So who was Ibn-e-Batuta?

Published: February 28, 2012
The writer is editor of The Express Tribune Magazine

The writer is editor of The Express Tribune Magazine

The other day my son, a class five student in one of the most sought-after schools in Karachi, came to me for help in a school project. Having read on several parenting websites that I should be participating in my son’s scholastic life, I eagerly agreed. The project was on famous explorers, and given that I’m my nuclear family’s resident amateur historian, my interest was piqued. He obediently rattled off the list of the explorers he had to pick from: Marco Polo, Vasco da Gama, Magellan and so on. “What about Ibn-e-Batuta?” I asked “Who?” he replied. “Ibn-e-Batuta,” I pressed on. “You know, the guy who actually covered more ground than Marco polo? That Ibn-e-Batuta. He also happened to be a Berber and a Muslim.”

“Oh”, he said, probably ruing the moment he asked for my help, ‘no, he’s not on the list.’

Since then, I related this story to a few people, and the most common response was: Ibn-e-Batuta? Isn’t that the mall in Dubai? A couple of my more Bollywood inclined friends remembered his name as the title for a song in the Naseeruddin Shah movie Ishqiya.

Ironically, if you Googled anything at all a few weeks back, you’d have seen that even Google, that infamous tool of Zionist oppression, celebrated his 707th birthday with a doodle commemorating his travels. And why not? After all, this is a man who went all the way from Morocco in the West to China in the East. He travelled to the Byzantine Empire, Spain and the steppes of the golden horde in the north to Somalia in the south. He even got to Sindh, where he famously encountered a rhino before getting as far as Chittagong. That effectively means that he covered more ground than anyone else until the invention of the steam engine, some 450 years later. Sadly, if you went to one of Pakistan’s elite schools, chances are you’ve never even heard of him. Worse, you may have grown up thinking that everything of value in human history came from Europe. Except for paper of course; that’s Chinese.

I don’t blame my son, or any of the similarly schooled people I spoke to. I went to the same school and, by the time I finished my O-levels, I could have told you how many wives Henry VIII had, and what Marie Antoinette’s famous (almost) last words were, but I couldn’t have told you who Timurlane was (is that the next street over from Park Lane?), and I certainly couldn’t tell a Khwarezm-shah from a Shahenshah (you know, the Amitabh movie where he has his arm wrapped in chain mail). I knew Machiavelli and Napoleon, but not Kautiliya and Sun Tzu.

I don’t even blame the schools. The only usable and attractive textbooks are understandably Anglo-centric. The East appears on the periphery, and when it does, it is always through the eyes of the discoverers. All of whom are, of course, dead white males. Our poor little subcontinent appears as a footnote in the conquests of Alexander, or as the land the search for which inadvertently lead to the decimation of the Native Americans.

It wasn’t until the advent of Pakistan Studies that this part of the world made a poorly-written, and even more poorly-edited, appearance. We met the whitewashed and utterly neutered versions of Muhammad Bin Qasim (who, by the way, was absolutely not tortured to death by the Caliph) and Mahmud of Ghazni (who was absolutely not in it for the loot).

So am I asking for our current textbooks to be dumped and replaced with texts that only focus on ‘our’ versions of history? No. I’m not asking for the glorification of some mythical golden age, but just the realisation that history does not end where Russia begins. I don’t expect writers to suddenly churn out attractive textbooks in which ‘we’ get whole chapters and not single paragraphs, and I don’t expect already overburdened teachers to take it upon themselves to write their own course material. Instead, how about we take it on ourselves? How about we actually take the time to research and learn about the ‘rest’ of the world and maybe even teach it to our kids? Trust me, they’ll thank us for it. Eventually.

Published in The Express Tribune, February 29th, 2012.

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Reader Comments (64)

  • Akhtar Banbhan
    Feb 28, 2012 - 11:35PM

    Very true and interesting,reminds me visiting birth and resting place of Ibn-e-Batuta in Tangier Morocco last year.


