic relationships.

In the second half of the fourth chapter, Waines discusses Ibn Battuta’s relationship with religious and racial ‘others.’ Waines illustrates a number of encounters between Ibn Battuta and practitioners of Islamic legal schools other than his own Maliki school. Waines includes an entire section on Ibn Battuta’s interaction with Shi‘i Muslims. Following the practice of Ibn Battuta, Waines uses the derogatory terms dissidents and Rafidis (lit. rejectionists) to describe Shi‘is. In all, Waines suggests that although Ibn Battuta detested the “extreme Rafidis,” he admired their piety and hospitality.

The Odyssey is a must read for Ibn Battuta enthusiasts, especially those who happen to be foodies and enjoy fantastical stories. The discerning reader is left wondering, though, whether the tales presented by Waines are a veritable portal to the medieval world or simply Ibn Battuta’s imagination of it. Either way, Waines has written a fascinating study of one of history’s most renowned world travelers.

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