Abu Abdullah Muhammad ibn Abdullah al-Lawati al-Tangi ibn Battuta, or “Ibn Battuta” for short, was born in the Moroccan city of Tangier in 1304. By all rights he was an unremarkable man: educated but not elite, born into a comfortable but not wealthy or powerful family in a city that was not one of the dominant cultural centers of the Islamic Maghreb (western North Africa). Had he remained in Tangier it’s likely that he would have lived and died in relative anonymity, and that we wouldn’t know his name today.
But Ibn Battuta didn’t remain in Tangier. Instead, after setting out to perform the Hajj he became perhaps the most well-traveled man in the pre-Age of Discovery world. Between 1325, when he set out to undertake the Hajj, and 1349, when he finally returned home, he journeyed–or at least claimed to have journeyed–from Tangier all the way to China and back. Along the way he toured Egypt, the Levant, Arabia, the East African coast, Iraq, Iran, Anatolia, Central Asia, India, and Southeast Asia. When he finally returned home after 24 years abroad, he stayed only a short time before leaving again to visit al-Andalus, or Muslim Spain. Returning home from that journey in 1351, he again stayed only briefly before undertaking yet another trek south, to the Malian Empire.
When Ibn Battuta returned to Morocco from his tour of Mali, in 1354, his wanderlust finally appears to have been sated. At the urging of the Marinid ruler of Morocco, Abu Inan Faris (d. 1358), he recorded an account of his journey with the help of the 14th century equivalent of a ghostwriter, Muhammad ibn Ahmad ibn Juzayy al-Kalbi al-Gharnati (“Ibn Juzayy” for short). The work they produced is called, in Arabic, Tuhfat al-Nuzzar fi Gharaʾib al-Amsar wa Ajaʾib al-Asfar. Translated, it means something like “The Gift of the Observer of the Wonders of Cities and Marvels of Travels.” That’s…kind of unwieldy. So instead, it’s often referred to as al-Rihlah, or “The Journey.” This word, rihlah, refers to an entire genre of Arabic literature: travelogues. Writers in this field who traveled widely wrote of their experiences and observations, and many works in this genre have survived to modern times. Not much is known about Ibn Battuta’s life after al-Rihlah was completed, but we believe that he died in the year 1369.
Ibn Battuta certainly wasn’t the first Arab traveller to write an account of his journeys. But he was unquestionably the most widely travelled of them. Often you’ll hear it said that Ibn Battuta is the “Muslim Marco Polo.” But this is Western cultural chauvinism at work in my opinion. Marco Polo’s journey to the court of the Great Khan in the 13th century was an astounding thing, don’t get me wrong, and his travelogue is an amazing text. He does predate Ibn Battuta, in fairness. But Ibn Battuta visited many more places over a much longer journey than Marco Polo. Or at least he claims to have done so (we’ll get to this below). His travels transcend Marco Polo’s in nearly every way, partly because he had no end goal in mind when he set out. Marco Polo, accompanying his father and uncle, had a specific goal in mind–opening up trade routes between Venice and the Mongolian world. They set out with the court of the Great Khan as their destination and returned home once the task was done. And OK, Ibn Battuta’s initial goal was to perform the Hajj in Mecca, but once he’d done that he just continued on, eager to see the world.
We should probably stop here and consider the scope of just the first leg of Ibn Battuta’s journey. The Hajj, the annual group pilgrimage to Mecca that is incumbent upon all Muslims who are able to perform it, is a major undertaking today. Muslims have to save money to make the trek, have to set aside a week or more of time to undertake the trip, have to spend several days journeying to holy sites, sleeping in tents, communing with total strangers, and so on. That’s today, with modern conveniences like air travel, advanced medicine, and air conditioning.
Imagine how much more difficult it was to undertake the Hajj in 1325, with none of those things. Had he gone straight to Mecca, without stopping or dallying anywhere along the way, Ibn Battuta was looking at a 16 month, nearly 4000-mile journey. That journey would have been made over territory that was often unsafe, controlled by tribes with questionable motives and open to attacks by bandits, thieves, and other unsavory characters. In order to mitigate against the risks, pilgrims often traveled with a Hajj caravan. Traveling in large groups meant easier access to supplies, companionship to make the trip more bearable, and potentially easier access to medical care if necessary. And since these caravans were often sponsored by local princes or other prominent figures, traveling in one often meant being accompanied by armed forces to deter potential malefactors.
