Ibn Battutah  “The Traveller of Islam"

Ibn Battutah was from a family that produced a number of Muslim judges (qadis). He received the traditional juristic and literary education in his native town of Tangier. In 1325, at the age of 21, he started his travels by undertaking the pilgrimage to Mecca. At first his purpose was to fulfill this religious duty and to broaden his education by studying under famous scholars in the Near East (Egypt, Syria, and Hejaz). That he achieved his objectives is corroborated by long enumerations of scholars and Sufi (Islamic mystic) saints whom he met and also by a list of diplomas conferred upon him (mainly in Damascus). These studies qualified him for judicial office, whereas the claim of being a former pupil of the then-outstanding authorities in traditional Islamic sciences greatly enhanced his chances and made him thereafter a respected guest at many courts.

But this was to follow later. In Egypt, where he arrived by the land route via Tunis and Tripoli, an irresistible passion for travel was born in his soul, and he decided to visit as many parts of the world as possible, setting as a rule “never to travel any road a second time.” His contemporaries travelled for practical reasons (such as trade, pilgrimage, and education), but Ibn Battutah did it for its own sake, for the joy of learning about new countries and new peoples. He made a living of it, benefitting at the beginning from his scholarly status and later from his increasing fame as a traveller. He enjoyed the generosity and benevolence of numerous sultans, rulers, governors, and high dignitaries in the countries he visited, thus securing an income that enabled him to continue his wanderings.

From Cairo, Ibn Battutah set out via Upper Egypt to the Red Sea but then returned and visited Syria, there joining a caravan for Mecca. Having finished the pilgrimage in 1326, he crossed the Arabian Desert to Iraq, southern Iran, Azerbaijan, and Baghdad. There he met the last of the Mongol khans of Iran, Abu Sa'id (1316–36), and some lesser rulers. Ibn Battutah spent the years between 1327 and 1330 in Mecca and Medina leading the quiet life of a devotee, but such a long stay did not suit his temperament.

Embarking on a boat in Jidda, he sailed with a retinue of followers down both shores of the Red Sea to Yemen, crossed it by land, and set sail again from Aden. This time he navigated along the eastern African coast, visiting the trading city-states as far as Kilwa (modern Tanzania). His return journey took him to southern Arabia, Oman, Hormuz, southern Persia, and across the Persian Gulf back to Mecca in 1332.

There a new, ambitious plan matured in his mind. Hearing of the sultan of Delhi, Muhammad ibn Tughluq (1325–51), and his fabulous generosity to Muslim scholars, he decided to try his luck at his court. Forced by lack of communications to choose a more indirect route, Ibn Battutah turned northward, again passed Egypt and Syria, and boarded ship for Asia Minor in Latakia. He crisscrossed this “land of the Turks” in many directions at a time when Anatolia was divided into numerous petty sultanates. Thus, his narrative provides a valuable source for the history of this country between the end of the Seljuq power and the rise of the House of Ottoman. Ibn Battutah was received cordially and generously by all the local rulers and heads of religious brotherhoods (akhis).

His journey continued across the Black Sea to the Crimea, then to the northern Caucasus and to Saray on the lower Volga, capital of the khan of the Golden Horde, Muhammad Özbeg (1312–41). According to his narrative, he undertook an excursion from Saray to Bulgary on the upper Volga and Kama, but there are reasons to doubt his veracity on this point. On the other hand, the narrative of his visit to Constantinople in the retinue of the Khan's wife, a Byzantine princess, seems to be an eyewitness record, although there are some minor chronological discrepancies. Ibn Battutah's description of the Byzantine capital is vivid and, in general, accurate. Although he shared the strong opinions of his fellow Muslims toward unbelievers, his account of the “second Rome” shows him as a rather tolerant man with a lively curiosity. Nevertheless, he always felt happier in the realm of Islam than in non-Muslim lands, whether Christian, Hindu, or pagan.

After his return from Constantinople through the Russian steppes, he continued his journey in the general direction of India. From Saray he travelled with a caravan to Central Asia, visiting the ancient towns of Bukhara, Samarkand, and Balkh, all of these still showing the scars left by the Mongol invasion. He took rather complicated routes through Khorasan and Afghanistan, and, after crossing the Hindu Kush (mountains), he arrived at the frontiers of India on the Indus River on Sept. 12, 1333, by his own dating. The accuracy of this date is doubtful, as it would have been impossible to cover such enormous distances (from Mecca) in the course of only one year. Because of this discrepancy, his subsequent dating until 1348 is highly uncertain.

At this time he was already a man of some importance and fame, with a large train of attendants and followers and also with his own harem of legal wives and concubines. India and its ruler, Muhammad ibn Tughluq, lived up to Ibn Battutah's expectations of wealth and generosity, and the traveller was received with honours and gifts and later appointed grand qadi of Delhi, a sinecure that he held for several years.

