Ibn Battuta’s 1331 journey to West Africa provides a contrast of two worlds: Battuta’s pre-modern Islamic culture conflicting with African societies’ interpretation of Muslim beliefs and tribal traditions. He is especially critical of the various roles of women he observes—thus, allowing us insight into his own judgments formed by his culture and society.
A brief summary of his life is paramount in the understanding of Battuta’s impressions and reactions to West African society. Abu Abdallah ibn Battuta was born in Morocco in 1304. By 1325, Battuta embarked on his first hajj, or pilgrimage to the holiest Islamic city of Mecca at age twenty-one (Hamdun, King, p. 1). Although expected to complete this religious duty at least once in his or her lifetime, Battuta accomplished the hajj, “six or seven times, each time presumably accruing divine merit” (Dunn, p. xvii). Battuta was a part of the ulama, an elite class of Muslim religious and legal scholars who, “traveled to make the hajj or to further their education in the religious sciences (Dunn, p. xii). Battuta traveled extensively for nearly thirty years, visiting around fifty countries, often multiple times (Dunn, p. ix). He chronicled his lengthy expeditions in the Rihla (Book of Travels), allowing some of the first and only written accounts of Sub-Saharan Africa in the 14th century.
Battuta’s beliefs regarding status of women in Islamic society is perhaps first alluded to in his account of the Massūfa of Īwālātan. He chides, “The condition of these people is strange and their manners outlandish…None of them derives his genealogy from his father, but on the contrary, from his maternal uncle” (Battuta, p. 37). Battuta disagrees with the Massūfa’s tradition of matrilineal derived succession, wherein a father’s inheritance surpasses his own sons to his sister’s sons. He likens the practice to his previous experience with the Mulaībār in India, whom he refers to as the “unbelievers” (Battuta, p. 37). This differs from his culture’s convention where familial relationships are traced through a patrilineal system where inheritance is bequeathed directly from father to son. Perhaps Battuta’s reaction originates from ethnocentrism—he compares other societies by his culture’s standards, resulting in Battuta’s biases. The majority of the Muslim world is a patriarchal; the males are the center of authority, whereas in Īwālātan there is an emphasis on the position of female influence. This concept is difficult for Battuta to accept. Despite these criticisms, Battuta contrasts his disapproval with the Massūfa by citing their devout Muslim qualities, such as the commitment of the Qur’an (the sacred Islamic text) to memory (Battuta, p. 37). However, the redemption is brief. Forthcoming contact between the sexes in Īwālātan serves to further offend Battuta.
Battuta disapproves of several instances of male-female companionship he witnesses throughout his journey. First, he visits the qādī, or judge of...