  • Talal
    Feb 28, 2012 - 11:50PM

    “No. I’m not asking for the glorification of some mythical golden age, but just the realisation that history does not end where Russia begins.” —> Bravo!

    Great Read!


  • Falcon
    Feb 28, 2012 - 11:50PM

    Good article. I must say I like your conversational writing style. On the topic under consideration, I think somehow orientals have come to believe after centuries of colonialism and recent media imperialism (which Canadians and French hate as well by the way) that we need to look to West for everything good and the East is just a remnant of medieval ages. This in general instills a deep subtle feeling of identity crisis. At this point, urban centers in India and China are going through this experience. Its about time we start cherishing our accomplishments and historic figures as well whether it be Ibn-e-Sina, Tsun Zu, or Brahmagupta (inventor of ‘Zero’).


  • Saffy
    Feb 28, 2012 - 11:52PM

    In my experience at least, being taught in the O and A Level system (which I assume your son is enrolled in), characters such as Ibn Battuta, Genghis Khan and Timurlane are discussed in considerable detail in classes preceding Pakistan Studies. I’m not sure if they have changed the syllabus in recent years or your son’s particular school has different course material.


  • Sultan Mehmood
    Feb 28, 2012 - 11:53PM

    That’s what I call a genuine piece of writing. To the point, precise, and read-write worthy. I thank and congratulate the writer for such a meaningful and constructive piece. ET should get more of this stuff besides bashing religion and promoting the right to porn, condoms, and nudity!


  • Deb
    Feb 29, 2012 - 12:07AM

    The greatest traveller ever walked on this planet.His travelouges are part of history.

  • Iqbalkhan
    Feb 29, 2012 - 12:11AM

    so sad, but true….


  • SA
    Feb 29, 2012 - 12:37AM

    Well, the burden of responsibility lies with the parents who send their children to such schools where mentally they live in the west and physically wrestle with their roots at home. It also lies with the high priests of education who frame our own curriculum minus our own roots!


  • John B
    Feb 29, 2012 - 1:13AM

    And whose fault is this, West or East?

    Why should PAK still follow the syllabus of the British “O” level exams?


  • yousaf
    Feb 29, 2012 - 1:40AM

    Not the subject of history alone but all social science subjects should be written from an oriental point of view (after doing a due and honest research).Take economics for an example.All the books worth mention are written by western economists,who see and write things from their view-point.When a local student reads the contents of those books he develops a mindset which is of no use for us.When he after becoming a “qualified”economist formulates economic policies for our country,most of the solutions he gives to overcome our economic problems simply backfire,because he has had a borrowed knowledge which has no roots in our economic soil.So,the task though is hard,but,the sooner we follow the advice of the author the better


  • Sonya Anjum Saba
    Feb 29, 2012 - 2:00AM

    Awesome… I love your article…!!!
    After ages I got a chance to actually feel the real spirit of non-commercial and purely constructive journalism…!!!
    Bless you Mr. Zarrar…!!!
    You might not find as many admirers as those of commercial stuff… But u should know that even if you have few… you have real ones… :)


  • gp65
    Feb 29, 2012 - 2:01AM

    @Falcon: “Its about time we start cherishing our accomplishments and historic figures as well whether it be Ibn-e-Sina, Tsun Zu, or Brahmagupta (inventor of ‘Zero’).”

    Agree with you in principle. Just fyi – the inventor of zero was Arya bhatta not Brahmagupta.


  • Spud
    Feb 29, 2012 - 2:25AM

    Perhaps the reason for telling us about these western travellers is to show how they overcame their prejudices to reach the heights of liberal and rational thinking. If we kept on harping only our past heroes we most likely will remain there. See what is happening in Pakistan today. We keep killing eachother as we did in the past. Tell your students and sons and daughters what these westerners have done for their people. They brought them brought knowledge and culture which has made western nations what they are today. We only see bad things in western countries but do not take to heart their tolerance, humanity, liberal thinking and thirst for knowledge. All our heroes are in the past and in the present time.


  • khan
    Feb 29, 2012 - 3:04AM

    Beautiful writing please writes more on this subject. Thanks


  • Ali Tanoli
    Feb 29, 2012 - 3:04AM

    is it E.T is some hindu news paper???