But Ibn Battuta, by his own words, set out without thoughts of hitching on to a caravan. He says as much in his first words in al-Rihlah:
My departure from Tangier, my birthplace, took place on Thursday the second of the month of God, Rajab the Unique, in the year seven hundred and twenty-five, with the object of making the Pilgrimage to the Holy House at Mecca and of visiting the tomb of the Prophet, God’s richest blessing and peace be upon him, at al-Madinah. I set out alone, having neither fellow-traveler in whose companionship I might find cheer, nor caravan whose party I might join, but swayed in an overmastering impulse within me and a desire long-cherished in my bosom to visit these illustrious sanctuaries. So I embraced my resolution to quit all my dear ones, female and male, and forsook my home as birds forsake their nests. My parents being yet in the bonds of life, it weighed sorely upon me to part from them, and both they and I were afflicted with sorrow at this separation. My age at that time was twenty-two lunar years.
Ibn Battuta did meet up with fellow travelers along the way, so he didn’t make the journey alone, but I think we should consider what it took for a lone man in 1325 to attempt to get it in his head to set off on this journey without planning to meet up with a caravan in advance. That mindset may help us explain why, after he completed his pilgrimage, Ibn Battuta simply kept going, wherever the road led him.
(By the by, unless otherwise noted, when I quote Ibn Battuta from now on I’ll be quoting from The Travels of Ibn Battutah, edited by Tim Mackintosh-Smith primarily from a translation done by H.A.R. Gibb and Charles Beckingham.)
Those words above are really the only ones Ibn Battuta offers about his life before setting out on his journey. But we can draw some general conclusions about who he was. In the introduction to al-Rihlah, Ibn Juzayy describes him as “the Sheikh learned in the law.” So at least we know he was educated in (Sunni) Islamic law. We know that members of his extended family found work as faqihs, or legal scholars, and qadis, or judges in religious courts, so even though 14th century Tangier wasn’t known as a great center of learning it stands to reason that Ibn Battuta would have had access to a competent legal education. Furthermore, from his travel accounts we know that Ibn Battuta frequently found work as a judge or legal scholar in the various places to which he traveled. It stands to reason, then, that he had training in the law and was highly regarded enough to find relatively easy employment. We also know that he was specifically trained in the Maliki school of Sunni law, both because that school was the dominant one in the Morocco of his day and because the legal work he finds during his journey is in the Maliki school. Trained scholars in every branch of Islamic law would have been in high demand in the 14th century, which as we’ll see was a time of great political and social transition especially in Iraq, Iran, and Anatolia, and that undoubtedly helped him find work wherever he landed.
I hope this has provided you with enough of an overview of Ibn Battuta’s life to entice you to continue to trace his journey with me. Now here’s the part where I tell you that some of this story may be, well, bullshit. There is a gigantic red flag waving over al-Rihlah: Ibn Battuta appears to have recounted all of it after the fact (sometimes well after the fact) in his discussions with Ibn Juzayy. In other words, we have no indication that he kept any sort of journal or written record of his travels in the moment. That’s a huge concern. It’s a particularly huge concern when we get to Ibn Battuta’s account of places like China, where his, uh, recollections seem to be either similar to or “inspired by” other writings about those places from other authors. There are several places that Ibn Battuta describes, like the Volga River area, that modern scholars flat-out don’t believe he actually visited. There are others, like much of China, that they’re simply not sure he visited.
There are, then, serious questions about the veracity of parts of Ibn Battuta’s account. But having admitted this, I’m also going to tell you that I don’t think it matters that much. We’re pretty certain that Ibn Battuta did visit many of the places al-Rihlah mentions, and his first-hand experience of these places is unlike any other source we have for the 14th century Islamic world. This was, as I say, a period of great churn in Islamic society, merely decades after the fall of the Abbasid caliphate to the Mongols in 1258 and at a time when the Mongols themselves were collapsing as a political force. To illustrate this, consider Iraq. On the outbound part of his travels, Ibn Battuta will encounter the last widely accepted ruler of the Ilkhanate, Abu Said. On his return home, he will revisit Iraq to find that Abu Said has died and the Ilkhanate is beginning to collapse into near anarchy, torn apart largely by inter-tribal warfare.
Ibn Battuta’s accounts are an invaluable glimpse into Islamic society at this chaotic point in history. And in those parts of Ibn Battuta’s account that might be a bit, shall we say, embellished, he at least seems to have gone to the trouble of reading and retelling other accounts from those regions. Which still makes his work a valuable secondary source for the history of those places. As a one-stop source for a snapshot of much of the 14th century world, Ibn Battuta’s account cannot be matched. And so, despite the questions about his actual journeys, I think it behooves us to cover it all, even the legs we’re not entirely sure he actually made.
I want to thank you for joining me on this trip, which is very much a labor of love though I hope it’s also something that attracts an audience. In our next post I will explain my vision for this project, the length of time it will take, and what it will entail. Thanks for reading, and I look forward to our undertaking this journey together.