Saturday, June 26, 2010
The Travels of Ibn Battuta
The history of generosity to foreigners in Africa goes along way. In 1331, Ibn Battuta, a learned Moroccan traveler, Islamic jurist and scholar, during a visit to Mogadishu, was accorded the best form of hospitality by being fed, clothed, and entertained for free. Perhaps, had he paid visit to any European land, he would either have been held captive as a slave indefinitely or he would have been killed right away. In his famous Rihla or travels, Ibn Battuta reported, “we stayed there for three days, food being brought to us three times a day, following their custom. On the fourth day, which was a Friday, the qadi and students and one of the sheikh’s viziers came to me, bringing a set of robes, these [official] robes of theirs consist of a silk wrapper which one ties round his waist in place of drawers (for they have no acquaintance with these), a tunic of Egyptian linen with an embroidered border, a furred mantle of Jerusalem stuff, and an Egyptian turban with an embroidered edge. They also brought robes for my companions suitable to their position. We went to the congregational mosque and made our prayers behind the maqsura [private box for the sultan]. When the sheikh came out of the maqsura I saluted him along with the qadi; he said a word of greeting, spoke in their tongue with the qadi, and then said in Arabic “you are heartily welcome, and you have honored our land and given us pleasure.”
Ibn Battuta’s hosts never turned out to be the apes, beasts, and baboons recorded in many obnoxious European accounts of Africa. Instead, he found people who were resilient, affectionate, modern, and perceptive of travelers’ needs, punctilious, and above all religious and not blasphemous as the Europeans would have us believe. Ibn Battuta was a guest to a Somali sheikh (Islamic scholar) and a qadi (magistrate) both of who observed all the values, creeds, and customs of Islamic way of life especially in reference to etiquettes relating to hosting guests or visitors. Even before disembarking ship, Ibn Battuta and his companions or crew, were accorded a high degree of respect on board ship. Ibn Battuta was accorded the respect reserved for a doctor of the law. He became a guest of the sheikh and not the guest of an ordinary man or woman. Born in Tangiers, Morocco in the year 1304 C.E., Ibn Battuta descended from the Lawati Berber tribe in a family of lawyers and judges. The full name of this dedicated lone-traveler was Abu Abdullah Muhammad Ibn Abdullah Al Lawati Al Tanji Ibn Battuta; he died about 1368 or 1369. In a period spanning 29 years, Ibn Battuta covered approximately 75,000 miles by ship and on dhows, on horseback, on foot, and riding donkeys and camels to mostly Muslim lands. He traveled three times the distance covered by the celebrated European discoverer and explorer Marco Polo!
In reference to past African political organizations, contemporary scholars and writers often use the terms stateless society and segmentary society. Far from the truth, Africans enjoyed elaborate hierarchy of officials and bureaucratic apparatus in the management of their daily affairs. Between the years 800-1500 C.E., great kingdoms, empires, and city-states flourished in sub-Saharan Africa with scrupulous trade routes traversing the massive Sahara desert culminating in the profusion of immense wealth to West Africa, North Africa, Middle East, and Europe in what came known as the trans-Sahara trade routes. Whether in the coastal plains or in the lush hinterlands, Africans executed complex and organized central governments ruled by powerful kings with administrative divisions overseen by prominent figures representing the head of state. Long before the birth of Islam, a mighty kingdom existed in Ghana (not related to the modern state of Ghana). Even before the Islamic Hijra in 622 C.E. (Common Era), as many as twenty-two kings ruled Ghana. As reported by Al-Bakri, a mid-eleventh century Spanish-Cordovan traveler, the seat of the Kingdom of Ghana was at Koumbi-Saleh-a flourishing city containing elaborate buildings and over a dozen mosques. During its height of power from the ninth to the twelfth century, as many as fifteen thousand to twenty thousand people populated the city of Koumbi-Saleh.
To maintain order in the kingdom and protect the city and the state from external aggression and to safeguard the trade routes from marauding hooligans and highway robbers, the Kingdom of Ghana had as many two-hundred thousand well-armed and well-trained armies of warriors. To support such a large army, the administration in Koumbi-Saleh levied taxes on trade caravans passing through the kingdom. During this period in time, the headwaters of the Niger, Gambia, and Senegal rivers contained the largest deposits of gold. The demand for economic development and dwindling resources in the eastern hemisphere lured merchants in the Mediterranean basin and the Islamic world to the vast resources that was available in the kingdom of Ghana. In exchange for gold and other precious minerals, trans-Saharan merchants from as far as Europe and Arabia brought in horses, cloth, manufactured wares, and salt-a crucial commodity that was in short supply in the tropics. Besides Koumbi-Saleh, other prominent trading towns were Timbuktu in present-day Mali, Gao, Jenne, and Niani. Never at time has the history of the African continent been contrasting as European explorers of the past envisaged. Instead, Africa enjoys a history full of intricate governance, distinct civilization, elaborate terra-cotta craftsmanship, magnificent trade routes and abundance of wealth, and endless stories.