  • Nasir
    Feb 29, 2012 - 3:05AM

    Great Article

    Maybe we can have another someday titled – who was Abdus Salaam


  • QB
    Feb 29, 2012 - 3:33AM

    Good writing. Important topic indeed.


  • Babloo
    Feb 29, 2012 - 3:47AM

    How is Ibn-Batuta related to Pakistanis in any shaoe or form ?
    Why should Pakistanis take any credit for his travels and accomplishments ?

    The answer is self-evident , considering the ‘ideology of Pakistan’ , but still the question needs to be asked for in the answer lies the solution to all problems that beset pakistan.


  • AbS
    Feb 29, 2012 - 6:04AM

    Thank you for the article Mr. Khuhro.

    Here is another very interesting and a precious read for the interested.


  • Pakistani Agnostic
    Feb 29, 2012 - 7:57AM

    Revising the complete history will open a Pandora box of questions that Pakistanis would not want to hear.
    Even i would not want to hear why the battle of camel took place, why Abbasid kings murdered the entire generation of Omayyad in one single horror night, why Abu Lulu is celebrated in Persia as a national hero, why before conquering Jerusalem Saladin had decimated thousands of Muslim lives in Egypt etc etc.
    Even Indians will not like a accurate history. For the last thousand years, they were under foreign occupation and they blame Muslims for all the troubles in India when in fact, it were the Muslims who ushered in the golden age of architecture and unity. Before the Muslims came, India was disunited and looked nothing like the India of Asoka.


  • zafar ul hassan
    Feb 29, 2012 - 8:22AM

    I hope our education policy makers take advice and act. By the way this is what Allama Iqbal had to say about history:

    ” A living nation is living because it never forgets its dead”

    Speeches, writings and statements of Iqbal, published by Iqbal Academy, page 110


  • Zalim singh
    Feb 29, 2012 - 9:15AM

    Dear sir, you cannot compare Ibn Batuta’s travels with that of Vasco da gama and Magellin or Columbus. They were path breakers. They discovered some thing new. Batuta simply travelled to places via a route already discovered by so many explorers before him. No doubt, he travelled far and wide compared to others, but he was not a path breaker.

    my suggestion – pakistanis should read more about their ancestors, like the great rajput kings than on some fantasised arab heritage.


  • pmbm
    Feb 29, 2012 - 9:48AM


    Good article. I read few verses of Mohmmad Asad’s translation of The Quran every day, I find it teaches tolerance, moderation and all the characteristics that makes a person decent thinking human beings. Muslim children will benefit if they were taught properly along with sciences and maths.


  • MilesToGo
    Feb 29, 2012 - 10:05AM

    You did not name any Sindhis – o wait never mind – you came from Arabia…you are good…


  • Adam
    Feb 29, 2012 - 10:59AM

    Thank you for writing this interesting article in your good, conversational style. My ideas exactly. You point out some problems we also know and think of, but you said it better.


  • Bataan
    Feb 29, 2012 - 11:20AM

    The western education system not only ignores but also disparages the efforts made during the “dark ages” towards the development of human civilization. So today, you will see that a graduate from a truly “English Medium” school will only smirk at the mention of Muslim scholars or history figures.


  • Munir A Saeed
    Feb 29, 2012 - 11:40AM

    The burden lies on all of us irrespective of where we send our children. It s not just about the “elite schools” but every school that needs a good history book that allows students to critically engage with “our” history. The problem however is that the moment you try to teach our history it becomes an unislamic act and against two nationa theory to embrace our past and acknowledge that we as human race lived here longer than Muhammad Bin Qasim’s arrival. Thus we end up teaching European History.


