Book Review – Leo Africanus

Al-Hasan ibn Muhammad al-Wazzan, or Leo Africanus, was a terrific discourse retold by Amin Maalouf.[1] The storied tale follows Hasan from Spain (Granada), throughout North Africa, Rome and other different places in the globe. This story is considered as a valuable description of the Muslims’ world for centuries and although it is work of fiction, based on al-Wazzan writings, the unfolding events in throughout the story broadly historically accurate. It provides a clear description of vast, diverse people, each with a purpose, but for Hasan, most became great enemies and friends. A major theme of the book focuses on the tensions between Muslims and Christians. Today, even readers can pay attention to the emotions felt by those whose beliefs and faith are under attack by non-believers. Others would sympathize with Hasan because they find themselves caring and supporting people since they are good rather than their beliefs.

Hasan was born in City of Granada in Spain, during the end of Islamic rule and in the rivalry of his mother, Salma, and his father’s slave, Warda. Before he was born, his mother and the slave were both pregnant and wished to have a Muhammad, a male heir. Eventually, Salma gave birth to Hasan, while Warda gave birth to a girl, Mariam. Although Salma had a wish and victory, they are overshadowed by Muhammad obsession for Warda and contributes to Hasan irrational behavior as well as a social ruin. Additionally, it is through his father’s unreasonable conduct that would set in motion the events of his life from exiting Spain to struggles he faces in places he traveled across the world.

His life provides readers with a fairly but detailed accurate account of a typical Muslim’s life. A Muslim is not depicted as a savage warrior or religious zealot. Instead, Muslim characters or traits are unique and varied similarly to the practitioners of any other major religious group in the world. At the same time, the author was seen keen to represent Jews and Christians very carefully. As such, he paints a picture of a world that is full of wonderful and beautiful people of different color, religion, language, and culture. In many countries such as the US, it is easy for a person to succumb to ethnocentrism. People sometimes may tend to thinks that other individuals from other cultures are not as wealthy or bright as they are. Through hero Hasan, the book challenges these ideas. Hasan is educated and well-respected by leaders and powerful men in different regions.

One criticism for Leo Africanus lies in the presentation of Islam because the nature of Islam in the 15th century (1400- 1500) is different from Islam of today. The changes in fortunes reflect shifts in the political landscape in 14th and 15th centuries; thus, chronicling Hasan’s personal and political life especially citing the continuing conflict between religious and secular groups, the author provides a lurid history lesson in a sympathetic and sweeping depiction of Islam culture of the period. Although many laws and customs are similar, they have become more and more institutionalized over the centuries. The author does not provide readers a better understanding of Islamic society because he only introduces it. It lightly describes practices during Ramadhan period, the importance of Muslim children to learn Quran, the hierarchy in Islam and family structure. Hasan is used as a character who bridges the gap of the East and West parts of the world because his thinking is portrayed to be sufficiently forward for a westerner to identify while his upbringing and cultural background is largely dominated by eastern cultural setting.

Another criticism of the Hasan is the fact that his character lies to his willingness to leave his family – wives and children – and friends. It is understandable that in some situation, such as that with Nur, he had no option, but still left the fate of his child to the mercy of strangers. At the age of 40, he barely knew his daughter whom he had left to be raised by the family.

The book is very interesting since it draws the attention of the reader in every page and brings curiosity where the fate or luck would take the main character; the author stirred the reader with same passion and curiosity held by Hasan. Hence, we cannot read this story without dreaming o thinking of times when time and destiny takes us to the unknown path. The author has successfully captured the smell, sounds, and people of the Islamic world by avoiding spiritual as well as material emptiness of western writings. The history portrayed in the novel is vastly accurate whilst including a real character but read like a fairytale. It is a mixture of exotic tales, self-discovery, adventure, travel, love, and war. The author accurately captures the zeitgeist of the complete experience of living and existing in an Islamic world for over 500 years. In conclusion, the book contains a bit of everything, from religious intolerance and travel to the riskiness of business and trade, and political maneuverings, Leo Africanus is an utterly fascinating poetic and imaginative story of people who do not make to New World.


Maalouf, Amin. Leo Africanus. Rowman & Littlefield, 1992.

[1] Maalouf, Amin. Leo Africanus. Rowman & Littlefield, 1992.