Conflicting accounts on the fear of strangers: Muslim and Arab perceptions of Europeans in medieval geographical literature

Conflicting accounts on the fear of strangers: Muslim and Arab perceptions of Europeans in medieval geographical literature

By Samar Attar

Arab Studies Quartely (2005)

Introduction: In his classical journey throughout the ancient world, Ibn Batutah, a fourteenth-century Moroccan traveler, had wished to travel from the middle Volga city of Bulghar to the “Land of Darkness.” The distance as he figured was about forty days. But then he changed his mind for several reasons. It was not possible for him to pay for the expensive journey and the benefits he would reap would be minimal. He had heard from other travelers about the inhospitable nature of the inhabitants of those regions. It was reported that once foreign merchants arrived in the Land of Darkness they would leave their merchandise in a specific place and go away to spend the night. On the following day they would come back to check the spot. They may find sable, or squirrel, or ermine fur. If the foreign merchants were satisfied with the deal they would take the fur and leave the country. Otherwise they would not touch anything and would come back at another time to see what was happening. The people from the Land of Darkness would either add more fur to please the foreign merchants, or simply take it away. In short, buying and selling was never done face to face. Ibn Batutah commented briefly that one did not know whether he was dealing with humans or jinn. No one could really see them.

This narrative is based on much earlier conflicting accounts by Medieval Arab and Muslim travelers who had referred to the xenophobia of certain northern people in Europe. Ibn Hawqal, for instance, a tenth-century geographer described a branch of ‘Rus’ as a group of people, who used to kill every foreigner entering their territory. Yet other travelers, such as Ibn Rustah, a Persian Muslim geographer in the early tenth century spoke of a different ‘Rus’, who also traded in sable and other hairy animals, as hospitable and kind to foreigners.

This article will explore the treatment of foreigners in old Europe as seen by Arab and Muslim travelers in selected medieval texts. I argue that the notion of either ‘the fear’, or ‘the welcoming’ of strangers did not develop into a fixed cliche, or a stereotype. Although the medieval travelers had journeyed from regions usually, but not necessarily, known for their openness to strangers and willingness to befriend them and even integrate them within the multifaceted empire, they had not on the whole created a binary construct of East and West, or South and North. For many of them, Europeans, as well as all other nations, were like the rest of us, i.e., the children of God. Human diversity is, in particular, a manifestation of the greatness of God. There are many reasons that can explain the differences in human nature. The philosophical notion, which asserts that humans have reason and can possibly use it, no matter who they are, is prevalent in most of the Arabic geographical literature that deals with alien cultures.

 Click here to read/download this article (HTML file)

Sign up to get a Weekly Email from

* indicates required

medievalverse magazine