  • Ozymandias
    Feb 29, 2012 - 12:13PM

    Been there, done that (several times)


  • yousaf
    Feb 29, 2012 - 12:27PM

    @ Ali Tanoli—Your words”Is it ET is some Hindu news paper”?? Should I take them as a comment or a satire?I sure think it is just a satire because,may be,you know what ails our education system


  • Tariq
    Feb 29, 2012 - 12:57PM

    Good point by the author. If the Indian song did more to promote this explorer than our education system, then something is clearly wrong with it. The elite schools don’t bother about local history, and the other schools are busy in trying to be like the elite schools. Parents, then, have to play a role in bringing this knowledge to their children. And the only way to do that is books, lots of books. Rather than constant tv, children should be encouraged to read, even if parents can give only 15-20 minutes every day to reading with their children. That’s the only way.


  • Amina
    Feb 29, 2012 - 1:31PM

    Right on!!.. agreed with this writer and a very well established and well written piece on our questionable curriculum! Hope someone wakes up and realizes before our entire culture and history becomes plundered by our own leaders.. Keep it coming Zarrar sb!


  • Zobyr Khan
    Feb 29, 2012 - 2:02PM

    We love our culture, dress, history, language and send our kids for O/A Levels for quality education and prestigious schools, colleges, and universities of European standards. So, our kids are studying their curriculum because we sent them into the schools with this intention. We feel ashamed when we talk in our own local languages but prefer to talk in foreign language, even write and so on.


  • Omar Rana
    Feb 29, 2012 - 2:04PM

    Finally thank you for writing this. what an amazing read! Cheers!


  • Rajendra Rana
    Feb 29, 2012 - 2:13PM

    Translation itself is moderation of Quran ,read the original one in Arabic to find the mind the real thing or does it teaches moderation or fanaticism of which Taliban is a product.


  • Mom
    Feb 29, 2012 - 2:42PM

    He covered more ground.. and wrote about it.. That’s all the difference..

    Perhaps thousands of other people too covered more ground.. but didnt bother to write.. or lost what they wrote..

    Humanity is a big untold story


  • dasmir
    Feb 29, 2012 - 2:55PM

    You can’t teach everything to your child and you have to do with whatever poorly or poorly edited books are available.But what you can do and you should certainly do is to develop and nurture the spirit of enquiry.Who,Why,Whens of the mind.then let your child find the means himself of acquiring wisdom and knowledge,not degree or MBA.
    And the best way to educate unfortunately is not O or A level but travel.
    Have you ever been to Chitgong or Mohenjodaro?Have you seen the Harrapa,Taxila?Khyberpass?lahore Museum?
    I have not!


  • Lubna Jerar Naqvi
    Feb 29, 2012 - 4:39PM

    Great article and makes you think…..the way these subjects are taught here would bore anyone….we need to make them more interesting for the students, and not to be learned by rote for marks.
    I think Zarrar, you should write that social studies/history/geography text to be included in the school curriculum which could be translated into several languages
    and then maybe you could produce a short TV series based on this….bring history to life….:DRecommend

  • 454
    Feb 29, 2012 - 5:18PM

    Well we learned about Al-Khwarizmi’s role in computer science. The term algorithm is a corruption of his name. An algorithm is the foundation of all computer software. NASA has named certain stars after Arab astronomers. So Muslim scientists aren’t entirely missing from the scene as it were.


  • Faraz
    Feb 29, 2012 - 5:23PM

    I have studied in the renown school of Pakistan.
    They have given all the information about Ibn-Batuta , Muhammad bin Qasim and many other famous Muslim people.
    I think it is the responsibility of the parents to get their children active in reading books and good magazines.
    I also think students who belongs to matric system or low grade school know less about Muslim history then the O/A-level schools.


  • Feb 29, 2012 - 5:55PM

    Problem lies at our education system. We force everything uselessly. We prepare students for test so none learn anything beyond textbooks.


  • Kumail Ahmed
    Feb 29, 2012 - 7:27PM

    Just gave my Civil Service paper today!!! Ibn-Battuta also came in the court of sultan Muhammed bin Tughluq.

    The sultan sent him as an ambassador to China.


  • Zalmai
    Feb 29, 2012 - 7:28PM

    @Zarrar Khuhro

    ” Google, that infamous tool of Zionist oppression”. That is a new one. How come you did not mention the famous Mohenjo Daro or great kings like Ashoka and Chandragupta Maurya. A comprehensive education should also teach pre Islamic history of the region.