Though he had apparently attained an easy life, it soon became clear that his new position was not without danger. Sultan Muhammad, an extraordinary mixture of generosity and cruelty, held sway over the greater part of India with an iron hand that fell indiscriminately upon high and low, Muslim and Hindu alike. Ibn Battutah witnessed all the glories and setbacks of the Sultan and his rule, fearing daily for his life as he saw many friends fall victim to the suspicious despot. His portrait of Muhammad is an unusually fine piece of psychological insight and mirrors faithfully the author's mixed feelings of terror and sympathy. Notwithstanding all his precautions, Ibn Battutah at last fell into disgrace, and only good fortune saved his life; gaining favour again, he was appointed the Sultan's envoy to the Chinese emperor in 1342.

He left Delhi without regrets, but his journey was full of other dangers: not far away from Delhi his party was waylaid by Hindu insurgents, and the traveller barely escaped with his life. On the Malabar Coast he became involved in local wars and was finally shipwrecked near Calicut, losing all his property and the presents for the Chinese emperor. Fearing the wrath of the Sultan, Ibn Battutah chose to go to the Maldive Islands, where he spent nearly two years; as a qadi, he was soon active in politics, married into the ruling family, and apparently even aspired to become sultan.

Finding the situation too dangerous, he set out for Ceylon, where he visited the ruler as well as the famous Adam's Peak. After a new shipwreck on the Coromandel Coast, of eastern India, he took part in a war led by his brother-in-law and went again to the Maldives and then to Bengal and Assam. At this time he decided to resume his mission to China and sailed for Sumatra. There he was given a new ship by the Muslim sultan and started for China; his description of his itinerary contains some discrepancies.

He landed at the great Chinese port Zaytun (identified as Ch'üan-chou near Amoy) and then travelled on inland waterways as far as Peking and back. This part of his narrative is rather brief, and the itinerary, as well as the chronology, presents many problems and difficulties, not yet surmounted, that cast shadows of doubt on his veracity.

Equally brief is his account of the return voyage via Sumatra, Malabar, and the Persian Gulf to Baghdad and Syria. In Syria he witnessed the ravages of the Black Death of 1348, visited again many towns there and in Egypt, and in the same year performed his final pilgrimage to Mecca. At last he decided to return home, sailing from Alexandria to Tunisia, then to Sardinia and Algiers, finally reaching Fès, the capital of the Marinid sultan, Abu 'Inan, in November 1349.

But there still remained two Muslim countries not yet known to him. Shortly after his return he went to the kingdom of Granada, the last remnant of Moorish Spain, and two years later (in 1352) he set out on a journey to the western Sudan. His last journey (across the Sahara to West Africa) was taken unwillingly at the command of the Sultan. Crossing the Sahara, he spent a year in the Empire of Mali, then at the height of its power under Mansa Sulayman; his account represents one of the most important sources of that period for the history of that part of Africa.

Toward the end of 1353 Ibn Battutah returned to Morocco and, at the Sultan's request, dictated his reminiscences to a writer, Ibn Juzayy (died 1355), who embellished the simple prose of Ibn Battutah with an ornate style and fragments of poetry. After that he passes from sight, and it is known only that he died in 1368 or 1369, holding the office of qadi in a town in Morocco, and that he was buried at his native town of Tangier.

The claim of Ibn Battutah to be “the traveller of Islam” is well-founded: it is estimated that the extent of his wanderings was 75,000 miles, a figure hardly surpassed by anyone before the age of steam. He visited, with few exceptions (central Persia, Armenia, and Georgia), all Muslim countries, as well as many adjacent non-Muslim lands. While he did not discover new or unknown lands, and his contribution to scientific geography was minimal, the documentary value of his work has given it lasting historical and geographical significance. He met at least 60 rulers and a much greater number of viziers, governors, and other dignitaries; in his book he mentioned more than 2,000 persons who were known to him personally or whose tombs he visited. The majority of these persons are identifiable by independent sources, and there are surprisingly few errors in names or dates in Ibn Battutah's material.

His Rihlah, as his book is commonly known, is an important document shedding light on many aspects of the social, cultural, and political history of a great part of the Muslim world. A curious observer interested in the ways of life in various countries, he describes his experiences with a human approach rarely encountered in official historiography. His accounts of his travels in Asia Minor, East and West Africa, the Maldives, and India form a major source for the histories of these areas, whereas the parts dealing with the Arab and Persian Near East are valuable for their wealth of detail on various aspects of social and cultural life.

On the whole, Ibn Battutah is reliable; only his alleged journey to Bulgary was proved to be invented, and there are some doubts concerning the Far Eastern part of his travels. A few grave and several minor discrepancies in the chronology of his travels are due more to lapses in his memory than to intentional fabrication. A number of formerly uncertain points (e.g., travels in Asia Minor and the visit to Constantinople) have been cleared away by recent research and the discovery of new corroborative sources.

Another interesting aspect of the Rihlah is the gradual revealing of the character of Ibn Battutah himself; in the course of the narrative the reader may learn the opinions and reactions of an average middle-class Muslim of the 14th century. He was deeply rooted in orthodox Islam but, like many of his contemporaries, oscillated between the pursuit of its legislative formalism and an adherence to the mystic path and succeeded in combining both. He did not offer any profound philosophy but accepted life as it came to him, leaving to posterity a true picture of himself and his times.

By Ivan Hrbek

"Ibn Battutah." Encyclopædia Britannica. 2004.  Encyclopædia Britannica Premium Service.
25 July 2004  <http://www.britannica.com/eb/article?eu=42852>.

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