  • khan
    Feb 29, 2012 - 7:33PM

    The problem is much deeper our entire education system is the most corrupt and most neglected department in our country all we have produced is educated garbage and it shows in our political leadership most of them have fake degrees and they have left it to the private sector to provide education to the nation. And the entire education system is based on profit and for private sector it is most profitable to import the teaching syllabus which is in foreign language therefore our students do not know any thing about our own history and culture. This policy has eliminated 95 % our population from being educated Not to mention the brain drainage it has caused to our country which has subsidized to produce doctors and engineers who have contribute nothing by going abroad on the first opportunity. ALLAMA IQBAL saw this and his biggest complaint about the British rule was that you took away our thinking power in our mother tong from us. No nation can ever excel if it stops educating, thinking, writing, researching, in its own mother tong.


  • Balma
    Feb 29, 2012 - 7:35PM

    Pakistani and Indian education system creates baaboos, munshis, and kaarigars, not real educated people. As Lord MacAuley said, he wanted to change the Indian education system so the people will have Indian blood but English thinking. He and his buddies succeeded big time. Indo-Pak are the only people in the whole world who are actually ashamed to acknowledge any know how of their mother tongues. T
    he prevailing education system has made desis full-time bayghairats!
    I was walking around in DHA one day and noticed a school called Aviross. I was amused to see the name. If it had been called Ibn-e-Rushd School, even area’s chowkidaars and bhangees won’t send their kids to the school!


  • Falcon
    Feb 29, 2012 - 7:36PM

    Thanks for alleviating my ignorance. Following is my source of information.


  • Balma
    Feb 29, 2012 - 7:39PM

    Babloo baitay,
    Ibn-e-Batuta is relevant to Paksitan because he traveled to Indo-Pak. He visited Dehli and passed through Calicut (Malabar) and Multan, if my memory serves me right.

    Read the historical fiction ‘A house with thousand columns’ written in the past ten years.


  • PakiKaka
    Feb 29, 2012 - 7:40PM

    Yea right? you wish dude. Our myopic thinking does not allow us to teach our children history of indian subcontinent it only teaches muslims in sub continent. Ppl like M bi Qasim and Ghaznavi are worshipped only because they were Muslims, let alone the fact that they were imperialists and looters yet chandra gupta maurya and ranjit singh who were locals are completely missed just because they were non muslims even though they were locals of our land.
    Btw i hope the author is being satirical when he mentions bin qasim and ghaznavi. Don’t expect such narrow thinking from someone like him.


  • salman ahmed
    Feb 29, 2012 - 9:23PM

    Battuta is also known as the first anthropologist of this world. His observations are collected in two volumes called Rihla. While traveling through India, Battuta had acquired the title of Shamsuddin, by the time he got to China, according to Tim Mackintosh Smith, the title was shortened to Ding, and you dont have to let your imagination run wild to arrive at the safe assessment that Battuta was the father of the soon coming Ding Dynasty. Smith notes this with references from photographs of early Dings, with strong North African facial features.

    If anyone wants to read more about Battuta, grab yourself a book called ‘Travels with a tangerine’, its written by Tim Mackintosh Smith.


  • Junaid
    Feb 29, 2012 - 9:33PM

    What a fine article! and what a fine line: “..history does not end where Russia begins..”.
    After a long time I enjoyed reading ET.


  • Ahmed
    Mar 1, 2012 - 2:24AM

    After centuries of licking the white man’s boots, the author is suggesting that we turn our object of devotion to Arabs, Turks, and other barbaric Islamic invaders. Great!!!! My ancestor who first started human civilization on earth in the Indus valley and created the indo-pak vedic civilization squirmed in his grave.


  • pmbm
    Mar 1, 2012 - 8:45AM

    @ Rajendra Rana
    What I wrote is beyond you ,Sir.
    Mr Asad was an Austrian Jew convert with excellent knowledge of Arabic, having spent about 10 years with saudi beduins to get meanings of every word to produce best translation mostly for intelligent european people.. Besides I understand arabic too.
    Indo-Pak muslims take out meanings ignorantly as you did. Nothing wrong with arabic text.


  • Danish
    Mar 1, 2012 - 8:52AM

    Author made a good point. Why complaint why not teach our children what they are not getting in their schools, no ones stopping us. We need to reassess what we are being taught, after all we spend a lot of time and effort on it and it shapes who we are and how we think.


  • Yuri Kondratyuk
    Mar 1, 2012 - 10:23AM

    The reason why Ibn-e-Batuta’s story is not widely accepted is lack of credibility. He is not known to maintain notes like Hiuen Tsang or Fa Hein or Megasthenes. All that is known about his travels is from his own dictated accounts. His 14th century travelogue lacks the rigor of some of those written even a millennium earlier.


  • Vanita
    Mar 1, 2012 - 10:25AM

    Very good article about Pakistani school problem. But surprised to hear that you don’t have a credible Pakistani education board for elite schools. India has had NCERT which subscribes textbooks for all schools, private, government and municipal. These are very well researched and written by well known scholars. They are updated very frequently. It is only now that we have the international boards coming up but they also offer well researched content for the relevant subjects. Indian kids study Indian history till their 8 class after which they are exposed to World History. This is something which every child in the West also does. Study local before global .


  • Sadaf
    Mar 1, 2012 - 12:15PM

    I don’t think the writer is suggesting that at all. I think he just wants another perspective than the usual European one. No harm in knowing about the Arabs/Turks/Chinese/Indian civilzations etc. as long as that adds to your knowledge and doesn’t limit you to a certain view point only….

    Really good article by the way.


  • amlendu
    Mar 1, 2012 - 12:39PM

    I studied in a pretty ordinary school in Bihar (India) and we were taught about Ibn-e-Batoota and Al-Beruni.


  • Yuri Kondratyuk
    Mar 1, 2012 - 12:54PM


    Quran is only interpreted into other languages and never literally translated as any claim of literal translation will invite theological dispute.


  • Narmeen
    Mar 1, 2012 - 3:44PM

    Bravo! And it has to be the parents who need to take this conversation forward with our schools.


  • citizen
    Mar 1, 2012 - 4:04PM

    @ Zalim Singh:
    very well said. I think ts more important to think about ‘our’ national heros.


  • uzma nawaz
    Mar 2, 2012 - 9:16AM

    Excellent insight. It is indeed our responsibility to teach our kids. We just cannot rely on the schooling system. It is definitely a wake-up call for the parents.


  • Nirmit
    Mar 2, 2012 - 3:55PM

    “He also happened to be a Berber and a Muslim.” —- an Explore who happens to be a Muslim is a wunderbao……is it really necessary to tell children about the religion and it being great if an explorer is a Muslim too!!!! I stopped reading this article after this sentence. I could imagine what would follow…just a Muslim glorification…..


  • Mar 3, 2012 - 8:49AM

    Very interesting!
    This is the first time I am seeing a “liberal” editor complain about Pakistan’s “Anglo-centric” education, rather than the usual criticisms of Pak textbooks for “teaching hate”. It just shows that the problem is not specific to the bias against the West or non-Muslims…it’s a different problem of lack of quality and completeness needed in Pakistani education.


  • Ramis
    Mar 3, 2012 - 4:57PM

    West is not the enemy of Islam my dear friends – Muslims are their own enemies. The fact that Google celebrated Ibn-e-Batuta’s birthday by creating a doodle last week speaks volumes. Also, Time magazine in its popular annual travel issue, tracked Ibn-e-Batuta’s footsteps last August, declared Islam as the ‘great globalizing force’ of that time and Ibn-e-Batuta as the ‘father of travel writing’. Read here:,9263,501110808,00.html


  • Ozymandias
    Mar 4, 2012 - 3:17PM

    I hope you realise that it was the Aryan invaders who put him in that grave. Just before giving India the gift of the caste system.


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